Monday, January 25, 2010

24th Jan, Third Sunday After Epiphany

+ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti Amen. +

Text: Luke 4:21
Theme: Today the Scripture is Fulfilled

Dear baptized in the Lord Jesus,

Salvation is not found in special knowledge, or acquired through moral rectitude, but received as a gift from a personal, living Being. Reading words from Isaiah in Hebrew Jesus said “The Spirit of Yahweh (the Lord) is on Me; because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor.”1 Today Jesus clearly identifies Himself as the Messiah and will soon say He is one with the Father. The name Yahweh, or Lord, was reserved as the personal, covenantal, intimate name of God. For Jesus to be called “Lord” (Yahweh) was more than a designation of respect. It was an acknowledgement of identity and a confession of faith. Jesus was more than a prophet, soothsayer, sage or miracle worker. He is God-in-the-flesh, Immanuel. He is the Alpha and the Omega. The Scripture was fulfilled in Him. That was conveyed to the Jews in their own context and way of thinking when Jesus said, “Before Abraham was born, I am.”2 Many Jews could not accept it though they should have known better. Where was their trust?

It’s easy to point out the speck in another person’s eye and not see the log in our own. Faith is a mysterious entity. It cannot be programmed or predicted. The object of faith, Christ- is immovable and unchangeable- but the person who possesses faith is always in a state of flux. Though we grow in our knowledge of God’s Word and in certainty of His promises, we should never lose appreciation of how radical, unreasonable, and yet transformational this truth of God is, as it becomes available to us in the person of Jesus. This is never to be taken for granted. How uninterested Western Christianity often seems to be in the gospel!

Though grounded on the solid rock of Christ, faith always appears to be on the edge of a precipice precisely because faith dares to believe that without Christ we ultimately have nothing of value or permanence. To the purely rational person this will always seem to be an untenable claim. Even if one accepts the well-known history that Jesus of Nazareth lived in first century Judea, unfairly died a criminal’s death by Roman crucifixion, and was seen alive after His burial by many followers; it is still a giant leap to the meaning of His life, death and resurrection. To be unjustly sentenced and punished is one thing; to say it was the sacrifice for the sins of the world is another. All the hopes and aspirations of humanity pinned on this one man? In fact, this leap is so great it cannot be made under human power. Not by human intellect, or wit, or perseverance or act of will can the unenlightened person come to terms with this truth. This leap can only be made by the gift the Holy Spirit.

And so it is with our spiritual lives from beginning to end. The breach of sin cannot be crossed from our side. This is true not only as a matter of ability but also of desire. Repentance does not begin through the initiative of the human will. To ask a person, under their own power and apart from the Holy Spirit’s working through the Word of God to initiate repentance- which involves turning from sin and trusting in Christ- is like giving a verbal command to a deaf man or motioning to a blind man. Put simply, we languish in spiritual death until the Holy Spirit acts upon us.

But the person enlivened by Word and Spirit is regenerated and transformed. The heart has new trust, the mind new wisdom, and the will new desires. The believer recognises he or she has become the object of the fulfillment Jesus speaks of today. “The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”3

The unbelieving world desperately needs to hear of the hope He brings. This is the gospel message we bring to a universe commandeered by sin. Only the truth of Christ gives real and enduring life. There is a world of difference between believing generally in a powerful, but anonymous God, and believing in Jesus who died for your sins. That world of difference is ultimately defined as the difference between heaven and hell. In our efforts to be winsome and faithful witnesses we must make important distinctions. One person may be naïve or uninformed about who Christ is and why He came, while another either denies they need the forgiveness of sins or that Christ is able and willing to grant it. There is a whole range of complexities in between and great patience and wisdom is required to bring clarity.

All believers are part of that body of Christ and this state of being has specific consequences. What is the activity of those gathered as the communion of saints? What engages the time, talents, and resources of those who are part of the “one holy Christian and apostolic church?” Is it not to live in the reign of the Messiah’s kingdom even now-today? Christianity is not like a life insurance policy that goes into effect only after death. In baptism our sinful nature is plunged into death with Christ and the Spirit raises us with Him even now to a new spiritual life. The life you have in Christ impacts others everyday in many ways. Your helping hand, your open ear, your gentle touch, your willing heart is God’s method to extend hope, encouragement, security and release to those who daily deal with the powers of darkness. How important to the Christians in Haiti is the reality of the body of Christ right now! We may experience tragedy and death as individuals but to experience it on such a massive scale is surely horrifying. Help, wisdom, comfort, and consolation is required on every level of human need.

But you don’t have to be good at all these things. What does Paul say about how the Spirit gifts His people? “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?”4 Of course not! But that doesn’t make any one person any less important than anyone else. We all have our place but we participate in the common gifts which are the means of God’s presence. Note how marvelously St. Paul describes our sacramental life together. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts...they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body- whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free- and were all given the one Spirit to drink.”5

So those Bible verses which may appear to be directives are descriptives of how life together has concrete expression. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”6 Don’t expect that glib reassurance that God is in control will salve the wounds of those who are hurting or automatically convince those who doubt. But never underestimate the power truth has when conveyed with integrity and concern. Christianity is not simply a basis for morality, social stability, or obligatory- but presently ineffectual- insurance against future risk. Jesus said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”7 Paul says, “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”8 You are forgiven. You are justified. You are freed. In Christ, these promises to you have been fulfilled. Amen.

+ in nomine Jesu +

1 Luke 4:18
2 John 8:58
3 Luke 4:18-19
4 1 Corinthians 12:29-30
5 1 Corinthians 12:12-13
6 Romans 12:15
7 Luke 4:21
8 2 Corinthians 6:2

Sermon for Jan 17th, Second Sunday after Epiphany

+ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti Amen. +

Text: John 2:9
Theme: The Sign of the Wine

Dear baptized in the Lord Jesus,

How exquisite was the wine Jesus offered at the wedding in Cana! We look forward to finding out in heaven. For now we are content with the foretaste of the feast to come we receive when we kneel at His altar. Life with God in eternity is often described in the Scriptures as a participation in a wedding banquet. That is where we find Jesus today performing His first miracle; changing the water into wine. Little did those gathered know that the Son of God was a guest at their celebration. That miracle was a subtle but important epiphany of His power. And it was symbolic of the transformation He came to bring.

The gospel was new wine and it couldn’t be held with old wineskins. In the coming of Jesus the old forms would need to give way to His new creation. This doesn’t happen without a struggle. And that struggle still rages today. It is the battle between the power of sin and the true grace of Christ, between the servitude of the law and the freedom of the gospel. We are naturally drawn to the only glory the old creation has to offer. We naturally crave power, control, and the praise of others. We seek carnal indulgences of all types; instant gratification sexually, emotionally, psychologically. We look for safety and security in material goods. We find ourselves using others rather than serving them. Unbelief cannot see that all these things involve enslavement to the old order of things that leads only to death. The very nature of sin is to seek life where there is only death and to fear only failure can result from being connected with Him who offers life.

But this struggle does come to resolution. It culminated in Jesus’ duel with Satan and death. A sacrifice had to be made. And even Satan knew it. Remember the temptation that the devil tormented Christ with, “Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God.”1 Satan didn’t want Jesus to die. He already knew He could rise from the dead. That was no problem. But would Christ submit Himself to be ultimately humiliated for others? The devil knew if Christ went through with the crucifixion the sacrifice for the sins of the world would be made. And so it was. Death was defeated and Satan was ruined. The grave-that final resting place of the dead- had previously been a vault no human could overthrow. But Jesus made it the gateway to eternity. Death had lost its sting.

But death still has the power of fear and Satan maximizes the allure of the world. We are still in the contest because for each individual the struggle is not over until death or until Christ returns. Flesh battles against Spirit within us. Paul describes it this way, “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of the sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.”2 True life is found in only in union with God. Marriage is symbolic of this union.

Today Isaiah also draws on the illustration of marriage. Speaking to the forsaken and unfaithful people of Israel he says, “No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called ‘my delight is in her’, and your land ‘married;’ for the Lord will take delight in you, and your land will be married.”3 Here God says He will treat His people as one should treat a vow in marriage. The Church, His Bride, will not be forsaken by Him even when she is unfaithful. He will be compassionate and forgiving. That is not to say He will be lenient, or tolerant or apathetic towards her unbelief and ungodliness; He is no fool. Spiritual adultery is dealt with for what it is. But the bond of spiritual marriage can be deserted only from her end- she can seek other lovers, other husbands, as believers can seek idols and forsake the true God- but for His part He remains faithful. And He rejoices as a bridegroom rejoices over the bride.

To show that the past humiliation is over she receives a new name. A new name was a mark of God’s blessing. It often indicated a changed status or the beginning of a new phase of life. Abram and Sarai4 were both given new names. Jacob had his name changed to Israel.5 It was no coincidence that believers received their Christian name at baptism. Those who bear the name of Christ always-by faith- have the newness His name brings. In Christ we are new, complete, holy, perfect, and strong. Yet within ourselves we are frail, incomplete, tarnished, and decaying. This paradox helps us to always keep the focus on Christ.

It governs every aspect of the believer’s life so that in all things- joy or sorrow, failure or success- we seek to appreciate and understand the mercy and wisdom of God. For example, one person is healed after the faithful prayers of others the next person succumbs to his illness. The second request wasn’t left unanswered- God promises to hear the prayers of His people- it just wasn’t answered in the way that was being hoped for. The difference lies not in the manner of praying or the strength of the faith of those praying- of course God is not obligated to hear the requests of the ungodly who may call out only in desperation. The difference is in the compassionate discernment of God. His mercy is particular to our needs. And though we might think it’s always best for a sick person to be healed immediately this is actually a naïve generalization. Many, many people have received great spiritual benefit from prolonged or severe sickness. To the faithful apostle Paul, troubled by a thorn in the flesh, Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.”6

Dear friends, this is the mandate for living as servants of others. Others will see Christ in us through humility and in the manner we struggle with our own burdens.
In what manner is God’s power revealed in your weakness? Give this some serious consideration. Others notice how you handle both the joys, and sorrows, successes and failures of life. Today we are reminded the Holy Spirit works through us for the common good. If we try to use the blessings of the Holy Spirit only for our personal satisfaction or agendas then we are not being led by the Spirit but deceived by Satan. You see God always gifts us with talents, desires and abilities that we might be servants of others even as Christ was. But Satan is happy to have us use those gifts for our own indulgence, our egos, and our self-righteousness. At this point they are no longer gifts, but curses.

But Christ Jesus became THE CURSE for us that in all things repentant souls might be forgiven. He is our Bridegroom. He captivates us with new wine. He organizes us for an eternal feast. He prepares us for an unending union. Amen.

1 Matthew 27:40
2 Romans 8:5-6
3 Isaiah 62:4
4 See Genesis 17:5, 15
5 See Genesis 35:10
3 2 Corinthians 12:9

Sermon for Jan 10th, First Sunday After Epiphany

+ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti Amen. +

Text: Luke 3:15
Theme: A Sign of the Christ

Dear baptized in the Lord,

People are always looking for signs and by them they seek to order their lives. Some have wide impact. Is the drought breaking? Are the financial markets recovering? Is the world ending? Others are much narrower in scope but correspondingly more personal. Is my boss happy with my performance? Is my spouse becoming less sensitive to my needs? Have my children forgotten the Fourth Commandment? The possibilities are endless.

The Season of Epiphany involves a series of “signposts” pointing the world to the incarnate Christ. His baptism today is a sign of faithfulness to His mission. It begs the question, “How many signs of God’s faithfulness do we need?” Think of the Israelites at the time of the Exodus. The ten plagues weren’t enough. The pillars of cloud and fire weren’t enough. The parting of the Red Sea wasn’t enough. And the manna and quail and water from the rock still didn’t suffice for many of the Israelites to trust that God would provide.

Is human nature any different today? Are we any less skeptical? Are our memories of His provision any longer than those of the Israelites? Or when the challenges mount do we quickly forget His promises too? Do we search frantically for signs for what to do next, who to follow or what to believe? Though we might not find it hard to see that we are more easily tempted to sin when traveling down this path, the reality is we are already sinning. Loss of confidence in God- in any measure- is a sin and no one is exempt from it.

What kind of sign was Jesus’ baptism? There He served notice that the plan of salvation which the prophets foretold would be fully embraced; and it was fully backed by an epiphany of the triune God. The Father’s voice reverberates from heaven. The Holy Spirit is manifested in the form of a dove. God again lived among His people. Jesus’ baptism was part of His substitutionary work. In His baptism He stood in solidarity with humanity. For Him it was not a baptism of repentance nor did He need the forgiveness of sins. But He went to the river Jordan as the beloved Son of God to redeem the children of men. All of the activities of Christ were more than signs. They were the events that secured our redemption. Distinctions are important.

Your faith should never be grounded in a subjective reading of “signs” from God. If your trust is based on how you perceive God’s attentiveness and care you will quickly find that is misguided. If our response continually changes based on how we assess God’s action in our lives then our trust isn’t based on the unwavering faithfulness of God. It may be relatively easy to trust God when things in life are humming along smoothly. Relationships are in tact, money is available, career is satisfying, and health is not a concern. But one’s willingness to give thanks to God in the midst of crisis, trial, or suffering is a truer measure of properly grounded faith.

You see, God is not a -more or less- equal partner with whom we can come to some negotiation or consensus. If you think you can satisfactorily proscribe God from certain areas of your life while allowing Him His limited domain in other areas, you are only deceiving yourself. He can be ignored but He can’t be controlled. We can try to blame Him but we’ll get no sense of satisfaction trying to get even with Him. And the spitefulness and deceit by which others intend to hurt us God uses for our good. You know the pain and disappointment that causes resentment, fear, and loss of hope in the goodness of others. Only God, in His wisdom, can turn these for good purpose. Remember Joseph’s words to his fearful brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”1

A sudden hardship or “misfortune” can jar us severely. What has gone wrong? What is God thinking? Then we easily cry foul. Has God changed His mind, forgotten, or overlooked? How important it is to understand the comfort found in the doctrine of God’s immutability. The unchanging character of God is not a stoic but irrelevant quality to us mortals. God’s unchangeableness doesn’t make Him obsolete, out-of-touch, or detached from human need. Rather it means that His commitment to us is unwavering and unassailable. He will not reconsider the value or fact of Christ’s sacrifice. He will not demand something more from us to atone for sin. He will never ignore the plea of the penitent or turn a deaf ear to the cry of the humble. O yes, He will indeed chastise us for our own discipline. He will seek to drive from us our self-righteousness. He will endeavor always to part us from our idols, free us from our addictions, rescue us from our delusions, and awaken us to that which holds us in deception. The Holy Spirit works tirelessly through the word to accomplish these things. He will never cease to pursue those means which draw us near to Him.

The events of the Season of Epiphany are pregnant with the implication that what Christ does in time- things which radically reverse, turn upside-down, and change the wisdom and status of the fallen world- prepare for us a world that will not change in eternity. Christian life is about the Spirit preparing us for that unchanging existence. The greatest epiphany we can have is to see that the true nature of God is revealed on the cross. His death brings life. And though Satan works constantly to drop the blinds, pull the curtains and advance the darkness to obscure this indispensable truth of how we are justified before God, the light of Christ still pierces the darkness. We experience an epiphany every time repentance and faith takes us back to our baptism where Christ is revealed to be our Saviour. For Jesus baptism was a sign of His unity with us, but for us baptism is also the means of our unity with Him. The Scripture says, “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”2

And this new life means daily bearing His name under the crosses particular to our lives. Christ did not come for a life of indulgence, comfort or ease. He did not come to merely show us how to be responsible, or frugal, or friendly- any number of others could do that. Christ came to do what could be done by no one else and in no other way- a complete self-giving. He knew a poverty that no other human being will ever know. Not a total lack of food, drink or housing, but divine desertion. At the hour of His crucifixion He, and He alone, experienced the unique event of complete destitution. The sun went dark in horror. The earth shook in terror. The witnesses cried out in confusion. The beloved Son was abandoned. The wayward children were embraced. Blood was spilled so life could endure. The New Adam redeemed the old- and all his prodigy. Death swallowed Him, ugly and dark; that for us life would not be forfeited, but spring forth with new beauty and light.

Consider again the words of Isaiah spoken so many centuries before Jesus was born. “Since you are precious and honored in My sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life. Do not be afraid, for I am with you…Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.”3 Dear friends, don’t search in futility for signs that God’s grace is really true. Don’t position the pendulum to swing this way or that according to the next “good fortune” or “crisis” that comes your way. Rather believe that Christ’s words of forgiveness are for you. Trust that in baptism you were clothed with His righteousness. Receive His body and blood in the bread and wine for your nourishment, life, and salvation. On Good Friday the cross was occupied but on Easter morning the tomb was empty. We need no other signs until we see Him face to face. Amen.

1 Genesis 50:20
2 Romans 6:4
3 Isaiah 43:4-5, 1

Sermon for Jan 3rd, Second Sunday after Christmas

+ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti Amen. +

Text: John 1:13
Theme: Born of God

Dear friends of the Newborn Saviour,

The birth of Jesus is a new beginning for the human race. The lost image of God is restored perfectly in Him. The mystery of Christian teaching is that true faith possesses the eternal benefits of that same restored image through Jesus immediately and completely. Though the kingdom of God advances person by person, soul by soul, fighting against Satan and unbelief tooth and nail- God doesn’t just give blanket restoration to humanity- salvation does not happen piecemeal for the individual. Jesus did not come as an assistant through which we could obtain our own holiness. We cannot master sin.

No one will ever progress so far in their sanctity and holiness that sin will be kept in check. It may appear that way in some outward evidence of conduct. A person’s kindness, gentleness, and the way they think selflessly of others may be exemplary. They may have outstanding devotional discipline and a vast knowledge of the Scriptures. They may forfeit all their personal dreams to spend their lives in service to others. But two things must be taken into account. Firstly, sickness, ageing and death are also the result of sin. Ageing is not a natural- in this context- God-ordained process. It is just one we are familiar with. Secondly, sin involves not only specific misconduct or failure to do the good, but every wayward thought. Even the propensity to consider our own agenda ahead of God’s will is already sin that makes us culpable of eternal punishment. Because it doesn’t seem reasonable to us that such propensity, or inclination, should be damning, we must take God at His word.

Still, there are plenty of tangible manifestations of sin. Were sin actually arrested all thoughts would be pure, bodies would never age and minds would never decay. But the fact that this will never be the case should not cause us to despair or throw up our hands and say “What’s the use in trying to live according to God’s will?” Rather it should cause us to long for the resurrection more fervently. Hope, according to the Bible, involves both the longing and the certainty that we will be released from our bondage to decay1. We glimpse the promise already in the resurrected Christ. This is what John meant when he wrote in his first letter concerning Jesus, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched- this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it.”2

We cannot achieve what is already the finished work of Christ. But that doesn’t mean our spiritual lives should go into arrested development. Even in these old mortal frames we participate in the future promises. Baptism involves mystical incorporation into the newness of Christ. Yes, the oldness of decay clings to a person already at birth. We cannot see it outwardly. All often appears fine and precious. But already the power of the corruption of original sin is at work. Its progress cannot be halted in this life. It can only be mitigated. But it can be forgiven. We can be exonerated of all blame and guilt. Christ frees us from bondage to Adam’s inheritance. He unburdens us from the debt which keeps us tethered to Satan’s will. Consider carefully the words of the apostle today, “Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, he gave the right to become children of God.”3

On what basis do we have this right? Only on the strength and merit of Christ who was born of the Virgin Mary and not conceived of a human, sinful father, but of the Holy Spirit. It is into this lineage that Christians are grafted. The Spirit’s water overrides Adam’s blood through the power of Christ’s blood shed on the cross. The new spiritual life- the believer remaining grafted into Christ- the true vine, is incorruptible. This treasure is to be exalted above all others. That is why St. John says today, “From the fullness of His grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”4 And St. Paul, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”5 And again, the prophet Jeremiah, “The Lord will ransom Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger then they.”6

As God’s ransomed people we are light in a dark world. This is no small task. The light never accommodates the darkness. Believers must live in a secular and profane world. They must be constantly assessing, discerning, and deciding which ways and methods of the world can be of benefit, which can be tolerated and which must be renounced. We can allow no confusion between Christ’s grace and compassion and His intolerance of falsehood and evil. The inveterate sinner is always looking for a way to excuse his sin. We latch on to every possibility of downplaying or dismissing our unrighteousness. In so doing we easily condone the claim that Jesus was soft and accepting towards sinners. No one need to fear God’s wrath because Jesus has come to tell us that God has decided He won’t condemn or judge. The devil would have us believe that the gospel is nothing less than a blanket pardon for all people for all transgressions.

Actually the gospel is something much more. Forgiveness is only free to us because it was immeasurably costly to Christ. Jesus never accommodates sinners. He rebukes their sinfulness and demands repentance. The soul that is brought to a conviction of unworthiness and need then has the assurance that Jesus opens wide the gates of heaven. Divine pardon doesn’t mean that the issue of God’s wrath is side-stepped or ignored- and God doesn’t just get over it- His holiness would not allow that. Rather the scorching fire of His just anger is quenched in the sacrifice of the Child of Bethlehem on Calvary. The necessity of the appeasement is inescapable. This is so not in the manner of the mythical deities of Greek and Romans mythology in which pacification was necessary because the idol simply wasn’t getting his or her way. It was believed that mythical deities demanded veneration at the risk of fickle punishment.

But, dear friends, our heavenly Father desires that the channels be opened so that we can properly receive His love. He desires to give not to take. In the incarnate Jesus we understand God as the divine Giver. He imparts, through His Son, all that we lack. He restores all that has been lost. He does so not out of obligation but of unbridled compassion, sheer mercy, and unwavering consistency to His very being. The giving of Christmas is grounded here: the Child as gift; the Saviour as Giver. Amen.

1 See Romans 8:21
2 1 John 1:1-2
3 John 1:12
4 John 1:16-17
5 Ephesians 1:3
6 Jeremiah 31:11