Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sermon for Passion Sunday
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
April 10, 2011

We come to another transition point in our Christian Year and in the Lenten Season known as Passiontide. This morning has been traditionally known as Passion Sunday to mark this intentional turn toward Jerusalem as we journey forward for these final two weeks in Lent. Passion Sunday is not to be confused with the Sunday next before Easter or Palm Sunday in which we hear again the dramatic reading of the Passion as our Gospel with all of its difference such as no response to its opening acclamation, the fact that the congregation is seated for the first part, and its abrupt ending with no closing salutation.

I was asked last Sunday why today is called Passion Sunday. One of the central reasons is the words of the Letter to the Hebrews that we heard in our Epistle lesson just a few moments ago. Much like the Book of Revelation, we do not hear a great deal of Hebrews read in our Sunday Lectionary, but I do believe that two dates in which we hear portions of Hebrews in our service stand out as fairly important days – Christmas Day and Good Friday. It stands to reason that those words carry tremendous weight in being assigned on two of the principal days of the Church Year.

This morning being called Passion Sunday is also known as the Sunday of the Atonement.

The church over the centuries has debated the different aspects of the Atonement, and different theologians have offered up their interpretation as to the different theories that make up this particular study of theology. The different notions of the atonement speak about Christ’s death on the cross, and what his death actually means, and what his death actually accomplished.

We can save the different theories for an adult forum class at a future date. The main reason I mention this is because of the way that this relates to our lessons for today.

The Hebrew Holy Feast of Yom Kippur is also known as the Day of Atonement. It was on this day, and this day alone, that the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and offer incense and sacrifices to God for the atonement of the sins of all of the Jewish people and the nation as a whole. There were detailed instructions regarding the garments to be worn, the sacrifices and rituals to be offered, and the manner in which all things were carried out. It was a time for the nation as a whole to call to remembrance their sins, and join with the High Priest as he offered prayers on behalf of the people in the presence of the Most High. In the first Temple the High Priest would have done all of his duties in the place where the Ark of the Covenant was located containing the Ten Commandments, the rod of Aaron, and a container of manna from the wilderness. Atop the Ark were the two facing Cherubim containing the Mercy Seat of God, the place where God dwelt with men.

This annual ritual was the time when an imperfect High Priest, would make an imperfect sacrifice to God, as a requirement of adherence to the Old Covenant. One thing to keep in mind here is that I am not saying that these rituals were wrong or ineffective. I’m not saying or implying that at all. I’m simply pointing out the fact that they were in light of the cross, deficient.

We come to these beautiful words of St. Paul to the Hebrews that are full of hope and promise as we examine what it means to have a greater High Priest, a more perfect sacrifice, and a new covenant that surpasses the old.

In the time of the Old Covenant the High Priest would have been of the tribe of Levi and a son of Aaron, appointed to serve in the Temple. Certainly there were many of this priestly line who were faithful, diligent, and godly in their ministrations. Yet, they were still human beings, and were subject to the very same trials, temptations, and sins as those for whom they offered prayer and intercession. When they offered of the sacrifices they were essentially no different than an ordinary Jew other than they had been set apart for their priestly duties.

When Jesus came to offer himself as the High Priest of the new covenant, He did do in a three-fold manner. First, he conferred richer blessings. He brings into reality the “good things to come” as we heard in our lesson. He is able to effect that which he performs. For the Jew, they hold to a promise that the Christian sees as a reality. What they hope for, the Christian sees as a certainty. Their future is our present.

Second, Jesus passes through a better Tabernacle. On the Day of Atonement the Jewish high priest would pass from the holy place or tabernacle into the Holy of Holies or the presence chamber of God. He through the cloud of smoke of incense was able to experience the glory of the Most High. At Jesus’ death He passed through the tabernacle of His body into the presence of God, beyond the veil of flesh. The Gospels make note of this fact when it says that the veil of the Temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom. The barrier between life and death was broken. At His Ascension, Jesus passed through the tabernacle of the heavens to plead His sacrifice in the inner court beyond the veil of things visible.

Third, his atoning work was complete. For the old covenant the Day of Atonement was a something that had to be repeated year after year. For Jesus, He “entered in once for all.” The Jewish Atonement day was annual, our Christian atonement is eternal, and eternally perfect, needing and allowing no repetition. The misunderstanding about Catholic mass is the falsely held belief that the priest was “re-sacrificing” Jesus on the altar. The catholic teaching on the Eucharist in no way considers this a re-sacrifice, but rather a re-presentation of the “once for all” sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. There is a big difference between the two.

Jesus’ work on the cross is a more perfect sacrifice than that offered by the high priest in the form of bull’s and goat’s blood. The Jewish high priest offered the life of an animal, a lower form than himself on the altar as he was commanded, and when offered with the proper disposition of heart was acceptable to God for the sins of the people. However, when compared to the blood of God’s own Son it’s easy to see that it pales in comparison. There’s no way to look at those sacrifices in the same light ever again when held up against the sacrifice of the Light of the world. Christ’s sacrifice was one of the self, of a Will obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. “The essence of sacrifice is not death, but a will obedient unto death, the uttermost test.” This was pre-figured in the obedience of Abraham and Isaac in which Abraham was willing to offer his only Son, and say to Isaac in faith that God would himself provide a lamb for the burnt offering. Little did he know that it would manifest itself in the way that we now know. For if the sacrifice under the old covenant was able to atone for ceremonial uncleanness, how much more does Christ’s sacrifice in perfect unity with the Sprit of God? “In union with such a willing sacrifice we can rise from dead works to the living personal service of a personal God.”

Finally, Jesus’ sacrifice was the institution of a new covenant. A principal manifestation of Yom Kippur was that the people were renewed in their state of grace with God through the temporal sacrifices offered on their behalf. Christ’s atonement on the other hand brings in a new and better covenant and “the pledge of our inheritance in the kingdoms of grace and glory. Thus, we are baptized into the covenant procured by Christ’s death, and are ‘baptized into His death.’ Baptism is, therefore, only the entrance of the individual into the sphere of the covenant, while the covenant itself was made ‘once for all’ by Christ’s atonement.”

Our liturgy contains these summary of this at the very beginning when we speak of Christ’s “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.” When we hear those words in a few moments, let us recall what it took for us to even be able to recite those words week after week, and what makes those words possible. Those words become for us what they say only through the heart of a loving God who wants nothing more than to help us return to the perfected state for which we were created In the Beginning. Our very lives and existence was to be in perfect love, harmony, and fellowship with God and Man. Through our Lord’s sacrifice we are able to catch a glimpse of what that will look like for all eternity. For then we will be able to grasp these notions of the atonement and will then understand its original meaning of being at-one-ment with the God and Creator of us all to whom we ascribe all might, majesty, power, and dominion both this day, and ever more.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
April 3, 2011

I hope you noticed that this morning was just a bit different from the other Sundays in Lent. If we had a set of rose coloured vestments, we would see the color pink instead of the usual purple that we’ve seen since Septuagesima Sunday. Violets appeared upon the altar as flowers are appropriate for this Sunday past the mid-point of our Lenten fast. There is also a somewhat unfamiliar and strange sounding word at the top of your bulletins to designate this as Laetare Sunday. Much like Gaudete Sunday, which is the third Sunday in Advent, this is a slight relaxation of the otherwise penitential nature of this season. The word Laetare comes from the first word in the Introit of the Mass that we said before the service began and it literally means – to rejoice.

I hope this raises a few questions in your mind. Why are we to rejoice during this Season of Lent? What is the connection to Jerusalem and this rejoicing? How does all of this square with the lessons that we’ve just heard?

Why are we to rejoice during this Season of Lent?

To a certain degree that sounds contradictory. If we are to be penitential, and be more intentional during this time of year to prayer, alms giving, and fasting, where does joy fit into the equation? At second glance though, these should be times of great joy that we should not simply bear for these forty days only to rejoice even more come Easter Sunday when we dispense with all of this penitence until this time next year. If that is the way that we approach each Lent, I believe we’ve missed the point of why we do so in the first place.

All three of those disciplines are intended to draw us closer to God. If we are more intentional during Lent to pray the Daily Office, either corporately or privately, or get up 20 minutes earlier each day to read Scripture or pray, or try to pray before we speak in the midst of a trial or struggle, or give more of our time, treasure, or talents for the furthering of God’s kingdom, why would we ever seek to dispense with that come the end of April. At the end of Lent we should begin to see the fruits of this work, and seek to cultivate it more and more. It should also lead us to a more joyous celebration of our Lord’s resurrection for we know that it was only through his grace and mercy that we were able to complete these efforts to draw closer to Almighty God.

What is the connection to Jerusalem and this rejoicing?

In order to try to answer this question, and its compliment, what about the lessons we just heard, we need a bit of background information, especially to understand the Epistle lesson from Galatians.

Many folks over the years have raised their eyebrows to this particular account of St. Paul as he is instructing the Church in Galatia. What on earth is this business about Sarah and Hagar?

We need to go back and understand the story from Genesis before we can understand what St. Paul is getting at here.

God established his covenant with Abraham. He told him one night to look up into the heavens and try to count the stars, which of course he could not do, and God said that his own son would be his heir, even though he was childless at the time.

At the end of the passage in which God told Abram that He was making a Covenant with him and his offspring, Scripture says that Abram believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. Keep that phrase in mind, that Abram’s faith was counted to him as righteousness.

As always seems to happen throughout the Bible, mankind can’t stand trusting God and his timing, so Sarai approaches her husband Abram, and tells him that since she was barren and could not have any children that he should marry her Egyptian slave Hagar and continue his lineage through her. Abram agrees, and Hagar becomes pregnant with Ishmael.

We then encounter the ancient Hebrew rendition of Desperate Housewives or Jersey Shore, and Sarai becomes jealous of Hagar because she is carrying the child that she should rightfully be carrying. She told her husband that Hagar had looked at her with contempt and Sarai is enraged that there is now this division between amongst them. Therefore, Abram gives Sarai permission to send her away, but the LORD intervenes and tells Hagar to return to her mistress and submit to her. She does so, and Ishmael is born. In thinking about our Epistle, here is the first link in the story.

Thirteen years later when Abram is ninety-nine years old, God appears to him again and reiterates the covenant made with him earlier. As a sign of the covenant, God changes the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah, and institutes circumcision as the mark of the covenant.

One year later God visits Sarah and blesses her, and she conceives a son to Abraham and thus the Covenant is established through Abraham’s legitimate heir Isaac.

As you would expect Season #2 of Desperate Housewives – Hebrew edition must take place, and Sarah becomes jealous again of Hagar and Ishmael, and orders Abraham to send them away. Abraham does not want to send them away on account of the fact that Ishmael is his son, but God intercedes and tells Abraham to send them away because His Covenant will not come through the heir of the Egyptian slave girl, but through the legitimate heir of Sarah, the Hebrew free woman. In thinking about our Epistle, here is the next link in the story that will help us answer the question what is the link between Jerusalem, rejoicing and Lent.

I know that seemed like allot of background to the Epistle, but with that in mind I think it helps us understand what St. Paul was up to in dealing with the Galatian Church and allegorizing these two women and their children.

The overall message of the Epistle itself is a condemnation of those that have infiltrated this group of believers and has begun to perpetuate the notion that the only way that someone could become a real, true, official, legitimate Christian was to submit to circumcision and become a complete Levitical law-abiding Jew first. Haven’t we heard all of this before? This was a group of people who were putting unnecessary barriers in front of those wishing to coming to faith in Jesus Christ. The Pharisees before them were doing the exact same things. They were setting up all types of hoops in front of those who came to the Temple to worship God, and thus Jesus comes into the Temple with a whip of cords and condemns their actions for what they were. He cleanses the temple of slavery in order to make room for a Temple of freedom.

St. Paul takes the imagery of two women, Hagar and Sarah, and speaks about the incompatibility of seeking justification through the Law and not through Grace. He says the one woman represents slavery and bondage, born after the flesh. In thinking back to the story of Genesis, Sarai insists that Abram go about things their way, and raise up children with Hagar, after the flesh. Neither of them is willing to wait on God to work in His own time.

When they trust God, even though they both laugh at God in the process, a son is born to Sarah in her old age, a child born through the true promise. Isaac, whose name speaks of laughter, is the true heir and one through whom the Covenant will come to fruition.

Hagar represents the Jerusalem of the Pharisees - tied to the keeping of the Law, with circumcision as the marker of their identity. This cannot ultimately save because the Law constantly shows us not where we succeed but where we fall short. Sarah is represents the heavenly Jerusalem, our true Mother, that comes through the faithfulness of Christ, and our faith in Him.

Paul tells the Galatians and us as well that we cannot place our trust in the rote keeping of the Law and Commandments to justify ourselves before God. We will be forever reminded of how we don’t measure up.

We rejoice in the fact that God has made us sons and heirs of the promise that comes through the new Jerusalem, the heavenly Jerusalem. We are no longer slaves to the old Jerusalem that comes from asking God to weigh our merits, which never works.

We have a mother that wishes to nurture us, comfort us, gather us as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing. Holy Mother Church is that place that place of repose where we come to have our wounds bound up, where we come to seek nourishment and comfort, where we are free to bear our souls.

May we continue to seek our home in the heavenly Jerusalem where our faith in Christ is reckoned to us as righteousness because this is the only source of our justification. As it was reckoned to Abraham as faithfulness, so too does our justification come from the imputed righteousness of Christ that comes through our faith in him. This, and only this, will continue to lead us along the path of sanctification, which is the keeping of the law not out of being slaves to the law, but out of love for the promise that is given to all those who love and serve the LORD – out of love for the one who first loved us, and gave himself for us an offering and sacrifice to Almighty God, His heavenly Father.
Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
March 27, 2011

We are a people at war! That’s obvious you might say. We’ve got troups right now in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re engaged in some way in the conflicts in Libya, Egypt, and other places of turmoil and political unrest. War is all around us, and we have almost become somewhat complacent in many regards, accepting this simply as the world in which we live.

The only thing here is that I’m not talking about the physical wars that we read about in the papers, or catch highlights on the news, or get updates from the Internet. I’m speaking about the war with eternal consequences that we are all engaged in each day of our lives – the war against the powers of darkness – the constant temptations with the world, the flesh, and the devil.

We treat this very reality so seriously because it makes up such a crucial part of our Baptismal liturgy. We trust and place our faith and hope in the belief that the grace imparted through those waters might begin to work in us anew along this life-long journey of sanctification – the living out of those vows that we made or were made on our behalf as infants and that we took as our own at our Confirmation.

Our lessons these first three Sundays in Lent speak to those temptations. On the First Sunday in Lent we heard those words of our Lord’s temptation by the Devil himself in the wilderness at the beginning of his earthly ministry. This battle that we are waging is first and foremost a battle against the Evil One himself, and the chaos and destruction that he wields through his demonic forces.

Last Sunday our Epistle from I Thessalonians was a stern admonition and warning against the sins of the flesh. Paul’s warning carried with it a three-fold declaration about the destructive nature of the sins of the flesh.

First, they are destructive toward ourselves. Our journey toward sanctification is a constant dying and death to the desires of the flesh, thus, these sins stand in opposition to our goal of being holy, as our Heavenly Father is holy.

Second, sins of the flesh are an affront to our neighbour. Fornication, and the lust of concupiscence are sins against our neighbour because by definition they are sins against charity. The fuel of the fires of these lusts is not self-giving or agape love, but rather a selfish type of love. It does not look out for the other, but rather attempts to answer the question, what is in it for me? How are my needs being met?

Third, the sins of the flesh are an affront to God. Looking again at baptism, we are called by God into a state of holiness. “This call was no empty form, but was accompanied by the power to obey through the perpetual assistance of the Holy Spirit.” Therefore, any rejection is not a rejection of man, but of God, and thus, an affront to Him.

This morning in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians our foe is not just the flesh, but its extension to the world in which we live. Paul continues his appeal toward chastity and the faithful use of our body. He takes this one step further when we talks of this being carried to its societal extreme. What do I mean here?

One of the points I made last Sunday in our study of Philippians was the fact that many boast when they should blush. Think about it. When the news stories broke about the Tiger Woods incident, I know I said I wouldn’t pile on and I’m not here, the media sensation was not so much centered on the tragedy of what happened to the world’s #1 golfer and his family, but how many women were there? What did they look like? What were their backgrounds? Who else were these women involved with? The world clamored for more information , and it wasn’t just the sensationalistic publications like the National Enquirer, it was mainstream media, and it was all the time. Instead of hanging our heads in shame saying Lord, have mercy, Lord, have mercy, we were clamoring for more, and more, and more. It appears that this battle against the world might just prove to be the most difficult of the three areas.

Just last week I read an article entitled, “Study Finds Religion May Be Heading for Extinction in Parts of World.” The gist of the article, reporting findings from the American Physical Society, shows that religion is dying out in nine countries. In some ways the countries listed might surprise you, but in other regards some are predictable. Australia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Canada, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Switzerland were the countries losing their religion.

Two of the men conducting the survey were from the University of Arizona and Northwestern University and were using data collected over the past 100 years in the respective countries.

These are of course developed countries, many that had a strong Christian influence at one point in their histories. Here are the more sobering results.

“‘In a large number of modern secular democracies, there's been a trend that folk are identifying themselves as non-affiliated with religion; in the Netherlands the number was 40 percent, and the highest number was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60 percent.’”

The study also found that “‘Americans without affiliation comprise the only religious group growing in all 50 states.’”

“‘In 2008 those claiming no religion rose to 15 percent nationwide, with a maximum in Vermont at 34 percent,’” the study says.

The study concludes that religion in these societies might one day disappear.
“‘The model predicts that for societies in which the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, religion will be driven toward extinction.’”

That last line is the money quote of the century. The last thing we should ever think is that this couldn’t happen to us.
The world in which we live tells us that the utility for adhering to religion has become outmoded, outdated, unscientific, and unenlightened.
We have our work cut out for us, because in light of these statistics we must be able to clearly articulate why we still wholeheartedly embrace the Christian faith. Why do we see that our adherence to that faith is not only greater than the perception of not doing so, but that we do so with vigor and great excitement?
That is the fundamental question for us in this age. How do we help change those perceptions and reverse those trends?

The only way that can happen is if we are able to help people see the critical link between the faith that we proclaim and the faith that we live. We have to help them see that the benefits for adherence are filled with grace and that they urge us to live out as we pray every day that our Lord’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We have to help them see that we aren’t talking about some unattainable utopia that only exists in our dreams, but that we are living out our Lord’s commands out of love for Him and the gift He gave us in our redemption and restoration as His sons – heirs with all of the rights and privileges afforded those to whom full citizenship is given.

We must be able to convey what those rights and privileges are, and why those rights and privileges are something for which adherence is both necessary but an honor to strive for.

Let us take the remainder of our Lenten season to focus on those rights and privileges and how we might proclaim them with boldness, joy, and conviction to a world that quite clearly needs to hear them.