Category Archives: Sermons

Homiletics

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.

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

Endure

Christ Welcoming

Part of the problems encountered with our lectionary at times is that sometimes, unbeknownst to you, the listener, a portion of the story gets left out. This may be because of the need for brevity or just because whoever picks the readings decides for all of us that what he believes to be the important part of the story should be the most important to all of us.
Today we have just such an occurrence in our reading from the Book of Ruth. You may remember that in the story of Ruth, Ruth becomes a widow, along with her mother-in-law Naomi, and the two widows set off for the hometown of Naomi’s relatives. The story recounts the raw emotion of a struggle as Ruth commits herself to the unknown with her mother-in-law as they begin their journey to a foreign land. Ruth pledges her life to her friend in one of the most beautiful passages of the Bible as she begs Naomi to let her come with her and face the unknown together . . .
“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
Where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die–
there will I be buried.
May the LORD do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”
The reading this morning insinuates to us that Ruth basically gives herself to Boaz one night and then they have a child. But it is much more complicated than that, For Boaz is a very righteous man who knows that he is not the first in line for the hand of Ruth – that there is another who is involved with the deal. What the readings miss is a crucial point between the lines where Naomi helps to arrange the marriage between Ruth and Boaz so that a land deal might be worked out with Naomi’s relatives. Once the deal is made and Boaz redeems the land he is then obligated to marry the widow of his cousin – who is Ruth. And that is when they have a child together.
And for those of you who don’t know the rest of the story . . . it is to the little town of Bethlehem that Ruth and Naomi travel . . . where Ruth marries Boaz and eventually becomes the great grandmother of Israel’s greatest King . . . David . . . and later of David’s heir Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Son of God.
What makes the the Story of Ruth and Boaz so important to the Biblical narrative is that within their story is another story, not just of love, but a story of the redemption of property that mirrors yet another story in the Book of Revelation at the end of all things. For in the Revelation Story there is yet another property that must be redeemed by a kinsman, a relative of Adam . . . and there is only one who is found in all of heaven and earth who is worthy to open the scroll – which is the deed to the planet earth and it is this person – Jesus the Christ – who reclaims the world and then redeems his people and marries his bride, which is his church.
As Paul writes to day in his letter to the Hebrews “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” And that is why we call him Lord, for he came to redeem our world and to set us free from sin by way of his own life . . . and his own precious blood.
And so that very shortly now “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”
As the Church Year winds down to the end of the year, we are increasingly being drawn in by the readings to a discussion of what our religion really should mean to us. The Gospel of Christ continually begs the question . . . can your faith survive persecution? How strong is your religion in the face of evil and imminent death? Are you ready to die in your convictions to the faith? These are the questions that haunt us at the end of our church year and as well as at the end of our lives.
It has been said, there are no atheists in foxholes on the battlefield. When the bombs are dropping and bullets are flying . . . that is the time when every man finds true religion. It is when life is sweet and safe, and the outlook of the future is secure that one finds people who say “It is vain to serve God. What do we profit by keeping the God’s commandments or by going about as mourners before the Lord of Hosts?” That is . . . Why should we try to remain honest and pure when, indeed, the only ones having any success at all seem to be wicked, evil people?
I can’t think of a time when the words of the scriptures today were more appropriate to our times than now. Within this past year, hundreds and perhaps thousands of Christians throughout the world have been murdered, tortured, raped or brutalized in some way or another for their belief in thr risen Christ. We hear about this news now almost daily in the newspapers or on television.
Paul wrote to us in Colossians . . . “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
The world cannot understand this because the world is lost in error and a slave to the god of this world. It is through the cross of Christ that Christians have already conquered the worse that the world can offer and so whether we live or whether we die it does not matter, for we are, in fact, the Lord’s possession.
But many who are not quite so sure in this belief may ask how do we develop within ourselves and our friends and families this certainty of faith?
John Stott, one of the foremost evangelicals of our day explains that you must learn that. . . Belief doesn’t come first. One begins with entering in to the experience–going to church, saying the prayers, singing the hymns, meeting other believers in fellowship. If you do this, then eventually, worship will shape your believing. We go to church first and foremost to find a relationship with God. And out of that comes the shaping of belief. If indeed the preaching we hear is centered on the gospel and the worship is faithful and reverent you will begin to cultivate an abiding relationship with God and with each other and true religion will grow. . . . And as it grows you will not be able to contain it within yourself. Others will see in you a change that can only be described as joyful expectation and an inner peace that passes all understanding.
But there is another side to the story that the prophet Jeremiah decries in the prevalence of false religion promoted by false teachers . . . “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD.” Jeremiah speaks of a religion spread by false teachers that is devoid of belief and lacking in faith . . . it is indeed an empty religion.
This of course is amplified by Jesus himself in the gospel today as we read . . . “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
No book is more scathing of empty religion than the Bible. Jesus and the prophets were outspoken in their denunciation of the formalism and hypocrisy of false worship. Jesus applied their critique to the Pharisees of his day: ‘These people [he said] … honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ (Is. 29:13; Mk. 7:6). And this indictment of religion by the Old Testament prophets and by Jesus is uncomfortably applicable to many churches in our world today. In many churches today worship has become ritual without reality, form without power, fun without fear . . . and a religion without God.
And you know what? Many people sense this and leave . . . sometimes never to return again. They are scattered as Jeremiah describes, sometimes never to have a relationship with God again. And because of this, their shepherds and leaders are damned.
So where does that leave the true church in its quest to promote true religion and abiding faith in Christ – the King of Glory? We must always be aware that in fact . . . we do not convert people . . . God does. In fact you would not be here today if God had not instilled in you the desire to be faithful. The Church is merely a participant in God’s mission of salvation. It is our primary task, as believers, to reflect Jesus in our individual and corporate lives . . . to worship and to proclaim Christ in word and deed.
Christianity is a social religion done best in community with other believers. One cannot be a virtual Christian in a virtual world . . . you need to find others and worship and pray with them – for where there is two or three, there is Christ in their midst.
All of us need to realize that Christianity is in its very essence a rescue religion. It does not seek to restrain you . . . or to subject you . . . or to enhance you in any way . . . Christ seeks only to save you and to enrich your life with true joy and a blessing that the world cannot give.
Some believe that they can worship God without including Jesus Christ in the mix. They don’t trust the gospel and believe the New Testament to be a fable made up by the early church to gain followers of the new religion. But you must know that Jesus Christ is at the center of both the Old and the New Testaments. Without the power of the cross and the blood of the Messiah sacrificed for us, there is no help for anyone . . . for without the cross we are all lost in our sins. Christianity without Christ then is a frame without a picture, a door without a handle, a body without breath. In effect Christianity without Christ is completely worthless in every respect . . . in fact Paul describes Christianity as “foolishness” in the eyes of a world that denies Christ. And so the true Church must continue to endure the hardship, insults and hatred that so many inflict on it.
Endurance is the key word for us in the reading from the Book of Ruth. Endurance to persevere under all circumstances. Endurance to run the great race and win the victory and the crown at the end of our lives. Endurance to succeed where others have fallen. Endurance to be tested to the point of breaking. You might think that love, kindness, patience and understanding are the key words in the description of a true believer, and they are important qualities. But, it is endurance against all odds that is the metal from which we are to be forged.
Amen

 

All Saints Day

new-jerusalem-heaven

We begin today by recalling Saint John’s vision . . .
I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
The lessons from the Revelation of Saint John, as I have read them throughout my life, have always reminded me of at least two things . . . one is that, through the mercies of God and his Son, Jesus Christ, a great many of us who are living today will actually make it into heaven . . . and two, it shows that the brightest crowns that are worn in heaven are the ones that have been tried, and smelted, and polished, and glorified in the furnace of hardship and tribulation.
And isn’t that what Jesus came to affirm to us . . . that one . . . we are loved by God, redeemed by God and saved by God . . . and two . . . that those who are one with God will be hated in this world, and persecuted for their belief and rejected by men.
Today of course is a day set aside for the Celebration of All Saints . . . Christians . . . believers in the messiah, the Christ . . . believers like you and like me and like the many millions who have come before us. We, who are the church militant (those living) share this one day in the Church year with the church expectant (all those who have died in the Lord) in joyful anticipation of the final glory that awaits us at the end of all things.
And why do you suppose we do this? What purpose does it serve for the living to remember the dead? Its purpose is to strengthen our resolve to fight on in the midst of great adversity . . . to give us the strength of our convictions in order to live out the gospel message in our own lives . . . To recall those who have died reminds us of their great sacrifice in a just cause, to keep true faith alive so that a people yet unborn might one day inherit the truth and gain for themselves the gift of everlasting life.
As some of you may know, I have always been interested in the lives of the saints, even since I was a kid. Many times in my life I have stopped at the Fatima Shrine in Niagara Falls for a walk among the saints depicted there in sculpture. I have favorite saints as I presume you do also. Mine are St. Francis and St. Augustine. Each month in our newsletter we provide a synopsis of a saint that we celebrate with each issue. Since doing this, I have found that the saints of yesterday were fighting much the same spiritual battles that we continue to fight in our world today. Injustice and hatred towards Christian believers is nothing new and spans pretty much all of the two thousand year history of the church. You need only pick up a newspaper today to know that this is as true today as anytime in the distant past.
So what is there about the cross of Christ which angers the world and stirs them up to persecute those who preach it? John Stott,a famous Anglican evangelist tells us . . . and it just this: Christ died on the cross for us sinners, becoming a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). So the cross tells us some very unpalatable truths about ourselves, namely that we are sinners under the righteous curse of God’s law and that we cannot save ourselves. Christ bore our sin and curse precisely because we could gain release from them in no other way. If we could have been forgiven by our own good works, by being circumcised and keeping the law, we may be quite sure that there would have been no cross. Every time we look at the cross Christ seems to say to us, ‘I am here because of you. It is your sin I am bearing, your curse I am suffering, your debt I am paying, your death I am dying.’ Nothing in history or in the universe cuts each of us down to size like the cross. We all have inflated views of ourselves, especially in self-righteousness, until we have visited a place called Calvary. Because it is there, at the foot of the cross, that we shrink to our true size. And of course men do not like it. They resent the humiliation of seeing themselves as God sees them and as they really are. We prefer our own comfortable illusions and naturally most steer clear of the cross. And in the end they construct a Christianity without the cross, which relies for salvation on their own works and not on Jesus Christ’s. Many do not object to Christianity so long as it is not the faith of Christ crucified. But Christ crucified they detest. And if a preacher preaches Christ crucified, they are opposed, ridiculed, persecuted. Why do you suppose that is true? It is because of the wounds which they inflict on a man’s pride.

I believe Jesus knew all this well in advance and gave us a glimpse of what the future would hold for those saints who truly sought fellowship with God the Father.
And then today is the story of the miracle of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. When we read the gospel it appears that Jesus is delayed, pretty much on purpose, so that his disciples might see the ultimate power of God in raising a person so obviously dead (three days) to life again. What Jesus was trying to show his followers, both those who were with him then as well as those of us who are with him now, is that the resurrection of the dead is not fantastical story but a real life event in the future lives of all believers. For it is the resurrection of the dead that we all await for on that final day of the Lord when he calls, not just his friend Lazarus, but all his friends everywhere and of every time throughout all of history to rise to life and be welcomed into a future and eternal world.
From the wisdom of Solomon we get an assurance of these same promises as we read . . .

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;
like gold in the furnace he tried them,
and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them.
In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,
and will run like sparks through the stubble.
They will govern nations and rule over peoples,
and the Lord will reign over them forever.
Those who trust in him will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with him in love,
because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones,
and he watches over his elect.
Finally, today marks the 498th anniversary of the beginning of the reformation when Martin Luther’s 95 theses were found nailed to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in Germany. This one act of defiance by this one saint of God was to begin a series of events that would bring the Holy Roman Catholic Church to fight a bloody war for its very survival. It would cause the martyred deaths of hundreds of thousands of believers throughout Europe by the hand of the pope . . . and finally it would give rise to the split between the Church at Rome and the Church of England and the formation of the Anglican Church, of which we are a part. We who are alive today can now can look back with the 20-20 clarity of vision and see God’s hand in all this and how in subsequent years the Roman Catholic Church was made to look upon itself and to judge itself for so many misdeeds made in the name of Christ over the centuries. But it is to all the saints of the reformation who stood fast in their faith that we honor and give thanks today, many who were brutally tortured and murdered because they believed that the Holy Spirit of God had shown them a new direction in the worship of God . . . that being worship of God in Spirit and in Truth. Today we believe these Saints, along with all others in a long line of martyrs, now living in the presence of God, celebrate with us today the risen life of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son who along with us who are living join and continue to sing “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!
Amen.

Life Isn’t Fair

Life not Fair-motivated

There was once a story about a Rabbi who was distraught because he didn’t have enough money. One day he entered the synagogue and cried out ‘Lord, Lord I need to win the lottery – my daughter needs braces and my wife wants new furniture’. Nothing happened, so the next week he again went to the synagogue and cried – ‘Lord, Lord I need to win the lottery . . . my daughter needs brace, my wife wants new furniture and my car needs new tires’. Again nothing happened . . . so the third week he went into the synagogue crying out ‘Lord, Lord – I need to win the lottery – my daughter needs brace, my wife wants new furniture, my car needs new tires and my house needs a roof. Please Lord, please I need to win the lottery!’. As he got up leave, a voice came from the midst of the synagogue saying . . . “Saul, Saul” and the rabbi said ‘Yes Lord?’ “Saul” went the voice . . . “meet me half-way . . . buy a ticket”.
One of the things Barbara and I have always taught our children is, if there is a rule number one in life it is that: Life Isn’t Fair. Right or wrong, most of us who are grown-ups accept this rule as a basis of life. It is what we see borne out everyday. We see it in our neighbor’s lives, we see it in the newspapers and on television. We see it also in our own jobs and in our own households as we try to chip out for ourselves a little piece of the American Dream. And even though we have included within our society such things as Equal Opportunity, Leave No Child Behind and Americans with Disabilities equal access laws we know that for the great majority, ourselves included, life is not fair.
A child is taught from the very beginning to share his toys, to clean up his own mess and to help others. These are all altruistic traits that, if everyone actually grew up taking these on as life goals, the world would be a very different place. But, as it is, there are two ways of looking at the world around us. One is the way it ought to be; and the other is the way it actually is. These two perceptions have been at odds with each other since the fall of man.
If you didn’t know it by now, you ought to know that the universe is at odds with itself. There is a tension that exists that forces us to choose sides each and every day. Each day we choose between good and evil, between right and wrong, between our own well-being and the well being of others, between giving and getting, between helping others and helping ourselves.
We are forced, all the time, to choose on issues about war and peace, about sexuality, about smoking in public places, about prayer in schools and about abortion and euthanasia. And this is only part of the tension that we live under.
But, this tension is not the way it is supposed to be. In fact, if there were no one on earth, if man had never been created, this tension would not exist because the fall of man would never have happened. That is why Jesus came; that was his mission; to change the hearts of men to be more in line with the Father’s in heaven. Jesus tried to show us a new way of being one with the universe instead of at odds with it. He tried to teach us what we teach our children when they first start out in school . . . share your toys, help each other out and be kind. Some listen, but many do not. The teachings of Jesus do not always fit easily into the world as we know it; a world that, for the most part, accepts as rule number one: Life Isn’t Fair.
Job, of course, was probably the poster child of ‘Life isn’t Fair’ when we recount the story of how a man who has everything and then suddenly stricken with terrible misfortune and as a result loses all . . . his home, his possessions, his family and his health . . . . all because of a bet between God and Satan . . . and then to regain it all back again in today’s reading . . . a very strange story indeed. The point of course was that God wanted to prove to Satan that Job, a righteous soul, would love God no matter what happened in his life . . . no matter how rough things got. Some may ask if this was a real story or just an object lesson. To answer it I guess you would need to believe that God would actually test someone to the very limits of his life to prove a point to someone else who thoroughly hated him.
Then there is the story of Bartimaeus. In thinking about him this week I couldn’t keep my thoughts off the details of the story. A blind man in Palestine was probably considered not only useless but most likely was thought of as being punished by God for something that he might have done. He was desperately poor and begged for what little he had . . . he begged every day for his very life. His only possession was a cloak that probably kept him warm at night and protected him from the sun by day. And the people crushing around him, telling him to ‘keep quiet’ since they heard him begging every day and probably thought of him as the town nuisance.
And yet he yells out in the din of the crowd anyway “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus hears him and calls him forth and as the story goes . . . So throwing off his cloak (the only thing he owns – his only protection against the elements), Bartimaeus, a blind man, sprang up and came to Jesus.
What this story tries to instill in us is how to pray when we really, desperately need something and how God responds to us when we pray. I am no expert on this subject but as a guy with a lot of gray hair and a few years on me, I’ll tell you what I think. I think God is quite different from us in many ways. We may have been created in God’s image but because of the fall I doubt very much we think in quite the same way. Jesus gives us a lot of clues as to the way God thinks in his stories.
You may remember the story of the unrighteous judge, who after finally getting tired of hearing the complaint of the woman day after day, finally grants her request, just to be rid of her. Not a very nice story . . . but a story with a point.
Or the story about the man who finds a pearl in a field and then goes and sells everything he owns to buy that field . . .
Or how about the untrustworthy manager who make deals with his employer’s creditors before he is fired so that someone might hire him after his job loss.
These stories and the story of Bartimaeus this morning show us that it takes more than just asking to have prayers answered . . . it really takes three things – faith, hope and charity.
God rewards faith without limit. He also rewards charity, as much as ten fold. And he especially rewards hope as we struggle against all the obstacles we encounter in the world, in the flesh, and from the devil.
But you may ask . . . what if I am lacking in faith? Or what if I lack charity? And what if I am a coward at heart and lack hope? Then find someone who has the traits that God respects . . . someone who you know loves God and ask his help to pray for you. And if you can’t find some one like that in particular, then find a group, a community that shares a common conviction and have them pray for you. This works . . . I know it does because it has happened in my life.
We all know deep down what our lives should be like . . . that we are supposed to be fair. It’s one of the reasons we patiently wait in lines at the bank, at the market check out and at the airport. It is one of the reasons traffic lights are timed and ordered and we all agree to drive on the same side of the road. It is one of the reasons we keep schedules in our work and school life and we all agree to the same standards of measurement and time. If things were not somewhat ordered, life would be far more chaotic than it already is.
But on the same token, we know that Utopia is only a pleasant thought for philosophers and that communism will not work in this world. There is always someone or some group who will desire power and assume control over the masses, and there is always the tendency of the masses to relinquish the power they hold to a false hope or an unrealized dream.
The universe is well ordered and set into motion like a gigantic clockwork. But within the rules of universal order there is always the possibility of collision and of chaos. But upon collision, even though it may be devastating, the rules of order (gravitation, thermodynamics and physics) continue to take precedence until equilibrium is again achieved.
Faith, hope and Charity are the unchangeable rules in the spiritual world. God has set them as the standard for our existence. In our own lives, collision with others will occur and chaos may rule temporarily making life seem terribly unfair. But through our troubles the laws of the spirit continue to bring order out of the chaos, to bring light out of darkness and to bring life out of death.
The reason for the existence of the Universal Church of Jesus Christ is to bring order into the lives of people within the chaos and hardship they experience in their earthly walk. The church holds the greatest gift to mankind, for within it resides the salt of the earth. And as long as we as a church continue to resist the world; yet remain in the world, we will remain salt and will retain great value as the agent of God’s will. But as Jesus warns, once the saltiness is lost (i.e. should the church succumb to the world) its value will be diminished and its continued existence will be in doubt.
The number one rule of life that we, as Americans, have all come to believe and accept in this world is that Life is Not Fair; but the number one rule that Jesus came to teach us about everlasting life is: Do unto others as we would have them do unto us. These two statements are at odds with each other, just as we may at times be at odds with each other through random collisions between us in life. One person, Winston Churchill, resolves this with a statement that I think is profound when he said . . .

We make a living by what we get,
we make a life by what we give.

Amen.