Sunday, January 16, 2011

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.

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