Saturday, December 27, 2008

Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Innocents
Preached at All Saints' Church - December 28, 2008

You might be wondering if I grabbed the wrong vestments this morning since we are in the midst of the Season of Christmas with its glorious color white, why would one wear red on the First Sunday after Christmas? The three days which follow Christmas contain three wonderful feast days which for the most part go unnoticed. The day following Christmas day is when we commemorate the first martyr of the church, St. Stephen – one of the seven first deacons of the church. As we read in the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen delivers one of the greatest sermons ever preached, and his reward for such an effort was his martyrdom. His sermon was an exhortation against the rulers of the temple and against those who put Jesus to death. The concluding verses contain the record of his martyrdom,

Stephen, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

St. Stephen left this world with words of forgiveness on his lips. Just as Jesus proclaimed from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” so too Stephen pleads for the forgiveness for those who are putting him to death. It was Tertullian, one of the Early Church Fathers, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” On the day after Christmas, we remember one of those very martyrs who gave his blood proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ.

December 27th is the date on the Kalendar when we remember St. John the Apostle and Evangelist. John makes up a trio with Paul and Luke who penned most of the material in the New Testament. We will hear again the glorious words of St. John at the end of the service this morning as John’s Prologue is the Final Gospel with which we are sent forth from this service. Of the twelve apostles, John is the only one who did not suffer a martyr’s death and died of old age in Ephesus around 100 A.D.

This morning we come to the third feast day following Christmas. The Feast of the Holy Innocents is perhaps one of the more disturbing records in the Biblical witness, for it of course recounts one of the darkest episodes in the life of King Herod. It also begs the question, where was God in the midst of this terrible affair?

This passage of scripture is layered with multiple meanings, and I wish to shed light on two of them this morning.

First, Matthew is quite clearly painting a picture of Jesus as the new Moses, the new Lawgiver, and of course, the true leader of God’s people from exile into freedom. If we think back to the book of Exodus, a similar situation has befallen the People of Israel. Pharoah is jealous of the Hebrew people and is concerned with their growing number. He gives a decree that all Hebrew boy children are to be executed. He plans to solve his problem by breeding the Israelites out. If there are no more Hebrew boys, there will be no way for the People of Israel to continue as a race of people. The Divine Hand of God was laid upon baby Moses as he is sent down the Nile in a basket and is discovered by the daughter of Pharoah who decides to bring the child into her own home and raise him as her son. The boy Moses grows up in a house of privilege, but this does not taint his thinking nor does he become enamored by his surroundings. After he murders an Egyptian slave master, he is forced to flee Egypt to dwell in the land of Midian. Notice that Moses fled from Egypt in order to save his life, Jesus and his family flee to Egypt in order to live. In time, Moses would of course return to Egypt to confront Pharoah in order that God’s people might be delivered from bondage and slavery, and inherit the Promised Land that God intended for them to possess.

Here we have a common link between the two stories, evil rulers in both cases are so concerned about their status, their kingdoms, their power, and control that they would both go to the most extreme measures to ensure the success of their own selfish aims. Throughout it all, God remains in control even though to us it seems like He is indifferent toward the plight of those innocent children. How cruel could God be that he would allow something like this to happen? Of course, it does appear that way if we try to impose our sense of right and wrong, our sense of what is just and right upon God whose wisdom so far surpasses anything that we can ever imagine.

This brings us to King Herod - one of the cruelest, heartless, ruthless characters in the pages of Scripture. This is the man who “thought nothing of killing members of his own family, including his own beloved wife, when he suspected them of scheming against him, and who gave orders when dying that the leading citizens of Jericho should be slaughtered so that people would be weeping at his [own] funeral.”[1] It is quite amazing when ultimate paranoia takes over the mind, the ends one might go to in order to feed the disease. Herod told the Magi to, “search diligently for the child in order that I might worship him.” Of course there was never any intention of worship in his mind because earlier we heard that when news reached Herod’s ears, “he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” When the angel appears to Joseph in a dream he relays similar words as before when he warns him that Herod is planning to, “search diligently for Jesus to destroy him.” One of the most telling parts of the story occurs in this verse and one to follow. The word that the angel uses when he speaks of Jesus being destroyed is not significant because of its infrequency in the New Testament. Quite the contrary, the word or its cognates are used over 90 times. What is significant are some of the connotations that the word invokes, most particularly, that the word speaks metaphorically of devoting or giving over to eternal misery in hell.[2] The angel is conveying to Joseph that Herod is planning on utterly destroying Jesus’ very existence so much so that he might be condemned to eternal misery in the flames of hell. Herod doesn’t just want Jesus dead, he wants the usurper of his throne done away with so that he might never deal with his like ever again. He wants this child punished because of the mere thought of his ascendancy to Herod’s throne, or that someone might condescend to think that he might be able to compete for his kingship.

This is a man possessed with the sin of pride, and it comes out even more loudly when we read of Herod’s reaction to hearing that the Magi had not followed his directions and reported Jesus’ whereabouts. In the text it says that Herod became exceeding wroth when he learned that he had been mocked by the wise men. Mockery and Pride are a volatile combination, and when mixed, usually lead to catastrophic consequences. In our lesson this morning, we clearly see the fatal nature of mixing mockery with pride. Herod is not planning on leaving any chance that the child would survive to claim his throne when he orders not only the boys of Bethlehem killed, but also those in the coast lands surrounding Bethlehem as well.

Isn’t it remarkable that this was the scene that greeted the Messiah of the world? Mary has already heard the words of Simeon in which she is told that Jesus would be responsible for the rise and fall of many in Israel and that a sword would ultimately pierce her soul.[3] Jesus couldn’t have been more than two years old, and he’s already a wanted man with a bounty on his head set by a ruthless king. Yet through it all, the name Emmanuel comes through – God with us. This is how God chose to redeem mankind, and he did so in the most incredible of fashions.

Dr. J. C. Ryle summarizes this episode with these wonderful words:

Observe how the Lord Jesus was “a man of sorrows” even from His infancy. Trouble awaits Him as soon as He enters into the world. His life is in danger from Herod’s hatred. His mother and Joseph are obliged to take Him away by night, and “flee to Egypt.” It was only a type and figure of all His experience upon earth. The waves of humiliation began to beat over Him, even when He was a sucking child.

The Lord Jesus is just the Saviour that the suffering and sorrowful need. He knows well what we mean, when we tell Him in prayer of our troubles. He can sympathize with us, when we cry to Him under cruel persecution. Let us keep nothing back from Him. Let us make Him our bosom friend. Let us pour out our hearts before him. He has had great experience with affliction.[4]

As we commemorate and remember those Holy Innocents who were murdered at the hands of a prideful man, let us remember Dr. Ryle’s words as he concludes his commentary on this passage of Scripture.

Above all, let us daily strive to copy our Saviour’s humility. Pride is the oldest and commonest of sins. Humility is the rarest and most bountiful of graces. For humility let us labor. For humility let us pray. Our knowledge may be scanty. Our faith may be weak. Our strength may be small. But if we are disciples of Him who “dwelt at Nazareth,” let us at any rate be humble.[5]

[1] N. T. Wright, Matthew For Everyone, (SPCK, London, 2004), 14.
[3] Cf. Luke 2:34-35
[4] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Volume 1 – Matthew, Mark, (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 2007), 15.
[5] Ibid, 17.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Sermon for Christmas Eve - 2008
Preached at All Saints' Church - Thomasville, GA

I am not sure if anyone else here this evening as ever pondered this thought before, but I have often wondered why the ancient church ordered Scripture the way they did.  I have been curious why Matthew’s Gospel is always first, with Luke third and Mark sandwiched in between.  Then John’s Gospel follows and seemingly interrupts the flow of Luke and Acts.  Scholars have offered many ideas as to why the order is as we have it today, but more specifically, I’ve often pondered the thought of John’s Gospel being first book in the New Testament.  Why you might ask?  Is it because John’s Gospel paints such a glorious picture of Jesus, who knows clearly who He is, where He has come from, what His role is, and where He is ultimately going?  Or is it because of the rich symbolism that runs throughout the Gospel that provides such rich meanings behind the words.  Or is it because the Prologue – the first 18 verses of John’s Gospel are some of the most remarkable in all of Scripture?  Actually, the one reason I would give for having John first is the fact that both Genesis, and John start at the same place – In the beginning, God.

The creation story as recorded in Genesis, and the creation story as re-told through the lens of John’s Gospel begin with the source of all life and light.  On the first day of creation, God as He moves and hovers over the chaos and darkness of the great void, he literally speaks a Word, and darkness is overshadowed by Light.  The prophet Isaiah foreshadowed the coming of the Messiah when he wrote, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”  In creation everything was in great darkness, and in an instant, the Creator caused a new light to shine.  Today, as in the ancient world, whenever one deals with issues of evil, chaos, confusion, turmoil we often hear the term darkness used to describe that experience.  Many of you perhaps have experienced a sense of spiritual embattlement that many call a dark night of the soul.  Perhaps some have come here this evening and this is the first Christmas without a spouse, or parent, or child, or long-time friend.  If you are like me and have opened your IRA or 401k statement, there doesn’t appear to be much light there either, but a great deal of darkness.  Instead of light, it seems like darkness is creeping in from every direction.

The words I proclaim tonight are not going to immediately make any of those thoughts vanish, but I do believe with all my heart that these words, this evening, this Incarnation might be a catalyst for healing and wholeness.  Henry van Dyke in the hymn Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee speaks of God “driving the dark of doubt away” and “filling us with the light of day.”  That is the message of the Incarnation and of Christmas.  Jesus came so that we might be filled with the light the He shares with the world.

Christianity is unique in a number of ways, but none more important than how God interacts with the world He has created.  One of the central tenets of our faith, and our celebration this evening commemorates the event that is perhaps one of the hardest for many to embrace and believe – the fact that God became a part of the Creation that He made.  Dr. Peter Kreeft said that, “the eternal God has stepped into the world of time He created” (You Can Understand the Bible, p. 199).   That is simply one of the most remarkable things about the faith that we proclaim and believe.  We do not believe in a remote, detached, distant, uncaring, unfeeling God who is so many light years away from where we are, who we are, or what we struggle with.  If that were the case, then there is ultimately no reason to have much faith in the first place because there would be no certainty that God would hear our pleas and cries for help, or worse, if He really even cared.  Joy to the world would be such a foreign concept if we found ourselves in a hopeless situation as that.

No, we celebrate the glorious nature of a God who would personify Emmanuel – God with us.  The great hymn of Advent O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is fulfilled tonight!  As was proclaimed in Isaiah and then repeated by St. Matthew, a virgin shall conceive a son and shall call his name Emmanuel.  That is a most remarkable assertion.  We have received the greatest blessing in knowing that the very God who created everything became a living member of that very creation. 
In the person of Jesus Christ, God faced the same temptations as we do.  He shared the same emotions that we do.  He experienced the same disappointments, failures, and shortcomings from those He loved just as we do.  He faced loss, death, and abandonment.  And through all of those things, he did not allow the darkness to overshadow the light that he came to bear.  He did not place that light under a bucket or cover it up, but rather he let the light devour the darkness.  In one person, we receive hope.  The difference is we are not trusting in just a person; we are trusting in God who became Man.  God who bore all of our weakness upon himself came in the most vulnerable of forms.  He came as a baby.  He came to us in the most unassuming of fashions in order that we might assume that same manner of life.

If we are going to bear the name of Christian, it means that we have to first bear the name of Christ.  St. Paul in both his Epistle to the Romans and to the Galatians uses that same terminology – we are called to put on Christ.  That is a very risky proposition.  It means that we must know the very person we are called to be like.  Putting on Christ means that as we celebrate Christ’s coming and birth we must also embrace His death.  Even in the midst of life we confront the images of death and darkness that come at us from all sides.  There is the temptation to cave into these forces of darkness and abandon the light that is within us.  There is the reality of internalizing the events that happen to us and live in our own world in which we can only describe as lost.  Jesus said, “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). 

We are those very lost sheep who are lost and have gone astray.  We are the ones who seek to do things our own way, and feel like we have the world conquered.  We are the ones who are in desperate need of a Saviour, and He comes to us again in a spirit of humility, and He bids us to follow him in that same fashion.  Only with a humble heart can we fully comprehend the profound nature that our Redeemer “was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one” (Heb. 2:9).Jesus’ very destiny was set from the moment he was conceived by the Holy Ghost.  He most likely spent His first night on earth in a cave outside Bethlehem, and slept in a wooden feeding trough that served as a bed.  He spent His last day on earth hanging on the hard wood of the cross, outside Jerusalem, and then laid to rest in a cave owned by a rich man. 

Through Jesus’ Incarnation, death, and resurrection comes the sure and certain hope that Emmanuel has in fact come to give life, and he gives us that life in order that we might enjoy it abundantly.  Jesus told the crowds one day, “But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.  For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them” (Matt. 13:16-17).

In Jesus, we have the one and only gift we could ever hope to receive this Christmas.  For if we have Him, we have received the life that was the light of men.  We have received a gift that lasts for all eternity.  And since our Lord Jesus said it is more blessed to give than to receive, our calling as Christians is to give that gift away.  We must share what we have freely received.  We must let the light so shine within us so that all might see what we do in love, and give glory, honor, praise, and worship to our Incarnate Lord and Saviour.