Christmas Eve: Why Are We Here?

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The English writer, poet, philosopher G.K. Chesterton, of whom George Bernard Shaw described as having a colossal mind, said “The great majority of people will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly wake us and discover why.” We certainly do not want to be those people and so let’s pause for a moment and consider what it is that brings us here tonight. Why are we here?

For some the Midnight Mass is a treasured tradition and while tradition sometimes gets a bad name it as the glue that keeps our lives from being shattered by chaos. I have a vivid memory of when it became a beloved tradition for me. I was in elementary school and we were living in Rhode Island at the time. We lived within walking distance of our parish and so we walked to church that Christmas Eve night. It must have started snowing right after we entered the church because by the end of the Midnight Mass there was at least an inch of snow on the ground. I remember the priest in his biretta and black cape standing in the snow wishing us Merry Christmas as my family crunched through the snow on our way back to our home. It was like a scene from a Christmas card. If this is a treasured tradition to you then no doubt you have a similar memory that made it so.

But as important as tradition is, there is an even more important reason that we gather on this night and the clue to that reason can be found in this picture that I am holding. Some of you are old enough to recognize what these are. They are called S&H Green Stamps. When my mother would go shopping she went to stores that gave these stamps with a purchase. And the more she purchased the more Green Stamps she received. These would be collected and glued into Green Stamps books and when she had compiled enough books she would go to another store to exchange the books for merchandise such as a lamp or a toaster. Does anyone recall what these stores were called? They were called Redemption Centers. Redemption is where something is exchanged for something else and it is a term that comes straight out of the Bible. We just heard from Titus, that Jesus gave Himself to redeem us from all lawlessness.

But you can tell from how St. Paul uses this term in Titus that it is more than simply an exchange. There is more going on here than swapping Green Stamps for a lamp. In saying the Christ has redeemed us FROM all lawlessness, St. Paul uses an Old Testament idea of redemption that is an exchange to free someone from bondage. So I would submit to you that ultimately we come here tonight to celebrate our emancipation and to give honor and worship to the One who has set us free.

But wait. Isn’t it a little over the top to describe mankind’s condition as being in bondage to lawlessness? I don’t think so, not if you are paying attention! On a global level we have international jihad with country after country throughout Europe on high alert. The Middle East is on fire. There are active genocides in a number of nations across Africa. The figures change daily but one source I read identified 68 nations in significant wars battling 802 identifiable rebel groups, anarchists and drug cartels.

On a societal level, for those above 12 years old, one in every ten Americans is an addict. The recent rash of police assassinations are surely a product of lawlessness. Chicago’s murder rate had jumped 85% over last year reaching the terrible milestone of over 700 murders this year and counting.

And if we are honest with ourselves we will admit that lawlessness is true of us on a personal level as well. As St. Paul so accurately put it, we do things that we know full well that we are not supposed to do and we don’t do that things that we know full well that we are supposed to do. An old prayer correctly adds, “and there is no health in us.” No it is not too much to describe an unredeemed condition as lawlessness. God reveals to us through Holy Scripture that our dilemma is not simply a lack of self-discipline or the need for more education or more self improvement books. Our dilemma is that mankind is separated from God AND we are in bondage.

So the Father in His love, understanding our dilemma, sent His Son to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. As the Christmas carol puts it, “to set us free from Satan’s power when we have gone astray.” He did it by paying a debt that He did not owe, to free us from a debt that we could not pay. And how did He pay it? How did He redeem us? St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 1. “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace….” The exchange was His life for ours, and He did it willingly and He did it out of love. Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

But the good news gets even better. He did not redeem us just to leave us on our own to muddle through. As St. Paul told Titus He redeemed us “to purify for Himself a people for His own possession.” This is an echo of what the Lord said to Israel from Mt. Sinai. “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples… and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” So the Lord didn’t redeem us from slavery to lawlessness just to make us His slaves. He redeemed us to make us His treasured possession, to make us His family, to make us heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. This is what we celebrate tonight.

But there is more! The text from Titus goes on to show us what we are to do with our freedom. After being described as a people who are redeemed from lawlessness it says that we are “a people of his own possession zealous for good works.” Let’s be clear. It is not our good works that redeem us. No. As we just heard from Ephesians we are redeemed through His blood, through His sacrifice on our behalf. But once redeemed the natural consequence is that we become zealous for good works. That is what the book of James is all about. We are saved by faith alone but the faith that saves is never alone. If there are no good works then our faith is DOA.

What is fascinating about this connection between being redeemed and being zealous for good works is that it goes all the way back to God’s covenant with Father Abraham. God made Abraham a two-pronged promise. First He promised to bless him. That blessing continues. As the spiritual children of Abraham what could be more of a blessing for us than being redeemed and made joint heirs with Christ?

But second He promised to make Abraham a blessing to others and it is through our good works that we continue blessing others. Deitrich Bonhoffer, the German theologian who was martyrd by the Nazis just before the end of WWII wrote about this in his book “The Cost of Discipleship.” He pointed out that right after Jesus delivered the beatitudes He tells the disciples “You are the salt of the earth.” They were not called to be so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good. In fact their calling as salt was for the good of the earth, especially Bonhoeffer points out, for “the poor, ignoble and weak, whom the world rejects.” As redeemed people we should be known for our good works. I heard a comedian say recently, “You can complain about Christians all you want but I’ve never seen an atheist soup kitchen.”

Next month a team is going from St. Patricks’ to Honduras to support the ministry of Mike and Kim Miller. He is an Anglican deacon and they are leading a foster home/orphanage in a tiny community in the mountains. When Mike visited us last month he spoke to our team and a number of times he referred to himself as having been a very broken man. But it is evident that God has so healed him that what is broken now is his heart for those children and getting them away from abusive situations. They started a coffee business to provide work and hope for the locals who live in abject poverty. They have built a school so that with better education the children can break the cycle of poverty. They bring in mission teams like ours to work along side the villagers to encourage them and show them God’s love. Honduras is a dangerous country and Mike and Kim are not getting rich living down there. So why do they do it? They do it because once taken over by God’s love the natural consequence, or maybe I should say supernatural consequence, is to want to share His love with others. Once redeemed the fruit of our redemption is that we become zealous for good works.

It seems that every business that you go into these days has a program to give back to the community. I love that they are doing this but I am compelled to believe that in many cases they would not be doing it unless it helped their bottom line. The Church should be leading the way in this effort but we do so with a different motive than building customer loyalty. Jesus said that we are to let our light shine so that people will see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven. That is our motivation. That more voices would join with the angels and sing glory to God in the highest.

So we have come tonight to this Redemption Center to celebrate our redemption and to celebrate our Redeemer. As we do so may we think ahead to the next few weeks and months and consider how we may become even more zealous for good works that God would be greater glorified. But in the meantime, rest tonight in the knowledge that you have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb and you have been made His precious possession. Receive His peace in this silent holy night. Merry Christmas.

Cast Down at Christmastide

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A line from a hymn that we sang recently jumped out to me. “But the slow watches of the night not less to God belong and for the everlasting right the silent stars are strong.” 

It made me think of those who are going through this holiday season having lost a loved one, or dealing with illness, or experiencing the dark night of the soul. For those folks this can be a challenging and even dreaded time. For them there are no Christmas spirits that can visit and change their outlook as they did for Ebenezer. Still I would offer some words of encouragement to help them on their journey.

PEACE. It only adds to your burden to beat yourself up about not being in the right mood or not having enough faith or wishing you could be different. We all want to work and be fruitful, enjoy our time, and feel like we are making a difference. But this is not the season for that. This is the night watch. It is painfully slow and the darkness can seem to be all consuming. But the hymn reminds us that even the night watch belongs to God. He’s got this so you don’t have to. The truth that will bring you this peace, even if you are in the valley of the shadow of death, is “for Thou art with me.” Decide to stop trying to hold on to God and let Him hold on to you.

PATIENCE. The night watch does not last forever. At times it feels as if it does but feelings are not facts. The Scriptures tell us “to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” We seldom understand the purpose for a season while we are in it. But often we are able to look back, especially after experiencing new seasons, and see that God was working all along. Corrie Ten Boom had a famous illustration with her needlework. She would show the audience the back of her cross-stitch revealing a chaotic mess of threads. But then she would turn it around to reveal a beautiful cross and crown. What gives us patience is when we trust that God is at work to form a crown even from our chaos.

PERSPECTIVE. The strong silent stars represent to me keeping the end in sight and the end is the everlasting right. We can either let our current condition cause us to forget or even to not believe that one day all things will be made right. Or we can let the hope of all things being made right place our current condition in proper perspective. St. Paul says that we still grieve but we will not grieve as those who have no hope. The promise of the Kingdom coming in its fullness and all things being brought to their perfection by Him through whom all things were made is what gives us the perspective of the stars.

 

Heed the Prophets

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While folks will be working hard over the next few weeks to capture the spirit of the season through music and parties and movies, Christ through the Church is calling us to choose a different path. This is not the time to get into “the Christmas spirit” because we are not only preparing to celebrate His birth, we are also preparing ourselves for His Second Coming when He shall come to judge the living and the dead. As our collect today informs us, He is calling us to prepare the way for our salvation by heeding the warnings of the prophets and forsaking our sins. This call while sobering is somewhat generic so it would behoove us to focus in more closely on what it is that the prophets are warning us about and which sins it is that we need to forsake.

It is a little difficult to discern a warning in this Isaiah passage because it is filled with such beautiful promises. It begins with a prophecy of Jesus. He is the shoot from the stump of Jesse. We know this because St. Matthew opens his gospel with the genealogy of Jesus, whom he calls “the son of David” and he tells us that Jesse is David’s father.

After this prophecy of Jesus, Isaiah paints a picture of what Jesus’ reign will look like. There will be harmony between natural enemies like a wolf and a lamb. This is an image most likely signifying peace between warring nations. There will be no more hurt or destruction and the earth will be as full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. Isaiah says “His resting place shall be glorious.”

This is a vision of the kingdom of God in its fullness. How this will all come about is where we find the prophet’s warning. “but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist and faithfulness the belt of his loins.”

This Messiah King will not be clothed in the usual trappings of earthly emperors that signify their power. He will be robed in righteousness. His righteousness is a two edged sword that brings equity for the meek but death to the wicked. So the warning of the prophets is that the King will come in righteousness to judge the world. In what condition will He find us at His coming? Will we be on the side of the meek or on the side of the wicked?

What then are the sins that we need to forsake? On one level that is a very personal matter. I say that not in the sense of situational ethics or relativism but simply acknowledging that we each are at very different places in this journey of faith. Sins that I am wrestling with may have been completely banished from your life and visa versa. So part of forsaking our sins is asking the Holy Spirit to convict us and reveal what specific sins that He is calling us to forsake.

That said, there is a theme in our lessons that points us in a direction. Isaiah speaks of God giving equity to the meek. The Psalmist speaks of God defending the needy among His people. Romans speaks of the obligation of the strong to bear with the failings of the weak. And John the Baptist calls on those who repent to bear fruit in keeping with repentance.

As a parish we are doing a number of things well. When Bishop Frank was here he told several of us that we have some of the best liturgy in the Diocese. Additionally I cannot imagine a better musician than Kirk and Marty has created for us a first class Christian Education program. I could go on and on but the one area that I am convinced that we need to shore up is our outreach to the most vulnerable among us. Why them? Because they are the ones that Scripture consistently portrays as being close to God’s heart. You read over and over His concern for the widow and the orphan. Mary in the Magnificat celebrates that God has cast down the mighty from their thrones but has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things. In the Psalm we read, “For He shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress and the oppressed who has no helper.”

I don’t mean to imply that we are not doing any ministry in this area. Our work with the Burmese refugees and the upcoming clean water project in Honduras are great example of what we are doing right. But again I am convicted that we need to do more, particularly on a personal basis. I say that because of the Scriptures that point us in that direction.

Think about the parable of the Good Samaritan. You will recall in the story that a man was beaten by robbers and when a priest and a Levite saw him they passed on the other side of the road. But a Samaritan took it upon himself not only to provide immediate assistance but gave the innkeeper money from his own pocket so that the man would continue to receive care. He didn’t form a committee. He didn’t apply for Obamacare. He didn’t say to himself, “Someone ought to do something about this” and then move on. He acted. He did what he could. He didn’t change the world but he changed that man’s world.

What about us? I’m sure most of us have acted as Good Samaritans, but have there been other times when we acted like the priest and the Levite and crossed to the other side. If so we should take advantage of this penitential season, repent of our sin, and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit on how to be not only a Good Samaritan but an even Gooder Samaritan. (Apologies to English teachers).

Another text comes to mind that calls us to action is from James 2. What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

The modern version of this text is when someone comes to you and needs help with their basic needs like food and clothing and you say to them, “I’ll pray for you.” First of all you probably won’t but second, according to James, this kind of faith without works is dead. If this has been your approach in the past then again take advantage of this penitential season, repent of the sin, and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit on how to add works to your faith.

I could come up with plenty more texts to show us our personal responsibilities to serve those in need but I want to move on and ask why we don’t do so and possibly expose a more fundamental sin for us to forsake in this penitential season. I suggest that we are not more vigorous in our service of others because of our uber busy lives. It’s not that we are heartless or indifferent, it’s just that we don’t have the time.

But if we will inspect our busy lives then we may discover that they are more aligned with pursuing the American dream than with responding to a call to be servants like Christ. And while the American dream is not inherently evil it requires a lot of selfishness to make the dream come true and that is the more fundamental sin for us to forsake. It is not as if the Good Samaritan was less busy than the priest and the Levite, rather he was more selfless than the other two and so he acted Christ-like in loving his neighbor.

The collect adds one more thing to the call to heed the warnings of the prophets and to forsake our sins and that is the reason for doing so. “That we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” We do not approach this penitential season like the wearing of the Middle Ages hair shirts or the self flagellation of the crazy monk in the DaVinci Code. This is not a season of self- punishment, it is a season of self-preparation.

It’s so important to clarify our goal so that we are not driven by guilt or emotion because both of those lead to bad ends. Guilt and emotion do not make us faithful. Guilt and emotion do not sustain us. Conviction does. Conviction acts in spite of feeling. Our conviction then is that we heed the prophets and forsake out sins so that when He comes in righteousness we will be celebrating and not cowering. I John says And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.”

As I was writing this sermon Fr. Chris answered a call. A couple that had been working in Florida was driving back to Indiana and their truck was broken into and their things were stolen. They needed help with gas and food. So Fr. Chris met them at the Kangaroo, put gas in their truck, bought them a pizza and gave them a gift card. This according to James is pure religion. This is what we are to be about. Fr. Chris did not change the world by this one act of kindness but he changed their world. He did not try to be their savior, he just did what he could and that is all the Lord is asking us to do.

Let’s listen for God’s guidance during this season rather than getting caught up in premature celebration. There will plenty of time for that. Let’s heed the warnings of the prophets and forsake our sins so that we will greet with JOY the coming of our Redeemer.