Saturday, February 21, 2009

Sermon for Quinquagesima Sunday
All Saints’ – Thomasville
February 22, 2009

One of the rhythms of the Christian life is the marking of time. The monastics and early Christians lived a very simple and yet structured life using set cycles of prayer mapping out the hours of the day and months of the year in a quite orderly fashion. Many communities strictly adhered to the seven liturgies of the Divine Office each and every day. Our service of Morning Prayer stems from the ancient service of Matins and Evening Prayer is an adaptation of the service of Vespers.

We have now arrived at one of those junction points in our Church Kalendar as we move from Epiphany into the season of Lent. As Fr. Buechner explained two weeks ago, we’ve made the soft transition from Epiphany to the “gesima” Sundays known as Pre-Lent in preparation of the forty intentional days of Lenten Season. This is the time when we are especially called upon to take time to inventory our Spiritual health and seek God’s wisdom to open our eyes to those places where we need to make a change or strive to amend our lives.

The two stories from this morning’s Gospel speak to that very issue of blindness. The first is in a figurative sense and the other in a quite literal. It seems most fitting that we would hear these two stories from Luke together with the passage on love from I Cor. 13 as we begin the Lenten Season.

One of the things that I find most comforting when I read a passage like this one is that I am allowed to see the disciples as they truly were – confused, blinded by their own belief regarding who the Messiah was supposed to be, and generally speaking – clueless. The reason I say that is because the words of Scripture do not paint them as supermen, and yet, they were the ones who “have turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). This was the third time that Jesus explained to his disciples that he was heading toward Jerusalem in order to face death at the hands of the Gentiles where he will be mocked, scourged, treated spitefully, eventually crucified. This was the third time that they really had no idea what he was talking about. If you remember, it was after the first Passion prediction that Jesus had to rebuke Peter and cry out for Satan to get behind him. I should say that the disciples were blind yet again.

However, this was not at all the type of Messiah they were expecting. They knew the Psalms, and they knew the Prophets. The Messiah was supposed to set captives free. This meant kicking the Romans out of Jerusalem and living in the Promised Land not as slaves, but as a free Hebrew nation. Isaiah proclaimed that the Promised One was going to sit on David’s throne and there would be peace which had no end, and he would rule with justice and righteousness. Of course they lived a few centuries before Handel, but basically, they had the lyrics of Messiah in their heads, and what Jesus was saying did not square with what they were thinking. They had their idea of how things should play out, and unfortunately, it did not exactly square with God’s.

I’ve heard it said before that if you ever want to give God a chuckle, just tell him the plans that you have set for your life. C. S. Lewis once said that there are two types of people in the world, those who say to God, Thy will be done, and another group that God will say to them, thy will be done, and if Hell has a theme song that will be played over the loudspeaker it will be “I did it my way!”

The disciples have heard the same story now three times over and they still do not understand. The eyes of their heart were blind to the revelation of Jesus and the road He had to travel. The only way that the crown of glory could be won was through the cross. Every day of Jesus’ ministry took him one step closer to Golgotha, and Lent is a time to bring that point into focus, and meditate more deeply upon the Cross of Christ.

The story of the disciple’s blindness is now set in contrast with a blind beggar near Jericho. Jesus is making his final trip toward Jerusalem and his route took him through this city. As was the custom of those who suffered from diseases or other afflictions, they would sit along the main road into town and beg for alms from those who passed by. Most likely, the man we encounter in this morning’s story would have been one of the many people whose entire livelihood depended upon the charity of others. As we hear from our lesson, the traffic along the road where he sat had increased greatly, and the man enquires of someone as to what the commotion is all about. The person replies that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.

I mentioned earlier that the disciples had it in their minds that the Messiah was going to sit on David’s throne and one day rule as King. If you look again at the text from this morning’s lesson from Luke, notice the title the blind man uses to refer to Jesus. He does not call him Jesus of Nazareth, or use a formal title such as Lord or Teacher or Rabbi, but rather, he calls him Son of David. By using this title, the blind man truly sees Jesus for who he is, and the disciples are blind to this fact.

There is no way to know how the blind man knew who Jesus was, but we simply know that he cried out to the Messiah for mercy, and that is exactly what he received. Twice the man calls out to Jesus not for alms, but for the Lord’s mercy. He cries out the first time to try and get Jesus’ attention, but the second cry is quite distinct and significantly more emphatic. The words used are different and the second cry for mercy as William Barclay states, is one of “ungovernable emotion, a scream, an almost animal cry. The word well shows the utter desperation of the man.”

This man wasn’t crying out just because of his physical blindness, he recognized his total blindness. He recognized that his physical condition was truly the epitome of the human condition. We are in need of mercy, and Jesus is the one and only source of that mercy. When Jesus stops and asks the man what he would have him do for him, the blind man asks to receive his sight. With only a few words spoken, the man received his sight and Jesus tells him that his faith saved him.

His faith saved him. Why that phrase? I believe that Jesus is intentionally giving the double meaning of the word which means save. Certainly in this context of physical blindness, the man is saved from a life of darkness in which he had lived prior to Jesus’ arrival. More than that his soul is saved from eternal darkness, and it is the man’s faith in believing that Jesus truly was the only source of mercy and healing that made the difference. The blind man made the leap that the disciples were unable to make until Easter and ultimately Pentecost.

Jesus knew where the road he was on ultimately led – the cross, and all of the darkness that it entailed. However, the only way in which we might live as a redeemed people, ones who could again live in harmony with God, is if Jesus paid the atoning sacrifice for our sins once and for all. The only way that we could strive to be holy as Christ is holy is for this to happen. Anglican preacher and theologian John Stott speaks of about this quite clearly in his Message on Romans:

“Crucifixion and holiness. There are, in fact, two quite distinct ways in which the New Testament speaks of crucifixion in relation to holiness. The first is our death to sin through identification with Christ; the second is our death to self through imitation of Christ. On the one hand, we have been crucified with Christ. But on the other we have crucified (decisively repudiated) our sinful nature with all its desires, so that every day we renew this attitude by taking up our cross and following Christ to crucifixion (Lk. 9:23). The first is a legal death, a death to the penalty of sin; the second is a moral death, a death to the power of sin. The first belongs to the past, and is unique and unrepeatable; the second belongs to the present, and is repeatable, even continuous. I died to sin (in Christ) once; I die to self (like Christ) daily.”

It is this second aspect of crucifixion and holiness that is ours to focus on this Lent. Let not our blindness hinder our ability to see that this is the road that leads to holiness and ultimately leads to life. Let our cry to Jesus be one in which we say with every fiber of our being and in a spirit of true humility, son of David, have mercy on me. Let his reply echo the words spoken to the blind man outside of Jericho, Receive thy sight: thy faith hath saved thee.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sermon Preached for Epiphany VI
St. Andrew's - Douglas, GA
February 15, 2009

John, you aren’t going to believe what I just heard. There is a rumor going all around Galilee that this miraculous healer is traveling about, and he might just be coming to town. I’m not really sure what to think about this man because the rumors are flying. Supposedly he cast a demon out of this one fellow, and before he did, the demon called him the Holy One of God. Very strange to say the least.

I also heard that he went to the house of a couple of his followers, and one of the fellow’s mother-in-law was in bed with a terrible fever. He simply lifted her up by the hand and the fever left her and she began to go about doing her normal chores as if nothing was wrong. After that, everyone in town who had a disease, and those who suffered from demons came to him and they were all healed. Do you think that he might help you?

I could only imagine what was going through John’s mind upon hearing this news. For as long as he could remember, he had lived as an outcast. He was forced to wear torn clothing, had to shave his hair, live alone outside the camp, and constantly walked around shouting the same words over and over and over, “Unclean, Unclean.” I can’t comprehend the mental trauma associated with having to call out to each and every person you come in contact with to stay away from me lest you come too close. It wasn’t just a skin disease because you completely embodied the disease. Not only was the skin unclean, I’m sure that psychologically John felt that every fiber of his being was unclean. In a literal sense, John was a dead man walking. The most dreaded of these diseases caused the body to decay and die while the person was still living – if you consider that person’s existence living. Yet, John’s friend has just given him the first glimmer of hope he has ever experienced in his life.

Could things be about to change? Is it possible that this faith healer, this miracle worker might actually come close enough to my town to where I might actually get a chance to see him? But how is that going to be possible – I can’t get too close because he’s clean, and I’m not. Are there going to be crowds following him? I can’t worry about those things, all I can do is believe that this is my chance – this is only way that I might be rid of this dreadful disease.

And so, just as he heard, John sees a crowd coming into town. Tons of people he’d never seen in his life, and this one unassuming figure in the middle. It had to be him. This has to be the man that I heard was coming to town.

Should I run up to him? I certainly don’t want to accidentally defile someone as I try to get his attention. What should I do? What is he going to say? Can I really do this?

I have no idea if any or all of these thoughts ran through the mind of John. No, we don’t actually know the leper’s name, nor are we privy to any of the thoughts running through his mind as he prepared to meet up with this person he had heard about, and saw coming toward him. All we know are the brief words that are before us this morning. This story appears in almost the exact same form in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, and in all three instances, this miracle occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

There are two points that I want to leave you with this morning concerning the Gospel, and its implications for us in our lives as Christians.

First, it might seem odd for me to say that we are just like the leper. How so? It’s not like anyone here is forced to shave their heads, walk around with torn clothing, having to shout “unclean, unclean” wherever we go. How can we be just like the leper? Because at a much deeper level we share his same condition. His disease affected every part of his body. He was literally dying from the inside out. Because of the disease of sin, we too are dying from the inside out except ours isn’t a skin disease, it’s a soul disease. It permeates every fiber of our being and we are in no way capable of ridding ourselves of it. We are powerless in and of ourselves to help change our condition. In the old Prayer Books in both the services of Morning and Evening Prayer, the General Confession states that “there is no health in us.” It is most unfortunate that that line was dropped from the ’79 Book because it clearly and honestly summarizes the human condition. What we inherited from Adam is something we will take to the grave. On this side of life we will constantly be waging war against the forces of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

We must emulate and follow the leper’s wise example. We must acknowledge that we are sick, diseased persons in the greatest need of a physician. We must confess that there truly is no health in us, and that sin robs us of life the way it was intended to be lived. When Adam and Eve sinned they were no longer able to live in union and harmony with God because they were now unclean, and forced to live as an outsider. They were forced to live beyond the walls of Eden, forced to wear clothes for the first time, and not literally, but figuratively forced to cry out “unclean, unclean” because their cleanliness was removed from them forever.

This brings me to my second and final point about this lesson. What Jesus did was so remarkable – not because of the healing (which was quite remarkable), but rather his gesture and words to the leper. First, when the leper assumed a posture of humility and knelt down and asked to be healed, Jesus did the unthinkable – he reached out his hand and touched him. There’s no way to know from the story how long the man had leprosy, but we can probably infer that it had been a very long time since he had been touched by ANYONE! He had lived in isolation ever since he was declared to be unclean, and was a prisoner of his own body. With one move, Jesus changed all of that. He reached out and touched him.

What this ultimately means for him, and for us as well, is that Jesus was willing to trade his cleanness for this man’s uncleanness. He was willing to trade places with this man so that he might go free. Jesus at the outset of his ministry is embodying the full substitutionary atonement – that he would give up his life so that we might ultimately live. He made it possible for us to return to the community and experience life lived to its fullest. He made it possible for the man to experience worship again. He made it possible for the man to know what it was like to be touched by another human being again. Jesus did it for this leper and he does it for us as well.

St. Athanasius in his treatise On The Incarnation makes a most profound statement that at first glance almost sounds heretical until you contemplate what he’s getting at, and what he’s ultimately saying. Regarding Jesus and his life Athanasius said that “God became Man so that man might become God.” St. Irenaeus said in his writings Against Heresies makes a similar point when he writes, “the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through his transcendent love, became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” Neither of these Church Fathers claims that we are assuming divine essence, but rather, through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross we begin truly to live out what it means to be “created in the image and likeness of God.”

Jesus was bearing everything that haunted this leper onto himself in order that he might live the rest of his life free from this dreadful disease. Jesus has born everything onto himself on the hard wood of the cross in order that we might live our lives free curse of the law, and might begin to live our lives as the created beings he intended from the very beginning.

As we draw close to Lent, may we contemplate the story of this leper, who drew near with faith, and asked the Great Physician to heal and cleanse him of his dreadful disease. May we also draw near to the Great Physician and ask him to heal and cleanse us from the dreadful diseases which haunt and curse us as well. For if we cry out to Him with a humble voice, and a contrite heart, we will hear him say to us in reply, “I am willing; be clean!”

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Sermon for Epiphany IV - February 1, 2009
All Saints’ Church

Most of the curious attributes of Mark’s Gospel come through loud and clear in this morning’s passage. For those who have studied Mark’s Gospel in any detail will remember that his particular account of Jesus’ life is one marked by rapid movement, with scenes shifting at lightning fast speed, all the while keeping close tabs on what many commentators like to refer to Mark’s particular use of a Messianic Secret. In just over half of a chapter, Mark has already relayed the account of Jesus’ baptism by John, mentioned that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan for forty days, started his own ministry, called his first disciples, and we come now to his first miracle, the casting out of an unclean spirit in the synagogue.

Even though we only have eight verses to examine, those eight verses are incredibly rich and convey some remarkable details about Jesus’ ministry.

The scene of this miracle sets the stage for the entire story. Jesus and his first followers begin in the most natural and appropriate location – in the synagogue. Jesus’ life and ministry was centered first and foremost on his vocation as a teacher. Even though he will end up expelled out of most of the synagogues he enters throughout his life, it is most appropriate that our first exposure to Jesus through Mark’s eyes has Jesus teaching in a synagogue.

The first attribute of Jesus’ teaching ministry is that it appears to be drastically different from what they had heard from the scribes. Apparently, this is such an overwhelming revelation that Mark brackets this short passage by mentioning at the beginning and the end of this pericope that the crowds are “astonished at his teaching” and are “amazed [at this] new teaching with authority.” I believe that Mark is actually using a literary device known as a chiasma to lead us directly to the central theme of this passage – that Jesus of Nazareth is the Holy One of God.

Mark does not tell us what is so different about Jesus’ message and teaching. In fact, we really don’t have any idea how long into Jesus’ ministry this particular event takes place, other than he and Luke place it very early in their two Gospels. The only thing we know for certain is that whatever Jesus said, it made a dramatic impact on the hearers because they clearly state that the doctrine that Jesus is putting forth is not the same as what they had heard in the past from the religious authority in their synagogues.

As Mark does over forty times, he uses some form of the Greek word eu]qu>j which is normally translated immediately, forthwith, straightway, and does so three times in these eight verses. The passage says that, “and there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, Saying, ‘Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? Art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God.’”

I hope you caught the pronoun use in the dialogue between the unclean spirits and Jesus because this is not a mistranslation. The pronouns used are in fact plural, and even though it says that the man in question had an unclean spirit singular, but when they speak, they refer to themselves in the plural. What are we to make of this?

The entire message of the Incarnation is that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us so that He might defeat the powers of darkness once and for all. The unclean spirits knew this fact quite well, and trembled. As James declares in his Epistle, “You believe that God is one; you do well, even the demons believe – and shudder” (James 2:19). The demons which held this man in chains knew what Jesus’ arrival meant for them and their reign over the darkness of this world, and this is why they asked with a unified voice if Jesus had come to destroy them now.

One of the recurring themes in Mark’s Gospel is that Jesus on many occasions exhorts someone to keep quiet as to his identity, and thus, leads to the notion of Mark’s Messianic Secret. Unlike John where Jesus’ identity and mission are clear from the outset, Mark wants his audience to get to the end of the story where he will confirm all of the allusions to Jesus as Messiah that were there all along. In the miracle from this morning’s Gospel, we hear those same words again, “Hold thy peace, come out of him.” The demons have given everyone a full revelation who is standing before them, and yet, Jesus bids them to keep quiet, and simply leave this poor man alone. The time has not yet been fulfilled for Jesus to reveal himself fully.

For me, I believe the most intriguing piece of this passage comes during the discussion of the crowds after the exorcism has taken place. Mark comments on the mental state of the people when he says that they were amazed, and then comes the question that is particularly puzzling when they ask one another, “What thing is this?” The reason I find this to be so intriguing is the use of the word ‘what.’ It would seem more natural for them to have asked, “Who is this?” rather than “What is this?” A ‘who’ and not a ‘what’ just cast a demon out of a man, and yet, they ask one another, “What is this? A new teaching and doctrine?” The crowds also seem to link the teaching and doctrine together as critical components for someone to be able to command the unclean spirits. However, after a closer look, their question wasn’t as off base as it might appear from a first glance. Even though most probably did not realize what they were doing, they actually illuminated a critical piece of Jesus’ life and ministry.

The link between the teaching and doctrine is fundamental in recognizing Jesus’ control over the powers of darkness. After all, as John clearly declares in his prologue, that the Word was with God from the very beginning and everything that was made was made through him. This means that those angels which fell, those unclean spirits which tormented the man in today’s Gospel, were in fact creatures originally made by God through the very same Word who does have the authority to command them.

At the end of Jesus’ life and ministry, we come to another question that sounds allot like the one we heard this morning. Pilate concludes one of his interrogation sessions with Jesus, and he asks him perhaps the shortest but most remarkable of all questions, “what is truth?” The unfortunate problem with that discourse remains the fact that Pilate didn’t hang around to hear a response. He had no idea that the Truth with a capital T was standing right in front of his eyes. He had no idea that if he had changed pronouns and asked “Who is truth?” he would have actually received the same answer.

The crowds saw a miracle performed in their midst, they were astonished and amazed, and they asked the following questions, “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”

Perhaps they could have asked it another way, “Who is this? A new teacher who with authority commands the unclean spirits to obey him.”

In either case, both questions lead to the same source – they lead to the Truth. As the demons declared and so should we, the one working this miracle is in fact Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God. The demons acknowledged Jesus as the Holy One of God. Unfortunately, throughout his ministry, many of the people who followed Jesus saw him as merely a miracle worker, spiritual healer, or something else and never recognized him for who he truly was – The Son of God.

Jesus asked his disciples one day, who do men say that I am? After a variety of answers, he asks the disciples directly, who do you say that I am? It appears that the question here at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel has come full circle. Peter of course answers and declares the Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. The question that Jesus posed to his disciples confronts each of us as well – What thing is this? Who is this? Who do you say that I am?

The Scottish preacher James Stewart said of Jesus these words:

“In Jesus we see that He was the meekest and lowliest of the sons of men, yet He spoke of coming on the clouds of heaven with the glory of God. He was so austere that they said the demons cried out in terror at His coming, yet He was so genial, winsome, and approachable that the children loved to play with Him and the little ones nestled in His arms. His presence at the innocent gaiety of a village wedding was like the presence of sunshine. No one was half so kind toward sinners, yet no one ever spoke so red hot scorching words about sin. A bruise reed He would not break. His whole life was love. Yet He demanded of the Pharisees how they would expect to escape the damnation of hell. He was a dreamer of dreams and a seer of visions, yet for stark realism He has all of us stark realists soundly beaten. He was the servant of all, washing the disciples feet, yet masterfully He strode into the Temple and the hucksters and money changers fell over one another in their mad rush to get away from the fire they saw blazing in His eyes. He saved others, but at the last, Himself, He did not save. There is nothing in history like the union of contrasts that confronts us in the Gospels. The mystery of Jesus, is the mystery of Divine personality.”

For us the questions remain: What thing is this? Who is this? Who do you say that I am? How we answer that question makes all the difference.