Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sermon for the Feast of St. John
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
December 27, 2009

This morning we celebrate one of the important aspects of a parish’s life together. We come this morning to celebrate and commemorate the patron saint of our parish – St. John, the Apostle of our Lord and Evangelist. It’s always interesting to think about why or how a particular parish chooses a name for their church. I’m afraid I have not stumbled across any documents that show why St. John was chosen as the patron saint of this congregation. I wish I knew why St. John in particular spoke to the group of Christians here in Colquitt County at the beginning of the 20th Century when a small group of believers came together for corporate worship with the dream and vision of becoming a parish in the Diocese of Georgia. Perhaps one day we might stumble upon something that will give us hints and clues as to why the saint we remember today was so important to them no almost 100 years later.

What is most important today is that we look at the saint who we honor, and whose name adorns our church, and allow him to help us and speak to us as we strive to follow along the same path that he did.

From what we know about John from the Biblical witness was that he was one of the sons of Zebedee and his brother’s name was James. He was one of the first disciples called by our Lord, and was privy to some of the most intimate aspects of our Lord’s ministry. Along with Peter and James, John witnessed the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, the raising of Jairus’s daughter, the Transfiguration, and the last hours of Jesus’ life in the Garden of Gethsemane. John was the only disciple recorded to have witnessed our Lord’s death on the cross when we hear of the entrusting of Mary to John as Jesus ensures his mother’s care into the hands of the disciple whom he loved. Peter and John were the first two apostles to witness the empty tomb on Easter morning even though he reached the tomb first, John hesitated at the door and Peter ran straight in to discover the burial clothes empty and Jesus nowhere to be found. St. Paul even refers to John, with Peter and James, as pillars of the church in Jerusalem.

Scholars have attributed a large portion of the New Testament canon to St. John in the form of the Fourth Gospel, the three General Epistles which bear his name, and the Revelation or Apocalypse. We’ll save a discussion about authenticity of authorship to a future study, but in any case, there would be a tremendous vacuum left if we did not have the five books of the New Testament that are connected to St. John.

As our adult Christian Education class touched on last Sunday, John offers such a unique perspective on Jesus that would completely change the tone of this season of our Church Year if we did not have his record in our Scriptures. With the exception of yesterday’s commemoration of the Feast of St. Stephen, we will hear the Prologue of John’s Gospel read corporately three services in a row. The framers of our Lectionary so understood the incredible nature of this passage that they could not comprehend the Feast of the Incarnation without those very words which we will hear again at the end of our service this morning.

Our collect this morning highlights the three themes that we hear at the end of Jesus’s ministry as recorded in John 14 when Jesus declares that He is the way, the truth, and the life.

The prayer opens with the great Johannine theme of light that we ask our Lord to shower down upon us in all of its brightness and glory. This bright light is meant to illuminate the teaching and doctrine that St. John conveyed in his writings. Orthodoxy is the right belief about our Lord’s life, and that is the path or the way that the light of Christ illuminates for us so that we might clearly see that path to follow and stay on our course.

Our collect goes on to declare that the only path to eternal life is through the truth - with a capital “T.” Jesus declares most definitively that there is no other path to the Father except through Him. There are many who do not like statements such as this one because it sounds awfully exclusivistic. However, if anyone has ever studied any other religion, you’ll notice that they all make some pretty exclusivistic claims about their religious beliefs as well. Ravi Zacharias once spoke about a conversation he once had with a follower of Jainism and the person he spoke to said on this topic that the Jains exclude no one. Ravi replied, “Yes you do, you exclude the exclusivists! There are many who complain and say that it’s not fair that God only provided one avenue for us to follow to return home to him. If God had provided 1,000 paths back to Him, those same folks would complain that he didn’t provide 1,001.

Modernity and secularism makes a most remarkable assertion that all truth is relative. What’s true for you may not be true for me. You can have your truth, and I’ll have mine. Have any of you ever parsed that statement carefully – that all truth is relative? That line of thinking collapses under its own weight when you think about it. There are only two possibilities here. Either that statement itself is relative, or there is something out beyond that statement that makes it true. The problem there is that assertion violates the very thing that the statement itself tries to put forward.

Our life as Christians is to point to the Truth, and to do so in a manner that presents the Good News of the Gospel so that others might be able to hear it. That is perhaps the biggest challenge as disciples. We must be prepared to present this message both in season and out of season.

As John declares in his first epistle that we heard this morning is that the message of Christ is a message of joy. Jesus came in order that we might experience joy, and have it to its fullest. John records the words of our Lord when Jesus declares that he is the Good Shepherd, and tells us, “I am come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” As David declares, “my cup runneth over.”

Through the comfortable doctrine and teaching that St. John has given to the church, we have a clearly illuminated path of the Truth which leads to life everlasting.

St. John was the only one of the twelve apostles not to die a martyr’s death, but rather died a natural death in Ephesus around 100 A.D. One of the traditions that surrounds the end of John’s life was that after his exile on the island of Patmos where he received the vision of his apocalypse, he was head of the local church in Ephesus. It was reported that in his old age he tended to preach the same, short sermon over and over. Regardless of the circumstances, occasion, or lessons, he would simply proclaim, “Brothers and Sisters, love one another.” When asked by members of the congregation could they hear some other messages from time-to-time, John’s response to them was, “When you’ve mastered this lesson we can move on to another.”

That should be our mandate as those who bear the name Christian, and worship our Lord here at St. John’s is to heed the words, “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit.”

We give thanks to God for the witness of Blessed John the Apostle and Evangelist. May his words be ours, and may we ever embrace and hold fast the doctrine which he preached and declared to all, so that we might attain the great joys that await those who put their trust in the Lord.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Day
St. John’s Church
December 25, 2009

In 1959, Peter Seeger wrote a song that wouldn’t be recorded for another three years, but was one of the biggest hits of the 1960’s. If I were a betting man, I would put forward a wager that many people who liked the song then had no idea that its lyrics were actually an almost word-for-word adaptation of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. If you haven’t guessed by now, the name of that song was Turn, Turn, Turn. In light of the glorious readings which we hear every year on Christmas, you might just be asking yourself, where on earth this sermon going with a reference to the book Ecclesiastes in light of the words which we heard from Isaiah, Hebrews, and John?

The reason I even bring up the book of Ecclesiastes and the third chapter is because of a verse which follows the ones that provided the inspiration for the song by the Byrds. In the eleventh verse of the third chapter, the author writes some most incredible words in which he says, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (ESV).

God has written eternity into our hearts.

What a remarkable statement. Back in Genesis it is declared that we are made imago dei – in the image of God. Here we have Solomon declaring that one of the awesome attributes of God is imprinted upon our hearts. Eternity finds a home in the deepest recesses of our existence. This certainly sheds great light upon the declaration of St. Augustine in his Confessions when he says, “Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and of Thy wisdom there is no end…. Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”
We celebrate again the fact that the eternal and transcendent God who spoke everything into creation came to earth and became a part of the very creation that he made. The finite and the infinite have come together and bridged what was before an unbridgeable gap.

So what does this mean for us? How do we exult in the good tidings of great joy that have been declared unto us?

We must first come again with a spirit of humility and kneel before our Lord’s manger, in awe and wonder that God would take our nature with the intention that it would never be undone. St. Athanasius in his treatise on the Incarnation said

…the Word of God Himself...assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality. He Himself was unhurt by this, for He is impassable and incorruptible; but by His own impassability He kept and healed the suffering men on whose account He thus endured. In short, such and so many are the Savior's achievements that follow from His Incarnation, that to try to number them is like gazing at the open sea and trying to count the waves.

This early Church Father and Doctor of the Church makes a most profound declaration here, and wants us to recognize that the only way for the Spirit of God to walk in the garden in the cool of the day again was to take on our humanity so that we might be able to return to our origin, our very Source of being.

We must also contemplate what brought this into being. That which we inherited from Adam is not something that we can simply brush off, or remove at will. We have inherited a terminal illness in the form of Original Sin. This illness cannot be cured save one source and that is from God alone. The debt that none of us could ever repay was paid once and for all by God’s incarnate Son. As St. Paul declared to the Christians in Corinth, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Finally, we must forever remember that which motivated God to do something like this. “So God loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, to the end that all who believe in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” And,

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.

Love is the only thing that allows any of this to make any sense. A quotation that has often been attributed to the Church Father Tertullian declares, “I believe it because it is absurd.” The very fact that the King of kings, and Lord of lords, would have come in the most unassuming and least majestic of forms has the fingerprints of God all over it. All throughout history, God has acted in some of the most unpredictable of fashions.

He has done so with one motivation and one alone. He first loved us, and seeks and desires our love as well. He also desires that the love which he manifests toward us we go forth and show to our fellow man as well. This is the central focus of Christmas and our common life as followers and disciples of our Lord.

May the light that comes from the Word becoming flesh shine brightly within each and every one of us here; and may that light so shine so that others might see who we are and whose we are and give praise, glory, and honor to our Father in Heaven – our Father who has written eternity into our hearts so that we might come and dwell with Him forever.
Christmas Eve
St. John’s Church
December 24, 2009

Last Sunday in our discussion of St. John’s Gospel, I mentioned the following observation that 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 over the past year opened up your IRA or 401k statements, there hasn’t been much light there in there either, but rather, 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.” 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.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sermon for Advent IV
St. John’s – Moultrie, GA
December 20, 2009

All of our themes, all of our focus during the Season of Advent point to the most miraculous event in all of human history – The Incarnation of the Messiah. We will hear on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day those glorious words from John’s Prologue, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Those words have such a sacred character to them that it is appropriate to genuflect at that point in the reading out of profound reverence for the miracle that is our Lord’s birth.

God actually became a creature, for a finite period of time, and a full part of the creation He made, in order that the chasm that exists between Man and God might be bridged for all eternity. The only bridge capable of supporting the weight of sin is God Himself, and that is what we are preparing to celebrate later this week.

However, as we ponder and meditate on these eternal mysteries that are the centerpieces of our Faith, I think on this final Sunday in Advent we should look at some of the people who played equally important roles in this story of Christmas – the supporting cast if you will.

The entire first chapter of Luke’s Gospel is spent looking at the lives of three people – Zechariah, his wife Elizabeth, and Our Lady, Blessed Mary. This long chapter, 80 verses in length, is critical for us to hear before we hear again the words of Luke chapter 2 on Thursday evening.

Luke chapter 1 finds its grounding in first century Judaism. As a time marker we are told that Herod is on the throne as king, and Luke gives some very interesting details about Zechariah and Elizabeth. He says that Zechariah is a priest, and is of the division of Abijah. According to I Chronicles, twenty-four different divisions were established from the sons of Aaron, Eleazar or Ithamar, in order to carry out the duties and functions of the sacred priesthood. Luke is also careful to mention that Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of a daughter of Aaron. John the Baptist’s lineage links him back to the priestly tribe of Israel, and how appropriate that the last of the prophets would come from an Aaronic family. The one who prepare the way for our great High Priest would come from a priestly family himself.

When Zechariah’s lot was chosen and he was appointed to enter into the temple of the Lord and burn incense, an angel appeared to him and told him that his wife would conceive a son. His natural response was to comment on the natural state of both he and his wife. They were both well advanced in years and well beyond the normal childbearing age.

What’s amazing about this and so many other stories is how quickly the events of the past are forgotten. If we go back to the Book of Genesis the exact same sequence of events happens to the great Patriarch of Israel. When God appeared to Abram and told him that he would be the father of a great nation, he laughed. Abram actually laughed at God. When Sarah overheard the news from the three mysterious visitors that she would get pregnant, she too laughed to herself. I’m sure that her heart sunk into the pit of her stomach when the Lord confronts Abraham and asks him why Sarah laughed when she heard that news. I know I’ve found myself in that same situation where I’m searching mightily for that trapdoor in the floor, praying that it will miraculously open for me when I’ve been caught and know it.

You can see what I mean when I mention that the events of the past somehow become foreign to us and we forget the graces that have been bestowed upon us before. Zechariah did just that when the angel Gabriel appeared to him in the temple with news that the same miracle that happened to Sarah was going to take place with his wife Elizabeth as well. And just as Gabriel had said, Elizabeth conceived that long awaited son who would go before the face of the Lord to prepare His way.

Gabriel’s next visit is to a young virgin girl in Nazareth who is betrothed, or legally pledged to be married. It is incorrect to simply say that Joseph and Mary were engaged because betrothal carried legal rights, and could not simply be “called off” in the event of problems. And yes, the Angel Gabriel is about to bring Mary news that could be a very big problem.

Yet somehow Mary is able to grasp at some level the significance of the news that the angel brings to her. Really, her big question of doubt is a matter of practicality, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” I’m sure the thought, “I wonder what Joseph is going to say,” ran through her mind, but it’s never recorded in the pages of scripture. Instead, we hear the following, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word.” She is able to respond with the greatest YES to God that has ever been given. She is about to become the Theotokos, the God bearer, the Mother of God. How about that for your, “how am I going to live up to these expectations!?!?”

We then come to one of the most tender of exchanges between Mary and Elizabeth. Scripture says that Mary left shortly after Gabriel’s message and headed off to visit her cousin. As soon as Mary entered the house and Elizabeth merely heard her voice Luke records that the “baby leaped in her womb and she was filled with the Holy Ghost.” I can only wonder with awe what that must have felt like, and what Elizabeth experienced at that time. Elizabeth knew that her son would play a role in the life of the Messiah, and would take somewhat of a backseat position in comparison. And yet, she is still able to declare with the utmost of humility, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Mary then responds with the words that we hear every time we pray the Daily Office of Evening Prayer the Magnificat or Song of Mary. I hope those words are familiar to us all as they are a response to grace in the midst of uncertainty. The miracle of our Lord’s birth is also a testimony to the miracle of his mother. One young girl, chosen to be the Mother of the Messiah. Just like God chose one race of people to bring about the redemption of mankind, so to does He choose one woman to bear His Son. I read just the other day on the blogsite of a former Anglican priest and now convert to the Roman Catholic Church that there was no more holy a place on earth than within the womb of Mary. The more I think about that statement, the more I agree with him. God told Moses to remove his shoes before the burning bush because the ground on which he was standing was holy ground. Moses was standing in the presence of the Spirit of God; within Mary’s body dwelt both the full humanity and full divinity of God. The Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies was no longer an object, but now was a person.

One more shift takes place as Mary departs after a three month visit. It is now time for Elizabeth to give birth, and as she does, the family and friends that surround her naturally assume that she will name the boy after his father. Yet she does something rather odd and declares to the people that the child’s name will be John. No one in the family bore that name, and yet she is adamant that this will be the name he is to receive. They question it such that they give a writing tablet to Zachariah, who had been struck dumb during Elizabeth’s pregnancy, and he confirms what his wife said. With those words Zachariah is able to speak again as if nothing had happened. The first words out of his mouth after nine months are words of praise to God – words that sound allot like his wife’s and allot like Mary’s.

He breaks out into praise, and then into a foreshadowing of his son’s future vocation. He prophesies about his newborn son in the words of the Benedictus, one of the canticles for Morning Prayer and most suitable during this Season of Advent.
68Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people,
69And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David;
70As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began:
71That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us;
72To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant;
73The oath which he sware to our father Abraham,
74That he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear,
75In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.
76And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
77To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins,
78Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
79To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
A critical part of Advent is hearing the stories again of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary. We hear again their stories because we know deep down inside they had to have asked the same questions we ask all the time – How and Why? Mary asks, “how is this possible?” Zechariah asks the same question. Elizabeth cannot figure out why the mother of her Lord would come and visit her.

We too want to know the answers to questions that begin with the words how or why.

How am I going to deal with my son?

Why are things going this way in my marriage?

How are we going to manage with less money this year?

Why am I having to deal with this now?

I leave you with these and other questions that I’m sure confront you and your faith. Yet, at the same time I leave you with three people who wrestled with questions of an equally significant importance. I leave with the stories of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and the Mother of our Lord, Mary. Three people who somehow turned to the only source of light in the darkness that seemed to be creeping in around them. Three people who turned to the Lord of life when chaos and death surrounded them. Three people who knew that the Messiah of the world was coming, and that He was coming to save them from every fear that confronted them.

O come thou Dayspring from on High, and cheer us by thy drawing nigh; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadow put to flight.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sermon for Advent III
St John’s – Moultrie, GA
December 13, 2009

There are numerous blessings that our Anglican tradition has given to Christendom, but to me, none more beautiful than the Collects of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. These small gems – in size only, are one of the centerpieces of our liturgical services, and one of the great hallmarks of who we are. The Rev. Dr. Paul Zahl once said, “If you want to know what Anglicans believe, pick up the prayer book, and read the collects.” Again, I’m going to make a selfless plug for the book that Dr. Zahl co-authored, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, which is a book of meditations on the collects appointed for Sunday morning; I cannot recommend highly enough that volume as a source of enrichment to one’s prayer life.

One of the overarching attributes of the collects we pray each week is that they are grounded with the belief that we as Christians are sanctified by grace alone through the power of the Holy Spirit. Let me expand a bit on what I mean with that statement.

In many churches today, there remains a remnant of a very reformed doctrine known as the “third use of the law.” Hang tight for a minute, and I believe you’ll see very quickly where I am going with this. If you’ve ever been to a church service where you walked out feeling like you’ve been beaten up, drug through the mud, and say to yourself afterward, “I would have felt better if I had not even gotten out of bed this morning,” you probably endured a sermon grounded in the third use of the law. More than likely the preacher left you with a laundry list of things to do in order that you might sin less, pray more, be kinder to your neighbor, love your spouse more, improve your parenting skills, or something of the like. What the preacher has done I believe is get things out of order.

If you look at any of the collects in the prayer book, I hope you will notice an overarching theme throughout. The prayer begins with the law as it rightfully should. It points out some aspect of our lives in which we need correction, amendment of life, or where we fall short and miss the mark. The Greek word amartia is the word that is translated in Scripture as sin, and it has the connotation of an archer taking aim on a target and missing the mark. The collects are structured in such a manner as to bring to light those places where we have grieved the heart of God, and where we need to seek to re-order our lives in accordance with His will.

The prayer finishes with a petition and sometimes an aspiration in which we seek the grace and mercy of the Almighty. One of the things that you will not find in the collects is a second dose of the law tagged on at the end. This is an elementary definition of the third use of the law where one thinks that we have achieved such a state of grace that we can begin to do things on our own, and thus, succeed on our own merit. The only way that one’s heart, mind, and will can truly change is through the grace, mercy, and love of God. Our feeble efforts are of no avail against the principalities of this world, and the battle that wages against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Only when our prayers are ordered in such a way in which our final plea and petition is for God’s grace can we ever hope to win.

What the third use of the law tries to do is present the law first – for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; then it presents grace – “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us”; then we see the third use of the law come back at the end as a type of scolding. Evangelist Alistair Begg once said that, “so many times we hear a preacher tell us to pull up our proverbial theological boot straps, which are somewhere between our armpits and ears, we’re not sure how much higher they can go.” Leaving people with a dose of the law doesn’t give them hope. Rather, it only reinforces how lacking we really are. Look again at the insert in your bulletin and count the number of times you see the words “sing, rejoice, be glad, joy, thanksgiving” – or the title of our processional hymn. Heaping helpings of the law without grace leaves us with none of the joys of the Gospel, only the realization of how impossible the task that lies before us really is.

If you take a look at the collect for the day on page 160 of the Prayer Book, I believe you will see what I am talking about. You will notice the portion that speaks about law is toward the beginning where it says, “because we are sorely hindered by our sins.” Earlier renderings of this collect reads, “that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we be sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us.” This line places us right where we need be in order to receive the blessings of God’s goodness and mercy. We have made such a mess of things on our own, and our continued practice of doing things our way, trying to pull up our bootstraps we are ultimately hindering ourselves, and not making things better. The law has done what it is supposed to do. It has reduced us to a point where we can ultimately experience God’s grace.

Dr. Zahl offers this meditation on the law portion of this collect:

The prayer represents us as being hindered through our sins and wickedness. We are thwarted in all our attempts at self-deliverance. That is a grievous admission. We are unable to help ourselves: trapped, stripped, caught by outward circumstances and inward tendencies. This is as it were a paraphrase of Step One of the Twelve Steps. Our life is fundamentally out of control! No one can appreciate the power of this prayer without first making the admission that all human hopes of self-redemption are delusional. Is that too much to ask?

This does not paint a very bright picture of the human predicament, but it paints a very honest one. A couple of decades ago the big slogan was I’m okay, you’re okay. In the light of the Gospel that slogan should more properly be rendered either – I’m okay, you’re okay is NOT okay; or it should be read I’m not okay and neither is anyone else. The one thing that we should take full ownership of is that in the eyes of God, we are sinful, broken creatures in need of help – we are ultimately in need of a Saviour.

The most beautiful piece of the both the collects and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that we are not left to wallow in this untenable position. We have been given the source of help that we need only ask for, and do so every day of our lives. The Gospel centered portion of our collect says that even through we hinder things based on what we have done and continue to do, God’s grace and mercy is even more bountiful. We also pray that it will come to us speedily so that we in fact might be delivered from those powers of this world, which corrupt and destroy God’s creation.

Dr. Zahl concludes with these words:

But as we are “sore hindered,” even so is the mercy of God bountiful and speedy. Moreover, the mercy of God is not a facile fiat. It is grounded in something: “the satisfaction of thy Son our Lord.” You could have all the faith in the world in thin ice, but you would still fall through. You could have extremely fragile faith in thick ice, and you would not fall through. The thick ice which will not give way is the historic sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, satisfying the Judge of Life. With sins forgiven, the human spirit is no longer obstructed and caved in on its own insatiable hungers. There is breathing room, known in these words “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be no entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”

We are past the half-way point through this season of Advent, and one of the great promises of this time before the Incarnation is that God came, and will come again. The book of Revelation concludes with the words, “And the Spirit and the Bride say come, and let him that heareth say come…Amen, even so come quickly Lord Jesus.” We live in the time between the first and second Advent of the Messiah, and in this period of waiting, we must continue to depend completely on God’s grace and mercy.

I came across an article some time ago, not on the subject of Advent, but I believe the closing paragraph sums up our anticipation and longing as pilgrims along the journey toward Christ’s second coming:

May we continue to flee to the word of God for comfort, encouragement, and preparation for what is “yet to come.” For the “coming of Christ” does not consist of Rome destroying Jerusalem, [in the first century AD] but rather the return of the risen King to consummate human history and set up His eternal Kingdom. Since our King is returning to repay the wicked and rescue His people, we are called to be both prepared and faithful in light of this reality. We must cling to the blessed hope of being resurrected to be with the risen King forever. Until this “great and terrible” Day arrives, may we live as ambassadors for the Gospel, pleading with the world to “Be reconciled to God” for indeed, “the end of all things is near” (I Peter 4:7).

And the Spirit and the Bride say Come, and let him that heareth say Come…Amen, even so come quickly Lord Jesus. Amen.

*****Citations available upon request******

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Sermon for Advent II
St. John’s – Moultrie, GA
December 6, 2009

I’m sure that in the midst of the news coverage of the Health Care Reform bill in the U. S. Senate and the President’s address to the nation concerning his war strategy in Afghanistan, you probably came across a small news story that made a few headlines regarding Tiger Woods. The larger-than-life golf superstar made major headlines last weekend when he ran over a fire hydrant and hit a tree at his home in Orlando at around 3:00 a.m. The grocery store tabloids had been circulating stories about marital infidelity by Tiger Woods a few weeks before, and naturally the rumors began flying when news first broke on this story.

This morning’s sermon isn’t about piling on Tiger Woods. He’s already had enough piled on him already. Rather it’s about the written “apology” he posted on his website. I put apology in quotations because I had to search for what I considered to be a heartfelt apology. I do realize I’m not privy to private statements made that are not included in what he wrote, but I’m still not sure I found one. His letter sounded more like the words of someone who was sorry for being caught and not someone who is really sorry for his actions. He starts off first by saying that “I have let my family down, and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart. I have not been true to my values and the behavior my family deserves. I am not without faults and I am far short of perfect.” I realize to a certain extent that many of these statements are prepared with publicists, attorneys, and agents weighing in, but in this first paragraph there is no admission of sin, adultery, infidelity. Why would you soften what happened and refer to what occurred as simply a “transgression?” Why not stand up like a man and admit with an humble, lowly, obedient, and penitent heart that he disobeyed his marriage vows to his wife, and committed serial adultery and infidelity? The only time he mentions the word apology in his statement is in the very last sentence when he says, “For all of those who have supported me over the years I offer my profound apology.” The people who deserve his most profound apology are his wife, Elin, and their children. I have no idea whether Tiger considers himself a Christian or not, but first and foremost, he needs to repent for his actions and seek the forgiveness of God Almighty. That may not have been his style to have said something like that in print, but I sure would have been quite impressed if I had read those words from his pen. Instead, he includes a paragraph where he almost sounds like the victim by the tabloids exposing his infidelity. He says further, “Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn’t have to mean public confessions.” There’s only one problem with a statement such as this one. The public funds his salary. The general public buys the products which finance his sponsorship deals, and fund the purses at PGA Tour events. He’s made hundreds of millions of dollars from the public, so yes he does owe us an apology. He owes an apology to all of the children who look up to him as a role model, and have had to have their parents explain to them what happened if they didn’t already know.

I said I wasn’t going to pile on Tiger Woods, and this probably sounds like exactly what I’ve done, but I believe within this Season of Advent this is an appropriate illustration of what we are to wrestle with as we await our Lord’s coming. It’s appropriate because we must first and foremost ask ourselves the question, why did Jesus have to come to earth in the first place?

God could have very well left us to our own devices to earn merit and favor with him by what we do and what we don’t do and then see how things shake out in the end. However, St. Paul helps us out when he declares with complete conviction that he doesn’t do the things he wants to do, and does the very things he wishes with all his heart that he didn’t. He was a disciple and follower of Christ when he made those statements. He understood what our Lord did for him on the cross, and every way he sliced it, he ended up short. The following story about English slave ship captain and the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, John Newton conveys this same point perfectly.

Two or three years before the death of John Newton, when his sight was so dim that he was no longer able to read, a friend and brother in the ministry called to have breakfast with him. Their custom was to read the Word of God following mealtime, after which Newton would make a few short remarks on the Biblical passage, and then appropriate prayer would be offered. That day, however, there was silence after the words of Scripture “by the grace of God I am what I am” were read.
Finally, after several minutes, Newton spoke, “I am not what I ought to be! How imperfect and deficient I am! I am not what I wish to be, although I abhor that which is evil and would cleave to what is good! I am not what I hope to be, but soon I shall be out of mortality, and with it all sin and imperfection. Though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor yet what I hope to be, I can truly say I am not what I once was: a slave to sin and Satan. I can heartily join with the apostle and acknowledge that by the grace of God I am what I am!” Then, after a pause, he said. “Now let us pray!”

That is what true repentance looks like. That is true acknowledgment of the human condition. That’s the honest admission that we are wrestling against something far more powerful than we can ever fight through our own devices and desires of our own hearts.

God sent Jesus to earth because he wanted to open every door and provide every opportunity for us to be reunited into fellowship with Him. He wanted to be able to move through the Garden again in the cool of the day and not find us naked and ashamed because of who we are, but rather look upon us again through the lens of his perfect Son. He opened the door, and now the choice is ours as to whether or not we will accept this fact and pass through on the only way to our salvation. Can we truly accept our condition for what it is? Here’s how the Moody Monthly defines sin – are we able to accept these points?

What Is Sin?

Man calls it an accident; God calls it an abomination.
Man calls it a blunder; God calls it blindness.
Man calls it a defect; God calls it a disease.
Man calls it a chance; God calls it a choice.
Man calls it an error; God calls it an enmity.
Man calls it a fascination; God calls it a fatality.
Man calls it an infirmity; God calls it an iniquity.
Man calls it a luxury; God calls it a leprosy.
Man calls it a liberty; God calls it lawlessness.
Man calls it a trifle; God calls it a tragedy.
Man calls it a mistake; God calls it a madness.
Man calls it a weakness; God calls it willfulness.

This is of course a harsh reality to face. The Good News is the God did not leave us to face this alone. He did not leave us to face it uncomforted. He did not leave us to face it without hope.

This Season of Advent is a time of reflection. It is a time to reflect upon who we are as a people in need of a Saviour. Most importantly, it’s a time to reflect upon a God who would send a Saviour, and would do so in the form of His only begotten Son.

As we approach our Lord’s Incarnation, we are called to reflect upon the love of a Heavenly Father who would deign to be our guest and come and be among us. Thanks be to God for this most remarkable gift.