A Bruised Reed He Will Not Break

1st Sunday after Epiphany  A                   St. Patrick’s                    January 12, 2020

I’m sure that most of you have had the experience of reading or hearing a verse of Holy Scripture that seem to really connect with your soul. That has been my experience with a passage from today’s Old Testament Lesson in Isaiah, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”The last part is even more poetic in the King James Version; “…the smoking flax he shall not quench.” It is such a comforting promise.

This promise in its context is a prophecy of the Messiah, telling us of the Messiah’s very nature. We discover in this passage, as we pray in the Prayer of Humble Access, that “his property is always to have mercy.

“A bruised reed he will not break….”When the Scriptures talk about the mighty and the powerful, it sometimes uses the analogy of trees, like the Cedars of Lebanon or the tree firmly planted by streams of water in Psalm 1. By contrast, this prophecy speaks of a slender, wispy plant that grows on the edge of a swamp. A plant easily damaged by wind and rain and the forces of nature. 

The image here is of those who are poor or those who lack power or those who have been dealt harsh blows by life. It refers to those who are hurting and vulnerable. In Darwin’s survival of the fittest world, these are the ones outside of the herd that get picked off by the scavengers. And good riddance because all they do is weaken the gene pool. If the weak are taken from the tribe it only makes the tribe stronger. Right? And as most of you know we live in a Darwin world 

Over the years I have counseled with folks in their 50’s and 60’s who have been let go of a job, through no fault of their own. As they seek a new job they discover it to be a soul racking experience. Rather than wanting these men and women for their wisdom and experience, companies seek younger people who are cheaper to hire and have more curb appeal. Too often in our society if you show weakness or vulnerability you can see the vultures begin to circle overhead. One of our societal laws is “Never let them see you sweat.” 

The prophet is telling us that our God is not like this. His kingdom is not a Darwinian nightmare. When God finds us bruised He does not break us, He heals us. 

We see this at the very beginning of the story. Adam and Eve sinned against God by disobeying Him and eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, what was the first thing that God did? He killed some animals and he clothed them so that they would no longer be ashamed. This foreshadows when God will slay the Lamb of God to cover our sin and shame and clothes us in Christ’s righteousness. 

Additionally while driving them from the garden was surely punishment, we can also see this as an act of mercy, of not breaking the bruised reed. This is so because there was another tree in that garden, the tree of eternal life. If God had allowed them to remain in the garden after they had separated themselves from Him through disobedience, and if they had eaten of the tree of eternal life, then they and wewould have been separated from God for eternity. He chastened them, not to break them, but ultimately to bring human kind back. He did not break a bruised reed.

We also see this kind of compassion all through the life and ministry of Jesus, which is birthed in His humility. Note that He did not have Himself declared the Messiah of the world by being anointed in the Temple in Jerusalem. Rather He humbled Himself and went out into the desert to be baptized by a bizarre prophet. He did this to fulfill all righteousness. And His baptism opened the door to all who would be baptized in His Name. And this would be revolutionary because it would include male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free.

And what of His miracles? His very first one is to save a young couple from embarrassment because they ran out of wine at their wedding. He gives a woman back her only son from death. He heals a man who is blind all of his life. He heals a woman who had run out of doctors and money. They were small miracles on the grand scheme of things, but not small miracles to each of the individuals that He touched. These were bruised reeds that were ready to break and He strengthened them. 

These tell us volumes about God’s nature and it tells us why He is so worthy of our trust. It may be true that you cannot let others see you sweat, but it is not so with God. He is the very one we can come to with our brokenness and weaknesses and fears to and we know that He will not break us. Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bind up the broken hearted…”That is what He has entered our lives to do.

“smoking flax he will not quench”.Here the image is of a lamp that is running out of oil and so the flame is almost gone out. This analogy has to do with matters of faith and hope. What is God’s disposition towards us when, for whatever reason, our faith or our hope is all but extinguished? 

Gratefully He does not respond like churches today. In too many it is deadly to say that you are wrestling with faith. You might as well as have declared yourself a leper. It is a refreshing tenet of Anglicanism, because we see this life as a journey into Truth, we do not expect anyone to have it all figured out on this side of glory. Because of that we end up attracting folks who have received the left foot of fellowship from other Churches who do not want doubters in their midst. 

We have received this perspective from the Jewish religion that believes that wrestling with God, as itself an act of faith. If you are wrestling with someone then you must believe that there is a Someone with whom to wrestle. I have met people who are no longer growing and learning because they think they have arrived. Maybe they have but it is also true that people no longer grow or learn when they are spiritually dead. The Pharisees called themselves doctors of the law. Jesus called them tombs, whitewashed sepulchers. 

We can be very thankful that God’s disposition is to blow on the embers that you have left until they become a flame again. This too we see this so clearly in the life and ministry of Jesus. There were a few spiritual giants around Him, like the Anna and Simeon who waited for years to see Him. But the vast majority of his original followers were not bright flames. Even the disciple seem to get it and then you read a few chapters later and they do or say something that shows that they don’t get it after all. Most if not all of the people who came to Him, didn’t do so because they perfectly understood who He was. They came because He gave them a glimpse of hope. 

I take great comfort in that very honest exchange in St. Mark’s Gospel, where the father of a possessed boy comes to Jesus. He explains the boy’s affliction and says, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!”  And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.”The boy’s father cried out “I do believe, help my unbelief.”Then Jesus healed the boy. 

What a great and honest prayer. We too should pray it. Don’t hold back because you don’t believe that you have enough faith. Just offer what you have. It’s like that little boy who offered Him a few loaves and fish. Look what Jesus did with that offering!

And please note that if your light has all but gone out, the answer is not to try harder or to be more disciplined. The answer is to get more oil. If your light is almost out pray for more of the Holy Spirit. God will answer that prayer. Jesus said, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

We prayed in today’s collect that we would be faithful as adopted children. One sure way to be faithful it to become more and more like the Father who adopted us. If it is not God’s nature to break a bruised reed or to put out a dim light, then it should be against our nature as well. That can have many applications and I will leave it to you to make those but allow me to give you a couple of suggestions to start the ball rolling.

First is that we should resist the temptation to engage in the emotional pile-ons that are so prominent in our culture. There is this strange inclination in our culture that when others, and particularly those of prominence, topple or fall, we seem to revel in their tragedy. We read the tabloids or get on social media to find all of the juicy tidbits. Then we talk about how we never trusted them to begin with or remark how they had it coming. 

Proverbs says, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles, lest the Lord see it and be displeased…”(Prov. 24:17). If that is how we are to treat our enemies then how much more should we use caution in how we treat one another?        

A priest that mentored me when I was a deacon experienced a fall from grace and was removed from his parish by his bishop. Priests do have recourse if they have been falsely accused but since no recourse was taken most just trusted the bishop’s decision. One Sunday the priest was there and the next Sunday a supply priest was in his place. To this day no one, including me knows exactly what happened. 

This is quite a contrast to a priest in Florida that was recently removed. His bishop publically released a 30-page document that included all the gory details. A link to it made the front page in the local paper and a friend who lives in that town said that non Christian forces were reveling in the priest’s fall. 

The Scripture says that “love covers a multitude of sins.” It does not approve of sin but love does not allow you to break a bruised reed. The Church is not to shoot its wounded it is to heal it. The Church makes a mistake when it seeks the counsel of lawyers over the counsel of Holy Scripture. 

A second application has to do with living generously toward others. Since it is God’s inclination to reach out, especially to the downtrodden, it should be ours as well. The Church has historically been concerned about the downtrodden not because she feels guilty but because she is trying to make a political statement but because she has seen it as a part of the Gospel. It is our vocation. This is not a conservative or liberal issue. This is a gospel issue. St. John Chrysostom, a 4thcentury Bishop said, “Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not…honor him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked.” You can see in history that when the Church is only focused upon itself it becomes very ill but when it focused on the needs of others, it is at its healthiest. That is so for us as individuals as well.  If you will live a generous life you will be blessed beyond measure.

Jesus does indeed fit the profile that the prophet gives us. He did not break a bruised reed and He did not quench a smoldering flax. Just the opposite. And some of you have had first hand experien with God’s mercy. You have once been a bruised reed or a smoldering flax and God’s grace has entered your life and made you new. But here is the deal. There is a world out there that does not know that about God and so it is up to each of us to tell them and to show them that by demonstrating His mercy and grace in our lives. Amen.

Lessons from Joseph and Mary

St. Paul writes to the Church in Corinth, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”In light of our Gospel lesson this morning I want to paraphrase the blessed Apostle and say, “For as through the first family paradise is lost, so through the Holy Family paradise is restored.” This story of Joseph and Mary is truly remarkable and the effect of their story on our lives today is beyond calculation. And yet is all too easy to brush past this story, so let’s slow down and take a closer look.

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”  There is a whole lot going on with those two sentences. Let me begin unpacking it by giving you some cultural background to betrothal and marriage in ancient Israel.  

If they were typical of their day, Joseph and Mary would have been betrothed when she was a teenager and it would not have been unusual for Joseph to be slightly older. Marriages in their day were a three-step process. In the first step, the parents arranged the marriage. This involved a dowry. When the financial arrangements had been made then a betrothal was announced. Step two, was the couple spending a year setting up their house and preparing for the actual wedding. At this point they did not live together, and in many cases they were not even allowed to be together alone. Nonetheless they were considered so bound to each other that to break it off, they had to seek a divorce. Additionally it was considered to be adultery if either one was unfaithful during their betrothal. 

The third stage of the marriage was a weeklong party and finally the consummation of the marriage. Joseph and Mary were in stage two, being considered essentially husband and wife, setting up house but not consummating the union. Like all young people they had to be filled with hopes and dreams but among all of their hopes and dreams they would not in a million years have guessed the path that God had prepared for them. 

An angel of the Lord visits Mary to tell her that a miraculous conception would take place, but Joseph evidently is left in the dark. Either that or Mary told Joseph but he wasn’t listening. Anyway, Mary goes off to visit her cousin Elizabeth and when she returns later, Joseph sees that she is obviously with child but knows that the child was not his.

At this point Joseph had a couple of choices. He could take her before the elders and have her disgraced for adultery, or he could quietly brake off the engagement and try to pick up the pieces of his life. He had to be completely heartbroken at what he must have thought to be a betrayal of his trust. And if he were at all a typical man then he would have been humiliated that another man had seduced his fiancée. 

But because he was a just man Joseph did not seek revenge. Instead he was going to quietly break things off until an angel of the Lord visited him and told him about a third option. He assured Joseph that Mary did not betray him but that her pregnancy was a miracle. Joseph was to marry her and become a stepfather or if you like a foster parent. What’s more, Joseph was even denied the normal right of naming his son, because the angel told him what He was to be named. The Lord was asking a lot of Joseph and of Mary.

What was their response? They both did as God called them to do without a care for either their own dreams or the expectations of others. Now I’m sure that the story has been compressed, and since they were real people, they had to have days where they wondered if they had lost their minds. But in the end they yielded their lives to God and this lead to the salvation of the world. Consider for a moment what a model this couple is to each of us and what a contrast they are to the first couple. 

Mary hears the Word of the Lord and responds by saying “Behold I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to thy Word.” By contrast Eve doubted God’s Word. When the serpent said, “Did God really say…?” she went right along with that question. 

This tactic of the enemy did not stop with Eve. As you well know that is how it begins with every church that has gone apostate. It begins by doubting what God said rather than being like Mary and submitting to His Word.

Another contrast is Mary’s humility verses Eve’s pride. Mary accepts the word of the angel and submits, while Eve listens to the serpent and desires the knowledge of good and evil. Mary seeks to obey God while Eve seeks to be God. 

Again we see Eve’s sin as a mark of heretical bodies today. Rather than seeking change and transformation through God’s grace, the false prophet preaches a god in their own image. They do this in order to affirm people’s sins rather than calling them to repentance. Mary shows us a better way by yielding her will to the will of God. 

The contrast between the two husbands is equally significant. Joseph steps up to the plate and becomes a husband/protector. He protects Mary from disgrace by marrying her and later he will protect his family from Herod by leading them to Egypt. Adam on the other hand failed in his calling as husband/protector. Have you ever noticed that just after Eve eats the forbidden fruit the text says “and she also gave some to her husband who was with her and he ate.”  Who was with her? You mean he stood by while the serpent deceived his wife, watched her eat the forbidden fruit and then receive it from her hand? He should have gone redneck on the serpent and led his wife as far away from the tree as he possibly could. Adam failed as a leader and partner because he was passive. Joseph took action because he had heard from God and took his place as the protector of his family.

The other quality of a husband/protector that Joseph demonstrated is that he was led by God’s direction rather than by his personal desires. Why did Adam and Eve end up eating the fruit? The text says, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took the fruit and ate…”  So in essence they gave up their relationship with God and were kicked out of paradise because the fruit looked good and because they wanted to be like God. They lost everything because of carnal desires and pride.

Joseph however put his ego and desires in check. The Gospel says, “When Joseph woke from sleep he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her notuntil she had given birth to a son. And he call his name Jesus.” Joseph did not demand his rights as a husband. He did not put his needs first. Instead, in obedience to God, and as husband/protector, he ensured the Virgin birth of Jesus Christ. And please understand that the importance of the Virgin birth of Jesus Christ cannot be over stated. 

“Born of the Virgin Mary”is not a filler line in the middle of the Apostles’ Creed. Rather it is a pivotal line without which everything that follows in the Creed would not be possible. If Jesus were a result of a natural conception and a natural birth, then He would merely be a son of Adam.  As a son of Adam He would not only have been tempted as all of us are, but He also would have sinned as all of us do who are sons of Adam. If He were a son of Adam then His death on the cross would have been for the wages of His own sins and not for the sins of the world. We would still be dead in our transgressions. If He were a son of Adam then His body would still be in the grave and we would have no hope of resurrection for ourselves or for those we love. If He were a son of Adam then we would not be able to look with hopeful expectation for His triumphal return. There wouldn’t be one. Instead we would be asking the mountains to fall on us to avoid the judgment day of the Lord. If He were a son of Adam then there would be no life everlasting and in the end it would not matter in this life if you were a saint or a serial killer because we would all go down to the same grave. 

But He is conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary; He is the Son of the Most High. As the Son of God He will be able to fulfill His name, JESUS, and save His people from their sins. Because He the Son of God He will live a sinless life, die as a propitiation for our sins, be raised from the dead and one day return in power and great glory to Judge the quick and the dead. Because He the Son of God He will do all that He promised including preparing a place for us in eternity. Because He is the Son of God death does not win in the end. We will be given new bodies to live in a new heaven and a new earth and we will be with Him and those we love forever. Because He is the Son of God you had better believe that it makes a difference if you are a saint or a serial killer because one day each of us will stand before Him to give an accounting for our lives.

The story of Joseph and Mary is truly a remarkable story. They came from a tiny town in the hills of Galilee from which no one expected anything. You will recall that when Philip told Nathanial that they had found the Messiah, Philip asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” They were not powerful political people. They were not academic elites. They were not from a family dynasty like the Rockefellers or the Kennedys. Joseph was a simple carpenter and Mary a teenage maiden. They were blue-collar folk from the hills. They could just as well been from East Tennessee and yet these are the ones whom God chose as agents to bring salvation to the world.

Obviously they have a unique place in salvation history and no one will ever be called upon again to do what they did. However, their example of humility and obedience should stand before each of us all of the time. They stand as an illustration that that you don’t have to be someone special or have spectacular gifts for God to use you. You just have to be available and say “yes.”  

This penitential season of Advent is coming to an end. In just a couple of days we will celebrate the most wonderful mystery of all mysteries, that God would become flesh and dwell among us. He comes “to save us all from Satan’s power when were gone astray”. Those truly are “tidings of comfort and joy.” But it is also a two-pronged celebration in that we who are now heirs in Him not only celebrate His birth but also look with joyful anticipation to His coming again.  Because of His grace, because of His GRACE “we may without shame of fear rejoice to behold His appearing.” May God bless your final preparations as you await the birth of our Savior. Amen. 

The Communion of the Saints

Yesterday was the feast of All Saints, which we will celebrate tomorrow at what is commonly called All Saints’ Sunday, but today is the feast of All Souls. Why two feasts? It follows the pattern of Hebrews 11 that begins by recounting the deeds of the heroes of our faith. It mentions Enoch and Noah and Abraham and Sara and Moses and many others. But towards the end of the chapter no names are given. Just their deeds. The text simply says, “others were tortured…still others had trial of mockings and scourging…They were stoned and sawn in two…they wandered about…” And I love this line; “of whom the world was not worthy.”

Thus on All Saints’ Day we honor the saints that are in the Hall of Fame. On All Soul’s Day we honor all the rest of the faithful departed. The Apocrypha make the distinction this way. “Some of them have left a name behind so that others declare their praise…But of others there is no memory…but these also were godly ones, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.” That is a perfect description of Hebrews 11. Then chapter 12 begins “Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us….”

Misconceptions about the saints abound especially here in the Bible Belt. Years ago I received a call from a guy who wanted to confront me about calling a church after a saint. He said that the church belonged to the Lord and so we shouldn’t name it after a saint. I explained the we fully realized that the church belonged to the Lord but there was a very long tradition of having patrons, so that as Scripture says, we are giving honor to whom it is due. He still objected and was very angry with me and slammed down his phone. So in his mind it was blasphemous to name a church after a saint but it was okay with the name “Franklin Road Baptist Church.” Go figure.

Each week we confess in the Nicene Creed that we believe in the Communion of the Saints. Celebrating All Saints and All Souls is a natural result of that belief but it also posses some questions. Why is belief in the Communion of the Saints important? What do we believe about the Communion of the Saints” and of what is the benefit of this belief? 

But before I address those questions let me clarify  potential misconceptions concerning our beliefs about the saints. First we reject a common belief that there are the saints in heaven and then there are us sinners here on earth. The New Testament is quite clear that all believers, those in heaven and those on earth, are saints in the eyes of God. St. Paul begins his letter to the church in Philippi. “Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Christ Jesus to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.”I do find it troubling that he did not include the clergy with the saints but that is my problem. The believers in Philippi are called saints. 

Second we reject any notion of the saints being mediators, that is the idea that we pray to them and then they go to God on our behalf, like having a friend in the court. The Scripture is also clear on this. There is only One Mediator between God and man and that is Jesus Christ (I Timothy 2:5). Why would we have it any other way when we have the indescribable privilege of going directly to the Father in Jesus’ Name. 

Third, in particular reference to this feast of All Souls, we do not pray for the departed in order to help them get out of purgatory, because as Anglicans we do not believe in purgatory. Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Any work that needed to be done to wash us from our sins was done when Jesus said, “It is finished” and then three days late came bursting out of His tomb conquering death and the grave. And then ascended to the Father presenting to Him His sacrifice.

So if we are not praying for the departed to get out of purgatory then why are we praying for them? That is one of the most frequent questions I am asked is “Why do y’all pray for the dead?”The short answer is “Because they aint dead.”Jesus said “But concerning the resurrection of the dead have you not read what was spoken to you by God saying ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” A believer passes through the gate of death into the presence of God. So we pray to God for the faithful departed because they still live.

We pray to God for the faithful departed, as is so beautifully put in the 1928 BCP, “…beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service; and to grant us grace so to follow their good examples that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly grace…” We may not need to pray for one another once the whole Church becomes the Church triumphant, and we receive our new bodies at the Resurrection, and we are placed in a new heaven and a new earth. But that has not happened yet and so we continue to pray. 

We pray to God for the faithful departed because death has not stopped our love for them. Praying for others keeps us linked or connected to them. And so because of my love for my Father I hold my Father’s memory alive when I mention him before God’s altar. 

We also pray to God WITH the faithful departed. This is chiefly done through worship. “Therefore joining our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name….”

I hope that clarifies a few things. Now I want to return to my original questions. Why is it important that we believe in the Communion of the Saints, what do we believe about it and what is the benefit of this belief? 

A chief reason that this belief is so important is because it flows from what we believe about the completed work of Christ and what we believe about the Church. If Jesus had not conquered death there would be no Communion of the Saints. There would be no voices in heaven with which to join our voices. There would only be the silence of the grave. But because the Old Testament Saints looked forward in faith to His victory, as we look back in faith to His victory, there is indeed a blessed Communion. 

The Communion of the Saints manifests what we believe about the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ and just as there is only one Head there is only one Body. There is the Church triumphant in glory and the Church militant on earth, but there is only one Church, one Body. Thus we should be very diligent to work for unity with fellow saints on earth and we should maintain our unity with the saints in glory. The new catechism asks “How are the Church on earth and the Church in heaven joined?”  Answer. “All of the worship of the Church on earth is a participation in the eternal worship of the Church in heaven.” Hebrew 12:22-24. Thus to abandon worship, or to think that worship is all about me, is to abandon the Communion of the Saints

What do we believe about the Communion of the Saints? We believe that the Church triumphant is not passive towards us. Hebrews 12 tells us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. I love the picture that the BCP paints for us through this collect. “Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know our selves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy…”

Wait a moment. Did that collect say that the saints in heaven are praying for us? Yes it did! But how do we know that? We know it from Revelation 5 and 8 that tell of golden bowls of incense, and the text tells us,“which are the prayers of the saints.” Their prayers for us imply that they know what is going on with us, which they most assuredly do. At the Transfiguration of Jesus we are told that Moses and Elijah were speaking with Him about His upcoming departure when the disciples didn’t yet realize that was about to happen.  

I have personally experienced this fellowship of love and prayer. When we were building All Saints’ in Smyrna it was one of the most challenging experiences that I ever had. The builder was a crook of the highest order and I was in a constant battle with him over his lies and his shoddy work. Our lawyer had been involved with the building of the Titans stadium. He said that work put him in contact with some Mafia types and he said that the Mafia was easier to deal with than our builder. The Bishop saw what stress I was under and offered to me to use his condo in St. Augustine, so Beth and I went down for a few days to try to decompress. 

As we were walking through the Old City I saw an Orthodox Shrine and I asked Beth to give me a few minutes to go in and say my prayers. I was still heavy with the burden of the project and I had serious doubts that we would be able to complete it, which would have been a financial disaster for the parish. I knelt before a number of life sized icons of various saints and I lit a candle and I cried out to the Lord for His mercy. Although my eyes were closed I could tell that I was not alone. I felt a distinct presence. It was as if each saint had stepped out of his icon and they were standing around me, giving me the assurance that God had heard my prayer and that all would be well. The burden lifted, we had a great time in St. Augustine and the project got completed. 

I went back to the shrine after the church was built to offer thanks to the Lord for hearing my prayer. I was also secretly hoping to have the same experience again but it was crickets that time. However as I was leaving the shrine I read a plaque on the wall that told of their history. It said that before coming to St. Augustine it was in a town called New Smyrna, which gave me goose bumps. I definitely believe in the Communion of the Saints. 

This belief in the Communion of the Saints directly confronts the me-and-Jesus heresy that plagues the Western Church. If you google “I love Jesus but I hate the Church” you will see all kinds of videos and research and books. It is a growing theme. But you don’t need a degree in theology to know that is one of the dumbest things that you could possibly say. Since the Church is the Body of Christ, you are really saying. “I love Jesus but I hate His Body.”  Or to use another image from Scripture, “I love you Jesus but I hate your Bride.” The sin filled arrogance that fuels such a perspective is incomprehensible but it is alive and well. 

The Communion of the Saints is a constant reminder that there is no such thing as just me-and-Jesus. “For by one Spirit you have been baptized into one Body”and each of us are a part of that Body. I don’t know if I am an ear of an eye or a toenail. It does not really matter to me. Like Minnie Pearl, I’m just proud to be here. It is humbling to realize the shoulders that we stand upon, the sacrifices of those who came before us, and as Ephesians puts it, the inheritance that we have in the saints. I cannot think of another company with whom I would wish to be joined. 

This leads me to the third question. What are the benefits of the Communion of the Saints? To learn that you will have to come tomorrow as we celebrate the Sunday after All Saints. In the meantime lets give thanks for the faithful departed and as the BCP puts it “rejoice in their fellowship and run with endurance the race that is set before us; and together with them, receive the crown of glory that never fades away.” Amen.

Hardness of Heart

hardheart

 

“for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”

This line about hearts being hardened comes from the scene immediately following the feeding of the 5,000 hence the reference to the loaves. Jesus had gone off to pray and the disciples were in a boat battling a storm when Jesus came to them walking on the water and calmed the storm. But the astonishing thing about this line is that it is not referring to the crowds or to the authorities or even to Jesus’ enemies. This line was referring to the disciples! They didn’t understand about the loaves because their hearts were hardened.

What makes this even more remarkable is that at this point we are over a third of the way through the Gospel of St. Mark. These men were hand picked by Jesus. They had seen Him heal multitudes, cast out demons, raise Jarius’ daughter from the dead and feed well over 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes. But still their hearts were hardened.

It occurred to me that if Jesus’ Apostles could suffer from hardness of heart then it is certainly was within the realm of possibility that I too could suffer from this malady. I turned to the Scriptures and was surprised to discover over 45 references to it. As I read through these passages I concluded two things. First that it is an all too common condition and second that it is very dangerous condition spiritually speaking. It requires our constant vigilance to avoid. In order to become vigilant we need to better understand what it is, how you get into that condition, and what you can do about it.

Hardness of heart is resistance to God; resistance to His presence, to His truth, to His Spirit. We see a secular version of hardness of heart in our politics today. It doesn’t matter how many facts you give them they are going to love their guy and hate your guy. No matter what the truth, your guy can do no right the their guy can do no wrong. But this mindset is even worse when it is a spiritual condition because the truths that are being resisted are the truths that make the difference between eternal life and eternal death.

And to be clear it truly is a heart problem and not a head problem. I saw a vivid example of this in a video. The video was of a Planned Parent doctor talking about different ways to kill an unborn baby in order to successfully harvest the organs. She was having this discussion while sipping a glass of wine and eating a salad. She’s a doctor so she has to be a brilliant person but it’s not a head problem, it’s a heart problem and the Lord only knows what has happened in her past to her make her heart so hard.

But what about us? What could make our hearts hard? The first and most obvious thing is willful sinfulness or rebellion against God. Hebrews 3. “Take care brothers lest there be in any of you an evil and unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort on another every day…that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (vss 12,13). One of the things that led to Judas’s downfall was that he was stealing from their common purse. He knew it to be a sinful activity and yet he did it anyway and it opened his heart for Satan to enter.

Closely related to rebellion against God is pride. We are aware of the warnings all through the Scriptures against pride and yet we all know that dude. You can’t tell him anything, there is not a topic of which he is not an expert, and anyone who disagrees with him is an idiot. If you don’t know anyone like that then you may want to ask someone who really loves you if it is you.

But there is a more subtle form of pride that also hardens the heart. The person who comes to mind when I think about this kind of pride is the professor on Gilligan’s Island. You may not know that the characters on that show were patterned after the 7 deadly sins. The Skipper is anger, Gilligan is sloth, Ginger is lust. Mary Ann envy etc. Well the professor was pride. But he was a very likeable figure because his pride was subtle. It was in the form of self-reliance. If they needed a tool or a special kind of widget he could take a coconut or a fern and make it happen. He rarely asked for help and he believed that there was nothing that he could not eventually figure out.

Of course there is nothing sinful about being intelligent or handy or even self reliant to a degree. But how often do we try to handle things on our own without first going to God and asking for His wisdom and grace? How often do we treat the Lord as the last resort? A person who is totally self-reliant is rarely one is led by the Spirit because there is too much flesh in the way. Deep down he doesn’t really believe that God’s ways are better than his ways.

Years ago a young man came to me because he was in bad financial shape. As we poured through the details of his life he admitted that he was not tithing and he was working on Sundays even though he was self-employed. I explained the biblical truths of the tithe and keeping the Sabbath and told him that if he wanted the Lord to bless his efforts that he needed to do things the Lord’s way. He ignored my advice and to the best of my knowledge is still struggling. If you asked him to describe himself he would say that he is a hard worker. If you asked me I would say he suffers from pride because his actions say that he knows better than the Lord about how life should be lived.

A third way that our hearts get hardened is when they are broken and bitterness seeps in. You hope and trust and believe and then something happens to break your heart and you decide somewhere deep inside to never hope and trust and believe again. You incorrectly believe that in this way you will never be that deeply hurt again. This pattern happens to us romantically, it happens with people that we thought were our friends, it happens within families. But it can also happen in our spiritual lives. We place our expectations on God and when He fails to meet our expectations we become disappointed with God and if left unchecked it turns into bitterness and hardness of heart. You can see this vein run through the life of King Saul who ends up dying a tragic death. We must act quickly with forgiveness to keep bitterness from taking over and we must remember that it is not our place to put expectations on God.

A fourth way that our hearts are hardened is through stubbornness. And this may be a chicken and egg thing because each causes the other. While my wife says that “Kasch” is German for stubbornness, the Bible has a little different take on it. It also uses the term “stiff necked people” which gives you a wonderful image of what is being talked about. The prophet Jeremiah uses the term “stubborn heart” seven times and reveals it as a very serious condition. It is like an addiction that is impossible to be recovered from under our own power. I will explain later what we can do about it.

A fifth common cause of a hardened heart, which you see particularly throughout Jesus’ ministry, is self-righteousness. His detractors were so caught up in keeping every minutia of the law that they were upset when He healed on the Sabbath. They were so caught up in their piety that they could not see the Messiah when He was standing right in front of them.

A sixth cause of hardness of heart is selfishness. I am a dog lover to the max so please don’t take this wrong. But in 2015 Americans spent $60 billion, with a B, on their pets and yet we have a national problem of kids going to bed hungry.  It would be safe to assume that the average American spends far more on their pets than they do giving to the poor. There is something desperately wrong with that picture.

Listen to God’s perspective. This is from Deuteronomy 15. If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them.  Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. (vss 7,8). This thought is echoes by the Apostle John. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”(I Jn 3:17).

Dave Ramsey speaks of building wealth so that you can live and give like no one else. The Scriptures speaks of tithes and offerings and so it is a good goal to come to a place where you not only give your tithe to your local church but that you are able to give offerings to those in need. I read that if Christians in the US simply met the tithe it would add $150 billion annually to do ministry. With just the tithe we could change the world.

So those are some of the causes of hard heartedness. If you feel that I have gone from preaching to meddling then I may have hit a nerve. What to do about it?

First, simply admit it to the Lord. He typically does not fix what we won’t admit is broken. I think that is why Jesus asked people all the time what they wanted even when it was obvious that they needed healing. We will have the general confession in a few minutes and it would be the perfect time to declare your hard heartedness and ask to be healed.

Second, declare your inability to heal yourself. As I said earlier this is a very dangerous condition spiritually and so we are going to need more than a tonic to fix it. What we need is open heart surgery and you can’t perform open heart surgery on yourself. We need the Great Physician.

Third, stand upon the promises of God. This was God’s promise to Israel through the prophet Ezekiel. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” (36:26-28).

Since the Church is the New Israel and God’s goal is for us to be His people, I see no reason why this promise is not extended to us as well. But note that God says, “I will give you…” because only God can give us a new heart. And yet we are not to sit passively by and wait for a surgical date. It is as we seek Him through prayer and Word and Sacrament that He fulfills His promise to us. Recall in Jesus’ parable of the seeds that the soil was the heart and the seed was the Word of God. It was only the heart that allowed the Word of God to take root that produced fruit. In other words we are not going to get a new heart by watching the Kardashians. Prayer, Word and Sacrament.

Here is the good news. Even after seeing Jesus do all of these miracles, including feeding the 5,000 and walking on water, the disciples still didn’t get it. They still suffered from hardened hearts. I would have given up on them by that point but Jesus did not. He hung in there with them until they did get it, until there hearts of stone were turned into a heart of flesh. He loves us no less than He loved them so we can be assured that He will hang in there with us until we get it too.

I’d be tender, I’d be gentle
And awful sentimental
Regarding love and art
I’d be friends with the sparrows
And the boy that shoots the arrows
If I only had a heart

The Tin Man got one. May God grant us a new one too. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why the Ascension?

Ascension

The Church teaches us that there are 7 Principal Feast Days that we are to observe. As instructed in the Prayer Book, they are to take precedence over any other day or observance. Can you guess what they are? They are Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity, and All Saints’. I have left one out. It is Ascension. May 25th was a Principal Feast Day but who knew it? How many observed it? Sadly the Prayer Book assumes that not many will do so and so it gives us a second shot on the following Sunday.

I suppose it is not all bad that this is a little known Holy Day. We don’t have to put up with advertisements of jolly elves drinking a coke while flying reindeer around the world. We go to pay for our gas only to be confronted with display of Cadbury Eggs. Nor do we have to fight with the ALCU who would want to change the name from “Ascension” to “Cloud Day” as to not offend the atheists. But it is unfortunate that this Holy Day is so little recognized because the Church has not made it a Principal Feast for no reason. In fact it is significant for a number of reasons.

But before we look at why it is so important, let’s clear up a bit of biblical cosmology. When the space race began, the Russians were the first ones to send a man into space. His name was Yuri Gagarin. After returning to earth he said, “There is no God; I’ve been up there, and I didn’t see him.” I don’t know if Yuri was looking for an old bearded guy sitting on a cloud but it is a misunderstanding of Scripture to think that when Scripture speaks of Jesus being taken up into the clouds that we are to understand that heaven is physically located directly above us. This is called phenomenological language. We use it too when we talk about “sunrise” and “sunset” even though we know that it doesn’t. It is descriptive not literal. C.S. Lewis said that heaven is not a distant place above but rather a “wholly new life.” That is where Jesus went. And unless Yuri repented of his atheism he won’t see Him there either.

Let’s go back to the significance of this Day of Ascension. Most significant for us, His ascension to the Father completes our redemption. That sounds like a bold claim but lets think through the redemption story.

Under the Old Covenant, on the day of the Atonement, animals would be sacrificed and their blood would be captured. But the death of the animal was only one part of the ritual. Next the High Priest would take the blood of the animals and enter into the Holy of Holies and pour the blood over the top of the altar, symbolically covering the sins of the people. This is how he made atonement for the sins of the people. So to complete a sacrifice there had to be both the shedding of blood AND the presentation of that blood to God.

In Hebrews we are told that when Jesus ascended on high, He entered a heavenly temple and as our High Priest He presented there not the blood of bulls and goats but His own blood as an atonement for our sins. Here is how it reads in Hebrews 9. For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own….But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” So Jesus fulfilled both the shedding of His blood AND the presentation of that sacrifice to God and that is why I say that that the Ascension completed His sacrifice. As we just heard from Hebrews, He ascended to “appear for us in God’s presence.” That alone would make this the most significant of events but there is more.

In John’s Gospel we see Jesus praying for His disciples but His prayers did not stop at His ascension. We learn this also from Hebrews. “Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood.  Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.” 

Because I am on the Standing Committee of the Diocese I get to see the Archbishop every other month or so. As a consequence I am frequently asked how he is doing. I always respond that he is doing remarkably well. If you have kept up with him then you know that he has a schedule that would kill ten normal men and yet I have seen him become more joyful and lighthearted and even more pleasant to be around. When I have asked him about it he attributes it to all the prayers that people offer for him and I truly believe it. Also I have heard from some of you that there are times when you can almost feel the prayers of others. I believe that too.

So if we believe that prayer works, then how much more can we believe that Jesus’ prayers work. And that should give us confidence. When you are having one of those days when you are irritable and uncharitable and downright hateful and you wonder if you are even truly a Christian, remember that Jesus is praying for you. And as a consequence of His prayers, as the writer of Hebrews says, “he is able to save completely those who come to God through him…” You are going to make it not because you are good enough or smart enough or because people just like you. You are going to make it because Jesus is praying for you.

A third reason that the Ascension is so important is because it changes humanity’s position with God. Jesus being fully man and fully God also ascended as fully man and fully God and so when He was exalted on high, so were we. One of our hymns puts it this way. “Ascending to the Father’s throne, thou claims’t the kingdom as thine own, and angels wonder when they see, how changed is our humanity.”

This understanding is supported by Ephesians. “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”

It is a little difficult to try to wrap our minds around the fact that we are at the same time exalted with Christ in heavenly places and struggling to pay our mortgage here in the world. The tendency for many is to chose one or the other. Either they become so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good or they are so like the citizens of the world that their Christianity makes no perceptible difference. Allow me to offer an alternative.

As most of you know my family lived in Scotland. We were the only American family in our town and so we became totally immersed in the culture. I went to a Scottish Academy and played on the rugby team. My mother shopped in local markets and we ate Scottish food. We heated our home with a coal fireplace. It was my daily chore to fill up the coal bucket and get the fire going in the morning because that is also how we got hot water. It was a wonderful experience and I loved most things about the Scottish people….but I didn’t try to become Scottish. Unlike Madonna I didn’t get an accent after two weeks or even two years. I didn’t wear a kilt and while I made some great friends I didn’t get too attached because I knew that we would not be there forever. I was fully aware that I was an American and I was even proud of that fact. (Although I must admit that a couple of times, when I was around some very strong anti American sentiments, I claimed to be Canadian so I wouldn’t get beaten up.) I was a stranger in a strange land and I didn’t try to be any other.

I suggest to you that because of the Ascension we must work to strike a similar balance in our lives. Yes we are seated with Christ in heavenly places but we are also His Body on earth with work to do. We are not called to build a Christian bunker and wait for the Second Coming. Nor are we called to become so immersed in the world that we live just like they do. What is so wrong with living like the world? Let me give you a visual. The number one rated show last week in America was Keeping Up With the Kardashians. These are the ones who spent over $10 million dollars on a wedding and the marriage lasted 72 days and they are offered as icons of our society. Jesus calls us to nobler more abundant lives. The Scripture says that we are to be a peculiar people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. We are to continually remember that we are citizens of heaven and act like it as lights in the world. What would that look like? Recall the prayer of St. Francis.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.

There are even more important consequences of the Ascension but let me touch on one more and we will see it fulfilled next Sunday. Jesus ascended to the Father in order to send us the Holy Spirit and in this way He fulfills His promise to be with us always, even to the end of the ages. When He was with us in the flesh His presence was localized. If the Scripture says that He was in Nazareth, obviously it meant that He was NOT in Jerusalem. But because of the Ascension that has changed. We are told in Ephesians, “He who descended is the one who also ascended far above the heavens that he might fill all things.” Now His presence, glory, power and prerogatives are no longer localized. He will be present today at every Mass that will be said all across the globe. From magnificent gothic cathedrals to dirt floor homes the Ascended One will come as the bread of heaven to feed His people.

It also means that He is with us in joyous celebrations like a wedding or the birth of a child and He is with us in terrible times when the doctor brings us bad news or when our hopes and dreams have been shattered. He is with us in the midst of our worship and He is still with us even when it feels that God is a million miles away. Because of the Ascension we are never alone and this means that we are always, always, always immersed in God’s love. And St. Paul reminds us in Romans that nothing can separate us from that love.

I hope that this helps us understand why the Church has made Ascension one of the Principal Feasts of the year. It always falls 40 days after Easter and so it always falls on a Thursday. Next year it will be on May 10th, so mark your calendars and join us for Mass. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Much More

Much More

Over the years as I have done pastoral counseling a common theme has presented itself. It often takes awhile to get to it because it is so embarrassingly basic but it comes down to some very personal questions. Folks don’t always put it in these words but variations of this come out. “I believe God loves the whole world. Everybody knows John 3:16. But does He really love me? “I know that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, but did He truly die for mine?” “I know that Jesus forgives the sins of the whole world but does He really forgive me?” “If He does all these thing then why don’t I feel loved and free and forgiven?”

While Romans is the most theological of all of St. Paul’s writings it is also very pastoral. I say that because in it St. Paul answers these kind of real questions that real people have. He does not philosophize. He does not tell us how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But He does let us know the heights and depths of God’s forgiveness and love. He moves us from being dependent upon the shifting sands of our emotions to a solid rock of truth on which to stand.

And he does it with two wonderful words. “much more.” “Much more.” As Moses instructed Israel I want you to bind these two words as a sign on your hand, make them as frontlets between your eyes and write them on the doorposts of your houses. (And just to be clear I’m not suggesting you go out and get a tattoo, I am being symbolic here.)

Four times St. Paul uses “much more” in chapter 5 and each time it opens the door to a greater vision of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus and if we will embrace this vision then it will significantly address our doubts.

First he says in verse 9. “Since therefore we have been justified by his blood much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”

“Justified” is the language of the court. This is a “not guilty” verdict. We have lost the weight of our sins and so our old clothes no longer fit us and as the saying goes, “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

And notice what has made us justified, what has given us the “not guilty” verdict. It is not our good works. It is not our sincerity. Nor may we choose any path believing that they all lead to the same place. There is only one thing that brings us the “not guilty” verdict and that is the blood of Jesus. His sacrifice on the cross, and His sacrifice alone, pays for the sins of the world. So St. Paul is arguing here that if we have been acquitted by the blood of Jesus, then we have nothing to fear on the Day of Judgment. If we have been acquitted in the past then much more will be acquitted in the future.

The second time St. Paul uses “much more” is in verse 10. “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”

“Justified” was the language of the court, but “reconciliation” is the language of relationships. When a married couple has struggles they sometimes choose to separate. But when they go through counseling and work through their problems they are then said to be “reconciled.”

This is a beautiful word because it is far more interpersonal than “justification.” A judge can acquit you but still think that you are guilty as sin and believe that you should hang. But “reconciliationspeaks of healing, it is an end to separation. Reconciliation is the father embracing the prodigal son. Reconciliation is forgiveness and starting again, new and fresh. Reconciliation is tearing down the walls and making loved ones out of enemies. And that is exactly what God has done for us. “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.

“Does God really love me?” “Does God really forgive me?” “Does God really care for me?” In saying “much more” St Paul is saying “Are you kidding me? He did all these wonderful things for you when you his enemy so just imagine how much more he will do for you now that you are his child.”

The third time St. Paul says “much more” is in verse 15. “For the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by that grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” What is this free gift of which he speaks? He will tell us in the next chapter. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Do you see the progression here and how it is getting better and better. Do you see how everything truly is “much more?” We have gone from being justified or acquitted by the Father; to reconciliation or restoring our relationship with Him; to now to being given the free gift of eternal life. Did you know that there are some forms of Judaism that does not believe in an after life. Just to walk with God in this life is seen as gift enough. But He offers us much more in having this restored relationship last for an eternity. And as if that is not good enough there is one more “much more.”

In verse 17 St. Paul says, “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.”

Mini Pearl had an expression “I’m just so proud to be here.” I would guess that would be an appropriate expression for most of us when it comes to heaven. We’d be just proud to be here. But God has much more planned for us than just an entrance. St. Paul is saying that we will not only be with Christ but that we will reign with Christ. It is an amazing idea to think that we will go from being forgiven by Christ all the way to reigning with Christ but that is what the Apostle taught. He says it so matter of factly to Timothy, “If we endure with Him we will reign with Him.”

I don’t pretend to know what that honor will look like but it certainly harkens back to the role that Adam lost in the fall when he was to have dominion over the earth but lost that position through sin. Perhaps reigning with Christ will look something like having that position restored, only not surprisingly, much more.

So let’s assume that the early Church embraced these truths. They replaced their doubts about God’s love and care for them with the knowledge that they have been forgiven, that they have reconciled to God, that they are invited into an eternal relationship and were even destined to reign with Christ. But then real life hits them. I can imagine after some time a little hand written note coming back to St. Paul. “Sir, all this sounds well and good but you are about to be arrested and we are getting pummeled. The Jews have kicked us out of their synagogues and the Romans are feeding us to the lions. How does all that fit with your ‘much more’ talk?”

Perhaps expecting such objections St. Paul makes a preemptive strike and puts suffering in perspective with being justified by faith and having peace with God. He points out in verses 3 & 4 that being reconciled with God does not exempt us from suffering. Rather being reconciled with God is what gives meaning to suffering. There is a great line in a hymn that we recently sang. “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace all sufficient shall be thy supply; the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design they dross to consume and they gold to refine.” (#636 – How Firm A Foundation).

And so St. Paul tells us that we are to have faith that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope and we have hope because of God’s love for us. So neither Paul’s arrest, nor their excommunication from the synagogues (and as he goes on in chapter 8) “nor death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separated us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” St. Paul strengthens our weak knees by calling us to the trinity of faith, hope and love. This is how we anchor our souls. 

If you are doing this Lenten journey correctly then you too may be facing the questions with which I began this sermon. They tend to come up in this penitential season as this season is designed to be a time of serious soul searching. Besides embracing St. Paul’s “much more” I want to call two things to your attention.

First remember that this kind of doubt does not come from God. Faith is God’s gift to us. I believe that some forms of wrestling with God can be fruitful but this is not one of them. The kind of doubt that questions if you are loved or if you are forgiven comes from the enemy of your soul, whom the Scriptures call “the accuser of the brethren.” Remember his words to Jesus that we heard a couple of weeks ago? “If you are the Son of God?….If you are the Son of God?” He was trying to sew doubt. So if in you heart and mind you hear, “If you really are loved?….if you really are forgiven?” then you can bet where it is coming from.

Second it is important to confront these kinds of doubts as lies and hit them head on with the truth. Do what Jesus did and come back with “It is written…..” You may find a passage of Scripture or a prayer that centers you when you are under attack. The Eastern Church uses what is called the Jesus Prayer and many in the West find praying the rosary as a means of stabilizing themselves in the storm.

I have woven together two texts, one from Ephesians and one from Hebrews, that are very meaningful to me. I recite them like a mantra when I am feeling weak in the knees. When I hear “If you are…” I come back with “I am accepted in the Beloved and His kingdom cannot be shaken.” (Eph 1:6 with Heb 12:28). It has been my experience that that truth recited a few times goes a long way in warding off “ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night.” You may choose a completely different approach but the point is to confront the lies of the enemy with the truth just as Jesus did and like Jesus you will come through Lent as a victor.

I have a sneaking suspicion that St. Paul’s unfolding of “much more” in Romans is only meant to act as highlights of all that God has in store. He writes the Corinthians, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” (NLT). So when the doubts and questions arise, “Am I truly loved? Am I truly forgiven?” you can tap into the abundance of assurance from God’s Word and them smile to yourself and say “O yes….and much more.”

 

 

Christmas Eve: Why Are We Here?

christmas-altar

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.