Why Israel?

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One of the primary concepts of theology, one that many probably do not realize or think about much, is that . . . for us humans, God . . . exists only in the present. We may recall the past and we may plan for the future, but it is in the ‘here and now’ that we will find our connection to God and with each other.
In today’s gospel; we again heard the story of the transfiguration of Christ. We wonder . . . was this a vision of the future or did it actually happen in the present of those times when Jesus walked with his disciples. Jesus warns the disciples not to tell anyone what they saw until after the resurrection. Do you suppose that had they told, that somehow the plan of salvation would have been changed . . . or perhaps ruined for them . . . or for us? We know that the future is not normally revealed by God in great detail, but at the same time we know that it is laid out for those who have eyes to see it.
The transfiguration was given to the core disciples in order to build their faith for what was about to come. They were given a vision of the future showing them what had become of the past and how the future was to be shaped in God’s hand. The specific people who appeared, of Moses and Elijah, were telling. These were the only two prophets in the Old Testament that no one knows what happened to.
Elijah, as you may recall was swept up in a chariot of fire into heaven, never to be seen again. The scripture tells us that he will return as one of two final witnesses in the end days. That is one of the reasons that the people who heard Jesus from the cross calling “Eli, Eli . . .” on the cross assumed he was calling out for Elijah. And that is also, I believe why Jesus did not want anyone to know that Elijah had come in this vision.
Moses, as you may recall, was unable to enter the promised land due to a lost temper while working God’s miracle of cleaving the rock for water. Scripture informs us that he died, but that God himself only knows where his body is. The Kabala (an ancient Jewish mystic book) relays a story that Moses refused to give the angel of death his soul and that God himself came from heaven to collect it. God placed the body of Moses in a special place where it would not see corruption until the day of the resurrection of the dead. Moses, we are told is the second witness who is to come at the end of time.
It is not all that clear that the disciples who witnessed this event were aware of the implications of what the transfiguration meant. But they were as startled as anyone would be if it happened to any of us.
So what does it mean for us in the present? For me it is a significant sign that all is as it should be. It is a sign from the past that links the present with the future work of God and the redemptive plan for all mankind. The fact that Jesus called three men to witness this event is also noteworthy. You may not believe one person who has seen a vision of eternity . . . two people who see a vision might also be untrustworthy as a sympathetic psychosis . . . but for three people to see the same thing and report back has to be either true . . . or . . . a conspiracy; but to what end?
The transfiguration is truly a lamp shining in the darkness as Peter describes. It was given, not for the people of that age, but for you and all others that have followed Jesus into the future holding on to the truth and life of Christ’s church throughout its generations. It was a sign that all was ready . . . all is right . . . and all will be carried out according to the plan of life and salvation.
As you know, I leave for Israel in a few days. This trip has been on my bucket list pretty much my entire life, and it is only by God’s grace that I am able to go at this time. So why Israel you might ask? Why not Rome or London or somewhere more ‘safe’ in the world?
Israel is important to me obviously because it was the birthplace of Jesus, our Lord; but more importantly it is the birthplace of both Judaism and Christianity. As you know, Jesus and his apostles were Jewish and that Christianity was an early Jewish sect of Jewish people who came to believe that the messiah had come in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. That, in fact, the apostles and nearly all the early believers could rightly be called ‘fulfilled’ or messianic Jews. This is very important to our understanding of what the nation of Israel and the Jews of our time have to do with the Church in these last days. For believing Jews of the 1st century (that is Christ believers or Christians) were hunted down and tried as blasphemers by the Jewish leadership of the day. And because of this and the fact that the Jewish leadership originally rejected the notion of Jesus as being the Christ, their eyes have been blinded for centuries from the truth.
In today’s epistle Paul explains this phenomenon to the Greeks in Corinth when he explains . . . “But their minds (that is the Jews) were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
But though the veil has been cast in front of the eyes of the Jews for centuries, we know that in the last days, this veil will be lifted when the Jews see their messiah first hand. For though we will see Jesus upon his second coming, the Jews will see him at his coming for the first time. The bible tells us that when the Jews see the marks of the nails in his hands and on his feet, the veil will finally be lifted and all (both Jew and Gentile alike) will finally be of one mind, of one faith and with one Savior.
So why Israel? Israel is at the heart of the gospel and also at the heart of the history of the world. It is here where Abraham offered his only son to God, and it is here Jesus walked and taught, lived and died. And it is here where he will come again – specifically upon the Mount of Olives near the eastern gate of Jerusalem. For this is the prophesy and a certainty that will one day be that upon his second coming, upon the touch of his foot upon the Mount of Olives there will be an earthquake that will divide the mount and out of the midst of the quagmire the gush a spring of the water of life will flow from Jerusalem and will begin to cleanse the polluted land and water of the whole earth thus beginning the millennial reign of Christ on earth. This is the blessed hope of all Christians and it is the reason that Israel in general and Jerusalem in particular is so reverenced in both the old and new testaments.
Today hundreds of thousands of Jewish people and their families are either on their way to Israel or planning to return to Israel . . . soon. Why? For many years now God seems to have been suggesting a way forward for the Jewish people to return, but today for an inexplicable reason, God appears to be demanding his people to come home – as quickly as possible. We knew of course, that this prophesy would one day be fulfilled. But why now? We know that anti-Semitism is on the rise world-wide. We also know that many countries in the world have opened their borders to Islam – Judaism’s fiercest enemy. For this reason and for many others, the Jewish people are leaving the U.S., Europe, Africa, South America and Asia and . . . it is the remnant of the Christian Church who are helping them to escape.
Why the ‘remnant’ of the Christian Church, and not the whole Christian Church. It is because it is only the remnant who has kept the faith and has not strayed – it is only the remnant who remembers and has kept the promise – and it is only the remnant of the Church of God who will be the fulfillment of Christ’s true Church on earth when the time finally comes for it to be taken away.
I would tell you that outside of the witness of the apostles at the coming of Jesus, his ministry his death and resurrection and his transfiguration so long ago, there has never been a time more exciting as this to be alive and to be walking the Christian path of life. You and I are so deeply blessed to be part of this revelation and to be an integral part of the plan of creation. Please pray for my group as we travel to Israel over the next two weeks. Pray also for the Jewish people as they hear and respond to the word to return to the land of their forefathers.
O God, who before the passion of your only begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Prophets

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There is an old story about a man who accidentally fell into a deep pit when wandering in a field behind his home. Unable to climb out on his own, he was stranded there for more than two days and nights before someone finally happened by and saved him. Though the event had been somewhat traumatic, the solitude he experienced had been quite fruitful. For it was in that dark pit that he pondered and prayed and came to know the living God. On the day of his rescue, he came out of that hole a new man. His mind was renewed; his soul refreshed; and his perspective was Spirit-filled. Immediately, he became convinced that such divine understanding was meant to be shared. And so he began a new mission.
He decided that each week, so that others might deepen their own relationship with God, he would take someone to that field behind his home – and push them into the pit.
When I was growing up at my parents’ house in Tonawanda, we had some neighbors across the street, who were very close friends. Each Friday night, we either went to their house for supper or they would come to our house. Sometimes, when we went to their house, Mr. Cook, would set up a slide show of vacations and places he or their family had visited. Upon the first showing he was so very enthusiastic about his trip, and we, also caught this enthusiasm as he described the San Diego Zoo or the Grand Canyon. I guess we got caught up in his enthusiasm because my family had never gone anywhere, and it was sort of a thrill to see pictures and hear stories from someone who actually went to some exotic place. A few months later, he would show the set of slides again. This time with somewhat less enthusiasm because his memory had somewhat faded. It was still enjoyable, but it was not like the first time. A year or so later, on the fourth and fifth showing, the show had become somewhat dull and boring. It was like watching Star Wars for the eighth and ninth time. You know all the action and the lines by heart.
Our friend, Mr. Cook, had worn out his story because the newness of his vision was gone. Storytellers, reporters, writers and artists all face the same challenge. In order to keep their listener’s interest, they need to come up with new slants on the same basic story. This entails going to new places, or writing about new adventures or painting with new landscapes or new subjects. This case holds true also with prophets and prophetic vision, which is what the readings are about today.
Although the readings today are set in the days of Jesus and prophet Jeremiah, the age of prophetic vision has never left us. Even today, prophetic voices abound in the teachings of John Stott, Henry Nouwen, C.S. Lewis, Herbert O’Driscoll and many others who have inspired us with their stories and visions. Pastors, priests, and clergyman are quite ordinary people who have, in some point in their lives, made an extraordinary journey. They have been given some greater insight into the way things really are. And, as a result, they return full of zeal and enthusiasm to tell their story to anyone who will listen.
The main reason that I went into the ministry so long ago was to tell the story I was given when I was about eighteen. That story, along with other experiences, has been the guiding theme for all the sermons I have ever written and it continues even to today.
Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, told of a man who had traveled to a place he called the third heaven. Here the man had received some inner vision of enlightenment and traveled back elated with this vision. In reality, Paul was talking about himself. He was the man he had known fourteen years earlier. But now, the vision seems to be somewhat obscured and the memory somewhat faded. But what he does remember is that he went. At the time, I am sure it was as if a light had turned on. It was this inner vision that helped him to write all those letters to the Romans, the Ephesians and the Colossians. But now it is fourteen years later and perhaps the memory of his journey somewhat more faded. He complains of a ‘thorn’ set in his side as a message from Satan. This thorn has always been a mystery. Some think that Paul may have had some bad habit or short temper or chronic illness. I think that whatever it was, it was put there by God to keep him humble and dependent on God to see him through.
God gives to all of us the ability to communicate with him. But, to some He beckons to a greater journey. And for those who make the journey He gives even a greater responsibility . . . to go back and tell what we have seen. In the reading from Jeremiah this morning, God tells the prophet . . . “you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” . . . in essence to go out into the world and preach God’s word.
This was one of the hurdle’s to be being a prophet that I found very hard to overcome. First, was my message genuine? And if it was, how did I know it was? Second, was my fear of speaking in public. If you had known me in high school, you never in your wildest dreams think I would ever stand up in front of a lot of people and speak. It is only through God’s grace (and a lifetime of practice) that I am able to stand here and not be completely terrified to tell you of my inner most thoughts that are floating around in this brain of mine.
You may not realize this but originally I was turned down by the Standing Commission in the Episcopal Church when I first approached them about ordination back in the late 1970s. They did not think I had a strong enough personality to fill the description of what they thought a preacher ought to be. At the time, I was much younger and was unable to explain to them, thoroughly enough, my call to ordination, or my prophetic vision. During the eight years I waited for them to catch up, I decided to continue in the course of my walk by doing refugee resettlement work. It was during this time that Barbara and I sponsored two Vietnamese families to come to America. Today, and I am not ashamed to take at least a small amount of the credit, those families have produced a number of highly educated professionals in medicine and law. I know that literally thousands of lives will be saved or lengthened through this one good deed and all because of God working through one or two persons giving them the courage to say ‘Yes Lord, I believe’.
In the gospel lesson today Jesus goes to his own hometown to begin his ministry, but instead of finding people who might support him in this, he finds quite the opposite. When he could perform no miracles in Nazareth, as he had done in Capernaum, the people got quite angry. His prophetic vision was rejected as blasphemy and the people attacked him and tried to throw him off a cliff. It was only by the grace of God that Jesus escaped from the clutches of the evil that had encompassed him.
So why wasn’t Jesus able to perform a miracle in his own home town? It is said that the Kingdom of God exists only where salvation is accepted and where homage is given. The people neither accepted salvation nor were they about to give homage, for their hearts were (as in the biblical description) hardened against him. They had no love for God or for his prophet, nor perhaps for each other. Miracles take great faith and great faith is founded on the precepts of hope, love, mercy and a humble heart to hold them all together.
Throughout the New Testament, the only places where Jesus was able to heal a person to wholeness was where the person had the greatest of faith and was receptive to God’s word.
You and I can be the hands of God and the ears of God and the eyes of God working in the world, but only if we let Him. When we hear the dismissal at the end of the service “Let us go forth in the name of Christ”, it is right after that that the work of God begins afresh each week. It is your hands that he depends upon to heal a broken world. It is your voice he depends on to bring the Good News to all people. It is your ears he depends on to listen for cries of help in the world. And it is your heart he depends on to break . . . when you see injustice, cruelty and hatred.
When we were baptized, God gave us a commission. You may not remember the words, but the Spirit was given to you and it dwells within you for one purpose. You and I are part of the eternal priesthood. We are the prophetic witness (and also the physical evidence) that God is alive and working in the world. It is up to each of us to bear this message into a sick and broken world, all for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Preachers

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When I was little, my mom and dad would sometimes take us over to my aunt and uncle’s house for dinner. Usually, it was a special occasion like a birthday or Christmas or something. My aunt wasn’t the greatest housekeeper in the world, but she always made an effort to make sure everything looked as tidy as possible. Secretly, I think she was trying desperately to compete with my mom, who was one of those ‘clean-aholic’ type housekeepers. One time, my father came over to our house and asked Barbara what the gray stuff was on our end-table. Of course, it was dust; apparently he had never seen it before. Which is another story. But . . . getting back to my aunt’s house, I was quite small (about 7 or 8) and I used to find some amusement in putting my hands under the couch cushions looking for anything I might find. I didn’t mean anything by it, but it caused my Aunt Lucille to become very annoyed with me and embarrassed at the things I would find hidden under her cushions. As a little kid, I guess I was looking for loose change and other small treasures, but occasionally I would find something, even better, like a bottle of Alka-selzer, or on one occasion, my uncle’s Penthouse magazine . . . . actually, we didn’t get invited over there too much after that.
As you know, people do not like others meddling in the personal parts of their lives. All of us, (present company included) know things, or think things or keep things that could best be described as ‘secret’. When our secrets are exposed, which they always are eventually, we become very embarrassed, annoyed and sometimes very angry that our secret somehow got out. We are left explaining ourselves to our friends and relatives, or screaming at our kids for crossing boundaries that ought not be crossed or looking into things that ought not to be looked into. This is how life is sometimes, and sometimes it is not a very pretty sight.
God’s preachers, which the lessons are about today, are sent by God sometimes to look under the cushions of our personal lives. Sometimes they talk about things that we have guarded and kept secret in our lives. Preachers don’t ever expose us to others, but if they are good, they will expose the secrets we keep from ourselves. Basically preachers are here to share their convictions in order to strengthen our resolve and to heal us in a spiritual way. In the Gospel today, as you may recall, while in his hometown synagogue, Jesus reads a few verses from Isaiah and then gives the shortest sermon in history:

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in you hearing”

These words, as you may remember, get him into more trouble than you can imagine. The people of his own hometown rise up against him and he has to flee before they throw him off a cliff. Sometimes the truth comes out at a very high cost. Jesus was trying to tell them, in a round about way, that he was the Messiah. But the people in the synagogue saw only Jesus, Joseph the carpenter’s son, who had grown up in their neighborhood and played in their streets. As Jesus says, prophets are not without honor, except in their own hometown.
But what is a preacher? And how are they different from the normal man in the street. Do they read more? Do they pray more than others? What sets them apart?
In today’s Old Testament lesson we read as Ezra who was both, a scribe and a priest, reads to the people the law of Moses while the Levite priests interpret its meaning for them. The people, upon hearing the words and the interpretation begin to weep because the law had convicted them. The Levites who were instructing the people try to calm them down and told them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep, but be joyful. Go home and eat and drink because you now know that the joy of the lord is your strength.”
This particular sermon was so greatly received that Nehemiah, the governor at the time, decided that the day should be enshrined in perpetuity as the beginning of a new year for the people of Israel. And so . . . In the seventh month, on the first of the month, there shall be a Sabbath (or holiday) for you, a remembrance with shofar and trumpet blasts, a holy convocation. -Leviticus 16:24
Today, the Jews call this day Rosh Hashanah . . . or for Christians, the Feast of Trumpets. In biblical prophecy, the feast of Rosh Hashanah will soon play a pivotal role in the end times. For it is a future Rosh Hashanah that marks the end of the year of our Lord’s Favor, the time that Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel lesson. This will be the day when Israel signs the seven year peace covenant written about in Daniel. Israel will agree to divide and sell the Holy Land and their national sovereignty for a pocketful of promises of “peace and safety” and will usher in the end time period of tribulation and the final day when Christ returns to reclaim his own . . . but this also, is another story for another time.
Unlike Ezra, preachers rarely see the difference they make in the lives of their listeners. Many only plant seeds that take a lifetime to develop and grow, that others help nurture and yet others finally harvest. Even Jesus himself did not see the fruits of his labors until far into the distant future. But his words didn’t die and His church flourished, even in the face of terrible adversity, even up until today.
So sermons can be powerful stuff in the lives of those who truly listen for God’s word. I remember one instance, perhaps 20 years ago, of a woman who took to heart one of my sermons about withholding information as being the same as a lie. I don’t remember the particulars, but she was so convicted by what I had said, and so upset, that she felt God himself was telling her to confess a secret to her husband that she had lived part of her life as a prostitute. And she did just that; risking everything she had. Her husband of course was astounded by this news but he loved her very much and was able to forgive the omission and go on with their life together. That was a very happy ending to a moment that could have ended tragically. I believe that God convicts us by his Spirit and helps us by his Grace to make those kinds of decisions, if only we are able to see his hand in it.
It is very important for us to realize that God doesn’t just choose preachers to communicate to us. He also uses kids and moms, and dads, and cartoonists, and politicians and mailmen, and people from all walks of life. God’s message is everywhere. We just need the spiritual eyes and ears to perceive it.
The most important thing we all should realize and keep forever in our hearts is that the only preacher that some may meet in their lives is the one that you project in your thoughts, in your words and in your deeds. Your good advice or kind words of encouragement may be God’s only way of entering the life of a friend or stranger. The scary part is that, unlike Ezra, you may never know the difference that you make. Amen.

Get Real

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A while back my wife Barbara showed our friend Paul how to make an apple pie. Paul is a librarian and former 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 . . . an apple pie . . . being one of his favorites.
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 buy a pie like that. Paul told him that he didn’t buy it . . . that he had 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 old 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.
Several weeks later I got chance to have lunch with an architect friend of mine who happened to have attended my ordination to the priesthood. He asked me how the church was going and I told him we were moving but doing fine otherwise. He mentioned that it was such an honor to come and be part of the ordination service and commented on how authentic he and his wife found the liturgy. I told him that we, as a church have been doing liturgy 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 with us at Saint Nicholas Church. 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. When they break or wear out 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 when 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 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 us 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 all Christian believers 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 will 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 (along with the choirs of angels) are active participants in the Divine Liturgy and that is why we continue to pray for them and with them each week in the prayers for the whole state of Christ’s Church.
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 – for 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 foundational 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, Methodists, and Presbyterians, and many others, there is really only one authentic Church of Christ made up of authentic believers everywhere . . . and when you encounter the authentic church, you will never forget it, for it will fill you in a way that no other church can.
The world today is under attack by evil forces that would give you everything that you want . . . but nothing that you need. Like buying a frozen pie . . . manufactured to look like pie, feel like pie, smell like pie we are being tricked into accepting anything, any doctrine, any precept, any way of life, except that which is real and ordained by God. The way we combat this is to strive always to live authentic lives, practice authentic religion by using the authentic gifts of the Spirit described today by Paul . . .
“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.
When Paul says to us, ‘Be filled with the Spirit’, he uses a present imperative, implying that we are to go on being filled [forever]. For the fullness of the Spirit is not a once-for-all experience which we can never lose, but a privilege to be renewed continuously by continuous believing and obedient appropriation. We have been ‘sealed’ with the Spirit once and for all at baptism; but we need also to be filled with the Spirit and go on being filled every day and every moment of the day in order to live the lives of authenticity that Jesus Christ requires of us. Amen

Epiphany

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In the Western church, the season of Epiphany (with a Big ‘E’) commemorates the adoration of the infant Jesus by the Three Wise Men who had come from the East. In Eastern church, it celebrates the baptism of Jesus. In the Anglican tradition, we walk the fence, as usual, and celebrate both. Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means to appear or to show oneself. When we use the term ‘to have an epiphany’ we mean that God has revealed himself or something important to us.
Between the three Wise Men bearing their gifts to the Christ child in last Wednesday’s gospel and the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan in this week’s gospel, there appears to be about a thirty-year gap. We know little or nothing about the life of Jesus outside of his three years of ministry recorded in the gospels. We know he grew up as a carpenter under Joseph’s instruction. But we have little knowledge of his schooling, his teen years, his birthdays, his likes or his dislikes. There was once an additional text called The Gospel of St. Thomas that described some of this life, but it was discounted by the church fathers a long time ago as myth.
There are many church teachers who believe that Jesus had no idea that he was the Son of God until the voice from heaven revealed it on the day he was baptized. They believe that this miracle caused his epiphany, and that his ministry began at this word from heaven. Others believe that Jesus always was aware of his true identity from birth and that the voice was manifested to confirm it, not to Jesus, but; to others like John and his disciples, standing by. They believe the voice of confirmation caused John to have an epiphany of his own and confirmed his role as the ‘Preparer of the Way’, which also lead to his eventual execution by Herod. And there are still others that believe that this story was included in the gospels to confirm to you, the listener, that indeed this man Jesus, is the Son of God. In this way, and through hearing this Gospel, you too might have an epiphany of your own and believe.
Life changing religious experiences come in many forms and in many ways. But, unlike Jesus in today’s story, it seems least likely to occur for us at baptism (because we are usually just children when we are baptized). Last Sunday, one of the ladies at our co-church here found out that my wife Barbara was a former Baptist. Apparently this lady was also a former Baptist and asked Barbara when she was baptized. To which, after thinking about the reason she was asked, said “eighteen” – which is the standard age of baptism in the Baptist Church. However, Barbara and her twin sister, Linda, were born premature and were baptized in the hospital inextremist – just in case they didn’t make it. So which one is the correct baptism, since according to the Nicene Creed there can be only one baptism in which to believe? The fact of the matter is that baptism is the initiating state of a life full of grace. The Spirit does not come just once to a new Christian but many times throughout our lives. Though only one baptism is necessary for salvation, we are required to grow in grace throughout our lives adding grace upon grace as we try our best to reach spiritual maturity.
So what, you may ask, is the difference between baptism with water and baptism in the Spirit which is described for us in the Epistle reading today where we read – “When the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”
To understand the difference you should know that the teaching of Pentecostal churches, and of many people in the charismatic or neo-pentecostal movement, is that we receive the ‘gift’ of the Spirit when we first believe, but then need a second and subsequent experience called the ‘baptism’ of the Spirit, usually evidenced by ‘speaking in tongues’. What the New Testament teaches, however, is not a stereotype of two stages, but rather it is the initial blessing of regeneration by the Spirit though the waters of Baptism, followed by a process of growth into maturity, during which we may indeed be granted many deeper and richer experiences of God not always available to us as infants. These occurances often bring a fresh experience of the reality of God and a more vivid awareness of his love into our lives. But they should not really be called ‘the baptism of the Spirit’. The expression to be ‘baptized with the Spirit’ occurs only seven times in the New Testament. Six of them are quotations of John the Baptist’s words ‘I baptize with water, but he will baptize with the Spirit’, a promise which was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. The seventh (in 1Cor12:13) emphasizes that all of us have been ‘baptized’ with the Spirit and been made to ‘drink’ of the Spirit – two graphic pictures of our having received him.
So, what are the marks of a person filled with the Spirit of God today? There can be no doubt that the chief evidence is moral and not miraculous, and lies in the fruit of the Holy Spirit and not the Holy Spirit’s many gifts.
John Stott teaches us that throughout their writings, the apostles urge upon us ethical conduct, often in considerable detail. They appeal to us to live out in the concrete realities of daily life what God has already done for us in Christ. They command us to grow in faith, love, knowledge and holiness. They warn us of judgment and challenge us with the expectation of the Lord’s return. Meanwhile, they beg us not to grieve the Spirit, but rather to walk in the Spirit and to go on being filled with the Spirit . . . But never, not once, do they exhort and instruct us to ‘be baptized with the Spirit’. There can be only one explanation of this, namely that they are writing to Christians, and Christians have already been baptized with the Holy Spirit upon their initiation by water into the Church of Jesus Christ.
As Christians mature and grow into the the faith, the Holy Spirit of God may lead us into life changing experiences in order to test our resolve and to strengthen our witness to the truth. And I would tell you that the closer you come to the realization of the working of the Spirit in your life, the harder the test, but the greater the reward.
Life changing experiences may come in times of sickness or distress. It is at those times in our lives that God has our full attention. It is at those times that we are most vulnerable to him and most open to his spirit, especially if we want to live. It should come as no surprise that God would reveal himself at our most weakest moments – for it is in our weakness that his strength is made visible for all to see.
But, there are other times . . . times of God’s own choosing, when he reveals himself in those mountain top experiences that we hear about that cause a 180 degree turn in the way we live. It might come from a confirmation class, or through a hearing a sermon, or watching the news, or through something as simple as a photograph in a magazine. God uses all methods in trying to continually communicate to us, but it is up to each of us to keep our spiritual eyes and ears open in order to be aware of his presence among us.
I believe that, in the case of Jesus, Jesus must have grown up like any normal adolescent. I can’t be sure of that, of course, but the Bible always mentions that he was a person, a human, just like us, who lived as a man and was tempted as a man, so that he would know us and know all of our faults. And if he did this, if he truly lived like one of us, then he too, must have had his own epiphanies, perhaps one that drove him out to see John his cousin, to take on the baptism of repentance and new life that John offered his followers. Because, it was directly after this baptism that Jesus was driven out into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by Satan. Perhaps it was part of this epiphany or perhaps he planned it all along, no one knows for sure. But it was at this pivotal event that his life was changed and that his ministry began. And because of His epiphany, many millions of believers experienced their own epiphany and came to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
But that’s not where it ends . . . not in a long shot. God continues to reveal himself to all people, in all generations, so that we might inherit the story of his redemption and his love. Because, just like ripples in a pond, all of us throughout all generations affect the generation from which we came and the future generations that are yet to be born. We do this through our own individual epiphanies of celebration in the power of God to change lives. For in this way God acts and is revealed from one generation to another.
And that is why we pray today that all who are baptized into His name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. For in this way, the story will continue until his coming again. Amen

The Ancient of Days

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At home hidden away in my attic someplace there is a print from 1794 by William Blake entitled ‘The Ancient of Days’. It is a watercolor presumably of God the Father stooped over in a wind storm holding a set of dividers at what I always thought was the very beginning of creation. Today, however I am not as sure it is of the beginning of creation. It could very well be the end of time as well. In effect William Blake was trying to show God in the person of an architect, one of the few professions beside builders that used a set of dividers at the end of the 18th century . . . as well as today. I saw a poster of this painting in a store window some years ago and found at once that I was intrigued by its message. I even bought one on the internet back about 15 years ago.
The message of this work speaks about the design of creation and just how involved God is in it. We often picture God as an old man with a white beard who made the earth and all there is and then let it all go its own way. We hear the Genesis story how everything was good and suddenly everything was not so good at the fall of the first of our race. We have been told that the gift of free will and a penchant for pride caused our fall and we were forced out of the perfection and everlasting life of Eden to toil on our own behalf throughout our lives and die in the dust of our own desire and making. But did God really let his creation go to its own demise? Is creation like a bowel of spilled marbles as many would believe? Or is it more like dominoes, set up in a strategic pattern with a definitive design and purpose? And how often is the design adjusted to complete God’s desired outcome? These are the questions that we need to ask today.
As a now ‘former’ contractor, I was often in contact with the architects of the buildings I built. As a project executive, I was responsible to see that that the intent of the architect’s design was accomplished and built as precisely as possible to the design drawings. Sometimes it was difficult work, because being human, architects and engineers make mistakes . . . as do builders. When this happens, adjustments need to be made to compensate for errors. Fortunately, no one ever notices these adjustments and the only ones who are aware of them are the builders themselves and a few astute architects and engineers. I sometimes amuse myself by looking for errors in buildings as I go shopping or out to restaurants. Actually I think it is one of the many things I do that drives my wife crazy. But there are always clues left over, and it is interesting to me to see how a problem was solved.
I am convinced today that creation is not like a bowl of marbles dropped on the floor. It really is more like a design in progress. Like William Blake’s painting suggests, God is the architect but he chooses some of us to be his builders who occasionally make mistakes – because we are human. But like any architect, who would rather not start over, God it seems makes adjustments in the design and leaves it for other builders to continue the construction. But like any adjustment in the building model, there are clues left showing the turning points.
In today’s Old Testament reading there is one of these clues for us to ponder. It is not very obvious unless you know the whole story. It is in the verse that reads:

I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn.

Now you may not remember who Ephraim was, but he definitely was not the first born. In fact, he was the second born of Jacob’s eleventh born, who was Joseph in Egypt. So how was it that the second born became the firstborn and inheritor of the family name of Israel? And how does this story affect us in the here and now?
You may remember that there were twelve sons of Jacob (who was later renamed Israel). Due to jealousy, ten of his brothers got together and sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt. While in Egypt, Joseph had two sons of his own by the daughter of an Egyptian high priest (who was a gentile). The first born was Manasseh and the second was named Ephraim. The short story is that after Joseph saved his entire family from a famine, Jacob, Joseph’s father, blessed his two grandsons, knowingly promoting the second born, Ephraim to firstborn status and adopting him as a son into the nation of Israel. In this way God, thru Jacob was showing us that the last could be first and that gentiles could be grafted into the family tree of Israel (and also into the tree of life). I think that in a very real way God was predicting an adjustment that would be made in creation; that he planned all along to redeem the gentiles who are in fact ‘us’ and adopt them into the household of faith.
By doing so, by manipulating the outcome of the design of creation, God has been proven to predetermine things and sometimes to change things as it may please him. We call this doctrine ‘predestination’ and it has sometimes been a contentious issue in the life of the Church. From Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians today we read:

‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.’

What is Paul saying here . . . Were we adopted and destined to be believers before the foundation of the world? Is this not predestination? And if so what about free will? Theologians have pondered these questions over the centuries and have found a paradox, an unanswerable question . . . a ‘catch 22’ in our own vernacular.

The western orthodox faith has endeavored to answer this paradox in Article 17 of the thirty-nine articles of religion that states:

Predestination to life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby, before the foundations of the world were laid, He hath constantly decreed by His counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom He hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation as vessels made to honor. . . . they through grace obey the calling; they be justified freely; they be made sons of God by adoption; they be made like the image of His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ; they walk religiously in good works; and at length by God’s mercy they attain to everlasting felicity.

The Bible is clear that God’s predestinating and electing love, his choice to save us, is the only possible basis for our salvation. In so many places it makes plain that we cannot save ourselves, deal with our own sin, or even choose to follow Christ without his help at every stage along the way. The whole history of salvation, in Old and New Testaments, is the story of God’s choice, for his sovereign purposes. He chose and called Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, David, and all the prophets. On the grand scale He chose the whole people of Israel. In each case there was no goodness or godliness in them which led to his choosing. These were acts of his pure and unmerited love. All these Old Testament choices pointed to the Christ. God was choosing these people to be the ancestors and the bearers of the new covenant, his chosen one, his Messiah and Christ. In the New Testament Jesus himself is the elect one. Members of his church are described as being chosen in him. Jesus is the focus of God’s choice; all those seen as predestined or chosen are described as being in Christ. Apart from Him we cannot be chosen.
It is the fact that we have been chosen in Christ that explains our faith in Him (faith is, after all, His gift) and that gives us grounds for assurance. How can I know you are going to heaven? Because I know that Christ died for you, that you are of those chosen by God in Christ to receive the benefits for which He died. If our eternal salvation depended on our own strength and the lasting quality of our choices, there would be little hope for us. Because it rests on the foundation and constancy of God’s choice, you and I can be completely secure.
The doctrine of predestination is ‘full of sweet, pleasant and unspeakable comfort to Christians and to those who feel within themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ.’ We are meant to be assured, when we have evidence of God’s work in our lives, that He has set His love upon us and will never let us go. Predestination isn’t meant to be a controversial doctrine but an encouraging one. God’s sentence that He has chosen us in Christ should be heard as a ‘comfortable word’.
Obviously we cannot understand all of God’s ways but the Bible is absolutely clear both that God chooses us in Christ, and that He commands His Church to preach the gospel to everyone. It may be a mystery but our task is plain. We are to be about building God’s Kingdom here on the earth.
What predestination and election are all about is God’s grace. He chooses us though we are far from attractive to him. He loves us when we do not deserve it. He is faithful to us when we are unfaithful to him. He ensures our salvation by not only calling us, but by calling us effectively, with words of love and a gospel of power that we cannot refuse. He promises never to let us go when we come to Christ. He keeps us secure in Christ for all eternity.
This then is the primary message of the Christmas Season, that Emmanuel is in fact, God with us. Our primary task then is to truly believe this with all our heart, mind and spirit. Only in this way can we rest, assured in the knowledge and love of Christ our Savior. Amen

A Holy People, the Redeemed of the LORD

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Tonight as we read from the Book of Isaiah, we realize in his words the prophetic vision of a future time when God will establish His kingdom in the land of Israel – and His people, God’s holy people, will finally find rest and live in peace for all time, never more to be to overshadowed by the evil that exists in the world. Isaiah of course was one of the greatest prophets of Israel who lived in 800 BC, around the time of the end of the Babylonian captivity. His prophetic vision of the coming of the messiah – the first time as a suffering servant and – the second time as a conquering king was often read by the Jewish scholars of the time but was never completely understood – even today. The meaning though is clear to those who understand, that there would be a first coming at the beginning of the age of grace and there would be a second coming at the end of the age when Satan and his followers would be vanquished and those who have been chosen by God will be welcomed into the Kingdom of God.
And for this reason the angel was truly excited that first Christmas night and came to the shepherds saying “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
“For to you is born a Savior, who is the Messiah” . . . and that is why we call him Our Lord. And although none of us were present at the birth of Emmanuel who came to be among us, we his Church will continue forever to hold this memory, a memory made real anew for us at each passing year. And though we are unable to fully grasp the meaning of his birth, we know in our hearts that this birth holds a reality beyond anything we may presume to know. It is nothing less than the wonder of God coming among us as a tiny human child, to live and to grow and to be one of us in the world in which we live.
And although we are mostly ignorant of the true purposes of God in this event, we do know some facts, a few temporal details that we can hold: Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem some two thousand years ago. At that time, Bethlehem was an obscure corner of the great Roman Empire. We also know it was nighttime. The people of that country, aside from a few shepherds, were all asleep. So it was that the Son of God was born at night in a tiny stable in a remote corner of a mighty empire.
God came to us but there was no welcome for Him, even though he was the creator of heaven and earth . . . there was no pageantry; there was no outpouring of thanks. There were only the silent stars of heaven and the love of his parents to greet . . . Him . . . who had created everything . . . and it was enough, because there really was no understanding by anyone at the time that he had even entered the world at all. But Jesus knew that world – he knew our world. He knew the world and he knows each of us far better than we will ever know ourselves. And he chose to be among us, to live with us, to share all of human life with us in that time, in this world, in Bethlehem.
Christians continue to be drawn to that place each year at Christmas time. Our minds seek to understand a mystery that seems too impossible to grasp. We look at the manger scenes we see around us, trying our best to understand what happened so long ago . . . and we look at our nativity set with awe, like little windows into the divine mystery of God’s presence with us.
And so it was that God came to us searching our world for his own . . . a people of his own choosing; a people enslaved by the dark forces that oppose God’s will . . . for in Bethlehem that night long ago heaven and all creation joined in an embrace that will never end until the lost are found and those who call upon the name of the Lord are redeemed by Jesus Christ, the messiah.
Today those same forces have gathered to eradicate every thought of God and of his Son from the public square in many places where freedom once thrived. It is entirely possible for a child today living in the United States or Europe to not know the love of Jesus Christ or the real story of Christmas. A child growing up today in our world may never in his lifetime see a manger or know of its relevance to his life; but at the same time today in the third world there live more Christians than have ever lived in the history of the mankind. Many live out their Christian belief in secret and in hiding because of rampant persecution of Christians throughout the whole world . . . and yet even so, the number of Christians continues to grow each and every day.
The enmity of which God spoke in Genesis continues to separate the seed of the woman and the seed of evil. Today we, who have chosen God as the light of our life, hold all life as sacred . . . our enemies do not . . . and so it behooves all who are believing Christians to hold no doubt about God’s purpose for your life . . . and to stand firm against evil.
For ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it . . .
. . . He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth . . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, He has made him known. Amen

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

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A long time ago I worked in downtown Buffalo at the Bell Telephone Company at Main Place Mall. I can remember at lunch time there was a street evangelist who used to walk up and down Main Street preaching in the open air. A lot of the business people who worked their found themselves ‘assaulted’ by this urban preacher and tried to have him removed from their view. He was not just preaching, he was preaching with a vengeance especially since he used a bull horn to get his message across. He preached about the evils of corporate greed and of social injustice and how, one day, those who cared little for the disenfranchised of society would have to face the music. Everyone really disliked the guy probably because he was loud, but mostly because he was so arrogant. His message was rejected because nobody liked the messenger. I often wondered why he kept at it, especially when his ‘congregation’ made a mad dash across the street in order to avoid him.
Today, we have much more subtle messages of social injustice. On television we see the faces of poverty and of famine through ad campaigns for different caring organizations. The messages are not loud or arrogant. They are designed to get one’s heart to respond in some way or another. Usually, if we see them often enough, we simply ignore them like any other commercial. But when we see them the first time, there is an inclination to turn the channel, because our hearts cannot bear to see and hear about the suffering that goes on through our complacency. Though we have no direct way of helping the situation, we have guilt (maybe its that white guilt we’re hearing about these days) that perhaps we should be doing something. It is guilt that brings many to open their checkbooks and help Christian Children’s Fund and Church World Service.
A several years ago, I was at a meeting of the Baptismal Task Force where the subject for the night was deacons of which, at the time, I was one. After a lot of input and deliberation, it was resolved that the main difference between being a priest and being a deacon was that deacons had incredibly more freedom than priests in the Episcopal Church at that time, especially in regard to preaching and doing God’s will. One priest mentioned that he could not wait until he could retire because he heard retired priests can actually preach what they genuinely feel without worrying about their jobs. I have known many priests (and a few bishops) who have found themselves in hot water with their vestries because of something they preached from their heart. Sometimes in our own day, just like in the time of John the Baptist, the messenger is killed because the people don’t like the message. That is why God uses so many different kinds of messengers to get his point across. But even messengers of God have their problems.
Forty years ago, I was a much different person that I am today. I have memories of a consuming zealousness for God and a passion to do whatever it was that He called me to do. It troubles me sometimes to realize that at one time I was able to simply drop everything and follow the direction that I felt God calling me. But now as I am getting older it seems it is becoming more possible for me than it once was as I retire within the next few weeks. Although I am still not able to up and move at the drop of a hat, I have been given some freedom to do the things that I want to do rather than what I have to do, which is a very good feeling. Though I am still, and will always be God’s servant, I have found that my faith these days has become perhaps more mature and my ability to give God a definitive YES has become more like a ‘well, maybe’, you know… maybe I can do that if we can work out this and that and then there’s this condition and then there’s that….and well, you know what I mean.
As we grow older, our lives become much more complex. Our work becomes more demanding. Our families become larger and take more of our time. Life itself naturally progresses to a point that many in our society simply say ‘stop the ship, I want to get off’, and jump ship they do. . . in many destructive and terrible ways, leaving their families and friends behind to face their loss due to drugs, suicide, infidelity, or worse, like the mass killings in San Berardino. These tragedies of life are avoidable only through the grace of God and the ability of his Spirit to sustain us in a world that continuously threatens to engulf us in a barrage of pleasure, technology, cheap gimmicks and lies that draw our attention away from where it ought to be.
In my own humble opinion, if there ever was a role model for us to follow beside Jesus himself, it is in the person of John the Baptist. Today’s readings direct our attention to just the kind of person that God uses for his redemptive work. And that kind of person is personified in the life of John. Here was a preacher who grew up in the temple of Jerusalem and was taught by the best scholars of his day. As you might recall John’s father was Zachariah a Levite and temple priest. And Elizabeth, John’s mother, was Mary’s cousin. John grew up within the temple walls, but upon attaining adulthood gave up his destined role as a priest and instead became a wondering prophet in the Judean Hills. There is a lot unspoken about the life of John, but one thing is for certain. He knew the scribes and Pharisees who came to receive his baptism. It is to them who he called out ‘You brood of vipers, who told you of the wrath that is to come?’. Not exactly a friendly greeting in the middle of a sermon, especially to people who he obviously knew. But that was John, and because of his insistence to tell things exactly the way they were, (the truth, if you will) he lost his life because of the message he preached. But that seems to be the way of all God’s prophets in the service of their Lord.
In John, we see three things that we need to have in order to be fully used by God in his service. They all have to do with the nature of God and the way he gets things done in both the natural and spiritual worlds. One is a ‘purity of spirit’, that is a soul that sees only the good in people, whose main ambition in life is to do what is pleasing to God.. . . a person who is incorruptible. The second is an abiding ‘simplicity’, a life uncluttered by the world and all its temptations and gimmicks. A life that does not hold on to the past, nor lives in the future, but is only interested in the ‘here and now’. And thirdly, ‘the willingness to be a servant’, that is the willingness to be directed, no matter what the cost, no matter what the embarrassment, like Don Quixote, ‘to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause’.
These three things . . . Purity, Simplicity, and Servanthood, are what God looks for in all of his children, but when they all occur in any one person, there is the potential for what may described as a ‘living saint’. Just such a person was John the Baptist. It was John who found favor with God because of his purity of spirit. And through the simplicity of his life he was able to become aware of God’s presence within him. And because of his acceptance and willingness to be a servant he took on the role of prophet in the name of God. .
All of us have something to learn from the life of John, and it seems that Jesus thought so too. It was of John that Jesus spoke when he said, “For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist: but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
Prophets are not only for a time in our distant past. God continually calls each and every one of us to bear his prophetic message of charity, justice and humility even in this age of technological arrogance. He is calling you to offer the world His words of grace and repentance through your lives, through your words, and through your actions to all that you may meet until he comes again. And that is the greatest lesson of the Season of Advent.

Look Busy

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There is an amusing Advent story about a rabbi looking out his synagogue window in Jerusalem, when all of a sudden he sees the second coming occurring near the Mount of Olives! He panics because he is not sure what to do and calls the local catholic priest and tells him, “Monsignor, monsignor, I’m looking out the my window and the Messiah has come with all his angels. He is about to touch the Mount of Olives . . . What should I do? What should I do?” The priest tells the rabbi, “I am not sure, but you ought to call the bishop, he will know what to do.”
So the rabbi calls the Bishop and says, “Your eminence, your eminence! The second coming is occurring outside my window at the Mount of Olives. The Messiah has come with all his angels and now Jesus and his saints are standing there and the mount has split in two. What should I do? What should I do?” The bishop thinks a moment and says, “I’m sorry but I don’t know, but you should call the Pope, he surely will know what to do.
So the rabbi calls the Pope in Rome and says, “Your holiness, your holiness! The second coming has occurred outside my window. Jesus has come with all his angels. He has landed at the Mount of Olives and the mountain has split in two. He is now coming up the sidewalk to my door. What should I do? What should I do?”
There is a pause on the phone and after a few minutes of reflection the Pope answers with two words . . . “Look busy!”

As much, I am sure that, we hate to admit it, very few of us are prepared for the events of the second coming of Jesus. Although we pray for it often in church, and recite the readings about it year after year, I am not at all sure we as a people are ready for this extraordinary event predicted by all the prophets and by Jesus himself in today’s gospel reading.
Back in the thirties, my dad told me that there was a radio play that panicked everyone into thinking the end of the world had come. It was a radio dramatization of a book by a popular author named H.G.Wells.
It happened the day before Halloween, on Oct. 30, 1938, when millions of Americans tuned in to a popular radio program that featured plays directed by, and often starring, Orson Welles. The performance that evening was an adaptation of the science fiction novel The War of the Worlds, about a Martian invasion of the earth. But in adapting the book for a radio play, Welles made an important change: under his direction the play was written and performed so it would sound like a news broadcast about an invasion from Mars, a technique that, presumably, was intended to heighten dramatic effect.
As the play unfolded, music was interrupted a number of times by fake news bulletins reporting that a “huge flaming object” had dropped on a farm near Grovers Mill, New Jersey. As members of the audience sat on the edge of their collective seat, actors playing news announcers, officials and other roles one would expect to hear in a news report, described the landing of an invasion force from Mars and the destruction of the United States. The broadcast also contained a number of explanations that it was all a radio play, but if members of the audience missed a brief explanation at the beginning, the next one didn’t arrive until 40 minutes into the program.
As they listened to this simulation of a news broadcast, created with voice acting and sound effects, a portion of the audience concluded that it was hearing an actual news account of an invasion from Mars. People packed the roads, hid in cellars, loaded guns, even wrapped their heads in wet towels as protection from Martian poison gas, in an attempt to defend themselves against the aliens, oblivious to the fact that they were acting out the role of the panic-stricken public that actually belonged in a radio play.
Were they tricked? They were indeed. But the point of bringing this up on the first Sunday in Advent, is that if people are ill prepared for a fake invasion from Mars, how do you think we would handle a real invasion from heaven?
A few years back, Barbara and I went to a surprise party given by a friend of ours for her husband. As we waited for the guest of honor to arrive, we all had food and drinks and conversation, chatting about how we met Gary and what we knew about Gary and all the pleasantries that go along with a birthday party. As the time came near for Gary to arrive, we all quieted down in hopeful expectation that he would arrive any second and we would all yell out “Surprise!” which we did. And was he ever surprised! Gary was so surprised he broke into a sweat and had to take off his coat and sit down for a few minutes. Gary very nearly passed out. He had absolutely no idea. And that was why it was so much fun to do.
I have often thought of Christ’s second coming or Advent as sort of Surprise Party except, . . . in reverse. The guest of honor will be the only one who knows when it will be and his friends (us) await his coming . . . eating and drinking and having pleasant conversation about how we met Jesus and what we know about him now. Unlike the surprise parties we attend, there is no hushed silence and we are not all gathered in one place and the surprise is not on the guest . . . but on us!
But is it it? Jesus tells us in the Gospel today, that there will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars and on earth distress among nations. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what will come on the earth. Jesus tells us that if we watch carefully, we will know when the time has come. There will be no surprise for any of his believers and we will have time to prepare. And the key to all this is in the gospel reading today when Jesus tells us . . . “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place . . . “
So what is it about the fig tree (and all the trees) that is so important to the interpretation of this passage?
Trees in general and the fig tee in particular is the key to a very important relationship between Israel and the messiah in scripture. It is the leaves of the fig tree that provide a covering for Adam and Eve in Genesis when they discover they are naked. It is fig trees that are in the promised land that God gives to his people Israel in the book of Deuteronomy . . . “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey.”
And it this same land of fig trees from which God revokes his promise in Jeremiah when the people turn their backs on him . . . “I will take away their harvest, declares the LORD. There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither. What I have given them will be taken from them.”
And it is here that we come to two things. First, this passage should immediately strike you because it sounds a lot like what Jesus does in the Gospels when he curses the fig tree. This is actually the passage from which he based his teaching. The second thing is that after the Babylonian Exile the fig tree became a messianic symbol, and the fig tree bearing fruit became a sign of the coming of the messiah, as figs feature prominently in many of the prophecies of the minor prophets.
From Micah . . . “Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.’
And from Zechariah “In that day each of you will invite his neighbor to sit under his vine and fig tree,” declares the LORD Almighty.
Sitting under one’s own fig tree became for the Jews a representation of the Messiah’s reign. Jesus confirms this interpretation when he teaches his disciples about the mystery of the messiah’s first and second comings when he says in the gospel this morning:
“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door.”
And so Jesus, the master teacher, carefully chooses a fig tree to teach his disciples, knowing all of the tradition and messianic connotations it holds, and knowing that his disciples understood this as well.
The allegory is this: just as the people of Jeremiah’s day had no faith, but turned their backs on God and worshiped idols, so too the people of Jesus’ day had no faith and turned their backs on the messiah, and thus the messiah would not be accepted. The curse on the fig in Jeremiah meant the destruction of the people of Judah. The curse upon the fig tree by Jesus was allegorical to the same destruction that would be brought onto Jerusalem because they would not accept the messiah – because the fig tree had no fruit. This curse was realized in 70 AD at the fall of Jerusalem and Israel, as a nation (not as a people), withered. But then in 1947 the nation of Israel suddenly comes to life again and for the first time in centuries the Jewish people again have a nation to call home . . The fig tree’s twigs were suddenly tender and in 1967 (when Israel became a sovereign nation) its leaves have come out. Today, as Israel continues to prosper and grow there is no doubt that it has come to full fruition . . . that the season has come and that the messiah’s second coming is at the very door.
As we begin the Advent Season, it is important to use this time to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus into our hearts as King so that when he actually appears on the Mount of Olives we will all know exactly what to do. Amen

Christ the King

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As the season of Trinity winds down to the end of the Christian year, we are increasingly drawn by our readings into a discussion of the end times. The epistle today gives us an uncompromising view of the end as John describes greetings from the king of kings and lord of lords who is Jesus Christ, the firstborn of all creation, the head of the church and the author of our salvation . . .
“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.”
It isn’t until this generation, our generation, the generation of information and of Ipads and Iphones that this verse has in anyway been remotely possible throughout the history of mankind . . . for in these last days it is now entirely possible for ‘every eye to see him . . . and that on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail’. For John’s vision was one of the far distant future where ominous happenings in the world would foretell the coming of the Lord from the highest heaven to reclaim his bride, who is the Church, the true church . . . the Church that has kept the faith and is waiting in prayerful expectation for the Lord’s return . . . who is the the King of Glory.
And as David, the proclaimed in Psalm 24 . . .
1The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;
2for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.
3Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?
4The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god.
5They will receive blessing from the Lord and vindication from God their Savior.
6Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek your face, God of Jacob.
7Lift up your heads, you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.
8Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.
9Lift up your heads, you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.
10Who is he, this King of glory? The Lord Almighty—he is the King of glory.
And so today we celebrate the Christ – the King of Glory as we await his second coming and as the Jews await his first, for when the Jews see the marks of the nails on his hands and feet, the veil that has blinded them will be removed and they will see with second sight that which has been denied them throughout their generations, that is that Jesus Christ is in fact Yeshua Messhia, the messiah for whom they have been waiting for all of their generations.
And so the disciples’ question from last weeks gospel remains – “When will these things take place, and what are the signs that will accompany the end?”
There are today so many signs pointing to the end of the Age of Grace that we can hardly see the road upon which we are traveling as we move ever closer to Christ the King coming for his bride. I personally believe that something big is about to happen and it is going to be so spectacular that it is beyond our ability to comprehend. I can only give you in this sermon a hint of what is happening today (just from reading the newspaper last week) and what its consequences may be for the future of us all.
The earth has literally begun to groan as it longs to be free of the curse that was pronounced upon it when Adam and Eve first sinned again God. Strange unidentified sounds coming from no apparent source or direction continue to be reported all over the world today. The sounds are described as heavy scraping, to groaning, to booms or explosions, to a continuous hum.
Freakish weather has become the new “normal.” We are told by our government that we are experiencing global warming, however I can tell you unequivocally that the weather is not being caused by global warming. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that data actually shows we are now experiencing a cooling trend, and a recent report shows that global warming actually ended 16 years ago. The arctic this year saw the shortest summer in recorded history.
Rainfall in Iran has decreased by 58 percent as they continue to threaten to destroy Israel. There were 1,122, record cold temperatures recorded in the U.S. during a single week last winter. Natural disasters have displaced 34 million people since 2012 with concurrent years on track to be even worse. Last summer we experienced 34 major wildfires burning across 11 western states and staggering amounts of rainfall in 16 eastern states. Severe heat was felt across the entire nation. Dormant volcanoes throughout the world are coming back to life.
Earthquakes continue worldwide at an alarming rate and have become so common that they are seldom even reported in the news anymore. Just yesterday there were 32 earthquakes, over magnitude 2.5 in just one city in the State of Oklahoma alone.
In the Bible we are given a message of judgment in the last days. The prophet Hosea foretold how the land, itself would mourn: “Therefore the land mourns, and everyone who lives in it languishes, along with the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky; and also the fish of the sea disappear” (Hosea 3:2). There have been 519 known mass animal die-offs that have occurred in 78 countries within the past three years..
Despite all of the current flooding this past year throughout the world fresh water is now becoming scarce. One-third of the world’s population has limited access to clean water. Egypt is ready to go to war with Ethiopia over the Nile. Pakistan is on the verge of a crisis over the lack of drinking water. Sub-Saharan Africa is in particularly dire need. In 20 African countries, more than 30 percent of the population does not have access to safe drinking water.
In chapter 24 of Matthew Jesus told us that there would be signs in the heavens of His Second Coming. This seems very logical since they will be visible to the entire world. There has been a huge up-tick in solar activity, especially in the southern hemisphere of the sun.
NASA tells us the sun will reverse its magnetic polarity within the next few years and the effects will be felt far beyond the orbit of Pluto, which is the farthest planet in our solar system. A high-speed solar wind buffeted the Earth’s magnetic field last summer and this is caused a G-1 geomagnetic storm around the Earth’s poles.
Jesus told us that there would be an increase of evil in the last days. We have witnessed first hand many of the horrible acts on our nightly new casts on the internet. As you know Islam continues to spread throughout the world with a rabid vengeance. The Militant Muslim world continues to demand that the rest of our planet accept Sharia Law with all of its horrors. Radical Islam hates Jews, Christians, and all other religions with a fanatical passion that can only be described as “supernatural.”
When the restraining influence of Christianity is snatched away from the world in the Rapture a single worldwide religion will form in which I believe Islam will play a very major role. Even the leaders of Islam can sense this. Leaders in Iran are, once again, loudly proclaiming that Armageddon is at hand and to prepare for war because the arrival of the Mahdi (the Anti-Christ) is imminent.
Christianity continues to spiral out of control toward extinction in the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world. Churches, homes, and businesses of Christians in Egypt and Iraq have been stormed and burned.
Christianity is becoming an endangered species in Nigeria where over 100 Christians are murdered each month. Jihad is emptying entire towns in Syria and Iraq. Christian students in Eritrea have been beaten and imprisoned for refusing to renounce Christ. In India five women were publicly beaten for sharing the gospel.
Persecution of Christians here in the U.S. continues to grow in intensity. Ever since the June 26th pro-gay rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, religious persecution of Christians within the United States has increased dramatically. One example would include people who provide services for weddings and have been particularly targeted with horrific fines and even jail time for refusing to provide services for same-sex weddings.
A major sign that the end of the Age of Grace has to be near is the crumbling of fundamental Christian doctrines. Episcopal Church clergy are seen blessing Planned Parenthood abortion clinics and the name of Jesus has become a dirty word in politically correct America as well as the rest of the world.
President Putin of Russia has called for an end to worldwide persecution of Christians, while President Barack Obama has publicly declared that the United States is not a Christian nation and remains silent about worldwide Christian persecution. On July 31st a Muslim Imam opened a session of the United States Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. with an Islamic prayer. A few months ago I watched a story on Fox News showing a small child praying to Obama and praising him for his greatness. I also saw an article about a Facebook post titled, “the Virgin Mary Should Have Aborted.”
Wars and the rumors of wars are one of the major signs we were told to watch for as a sign of the end of the age. Russia recently held the biggest war games in decades, involving 160,000 troops. Well over 4 million people have been displaced, by the fighting in Syria, as the civil war in that nation lingers on. Chemical weapons have been used in the conflict. The fighting in Syria is becoming global as more and more nations send weapons and troops to participate in the fighting.
Last week of course Paris, France suffered immeasurably from multiple attacks on its citizens by ISIS and only yesterday Brussels, Belgium was completely shut down due to an Islamic threat against the people living there.
Signs of an imminent worldwide economic collapse also point to the Rapture occurring at any moment. All of the nations of the world are now bankrupt to one degree or another. Each nation holds the others up in a worldwide Ponzi scheme that could have only existed this long through divine intervention.
When the restraining force of our Lord is removed everything will collapse. The only solution will be a worldwide currency with a mandatory and infallible means of personal identification, such as a biometric scan or an RFID chip.
Right now over 97 percent of the money in the world exists only in the electronic memory of the worlds banking computers. Less than 3 percent of the money in the world is in the form of paper, coins, or bars of precious metal. Traders are talking about a worldwide gold conspiracy and there is evidence to back that up.
In the end times, in order to take over the world: The Antichrist will need to know as much as possible about every single individual. Our government is currently building a mega-data-base on not only all of its citizens, but all of the people of the world. You’ve probably never heard of XKeyscore, but it definitely knows you.
Jesus told us that the Great Tribulation would start at the three and a half year-point of Daniel’s 70th “week” when the Antichrist stands in the Temple and declares himself to be god. Therefore, there will have to be temple for him to stand in. The discussions on rebuilding the Temple are starting to get serious despite severe Islamic objections. The Israeli government is now funding the Temple Mount Institute and other organizations in their efforts to someday very soon rebuild the Temple.
In Revelation Jesus commanded us to watch for His return. He also warned us that if we do not watch He will come upon us as unexpectedly as a thief in the night and if we do not watch, we will not know the day or hour of His return.
Paul told the Thessalonians in his first letter to them to watch for the Lord’s return in the clouds, when the dead in Christ will rise first when the trumpet blows.
The bulk of chapter 24 of the book of Matthew deals with Jesus answer when asked what the signs of his return will be. Chapter 25 contains the parable of the 10 virgins and the importance of watching and being prepared for His return.
Over the centuries there has been much debate as to whether or not we can know the day or hour, but we can certainly know the season. We have that on the highest authority.
Never before in history has there been such an incredible number of signs that something big is about to happen, especially when all of these signs are occurring simultaneously. Many in the unbelieving world react with anger whenever the Rapture is mentioned because it is becoming increasingly impossible to deny.
All of humanity can sense it. Something really, really big is about to happen and it is going to happen very soon. Stockpiling water, food, medicine, and ammunition sounds like good advice, but it is not the answer.
The answer lays in your own heart and where you stand with God. Amen

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