Category Archives: Sermons

Homiletics

Why We Do what We Do

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Long before I was born, my father’s family, who had come from northern Germany, settled in Buffalo and brought with them certain traditions that were reminiscent of German life. One of those traditions was to open presents on Christmas Eve. Each Christmas Eve was marked in the same way, with a large ham dinner (always ham) and eggnog. The dinner always started at 6:00 PM and always had the same wonderful treats each year. When my grandfather married my grandmother, who was from Ireland, there was a melding of German and Irish traditions. So along with opening some presents on Christmas Eve, most had to wait now until Christmas morning. The Christmas Eve dinner included Irish potato salad and other items mixed into the Ihde family’s traditional German ham and trimmings.
So when I was little, the family Christmas Eve tradition continued with this meld of German and Irish traditions, when in the 60’s, my mother found a great recipe and decided to add Swedish meatballs to the mix, and thus began a new offering each year of opening some presents on Christmas Eve, some on Christmas morning and always having ham, potato salad and Swedish meatballs every year.
So now 60 some years later, when my grandparents are all gone, and both my parents are gone, what do you suppose we had last Christmas Eve. We had German ham, my grandmother’s Irish potato salad, Swedish meatballs and egg nog. Why? Because this is now our tradition, an Ihde family liturgy for Christmas if you like, honoring our family’s past as well as looking to the future for generations to come.
Now I know our tradition might seem strange to a guest, especially if that guest comes from an entirely different traditional viewpoint. But those who have been invited to share with our family’s Christmas Eve tradition have remarked how at home they feel while this tradition is re-played each year. Everything seems to go, even though it really doesn’t. It goes together because we are confident that we are doing it the right way . . . and that is what makes all the difference in the world.
This week we celebrate the martyrdom of Thomas Camner who wrote the prose in our lectionary nearly 400 years ago. Thomas Cramner was a word smith genius who linked together texts directly from the Bible in such a way that the prayer book became for us not only a selected group of wonderfully written prayers but a liturgical tradition that has been unsurpassed since the beginnings of the Anglican Church. Cramner took all that was right with previous Christian thought and liturgy and wrapped it around the theme of the Good News . . . i.e. the Cross of Calvary being front and center to our salvation. For it is at the cross that our savior died, and it is at the cross, where our new life in Christ begins.
Today being Palm Sunday, I am often asked why we do the things we do. Suddenly, everything is changed! The cross which normally stands pre-eminent, is now subdued. We begin with songs of praise and acclamation and yet turn and yell out crucify him almost in the same breath.

It just doesn’t make sense.
It’s been said that Palm Sunday is the only schizophrenic day in the life of the church. It doesn’t go – and yet – for those who know the gospel . . . the story, it can go no other way.
This day, that shields our eyes from the cross, is actually all about the cross. This day is a re-enactment of that fateful week in the final days when Jesus marches triumphantly into Jerusalem only to be nailed to a cross and executed a week later. It is the cross that we focus on in Holy Week and it is the cross that I would like us to think about today.
There are three great lessons which we learn from the cross. First, that our collective sin is foul beyond words. If there were no other way for our sins to be forgiven but that the Son of God should have to die for them . . . then our sins must be very foul indeed.
Secondly, we learn that God’s love is great beyond all human understanding. God could have abandoned us to our just fate and left us to perish in our sins. But he didn’t. He loved us, and he pursued us even to the agony of execution on the cross.
Thirdly, we learn that salvation is a free gift. We do not deserve it. We cannot earn it. We do not need to attempt to procure it by our own merit or effort. Jesus Christ on the cross has done everything that is necessary for us to be forgiven by God the Father. He has borne our sin and our curse.
What, then, must we do? Nothing! Nothing but fall on our knees in penitence and faith, and stretch out an open, empty hand to receive salvation as a gift that is entirely free.
But as free a gift as God’s atonement for us is, there are those among us who would reject the cross utterly. These are the enemies of the cross. To be an enemy of the cross is to set oneself against its purposes. Self-righteousness (instead of looking to the cross for justification), self-indulgence (instead of taking up the cross to follow Christ), self-advertisement (instead of preaching Christ crucified) and self-glorification (instead of glorying in the cross) – these are the distortions which would make us ‘enemies’ of Christ’s cross and at the same time, enemies of Christ himself who sacrificed himself for our sake.
Yesterday Barbara and I were invited to a breakfast with one of our global mission outreach partners . . . Ebenezer Emergency Fund. We were both comparing notes about the worship structure that was part of the program. We noted how this “informal” worship service was free of the liturgical forms we are used to here at Saint Nicholas’. I thought about how some nowadays might think how difficult it is to compete with such spontaneity, given the Anglican formality of our church’s approach to worship.
I can’t speak for those who favor less liturgical approaches to worship. But those, like us, who use liturgical forms should never buy into the logic that our approach is too “formal,” as contrasted with “informal.” And I can tell you why . . .
One:
We will never compare favorably with other approaches to worship, if those are the only criteria we use. After all, we live in a culture that is increasingly bereft of rites of passage and ceremony. Our culture has ceremonies, of a sort, of course, because we can’t live without them. But — with notable exceptions — we live in a world that prefers to invent them “on the fly.”
Two:
Properly understood and performed, the church liturgy has a power and drama all its own that is rooted in millennia of reflection on the saving work of God. Our Anglican liturgy, while “scripted”, has its own attraction and a powerful message if done right. How could a narrative stretching across the history of human existence and longing for a divine word be boring — unless we ourselves have succeeded in killing the drama inherent in the story?
Thirdly, and probably most importantly, ours is not a formality for formality’s sake. The liturgy is sacred space. It is a space that ushers the worshipper into the presence of God. And beginning with our baptisms the liturgy signals the Christian’s awareness that the world is not what we think it is.
My hope is that the next time someone complains to you that our approach to worship is too “formal,” or “too catholic” by all means, ask yourself, “Have we somehow smothered the drama of the saving work of Christ?” or did they, with their heavy metal rock music . . . and thank you Jesus?
I personally love the words of the liturgy because they speak to how and what Anglicans believe, from beginning to end we express our faith in our worship by the words we use to worship God. The words express our faith. The words said in our worship service connect us to God and express our common love for the Savior. We confess our sins, we recieve absolution and we join in the sacrifice of Holy Communion. If you listen to the prayers and take them literally you will know you have been to Church, you know through the Sacrament of Holy Communion you have become one with Christ and He has become one with you. You have made a few statements to God and he has answered your prayers. That is why I feel honored and at the same time humbled to be your Priest here at this time and in this place.
Much like my family’s tradition of ham, potato salad and Swedish meatballs on Christmas Eve, the traditional liturgy of the church is an integral part of the workings of the whole family of God. The ancient liturgy we do connects us to the millions of believers who for thousands of years have done this thing in exactly the same way . . . and at the same time it guarantees that the story continues as we have come to know it, far into the future in the lives of those who are yet unborn. Amen

4th Sunday in Lent

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Back when I was little, my brother and I had what you might call a love-hate relationship.  This probably stemmed from the fact that I was the second born son and arrived on the scene when my brother was three and at the height of his need for attention.  I guess he saw me as an interloper and decided that I had far too much love being shown my way, at least far more than he was willing for my parents to give me.  I can remember being picked on and hurt by him most of my very young life.  It finally got so bad that when I was about nine, my dad finally decided to do something about his constant picking on me and took my brother out into the garage beat the crap out of him (pardon my French).  My mom and I stayed in the house quite fearful that my dad might actually kill my brother.  Our garage was attached to the house, so we could hear just about every thump, every bump and scream.  This episode in my life so scarred me that, from that point on, I vowed to avoid conflict of any kind in my life (and still do to some extent).  This was for me a life lesson that has stayed with me throughout my years.

            We, all of us, have lessons to learn during this time we call life, but these lessons become far more acute during times of personal stress, illness or the death of a family member.  As you may know I have had my share of experiences with illness and death.  Back when I was 18 I had contracted hepatitis during which time I spent nearly a month at death’s door.  Sometimes I thought surely death would come at any moment.  Many times I remember waking up actually disappointed that it had not come, for I was (at least I thought) ready for it.  But I didn’t die then, and I didn’t die later when I came down with pneumonia.  I believe that I am still into learning the lessons of life, perhaps my final lessons.  These lessons, I believe, are sent from God and are the ultimate truths about our lives, in fact they are the secrets to life itself.

            The scriptures point to the fact that each of us has within ourselves the capacity for tremendous good as well as the capacity for the greatest of evils.  We each hold within us what could be described as a Hitler and as a Mother Theresa.  The Mother Theresa refers to the best in us, the most compassionate in us, while the Hitler refers to the worst in us, our negatives, our shallowness and faults.  The lessons in life should be on working on our smallness, getting rid of our negativity . . . but at the same time finding the best in ourselves and in each other.  These lessons usually are learned in the windstorms of our life.  They are the very things that make us who we are.  It is through our religion, that I am convinced that we are here to help heal one another spiritually, to bear one another’s burdens and to help ourselves by helping the least among us.

            When I speak of learning lessons, I’m speaking about getting rid of unfinished business.  Unfinished business is about anything in your life that stands between you and true happiness in life.  When you finally complete any part of this task, it is as if a burden is lifted off your shoulders and you can declare yourself free, it is this freedom that God desires for every single person and all of his creation, for it is the gift of God that passes all understanding . . . it is called wisdom . . . and it comes to us all as a free gift from on high.

            Today’s gospel story of the prodigal son shows for us, what many of us may need go through in order to gain this kind of perfect freedom.  Here was a son who decided to go his own way.  Armed with his father’s money, he goes out into the world to find happiness, all the while squandering what he has been given, as the bible says, on riotess living.  But in the end, he finally comes to his senses and goes home thinking that even his father’s servants have it far better than he. 

            Jesus was trying to explain to us in the parable that sometimes the answers to the greatest of life’s lessons are to be found in great pain and in suffering.  We may find many things on this long, sometimes strange journey we see as life, but mostly, like the son in the gospel story, in the end . . . we finally find ourselves and who we really are and what really matters most to us.  We learn from the peaks and valleys of life what love and relationships really are.  We find the courage to push through our anger, our tears and fears and ultimately our stubborn pride.  But in the mystery of all this, we discover that we have been given all we need to make life work . . . in order to find true happiness.  Maybe not perfect lives, maybe not storybook endings, but authentic lives that can make our hearts swell with meaning.

            But the story does not end there because the son, though he found himself, returns to the father to humbly offer himself for hire in his father’s service.  And the father who hopefully, like any good father would, runs out to greet his son proclaiming that his son, who was dead, is now alive.  The father forgives all and welcomes his son back into his loving embrace . . . one of the greatest stories in the bible.  Why? Because it mirrors for us how God thinks and acts each time one of his children repents of sin and error and returns to God’s great fellowship.  It demonstrates to us God’s infinite capacity to forgive and his great mercy in pardoning our offenses.

            Many of us may remember the prayer from Morning Prayer.  It is the prayer of the penitent and reads like this:

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred,

and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have

followed too much the devices and desires of our own

hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have

left undone those things which we ought to have done; And

we have done those things which we ought not to have

done; And there is no health in us.

Those of us who profess a faith, and who engage in quiet confession on a weekly basis, ideally preceded by some degree of sincere internal reflection, are often considered by the world as unhealthily ‘weird’.  It is in fact why the world hates Christianity, as a religion, because Christianity compels us to not only acknowledge faults but also to beg forgiveness, something the world would never do.

Confession is always slightly uncomfortable, and a repulsion to accept responsibility for our actions adds to the cultural resistance to a religious practice that many unbelievers struggle to understand, much less accept.  The difference between religious confession, as opposed to public-media confession like we hear from those who publically proclaim their ‘mea culpa’ like Lance Armstrong or Oprah, is that within the framework of Christianity, you are actually supposed to mean it.

I think that most of us sitting in this room believe in the old adage that confession is good for the soul. Today I would like to relay to you why we confess our sins.

The first thing to say that may surprise non-believers; and that is it is for our benefit, not God’s.   God is not to be pictured smiling at us, watching us squirm while we confess.  The short of it is that God already knows our sins; He has numbered them as precisely as He has numbered the hairs on our heads.  Even more surprising is that within our understanding, Jesus has already paid the price for them. The deal has been closed, and all that is happening is that our Lord awaits our arrival, just like the prodigal son, to reclaim our inheritance.  Very often the only one seemingly not in on the secret is our own selves.

If we tell God what is on our account, and own our share of the sins of the world, gratefully claiming the gift of forgiveness that is offered for sincerity, then we can receive his forgiveness in the absolution that always and reliably follows true and unfeigned repentance.

It works for us, but it requires honesty, integrity, and, unlike its secular pale equivalent, there is an expectation that we shall follow that repentance through . . . not only with the intention of leading a ‘godly, righteous and sober life’, but also that God will ‘forgive us our trespasses – as we forgive those who trespass against us’. ‘Go and do thou likewise’ applies to forgiveness as well as to charitable action.

The problem, of course, is that many of us are as addicted to sin as any substance abuser: we know we shall be back again next week with a conscience laden with more guilt.  Even in the most ungodly of Church circles, few would dare suggest skipping confession.  It is that important to the life of the believer.

Yet it is also good if confession and the acceptance of absolution results in an encouragement to others to follow that path that leads towards the answers to life’s problems on the way to grace.

In his death Jesus did something quite final, absolute and decisive which enabled him to cry on the cross, ‘It is accomplished’; something which was described by Paul as ‘one sacrifice for sins forever’; something which turns Christianity from pious good advice into the glorious good news which we proclaim  and  transforms the characteristic mood of Christianity from the imperative (do) into the indicative (done); which makes evangelism not an invitation for men to do something, but truly a declaration of what God has already done it in Christ.

And we wonder how could God express simultaneously his holiness in judgment and his love in pardon?  Only by providing a divine substitute for the sinner, so that the substitute would receive the judgment and the sinner the pardon. 

Life shows us that we sinners still will have to suffer some of the personal, psychological and social consequences of our sins, but the penal consequence, the deserved penalty of alienation from God, has been borne by Jesus Christ in our place on the cross, so that we may be spared it . . . and that is why Christians can proclaim that indeed . . . Christians are not perfect . . . . only forgiven.  Amen

The one you Feed

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Let’s start today’s sermon with a question . . . Do you think that the people of the cities of New York and Atlantic City were worse sinners than all other Americans because their homes were destroyed by a blizzard a few weeks back?  Or do you think that that the Haitian people were more deserving of an earthquake some years ago because their forefathers allegedly made a deal with the devil in the 1700s? And from the gospel today . . . “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? . . . Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

            It would seem that in the days of Jesus, as now, there were those who would point to a terrible event and endeavor to dismiss it as punishment from on high by blaming it on the very people on whom it had befallen.  Such was the case a few years ago in Haiti when the rumor was released that the devil had redeemed a contract made some 300 years ago.  People, it seems, are all too willing to look at another’s tragedy and try to piece together a reason for it all.  And being who we are, we are more apt to blame others for what has happened than to look at the situation rationally.  Such, it seems, is the case with nearly everything that makes up the news these days . . . or else I guess it just wouldn’t be news.  When Pat Robertson’s statement was published saying that Haiti is cursed because of a 300 year old pact with the devil it sent a shiver down my spine.  I thought to myself here was yet another example of why the church is losing membership all over the world.  We don’t need a devil to defeat us.  It seems we’re doing it so very well on our own.

            Today I would like to speak to the design of the universe, about Divine Providence and the pivotal part God plays in its control and its eventual outcome.  Many of us share the notion that God is directly responsible for everything that happens good in our lives and that we are responsible for everything that happens bad in our lives.  And we aren’t far off in this notion because we can create the world we will live in – one way or another – by the good we do and by the evil we commit.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if we rob a bank, we’ll probably end up in jail.  And if we donate a kidney we will probably save a life.  But we wonder . . . how is it then that bad things often happen to good people?  . . .  and why is it that good things all too often happen to bad people.  Assuming God is in control of it all, the whole thing just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

            To answer this we must first understand the nature of God.  In the beginning, we read in first Genesis ‘Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.’  It was the Spirit of God that was in the beginning as the world was created.  It is said that God the Father thought it, God the Son said it and God the Holy Spirit made it so.  This three in oneness or ‘Trinity’ of the personhood of God remains to us a mystery, but most of us pretty much understand the term Father in relation to God.  We also understand the term Son as a part of the family of God.  To a believer, God the Father’s relationship with humanity is as a father to his children and that we all pretty much ‘get it’. However, there is a deeper sense in which Christians believe that they are somehow made participants in the eternal relationship of Father and Son, through Jesus Christ. That is why we call ourselves adopted children of God.  Paul explains this further to the Galatians . . .  “And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.”  It is the Holy Spirit or divine nature of God that makes this so.

            Throughout the Word of God, water is a symbol of the spirit of God, and is often used analogously to represent the Holy Spirit, that is, the divine nature and power of God. In Jeremiah God refers to Himself as a “spring of living water”.   It is important to think about water and what it means to us.  Water is essential to life—we die without it. The average person can go about 60 days without food before he starves to death, but you can only live three days without water, because it is so vital to our cells.  We see in the scriptures that just as actual water gives life physically and is integral to one’s physical life, so spiritual water gives life spiritually.  Water is life and essential to all living things on earth and so it is with the Spirit.

            In the New Testament the Spirit is also compared to the wind in the Gospel according to John  . . . Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”  And from the Old Testament book of the prophet Ezekiel . . . Come from the four winds, O breath; and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. And so the Spirit is like the wind and air as our source of the breath of life.  Without air we would live only a few short minutes.  The air we breathe is equally essential to all living things on earth.

            And finally, the Holy Spirit throughout the scriptures is described as fire  . . . The Holy Spirit was likened unto fire at Pentecost. In Acts “And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.” The cleansing power of the Holy Spirit was symbolized by fire in Isaiah . . . “Then flew one of the Seraphim unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: and he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.” The Word of God was as fire in the bones of the prophet Jeremiah . . . “Then I said, I will not make mention of Him, nor speak any more of His name. But His Word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forebearing, and I could not stay.”  Fire is chosen to symbolize the Holy Spirit, no doubt, because of what it does. Fire burns out the dross. Fire gives light. Fire gives warmth.   Without the spark of life, we are told that life could never have started.

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            Socrates called water, wind, and fire ‘elementals’ and along with earth made them the basis of the creation.  We now know, of course, that there are many smaller elements that make up creation, but for Socrates, these were the things that comprised all of the unknowable mysteries of creation at the time.

            Physicists tell us that we live in a determinist universe; that is a universe that (they believe) has been set in motion with no pre-definable conclusion because of the infinite number of causal changes that can occur due to uncontrolled factors like planetary and galactic collisions down to what can be described a the ‘Butterfly Effect’ (i.e. the beating of a butterfly wings causing a wind current that causes something else etc. etc.).  Christians, however, are taught that the universe has a purpose and a conclusion that has been revealed in scripture as God’s divine providence.

            So, you might wonder, can both be correct?  Can the universe be fluid with infinite possibilities and yet remain predetermined with a defined ending?  These of course have been questions pondered by philosophers and theologians for millennia. 

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            I believe that if you read the scriptures correctly, you will come to realize that creation was set into motion by God for a specific purpose with a predetermined outcome but designed with the inherent possibility of changes influenced by divine providence along the way.  It is only when those changes get in the way of the design that God himself intervenes to set things right again. 

            We see this in the story of Noah, in the story of Babel, in the stories of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, and in the story of deliverance that begins today with Moses and the burning bush.  In every case God’s Spirit searches out from among all mankind one person who can best perceive his call and carry out his will.  Though many hear it, most do not listen carefully . . . Perhaps this is why Jesus tells us that “Many are called but few are chosen.”  But from those who are called and chosen to receive the Spirit, we see through their lives powerful changes that affect the lives of millions of people.  We call them prophets and we call them saints but the mystery of it is that they can be any one of us at any given time.

            The Holy Spirit is the unspeaking mystery in the triune personhood of God.  When Moses asks God his name in today’s lesson he is told by God the Hebrew word ‘yawah’ which literally means ‘I exist’ translated into the English I AM.  Later the text writers use the Hebew Tetragrammaton name – Jehovah – which means literally “One that is of himself”.  God chooses a burning bush that is not consumed to get Moses’ attention . . . which I think it would get all of our attentions if it happened to be seen somewhere.  So why did God choose Moses do you suppose?  If you remember Moses was found as a baby by the princess of Egypt and then grew up in the Pharoah’s court to become a great builder of Egypt but eventually became an outcast for defending a slave.  In Moses, God saw a nexus that would connect the enslaved descendents of Abraham with the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey.  Moses of course took on this role rather reluctantly but God made a promise that He would go with him to help make it happen.

            It is no accident that this story of an enslaved people set free from their bonds at great cost parallels so closely the Good News of Christ who is our deliverer from the slavery of sin and that we also are inheritors of a kingdom that is ‘flowing with milk and honey’.  It is no accident that the people of Israel wandered for forty years in the desert while we ‘wander’ a lifetime waiting for the promise of a heavenly reward.   And it also is no accident that the leader who led the children of Israel into the Promised Land was named Joshua because, as you may or may not know ‘Joshua’ is the Hebrew name for the Latin word ‘Jesus’.

            With the Holy Spirit of God there are no accidents.  The Will of God is certain but his ways continually mystify us . . . However the Spirit of God is deterministic like a spreading fire or a howling wind or raging river, we have no control over its comings or its goings.  Natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, forest fires and the like are caused by natural forces . . . Lightning, hurricanes and techtonic plate movements that are a natural part of a determinist universe set in motion at the Creation.  Forgiveness and Salvation are God’s hands on the throttle and brakes on his creation as it winds its way to its final end.  And as it turns out just a week ago it was discovered that the Higgs Bosom or ‘God particle’ has a measurable predetermined end – though long off into the future by some billions of years – but a definite end that shows that scripture is correct, that an end will come.

            Your life in grace is a microcosm of what God is doing in the whole of creation.  With the Spirit of God abiding within our individual lives of free will God knows that we can either help -or in some cases- hinder the final destiny of millions.  That is why he chose us, as he chose Moses, to help in the battle of setting the captives free.  But even as we try to do this we are assaulted constantly on every side.  The enemy does not rest, so neither can we.

            “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

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            Finally there is a famous story from an old Indian Cherokee talking to his grandson.  The chief said:

            A fight is going on inside of me.  It is a terrible battle-between two wolves.  One wolf represents fear, anger, pride, envy, lust, greed, arrogance, self pity, resentment, lies, and cruelty.

            The other wolf stands for honesty, kindness, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, friendship, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.

            This same fight is going on in you, and inside every other person too, he added.

            The grandson reflected on these words for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

            The old chief replied, “The wolf who wins is the one you feed.”  Amen.

Get Real

 

             A few months back my wife Barbara showed our friend Paul how to make an apple pie.  Paul is a librarian and neighbor and friend of ours and was asked to bring in a dessert for a work party at the library.  Paul was looking to bring in something special, something that he had had at our house, and so he got together with Barbara to make a pie; apple being one of his favorites.

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            The next day after the party was over Paul relayed to us the following story about a person at his work who had a piece of his pie, and then another, and then another.  Soon the pie was gone.  Paul’s co-worker asked where he could get a pie like that.   Paul told him that he didn’t buy it . . . that he made this delicious pie.  He asked what kind of apples were in the pie . . . meaning what brand name?  Paul told him that he put apples in the pie.  But the man asked . . . yes . . . but what are they called?  Where could he get a can of the same type so that he could make the same kind?  Paul said there was no can . . . that they were apples, you know, the ones that grow on trees.  The man was incredulous and said . . . you mean you made a pie out of apples? And Paul said yes . . . in fact that is why it tasted so different than anything he had ever had before.  No cans, no frozen food, no premade crust, no margarine . . . just plain ingredients . . . apples, flour sugar, butter and lard that you put together to make an apple pie.  For some reason this just about blew this guy’s mind . . . that anyone could make something so good at home with their own two hands. 

Anyway it was a very humorous story I think, because it was so pathetic.  Here was a man who for once in his life ate a piece of actual apple pie and had an epiphany that he had missed out completely on something so basic to human existence.

This week also I got chance to have lunch with an architect friend of mine who happened to have attended the ordination back in November.  He asked me how the church was going and I told him we were doing fine.  He mentioned that it was such an honor to come and be part of the service and commented on how authentic he and his wife found the liturgy.  I told him that we, as a church have been doing it the same way for well over a thousand years and that not much has changed.  Apparently this is what really made an impression on him.  Over his lifetime he had gone to many protestant and catholic services but nothing that could compare with the liturgy he witnessed here at Saint Nicholas. This is probably because, like our friend’s apple pie, our liturgy is authentic.

Due to commercialism, our lives today are filled with things that are only shadows of what they pretend to be.  We are inundated with fake food, fake jewelry, fake furniture, and fake products of every kind . . . all made in effort to make things cheaper and easier to obtain.  And yet these fake things do not seem to last very long, and we are again out looking for replacements that may be even cheaper and easier to get.

But it seems that when we are finally shown or given something that is real, it reminds us of what we have been missing.  We encounter this feeling when we go to an art gallery, or a fine restaurant, or we drive a luxury vehicle.  We know what is real when we see it, but for most of us we are content to live in a copied universe where the real does not often get equal time.

In today’s gospel, we find Jesus performing his first miracle at a wedding in Cana.  At the request of his mother, Jesus helps the newly married couple save face by turning water into wine.  The steward, after tasting the wine, compliments the bridegroom on the wine as perhaps the best he has ever tasted. 

This story tells us a number of things about Jesus and how God relates to his people.  First off, at least to me, it appears Jesus is willing to help even in the smallest of things.  He didn’t really have to perform this miracle.  He really didn’t.  The wine could have run out and the party ended but it didn’t because he helped.  But why did he help? 

It’s pretty plain to see from the story that he helped because his mother, Mary, who was in attendance, asked him to help on the steward’s behalf. What can be inferred from this is that Mary had a greater influence on Jesus than the bridegroom and the bride and it was Mary’s intercession on their behalf that made Jesus choose to agree to help in this situation.  This is the primary basis of the belief in the communion of saints . . . that Christians are able to intercede, like Mary, on the behalf of each other.   It is the very reason we pray for each other.          

The communion of saints is one of the most profound doctrines in the Christian tradition. All Christians are incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ by virtue of their baptism. Through Christ we are inextricably linked to God and to each other, and together we form what could be called the post-Ascension presence of Christ on earth. It is this real and authentic presence that we call the Church (big C).  Jesus heals through the touch of our hands.  He feeds the hungry through our generosity.  He speaks the words of forgiveness through our relationships with each other.  We are not meant to be a community of disembodied spirits but rather the living Church through which God interacts with the real world and spreads the message of the Resurrection to all who would listen.

The Church is composed of two parts — the Church Militant (the faithful who are still on this earth) and the Church Triumphant (those who have undergone physical death and are now with Christ). We know that Christians who have already completed their pilgrimage on this earth are not truly dead but are alive in Christ. The link between Christians is so strong that not even physical death can sever it. Together the Church Militant and Church Triumphant are participants in the Divine Liturgy and that is why we continue to pray for them each week in the prayers of the people.

From the very earliest recollections of the early Church, believers felt that the martyrs and saints who had departed this world were not separated from Christians who were alive, but rather they were in greater communion with God and with earthly Christians.  This led to the doctrine of the intercession of the saints which is still present in our Anglican tradition. To ask for a saint’s intercession is simply to ask them to pray for you as you would a fellow Christian who is alive on this earth.

However, this intercession is not at all analogous to praying to God — worship is due to God alone.  Since saints are truly alive it is completely orthodox to allow for this practice as long as it is done in the proper sense.  It is only through God’s grace that the intercession of the saints is even possible. It is a reasonable practice that is consistent with historic teachings of the Church.

Some Christians may raise the objection that there is only one mediator between God and man and that Jesus is this sole mediator. This is certainly true, but we ask fellow Christians to pray for us all the time.  Other people interceding for us in no way reduces the unique work of Jesus’ complete mediation between he and the Father as demonstrated for us in today’s Gospel message at the request of Mary.

The Church of Jesus Christ is as unique today as it was in the earliest of times.  Though many call themselves Christians under many banners and many names, including Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Methodist, and Presbyterians, and many others, there is really only one authentic Church of Christ made up of authentic believers everywhere . . . and when you encounter it, you will never forget it, for it will fill you in a way that no other church can.

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The world today is under attack by evil forces that would give you everything that you want but nothing that you need.  Like buying frozen pie . . . manufactured to look like pie, feel like pie, smell like pie we are being tricked into accepting any thing, any doctrine, any precept, any way of life, except that which is real and ordained by God.  The way we combat this is to live authentic lives, practice authentic religion by using the authentic gifts of the Spirit described today by Paul . . .

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.  All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.  Amen.

Are you Ready?

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This is a question that people often ask me this time of the year, perhaps it is because they have fallen behind and they hope that there is some other poor soul that isn’t going to be ready either or they are a bit cruel and know that I never am ready for Christmas and they are just looking for the opportunity to tell someone else that they have been ready since Thanksgiving.

Truth be told, I am never ready for Christmas, and I know that there are many people who wish that they could just for one year have things together enough to make it a joyous holiday. There are also many who suffer more at this time of the year than at any other time. How can we be joyous when alone, unemployed and feeling unemployable, judged and ridiculed, falling behind in health, when death is imminent? How can we rejoice when there are so many who are suffering around us? The events of last week in Newtown, Ct weigh heavy on all of our hearts.

Yet in all this I believe that we can still find happiness in this season.

To do so, let’s take another look at the Christmas story and those who have inspired us through the ages of Christianity.

First Mary, just a child herself, without hesitation accepts the will of God and somehow though never with Joseph or any other man finds herself pregnant. There is a good reason to believe that this was not a happy time in the household of her father. I can’t imagine that he ran right down to the village square to tell the glad tidings. And this nonsense of an angel and a savior, the desperate lies of a teen that is about to ruin her life and his. How would we respond today if this had never happened and some young girl made that claim? How would we respond even though it once did?

As Mary heads off to Elizabeth’s home, what was she expecting? To be scolded perhaps, or maybe she would be pressured to tell the truth about what had really happened, or just told that to save her family the embarrassment of her indiscretion she would be staying there until Joseph made his decision. Perhaps she had heard of the wonder of God’s hand in Elizabeth’s own pregnancy and wanted to share the story with someone who could relate. She needed someone to love her, believe her, hold her.

When she arrives though … she hears rejoicing. Great Joy. So wonderful was Elizabeth’s greeting that Mary herself breaks out in a joyful song of praise that flows from the depth of her very soul. The joy wasn’t Elizabeth’s alone, John actually made the first move, and instead of apprehension on how she would greet her young cousin Elizabeth saw the plan of God unfolding, continuing to unfold since she herself was carrying a miracle child, and could not refrain from praising God for all to hear.

Let me jump ahead a bit to Joseph, he had his own reasons to not be particularly joyous. This scandal would certainly be difficult in the community. Pressure from the others was likely about to come upon Joseph, this is after all a very human society where the fear of unknown things causes people to do unthinkable things. If it wasn’t for his love for Mary he may have been inclined to listen to the fear of the others. A dream from God is hard to deny but not impossible to ignore. Joseph was able to trust God in spite of his own uncertainty. And in trusting God there was peace in the long journey to Bethlehem.

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How about the Angels that came to tell Mary, or Joseph, or the shepherds? Listen to their words. “Behold, I bring you glad tidings of GREAT JOY which will be for all people”. They couldn’t wait to bring this news. I can imagine them all lined up waiting for just the right moment, was it the sound of a first cry from a newborn baby. And when they heard it they burst forth. The Joy was in them as it was in the shepherds as they left the manger rejoicing; having seen Christ for themselves, no longer afraid but singing joyfully.

Then there is the Star, I have often wondered about this star and what kind of herald it was. The wise men saw it and traveled far, what joy in their hearts when they saw this little child. Matthew writes, in chapter 2:10 ff

“When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him”. They rejoiced exceedingly with Great Joy and fell to the ground before the child Jesus in the house.

But that star still intrigues me. I have often wondered if it wasn’t a star at all, though I wouldn’t deny that. I wonder if it was really the Glory of God’s face shining brightly on the whole world. Think about the face of someone who is beaming with happiness with the news that that they will be having a baby, or just filled with an unspeakable joy then we will be able to understand the Judeo-Christian blessing “May the Lord make his face shine upon you” in a new way. Our Father, the Lord God, is so filled with Joy over humanity that he was beaming brightly. God loves us in spite of the inhumanity of our actions.

I want this Joy in my heart. I need this kind of joy.

At a time when so many, including myself are so downcast by recent events in our world. When even the thought of endless Christmas activities can be so daunting that all happiness evaporates as we watch the clock and calendar tick away. It is hard to have a Merry Christmas, for some as I noted above it may be nearly impossible.

I read a sermon on this reading on line. The writer mentioned his same concern about being asked if he was ready for Christmas, his response was “No but it is coming anyway, I may as well be Joyous”

Is being Joyous a conscience decision? Do we choose to be happy in spite of it all? I don’t know for sure but there are certainly times that we choose not to forgive, or to be miserable so then it must be true that we can choose to have joy. Or at least choose to be open to joy when the Lord comes our way. Mary pondered all these things in her heart and there was joy in her heart even as she suffered through indignity and insults.

Pondering is more than simply thinking about what took place. She thought deeply, lost in thought, she felt the love of God. As we too meditate on these things we can sense that God, our God is overjoyed to give us, us unhappy people, his own Son to heal us, to redeem us, to guide us, to remain human with us. There is joy in this season and in all seasons and turns of the world when we see the plan and purpose of the birth of Jesus is God’s gift to us because it brings God great joy. We will have life, now abundantly and eternally with all God’s people and heavenly creatures. How awesome is the thought and reality of that.

Loose yourself in thinking about God’s Love and Joy. Set aside the painful memories this season may bring. Listen to Mary’s song. Set aside the business that cannot be accomplished. You may not be ready for Christmas but you can be ready for Christ, he comes anyway, ready or not. Open your hearts to receive the joy he brings when he comes, we can be happy already just thinking about it.

May the joy of Mary be yours this Christmas as you sing songs of Praise for the Great work of God our Father in giving us this child.

May the joy of Joseph be yours as you endure the long road ahead trusting that God knows the way.

May the joy of shepherds be yours as you encounter the Christ child in mean estate for your sake and the sake of all humanity.

May the Joy of the magi be yours as you fall before the Lord and present your gifts.

May the joy of the Angels be yours as you go out and tell the Good news that God has come into our world.

May the Joy of the LORD be yours as you remember that God rejoices over you and that all heaven rejoices when one lost sinner repents.

Open your hearts to Jesus and to the spirit of God, for he has done a wonderful thing, let him in and we will know Joy Unspeakable.

May the Lord bless you and keep you

May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you.May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. Amen.

Prophecy

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In 1898 there was a book written by an author named Morgan Robertson called Futility.  It was a story about the lives of many important and influential people who boarded a huge steamship for its maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.  In the book, the ship was described as ‘unsinkable’ and carried approximately 3,000 people.  The story goes on to tell of the ship setting sail in mid-April and how it hits an iceberg in the middle of the Atlantic.  The unsinkable ship begins to sink and the passengers on board discover that there aren’t enough lifeboats to save everyone on board.  

This particular book, at the time of its printing, never made to the top ten, in fact it was an obscure little book that never got past the first printing because the publishers said no one wanted to hear such a depressing and unbelievable story. So Morgan Robertson the author was buried into the obscurity of history and his little book called Futility about a steamship called Titan never quite made it . . . until 14 years later when this prophetic work was resurrected upon the sinking of an actual ship, the Titanic hit by an iceberg in the Atlantic on April 15th 1912.

Today’s lessons are about prophecy and how one can either believe, or not believe . . . but how only the foolish will ignore or mock God’s prophetic message to all mankind.       

Malachi was one of the Old Testament prophets who we heard this morning in our reading when he prophesied saying . . . “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight– indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”           

 In this one sentence are three prophesies, two of which have been revealed to us and the third we continue to wait for.  See I am sending my messenger . . . is a reference to John the Baptist who came to prepare the hearts of the Jewish people for the Messiah . . . and then . . . the Lord whom you seek will be suddenly come to his Temple.  Jesus came to Jerusalem and entered the temple on what we celebrate as Palm Sunday.  It was at this time that he drove out the money changers, which many believe sealed his doom.  And then finally Malachi continues  . . . he is coming . . . but who can endure that final day . . . who can stand when he appears.  This is the prophetic vision of Advent that we celebrate each year concerning the Lord’s second coming and the event we as Christians have been waiting for since the ascension of Christ into heaven so many years ago.           

The second line of Malachi’s vision is equally telling  . . . for he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.           

What this final vision offers is a look into the far future when the sons of Levi, the descendants of the temple priests at Jerusalem will be refined . . . meaning that what was impure will be drawn out of them and they will once again make an offering of thanksgiving to God which will be pleasing in his sight as in the days of old.            

Now ‘as in the days of old’ refers to the days of Solomon and his temple built to honor the presence of God in the holy city of Jerusalem.Today, both Christians and Jews around the world and for generations before us have been waiting for the rebuilding of the temple and re-establishment of the ancient religion at Jerusalem, the prophetic capital of the world at the end of time.           

But it hasn’t been until this generation that the rebuilding of the temple could be even remotely possible. For within this generation, within the past 60 years, nearly all of the biblical prophesies about Israel and the end times have come to pass beginning with the establishment of Israel as a nation in 1949 . . .  then the return of the Jewish people from all across the world during the great Exodus, then in 1966 a great war that Israel would win against foes on every side and the regaining of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and then lately the desert of the Negev has been transformed by irrigation and now supports pools of water and . . . more recently, through Operation Exodus, the coming of thousands of Jews from all over the world to their homeland.  Israel, once a desert, now exports its fruit like dates, pomegranates and olives and grows vegetables and raises dairy cattle and in fact has been transformed in 60 years into a land of milk and honey and is the virtual garden of the entire region and the envy of all its neighbors.  All of these . . . fulfilled prophesies of Israel before the end of time.           

So when, you might ask did all this start?  Well it started with the coming of John the Baptist who we celebrate today and who was foretold of in a prophecy by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah . . “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”It was John, the son of Zachariah, and himself a Son of Levi who would herald in the messiah, Jesus Christ, the Son of God who would first free his people from their sins by sacrificing himself upon the cross . . . and then to lead his people from this world into a paradise by finally defeating Satan, the enemy and the god of this world.           

And if you and I are blessed to live long enough, we may see the end of days happen in our life time.  As the time draws on, it seems to becoming a distinct possibility that the final prophesies could take place within the next generation because the rebuilding of the temple is already a distinct possibility as the corner stone is already hewn and the vessels for the service at the altar are already forged and in waiting.  The war of Armageddon (the final war between good and evil), it seems is nearer today than at any time in our history, so it seems appropriate for us to continue to watch and to wait as we pray . . . for this is our bounden duty according to the Advent tradition.Paul writes to us today . . . And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Twenty five years ago, my Aunt Lucille gave me a stole for use in Advent as I had just become a deacon and needed a purple stole.  My Aunt Lou was a believer and also, for all intensive purposes, a clairvoyant, who often told my family some pretty unbelievable things.  We all took her with a grain of salt and delegated her as our ‘crazy old aunt of the family’.  I want to tell you though, that when I received this stole from her, I received with it a prophesy from her to me.  She said that one day I would become a priest in a parish in Buffalo, but not until my hair was gray.  When I left the Episcopal Church years ago, I left any thought I had ever had of becoming a priest because for 1. I knew it could not happen now matter what and 2. I really didn’t believe what she told me in the first place because it was impossible.  But today, as you know this prophesy of hers has come true as well.

I am here to tell you that you can never take God by surprise. You can never anticipate what he will do.  In my life, he has always made the first move.  He was there ‘in the beginning’ and . . . before any of us existed God acted on our behalf.  Before a person stirs himself up to seek God, God seeks him out.  In the Bible we never see a person searching in the darkness after God; we always see God reaching out for them in the light. 

This is what our Lord’s Advent is about.  Let us hope and pray that the Lord of the Harvest finds us faithful to our calling when he comes again to reclaim his own.  Amen.

The Coming of the Son of Man

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Today is the beginning of the Church Calendar called Advent; a word anglicized from the Latin adventus meaning “coming“, is a season   observed in many Western Christian churches, a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas.

Expectant waiting;  Our gospel reading from Luke relates instruction given by Jesus in the temple to His disciples. Just prior to this reading Jesus has  been in the temple daily preaching to all those present that would listen, including the Sadducees and spies sent from the chief priests and Scribes. Jesus preached the parable of the Wicked Tenants (20: 9-18), Paying Taxes to Caesar (20:19-26), none are given in marriage in heaven (20:27-44), The widows offering (21:1-4).  He preached repentance, watchfulness and return to the worship of God. The messages time and time again spoke of the coming of the Son of Man.

In our Gospel reading we are instructed to be watchful and that many signs will be made visible to us. We are to be on guard; not to be weighed down with over indulgence, drunkenness, and the worries of this life; but to be alert at all times praying that we may have strength to escape all these things that will take place. 

We do not know the time or the hour that the second coming will take place, but we do know we need Him to come to us each day in our devotions, our prayers, our worship and our ministries; all of us who need His saving grace. We are His present day disciples that carry the message of the cross of Calvary, His rising from the dead and ascension to heaven where He waits his return and prepares a place for all those that are counted as his followers. 

Not so long ago, I read an editorial which had been sent into a newspaper. If you don’t mind, I’d like to share that writing with you and see whether you agree with the feeling which it tries to convey. This is what it said: “The world is too big for us. Too much going on, too many crimes, too much violence and excitement. Try as you will, you get behind in the race, in spite of yourself. It’s an incessant strain to keep pace — and still, you lose ground. Science empties its discoveries on you so fast that you stagger beneath them in hopeless bewilderment. The political world is news seen so rapidly you’re out of breath trying to keep pace with who’s in and who’s out. Everything is high pressure. Human nature can’t endure much more!” Do you think that paragraph accurately describes the world or not? I ask because that quote was first published in The Atlantic Journal on June 16, 1833. Amazing! More than 175 years ago people were convinced society’s pressure was too great and the world’s pace was too fast. I guess some things just don’t change.

Some things just don’t change. Many of us would say that phrase with a sigh of disappointment; but I say amen. We can take great joy and solace that Christ‘s message is the same today as it was at his first coming. The Jewish nation was waiting for the coming of the Messiah, as we wait today for the second coming of the Messiah. The message by the prophets of the day was one of repentance and a return to belief and worship of the one true God. The call today for each of us is the same; one of repentance and worship of the one true God; of preparation for His coming.  

As stated in the Atlantic Journal of 1833 people are overcome by the pressures of the day. Those pressures can cause our attention to be directed away from God and His desires for us to serve and for His love to fill our lives and actions.

While I have been somewhat incapacitated I have had time to review some of my small library’s contents. I have become fascinated by the lives of the religious that first inhabited the deserts shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus. The part of their lives that has most fascinated me are the methods used to direct their daily lives to prayer and devotion even while they worked at various tasks.

One of the main methods used to help them concentrate on God and their relationship with Him was through daily devotion to scripture reading and prayer. Not necessarily Bible Study, which is important, but reading and contemplating its meaning in our lives.  The Holy Spirit speaks to us through the message of scripture. Scripture helps us to prepare ourselves for the second coming of Jesus.  We learn His will for our lives in the words we read and contemplate and pray over.  I encourage each of you to open your Bibles and read of the coming of the Christ Child. Think of the times that this little Babe entered, to be presented to the world in the humblest of situations; lying in a manger. We can experience those moments of peace with thoughts of that little peaceful face looking up from His straw filled bed.

To a dark and death-filled world, we have shared how Jesus’ entire life was dedicated to restoring the broken relationship between the heavenly Father and His sinful children. Jesus took on a thankless job and was committed to completing this monumental undertaking. So many of the joys, the comforts, the conveniences, the pleasures of life that you and I have been given, which we often take for granted, were denied to Him. His best friends misunderstood His mission and the sacrifices He had to make for their salvation. The leaders of His community and church found Him a nuisance, an annoyance, an aggravation who needed to be eliminated. At His trial, the government authority who had been sent to protect the innocent and punish the guilty, in Jesus’ case, chose to do just the opposite. Which is why, on a Friday morning almost 2,000 years ago, the Son of God, the innocent Savior of the world came to be nailed to a Roman cross outside the city walls of Jerusalem. There Jesus paid the price for our sin; there He died the death our disobedience had deserved. There, six hours later, in lonely darkness, Jesus died. But He did not stay dead; no, He didn’t. Three days after He was buried, Jesus came back to life — and a living Lord Jesus keeps coming back.

            Which really is the point of this message: Jesus keeps coming back. It’s not all that important if you know when the end of the whole world is going to happen or when Jesus is going to judge the living and the dead. The truth is, the Bible is clear; you’re never going to know that unknown hour.

St. Paul said, “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

My friends, I don’t know when the end is coming for this sinful world. Nor do I know when your own personal end will arrive. I do know if you have faith in Jesus as your Savior, those days, whenever they come, will not be frightening. His victory will be yours and you will experience His presence for all of eternity. Humble yourselves before Him each day in prayer and loving kindness to others.   

May God bless each of you as you reach out to those around you, that during this season we will all prepare and strengthen the presence of Christ within us. Amen