“Joy; Work; Steadfastness”

Steadfast

Good Morning!  It is with great pleasure to be here with you this morning to celebrate with you Fr. Ed’s first anniversary as priest in the holy Church of God.  Last year, Fr. Ed extended an invitation to share in the joy of his ordination to the priesthood on November 17 and it saddened me that it was necessary to decline his gracious invitation.  You see, last year on this very same date, November 17, Barbara and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary.  Fr. Ed, I believe you’ll agree – there are priorities!  When Fr. Ed extended his invitation to celebrate with you his first year as priest, it is an honor to accept and to be with you this morning.

Fr. Ed and I have known each other for nearly 30 years, back at St. Bartholomew’s in the days when he was known just as Ed and I as Dick. As the old proverb states, “A lot of water has flowed over the dam since then.”  No moss grew under Fr. Ed’s feet when he served as deacon.  Fr. Ed served three bishops: Bishop Robinson; Bishop Bowman; and Bishop Garrison, and he served these bishops well. Married to Barbara, now Sr. Vice President of Walter S. Johnson Building Company, Fr. Ed, then Dn. Ed, served in five parishes, on numerous diocesan commissions, and was appointed to work on several diocesan projects by the Bishop at that time.  His primary focus was parish ministry, ministering to immigrants, serving on emergency food pantries and as Director for the Order of St. Luke’s healing ministries.  Fr. Ed brings to St. Nicholas a deep enriching servant ministry experience, one that that has very well prepared him for the office of priest.  Congratulations, Fr. Ed. on this your first anniversary as Priest. Am I correct in stating that it is a given that your learning curve increased significantly in these past twelve months?

Today’s appointed scriptures take us on a journey of mixed emotions, first of joy in the creation of a new heavens and a new earth, then to a warning against idleness in this time period of grace, culminating with a warning about what to expect before Christ’s second coming.

The prophecy of Isaiah may have sounded familiar to you for we also read this same message in the Book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ by St. John.  We heard read these familiar words: 7 “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; And the former things will not be remembered or come to mind. 18 “But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create; For behold, I create Jerusalem for rejoicing And her people for gladness.  Isaiah shares with us that we are to rejoice in what will be, for no longer will there be weeping  or sadness.  Life, once again, will be as ageless as it was in the very beginning of creation, before sin entered the world.  Our labor will not be in vain. There will be contentment and peace that compares with life in the Garden of Eden.  Greeting card publishers such as Hallmark have wonderfully illustrated Isaiah’s prophecy, 25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox;   I have seen greeting card illustrations featuring an infant sitting among such animals.  “How can this be?” you might ask.  The ending phrase of this verse answers that question, They will do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain,” says the LORD.  This means that there will be no struggle for existence nor survival of only the fittest animal; the weaker no longer falling prey to the stronger.  Humans, freely and unafraid, will once again mingle with the once feared and now peaceful animal kingdom.  As it was in the beginning, as it was in the Garden of Eden, so shall it be at the end of the age.  Isaiah shares that we are to rejoice, for better times are approaching.

But in the meantime, during this period of grace, this period of time between Christ’s Ascension and His return, we are reminded by Paul that as we patiently wait for Christ’s return, we are not to remain idle.  Paul and his followers set for the people of Thessalonica a high bar of expectations, a bar of expectations they themselves strove to achieve. Paul and his supporters modeled the expected.   Apparently there were numerous instances of idleness among the people; people who were not willing to pull their own weight.  From verse 10 of chapter 3 of our second reading, Paul states: For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.

On the surface, this statement of Paul’s may sound severe, almost punitive. However, we ought to remember that from the very beginning, God ordained that men should work for their food.  From the 2nd chapter of Genesis, verse 15, we read, 15 Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.  Even in the Garden of Eden, man was commanded by God to work for his food, to work for his existence.  Therefore, can we find fault with Paul’s statements when he actually was basing his statements upon God’s commandment to Adam while in the Garden of Eden?  If we thought the Garden was only a place of fun, frolic, and idleness, then we are in error.  The Garden was also a place where there was work to be done, even in paradise.

Paul is the greatest theologian to have ever lived.  Is there another level of learning to be observed here?  I believe there is.   When Jesus taught His parables, they were stories of life’s practical experiences to illustrate spiritual teachings on the kingdom of God.  When reading the parables, one is to think on two levels, the human and the spiritual.  I believe Paul is doing the same here in his 2nd letter to the Thessalonians.  God created man to love Him, to serve Him, and to give thanks for the blessings of life given by God to him.  But mankind was not created to live in idleness, but created to serve the living God as well as to work for his own existence. 

I believe Paul was teaching not only that man was to work for his existence, but also to work for his salvation.  Can one be saved through idleness?  No!  According to Matthew, what was the last command to us given by Jesus before His ascension?  Go!  Go into the world, teach and baptize!!!  What is the reason for all of you to be here this morning?  To be taught and fed.  For what purpose?  To go into the world to bring others into the kingdom.

Every parish has what is called a parish register in which statistics of attendance, services, marriages and burials etc. are kept.  You and I are parish statistics for today.   Aren’t you thrilled?  You have been counted!  But I have yet to see a parish register that keeps what I believe to be the most important statistic of all, a statistic I believe Jesus will use in His judgment more than any other.  That statistic is: How many people have members of this congregation brought to Christ?  How many souls have been brought into God’s kingdom through the witness of this congregation?  Read Paul’s words again, reflect on their practical meaning; reflect upon their spiritual meaning.

So, we are to rejoice that a new heavens and a new earth are to be created.  And until that is accomplished, we are not to exist in mere idleness, but to be proactive witnesses for Christ, to be diligent in bringing others into His kingdom. Ah, that sounds easy enough.  But not so fast.

I think you would agree that we are living in very difficult times.  This land of the free is being challenged in every way: culturally, socially, economically, politically, morally, and spiritually.  Have we not witnessed nation rising against nation?  Have we not only heard but also experienced wars in our lifetime?  Have we not experienced earthquakes, drought, and disease epidemics?  Yes, we have!  So, is what is written in the scriptures only for a time long passed?  Not by a long shot, but written for us today as well.

Are we experiencing persecution as did the disciples?  Most definitely.  Once we thought that persecution occurred only in the mid-east, or in Africa, or in Communist controlled nations. Would it surprise you to learn that Christians are being persecuted right here in this country?  Little by little, our freedom of religion is being eroded.  Did you know that our US Army troops were recently told that organizations such as the Christian American Family Association have been declared domestic ‘hate groups’?  Service members are warned that they face punishment for participating in such organizations.  Recently, a teacher in California bullied a student in front of the class for reading the Bible which complied with an assignment given by the teacher to read a non-fiction book.  A small city in Florida demanded its residents to remove any and all ‘God Bless America’ signs from their property.   Our Pledge of Allegiance is under severe attack.  And on and on it goes.

So, what did Jesus say about what is befalling us?  Verse 13 of chapter 21 reads: 13 This will be a time for you to bear testimony.  Enduring persecution is not a time to run and hide!  But Jesus stated it is a time to bear witness to our Savior, Jesus Christ, to share His love, mercy and forgiveness.  Isn’t this what St. Nicholas and St. Bartholomew’s did?  We all stood fast in the Word.  We all stood firm in our faith that Jesus is indeed the Son of God and only through him shall we be saved!  To sit and do nothing is just what Satan wants.  Remember Paul’s words, this is not a time to be idle, but a time to work for the kingdom.  There is a new heaven and a new earth coming, but only for those who accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior and follow in His ways.  Yes, some may lose friends, have disagreements with family, and as we have read in the papers, some disciples of Christ have been so hated that they were thrown into prison.  Their crime?  Witnessing for Christ.  Thousands upon thousands are murdered only because they love Jesus.  This is what is happening in many parts of the world today.  The prophecy of scripture continues to unfold before our very eyes.

What did Jesus say about those being persecuted for His sake?  From Matthew, 5:10: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.   God is pleased when His people show they value Him above everything else in the world.  When persecuted, His people courageously remain faithful in the face of opposition for righteousness sake.  Persecution per se is not something to be sought, but when evil is spoken against a Christian falsely and for Christ’s sake, such persecution comes with the blessing of God. St. Nicholas’ and St. Bartholomew’s share a bit of common history. Both have suffered heretical teachings and many, especially the clergy, were persecuted for believing, witnessing and holding steadfastly to God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures.  Are we not now more greatly blessed for making our stand?   I cannot speak for Fr. Ed, but I can say for the clergy and people of St. Bartholomew’s, we have joyfully experienced what scripture means when it says: ‘the truth will make you free.’  Jesus does not share with us about the tough times ahead without giving us hope and His blessing.  His grace, love, and spiritual protection will never be withdrawn from us. 

In the last two verses read today from Luke, Jesus stated: 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.  Hmmm… “But not a hair of your head will parish.”  If we take this literally, I am not the only one here this morning that ought to worry.  Jesus is not making a reference to our physical lives, but rather a guarantee of gaining eternal life.  And Jesus further states, “…by your endurance, you will gain your lives.”  Hagar the Horrible cartoon strip use to be in our local paper, and I enjoyed it very much.  One particular strip is quite appropriate for today.   In frame one, Hagar attempts to motivate his troops by saying, “This is the moment we have been waiting for, men!  The moment we do battle with the enemy!  Is everyone here?”   They shout “Yes!”  Frame two:  Hagar continues, “Okay, men, repeat after me.  I am a Viking warrior!”  “I am a Viking warrior!” they shout.   Frame three: Hagar continues, “And I will fight to the death for what I believe!”  Pause.  Frame four:  Total silence.  Frame five, Hagar asks, “Okay, what aren’t you repeating after me?”  One meek Viking speaks out, “Hagar, the men would like to change that to ‘and I will fight hard until it is time for dinner.”  Endurance, stamina, fortitude, will gain your lives; will gain your salvation, will gain your entrance into the new heavens and new earth.  And Jesus said, “And lo, I am with you always…” Jesus said it, and it will be so. 

Now to God who forever is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

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