Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
January 16, 2011

As many of you know in the Book of Ezekiel and in the Revelation to St. John, there are visions of the four creatures who have come to symbolize the four evangelists – a man, a lion, a bull, and an eagle. I listed those names in the canonical order of the Gospels, and thus the second one listed, the lion, has come to symbolize St. Mark. It is quite fitting that he would have the figure of a lion to personify his Gospel because much like a lion, the Jesus that Mark portrays pounces onto the scene unannounced. Over and over again Mark links scenes together with one word, immediately, and thus the stories bound from one situation to the next. The action moves from place to place quickly, and Jesus never seems to stay still for very long.

Mark’s Jesus, like a lion, simply appears out of nowhere and he begins. There is a feature about the Jesus we hear from Mark’s perspective that is also lion-like that many commentators have referred to as the Messianic Secret. Jesus’ identity is somewhat hidden to those around him, and only those with eyes to see and ears to hear see its disclosure. The king of beasts is also secretive and hidden as he moves about, but the wise are attune to his movements, and are not caught unawares.

We heard just a few moments ago the first eleven verses of Mark’s Gospel. It starts off in a rapid fire fashion with those simple words, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” There is no birth narrative as in Matthew and Luke that we heard over the past few weeks at Christmas. Rather, it begins with a simple declarative statement. As we ultimately know, this is no simple statement.

Following that opening line, we hear a quotation, which actually isn’t all from Isaiah, but is a combination of quotations from the prophets Micah and Isaiah, and a link back to the book of Exodus. We hear that there is a messenger who will prepare the way for the Good News of Jesus, and our discipleship will involve preparation and correction.

A messenger goes forth into the desert, into the wilderness, to announce that the path that is required of the one that is to come must be straight. It is a path that must have the crooked places smoothed out; the twists and turns must straightened out. God created everything in an orderly fashion, and the sin that entered the world through Adam and Eve introduced disorder. That which was once straight has become crooked. God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and walked upon the straight paths that He made. After the Fall, God could not walk with them the same way He had done before, because the straight paths had lost their straight character. Now we hear John the Baptist quoting the Old Testament prophets and telling them that the paths need to be made straight. He says that to them because God has come again to walk and dwell among His creation. The only way that God can walk with His creatures is if there is a straight path for him to travel upon.

The way that we might make those paths straight comes at the end of the passage we just heard. It comes through the water of Baptism.

“And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in the Jordan.” You can see Mark’s brevity again with his somewhat terse treatment of this most significant event. Lost is the scathing accusation against the Pharisees and Sadducees where John asks them who sent them a warning that they must flee from the wrath to come. Mark does not give us the beautiful exchange between Jesus and John where the Baptist questions Jesus’ intention to be baptized by him, and Jesus declares that it is not just fitting for it to happen that way, but it is in order to fulfill all righteousness as St. Matthew declares.

All that is recorded here is that Jesus was from Nazareth in Galilee and he’s now come to John to be baptized by him in the Jordan River. What happens next is of course the key to the entire story.

When Jesus is coming out of the water it says that the “ he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove, descended upon him.” For Mark’s brevity in telling a story, there are occasions in which he’s telling more of the story than meets the eye. This is one of those occasions when we study one of the specific words in the original Greek.

At first glance there is nothing significant about the word that describes what happens to the heavens. The significance comes in the fact that Mark actually uses a different word than Matthew and Luke. Mark uses the word skidzo, which literally means rip, or rend, or tear open. We get our English word schism from that word, which is a tear in the body of believers in an ecclesiastical sense. I don’t think that Mark’s change of verbs here is significant just because it is different from the other two Evangelists. I think its significant because of the other time the word appears in the Gospels. Mark has a habit of bookending things in his Gospel and he’s done so again.

When Jesus commended his Spirit into the hands of the Father, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record that at the time of Jesus’ death the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top to the bottom. The same word here, skidzo, is used to describe what happened to the veil. The very heavens were rent open when our Lord was baptized, and the veil that separated God from man in the Temple was rent apart at our Lord’s death.

This is so significant because the avenue by which the paths that have become crooked by our sin have the ability to be made straight through the water of baptism, and through the accessibility of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. All of the barriers to the Divine have been removed, and we have direct access to the Father, by the work of the Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

It is also critical to notice the sequence of events. The Spirit of God is not made manifest in the form of a dove until our Lord comes through the Baptismal waters of the Jordan. If Jesus is not baptized, the Spirit does not come. Part of Jesus’ fulfillment of all righteousness is accepting the baptism of John, so that he might bear the weight of original sin upon Himself, and carry it to the cross for our redemption. For us, the critical part of Jesus’ baptism is so that we might be able to receive the coming of the Holy Spirit.

It was not until the Day of Pentecost that the Apostles received the Holy Ghost in full measure when He appeared as tongues of fire above their heads. The comforter manifested himself in a much stronger fashion as an indicator of what they and we are called to do.

As we proclaim in the Creed, the Holy Ghost is the Lord and Giver of Life. It was God’s spirit that was given to Adam that was breathed in him and gave him life. That Spirit was made manifest in the form of a dove when it appeared over Jesus at his baptism. It was a dove that brought the branch of an olive tree back to Noah to indicate that life had returned to the earth following the flood. It was in the form of fire that the Spirit appeared to the Apostles at Pentecost.

Mark’s Jesus, the Lion of Judah, has burst upon the scene, and God comforts us with those words that he spoke from the heavens, “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Through our baptism, we receive the cleansing that regenerates us and brings us into a new life of grace that we share with Jesus.

Through the flames of fire of God’s Holy Spirit, we receive the seven-fold gifts to then live out that new life of grace through the laying on the bishop’s hands in the Sacrament of Confirmation. We are reunited in one communion and fellowship again as we prepare to receive our Lord’ Body and Blood in the Sacrament. We come to begin anew; our Gospel opened with the words, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” May we receive this gospel anew each and every day of our lives so that we might joyfully proclaim those wonderful words again, and again, and again.
Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
January 9, 2011

“And when she saw Gabriel, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.”
“Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”
“But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”
“But his mother kept all these sayings in her heart.”

In the first two chapters of the Gospel according to St. Luke we encounter these responses from Blessed Mary or statements about her. There is a depth of character that is worthy of our study, admiration, and adoration. Twice in the second chapter of Luke does the Evangelist declare that she pondered things in her heart. The first was on that first Christmas night when the shepherds came and found the Holy Family after Jesus’ birth and relayed to them the words of the angels and seeing the heavenly army declaring the mighty works of God, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.” The second instance was in this morning’s reading when we encounter Jesus at age 12 and the familiar encounter with the doctors and religious authorities in the Temple. Mary took what she had heard thus far in her son’s short life and pondered and kept them in her heart.
What an amazing journey thus far. Think about it, she has an awe full lot to ponder:
The Annunciation where the Angel Gabriel appears to her and declares the wondrous work that God is preparing to work in her life. She visits her cousin Elizabeth who has also miraculously conceived a child, and the first words from her mouth are what we know as the Hail Mary. She declares that the child in her womb lept for joy because he has come into the presence of the Divine. Mary then praises God in the hymn we offer each night in Evening Prayer, the Magnificat. Her husband Joseph is visited in dream in which he is told to not fear in taking Mary as his wife that what has happened to her is of Divine mandate. They leave Nazareth as she is about to give birth and travel to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem where she gives birth to a son. The Family is visited by shepherds who testify to the wondrous signs they saw in the heavens as they are tending their flocks. They fulfill their Jewish mandate to offer a sacrifice in thanksgiving for the birth of Jesus and as they are there an old man named Simeon and an old woman named Anna come up to them declaring that they were finally receiving the gift that had been promised to them that they might see the salvation of God. Simeon blesses Mary, but then tells her that a sword will pierce her own soul, and that her child was, “set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;…that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” Finally, as we come to this morning’s Gospel Jesus tells his mother that she and Joseph should have naturally come looking for Jesus in the Temple because it should have been obvious that He would have been about His Father’s business. Yes, indeed, I believe that Mary had a great deal to ponder in her heart.

I am going to shift gears just a bit, but I see a very pertinent link between Mary’s holding those glorious events in her heart, and the words of our collect appointed for today. For in looking at the collect of the day I was intrigued by two instances of repetition.
The first occurs in regards to how we APPROACH something. We ask God to help us perceive and know the things we ought to do. That caught me as quite interesting. Is there a difference in perceiving and knowing?

My first inclination was to check out a couple of dictionaries and see if this led me to any conclusions. A few that I consulted defined the word perceive the way I had always thought of, but there was something that my definition seemed to leave out. Almost all of the definitions made note of the fact that part of perception deals with the use of the senses, especially sight and hearing.
But I was still curious what the senses had to do with it, and why the collect prays for both perception and knowledge.
When I looked up the word know, the American Heritage Dictionary had a very telling definition. KNOW – to perceive directly; grasp in the mind with clarity or certainty; to regard as true beyond doubt. To know is to take perception to the next level, and recognize what we are to do beyond a shadow of a doubt.
This collect, which dates back to the Gregorian Canon in the seventh century AD, wants us to recognize that there is a difference in perceiving, and knowing.

This collect suggests movement and maturity in our Christian journey. This prayer is one that asks us to know with every fiber of our being what the will of God is for our lives.

When we find ourselves in situations that require an ethical and moral decision, we have asked God to allow us to know in our heart, and to heighten our senses those things that we ought to do. It is supposed to tingle in the pit of our stomachs, make the hair on our arms, and back of our neck stand up. We need to have our senses awakened and enlightened for what lies ahead, so that we can recognize the situation for what it is, and make sure that we act in a manner that is right in God’s eyes.

The collect then continues toward action.

We call upon the Almighty that we might possess the grace and power to do what is right. Now I’ve reached another doublet of repetition.

What’s the difference between the grace to do something, and the power to do it? First, I recognize that the grace to do the will of God is an attempt on our part to mirror what God has already done for us. One definition of grace is unmerited benevolence.
As we read in Holy Scripture, as we hear in our liturgy, as has been preached in this pulpit, our salvation comes to us through no work of our own, but rather through the unmerited goodness of our Heavenly Father, through the redeeming work of His Son.

Our response to that grace that unmerited benevolence, is our actions in return. This is not justification by works. Rather, it is our way of giving thanks back to God for His gift in our lives. It is an offering back to him, and it does not seek to justify anything.

Our prayer also asks for the power to do what is right. It seems like such an unnecessary request after we have prayed for the grace to do God’s will. However, on this side of the eschaton, we never escape the temptation of Satan in our lives.
Throughout the Gospels, there are instances where Satan appears in different forms to tempt Jesus. The most notable are the temptation narratives and in the Garden of Gethsemane. The temptations that we read about are attempts to derail Jesus’ mission of redeeming the world, and overcoming the power of death forever. In each instance, Jesus possesses the power to resist temptation and remain on the course that the Father has set for him to follow.

Through the power of the Holy Ghost we have the source of power within us to resist temptation, and fulfill those things, which God asks of us.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
January 2, 2011

I heard a story once of a priest who at Christmas did something quite out of the ordinary. However, at second thought, it actually made a great deal of sense.

He was a faithful priest who wanted to make sure that everything was just right for the family service and the church was decorated magnificently. The children’s pageant went off without a hitch, the families who greeted him after the service commented about how glorious it was, and that they were truly blessed by what they had seen and heard that evening. As he was making his way back to the sacristy to finish up final details for the midnight service he noticed one lady standing over the crèche and she did not have a pleasant expression on her face. She was looking at the figures that she had been accustomed to seeing each year, and motioned for him to come over to her. Her first words to him were, “did you do this?” As a priest, I can safely say those are not words I hope I ever have to hear!

When he asked her what she meant, she pulled back the little cloth covering the manger and instead of seeing the innocent baby Jesus lying in the manger, there was a crucifix lying in its place. The priest looked at her and asked what the problem was. She told him that she could not imagine who could play such a mean trick on her and others. Christmas is all about celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus and that what was done absolutely destroyed the beauty of that day. The priest simply asked the woman, “What did that baby Jesus come to earth to do? Did he come to earth to remain in a manger, or did he come knowing that Good Friday and Easter awaited him?” The woman stood in silence. She really didn’t know what to say. The only thing she could say in response was that she had always been caught up in the event of Christmas that she had never really thought of it that way before. I believe the priest proved his point.

I have no idea if that is a true story, but like many myths, whether it is historical or not doesn’t matter, the underlying truth still remains.

There is the ever present danger to craft or imagine a Jesus who suits our particular fancy. There is the temptation to live in a nostalgic world in which Jesus came only to teach us how to live, or simply be a moral compass to follow, or just be one path among many to lead us to God.

There’s a major problem with this line of thinking – it is not Biblical, it is not Christian.

I don’t know how many of you have already seen Christmas trees at the curb ready for the garbage men to pick them up. I’m sure there are plenty who take the tree out with the wrapping paper from Christmas morning. What is Christmas about anyway if not about Christ? If that isn’t our central focus, we’ve missed the point.

After all, in society Merry Christmas has been replaced with Season’s Greetings and Happy Holidays. God forbid people take offense at receiving the greeting for which this holiday is named. We no longer gauge this time of year in terms of Biblical virtues, but how often the cash registers rung up sales. We speak far less about the beauty of the worship that we experience at this time of year and far more about what is on our wish list from Santa. Few people know the real story of the Bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas, from which Santa Claus derives his name. It’s so unfortunate that we have to be the ones who must attempt to put the Christ back into Christmas. Unfortunately, when Jesus is recast into an idol that is somehow removed from the orthodox teaching of the Incarnation, the Atonement, and salvation history, then it’s no wonder that the Christ of Christmas is often nowhere to be found.

Jesus came to earth with his final destination clearly in front of him. The Evangelist St. John paints a picture of Jesus who knows where he has come from, what he has come to earth to accomplish, and where his ultimate destination lies. He came to earth to teach us that good tries aren’t the answer, but that we need to be re-born.

When the Pharisee Nicodemus came to meet with Jesus he was conflicted because it was clear that he knew in his heart that Jesus was on to something here, but there was a piece in his mind that was missing. He rightly affirms that the very signs and wonders that Jesus was doing couldn’t possibly be done unless it was through the power of God. I believe that Nicodemus thought Jesus was in fact the Messiah, the one that they had been waiting for, but didn’t realize what his Messiahship would entail. He is told that in order for him to hail him as King and see the Kingdom of Heaven it would require rebirth – something he clearly didn’t understand at all. This would mean that a totally new life would be required for us to live as his disciples.

The Rev. Dr. Paul Zahl who used to be the Dean of the Cathedral of the Advent in Birmingham once said that Jesus didn’t come to substitute for our actions, he came to substitute for our DNA. We are broken at our very core, and we need someone who knows how to perform the only type of operation that will bring healing to our fatal condition. I’ve heard it said that when our Lord speaks of the nature of sin in our lives, He does so speaking in malignant terms. Since most of us have in some way been affected by cancer either personally, in our family, or with close friends we know that untreated the results are fatal. The only sources of treatment are either surgery to remove the tumor or high powered medications which actually destroy some good in order to ultimately kill the bad.

Jesus is the great physician who has come to perform the surgery, and administer the healing medication that our cancerous souls truly need. Of course there’s always the option of rejecting treatment, but we know that will lead to sure and certain death.

I’m sure there are plenty of folks who have made New Year’s resolutions that they sincerely hope they will be able to keep much longer than last year. Those well intentioned thoughts that we will eat better, exercise more, be nicer to others, or some other very worthy ideal this coming year. In my opinion, the only New Year’s resolution worth making is one in which we fervently ask Almighty God change us into something that by our very nature we are unable to become. The Apostle Paul knew this all too well.

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
(Romans 7:15-20 ESV)

This isn’t simply a New Year’s resolution it’s an everyday resolution. Each and every day of our lives we must remember that we are going to do the very things we don’t want to do and we are not going to do the very things we wish we would do. The greatest comfort we have is that we have a Saviour who bore our failures upon his able shoulders and took them to the cross. We admit this reality each time in the liturgy where we plead with God not to weigh our merits as if we’ve earned some special status, but that he might pardon our far too numerous offenses.

If we start from a posture such as this it should drive us to a desire to worship, and shape our prayer lives in such a manner that the Holy Spirit might begin to work anew in our hearts to help conform us into the very creatures that God intends for us to be. As we prayed in our collect, “ALMIGHTY God, who hast poured upon us the new light of thine incarnate Word; Grant that the same light enkindled in our hearts may shine forth in our lives.”

As St. John declares in his first Epistle, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”

May we all in this new year seek God’s guidance and grace as we strive to walk in the light, and allow the Light that was the Light of all men to shine in our hearts that we might show to all men the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord.