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Quiet in the Land

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Back when I was a boy, my family had, what might be described as ‘a crazy old aunt’ who was forever dreaming dreams.  Crazy was at least how my father described my Aunt Lou.  In effect though, she was what may be described today as a clairvoyant.  In talking with other folks over the years, apparently every family appears to have either a crazy old aunt or uncle living in the attic or hiding somewhere in the family’s lineage.  Perhaps you do too.

My Aunt though was far from crazy because she was able to foretell some of worse occurrences in my father’s life.  My father played hockey as a young man in Buffalo and way before the Buffalo Sabres or Buffalo Braves, area churches used to have hockey, baseball, and bowling teams.  Some churches even had bowling alleys right in the basement.  Well, my aunt happened to warn my dad on two occasions, not to go out and play hockey.  On one occasion he broke his nose which never quite healed right and on the other occasion his calf was severed by a hockey skate blade.  And yet he never quite believed his sister was able to know the future before it happened.

Anyway, while I was growing up my aunt happened to tell my mom future things about me.  One was that I would marry a girl in a yellow dress who had blue eyes which, as it turned out, was what my wife Barbara was wearing the day I saw her in high school Physics class for the first time.    The other thing she told my mom was that I would one day be priest in Buffalo, but not until my hair had turned white.  A few years back, when I had left the Episcopal Church, I also left any idea of being ordained a priest, because having left for the reasons I did, there was no going back.  But since that time, as you know, this particular prophesy came true.

So what are prophesies?  And do they always come true?  How do we know they are from God or from somewhere else?

The bible, of course is full of prophetic words written by prophets, kings and others who were very in tune with God and the way he works.  Many of the prophesies of the bible have already come true, some . . .  centuries ago . . . like the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD (as foretold by Jesus), and some within our own generation, like the establishment of Israel as a nation in one day  in 1948 (thru the prophet Isaiah). 

Today is one of those few Sundays that coincides with a church feast day that normally falls on a week day.  Today is the feast of the presentation of Christ in the temple.  The reason for this day is to celebrate the arrival of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem when he was a baby and the purification of Mary after childbirth.  At one time, it was appropriate for young mothers to bring their newborns after a month to church for much the same reason.  We still have in our prayer book a blessing and thanksgiving for mothers and babies after childbirth.

In our story today, 31 days after birth, the time came for Mary and Jesus to be presented at the temple in Jerusalem for the purification service. Jesus had to be presented, like all new babies, to be ‘paid for’. This was a way of recognizing that the baby was a gift from God and really belonged to him, so the parents had to symbolically ‘buy back’ the baby from God. The amount that had to be paid for a baby was about 60 grams of silver.

Mary also had to go to the temple to be symbolically made clean and pure for the blood that she had lost when she gave birth. To be made pure, a dove or other bird had to be sacrificed; and to be made clean, a lamb to be sacrificed. However, if you were poor, a dove could be sacrificed instead of a lamb. That is why a pair of doves or pigeons were sacrificed in today’s story.

When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple for the purification service, he was welcomed and nursed by two very old people. Many of the Jews at this time were eagerly awaiting a mighty and magnificent king, who would lead the people to glorious victory against their enemy, Rome. But there were others looking for a just and godly Messiah. They were known as the ‘Quiet in the Land’, for they spent their days in prayer and worship of God, waiting patiently for the day when he would send his chosen Savior to earth. Simeon and Anna were two of the Quiet in the Land. They had waited many years to see God’s promised Messiah. As soon as they saw the baby Jesus they recognized him as God’s Deliverer and knew that their dreams were fulfilled.

One of the most beautiful pieces of prose in the prayer book is the statement by the prophet Simeon that we read in the gospel lesson this morning.  It reads . . .

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, *

    according to thy word;

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, *

    which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,

To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, *

    and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Simeon was one among those enigmatic characters that we read about in the bible, who appears once and then is all but forgotten in history.  Today Simeon appears in the gospel story with Anna, the daughter of Phanuel who also gives a prophetic testimony of the boy Jesus who has been brought to the temple by his parents.

We know that prophetic witness is from God when we reflect on the spirit of who it has come from but most especially when the prophesy comes true.  Satan will offer all kinds of prophecies that may tickle our fancy but which simply are lies to trick the gullible.  But God knows . . . and because he knows, prophetic witness from God’s followers will always come true because it can be no other way.  This is why we trust in the bible and hold onto scripture as God’s revelation to us.

Simeon, Anna, Jesus, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and Solomon and David and many, mnay others were provided with dreams and visions of future events.  Some were called crazy when they lived, but very few are called crazy now.

As we enter the end times let us keep in mind some of the revelations of the prophet Joel who wrote . . . . “It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, Your old men will dream dreams, Your young men will see visions. “Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days. “I will display wonders in the sky and on the earth, Blood, fire and columns of smoke “The sun will be turned into darkness And the moon into blood Before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes “And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the LORD Will be delivered; For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem There will be those who escape, As the LORD has said, Even among the survivors whom the LORD calls.

As we await this day, let us pray that we do not fail in our faith or become faint hearted because the days ahead we know will be difficult.  You and I are a remnant of a once great faith and as a reminder of our faith today we will renew the vows that we took on at our baptism as we present ourselves to God as the Quiet of the Land in this church as Jesus did in his temple so many centuries ago.

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Who_me

Several years ago I was working with a construction company in Clarence, and I happened to hire, as a subcontractor, the company I am now with, to help build a Rite Aid in Niagara County.  Through this relationship, this other company got to know me well and I got to know them.  The project ended successfully and I thought that perhaps that was that . . . until about two years later the vice president called and asked if I would someday consider working for them in Niagara Falls because he was retiring.  They would eventually offer me enough money to make the move and so I did about a year later.  By the time I came on board in Niagara Falls, I knew just about everyone there and I knew exactly what was expected of me.  There were no real surprises about the work and I have been there ever since.  In my experience, this is generally the way people get hired, through relationships.  We generally want to be able to know someone’s ‘ins and outs’ before making a commitment to them.  It’s a very human thing and it is the way it is for us in selecting jobs, in selecting our friends, in our love life, and in all the many other relationships and connections that envelope our lives . . . except of course . . . our families . . . it seems that God chooses to pick them for us.

It has always seemed to have been the contention of the church that the fisherman in today’s gospel, Peter, James, Andrew and John dropped everything at the calling of Jesus and then just got up and left.  To me this story seems to lack some reality, especially if you figure Peter was married and had a family. How many of us sitting here today, given a great opportunity, would be able to leave ‘right now’ on an adventure of a lifetime?  I know I would need to make a lot of arrangements for the care of my pets and property and I would certainly need to be able to explain it to my wife.  Actually, I remember explaining my desire to enter the ministry to her many years back and getting a blank stare when she realized I would be doing something that would take me away from home every week. Actually, thirty-some years later, I still get those blank stares every so often.

So what about the disciples?  Do you think it is logical to presume that they all left at Jesus’ calling at the drop of a hat, or do you think there might be more to the story?

Since there is no proof recorded either way, it would seem logical to assume that Jesus had previously selected these men for a mission.  I believe they knew Jesus as well as Jesus knew them and that they were waiting for the call that would change their lives.  I think the call may have come when John the Baptist was arrested.  This is more in keeping with the way God operates.  I can’t think of anyone (except perhaps the rich young ruler in the gospels) that wasn’t given an opportunity to make a choice based on some kind of foreknowledge of the risks and the rewards.

If we presume for the moment that Jesus knew these guys, (who were by the way, the inner circle of his group), why do you suppose Jesus picked them?  And just as importantly, why did Jesus pick us?

There was Peter and his brother Andrew, James the son of Zebedee and John . . . .  all of them fisherman by trade, they obviously were hardworking men.  It was Peter though, who owned his own business.  Now, if any of you knows about business owners, you know that nearly all of them (at least the ones I know) work 60-70 hours a week.  They are there when no one else is around, in the early morning and late into the night.  Why? . . . You might think it is to make money, but I would tell you that they do it because they love what they do.  Don’t get me wrong, they like the money, but it isn’t what drives them.  They love the game, the people, but especially the excitement of the risk.  And that’s the key, business people thrive on risk.  They risk there time, their fortunes and sometimes their health because they are enticed by the prize in the end, the prize of success.  I believe that to convince someone like that to drop everything and move on would take a little more than a one liner . . . even if it was from Jesus.  And that is why I think they knew each other well beforehand and were able to get up and leave everything behind.  They were already prepared, packed and ready to go.

And what about us?  The Bible is forever warning us to be prepared.  We are to be prepared because we don’t know when the ‘bridegroom’ will appear.  We are to be prepared because we don’t know when the ‘end’ will come.  We are to be prepared because we don’t know what hour that our ‘soul will be required’.  Hopefully, those of us sitting here today are as well prepared as we can be to face this unknown challenge.  It is important to realize that the earthquake that devastated Japan’s nuclear plant just three years ago next month could just as well have occurred right here on the Niagara Frontier.  We too, live near a giant fault line in the earth. Fortunately for us, it has been inactive for 60,000 thousand years.  But, 60,000 year ago it created the Niagara escarpment along with Niagara Falls and separated Lake Ontario from Lake Erie in one cataclysmic movement.

The Bible tells us that all have been called, but only a few have been chosen.  How do we know that we have been chosen?  We know when we come to realize through our relationship with him, just as the disciples did, that God is the most important thing in our life and that doing his will becomes a risk worth taking.

We also know that we have been chosen because we know God knows us as well as we knows ourselves.

The psalmist wrote of this personal relationship when he wrote Psalm 139 which reads:

1       Lord, you have searched me out and known me; *

you know my sitting down and my rising up;

you discern my thoughts from afar.

2       You trace my journeys and my resting‑places *

and are acquainted with all my ways.

3       Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, *

but you, O Lord, know it altogether.

4       You press upon me behind and before *

and lay your hand upon me.

5       Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; *

it is so high that I cannot attain to it.

6       Where can I go then from your Spirit? *

where can I flee from your presence?

7       If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *

if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

8       If I take the wings of the morning *

and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

9       Even there your hand will lead me *

and your right hand hold me fast.

10     If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me, *

and the light around me turn to night,”

11     Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day; * darkness and light to you are both alike.

12     For you yourself created my inmost parts; *

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

13     I will thank you because I am marvelously made; *

your works are wonderful, and I know it well.

14     My body was not hidden from you, * while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth.

15     Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb; all of them were written in your book; *

they were fashioned day by day, when as yet there was none of them.

16     How deep I find your thoughts, O God! *

how great is the sum of them!

17     If I were to count them, they would be more in number

than the sand; * to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours.

After reading this psalm, can we not tell that you have been chosen? That you are well known by our creator and that you are loved?  But the bigger question is . . . Why Me?  Why was I chosen?  Why you?  Why were you chosen?

The disciples were chosen because Jesus knew that they could be trusted with the greatest of missions.  They were hard working people with great courage and great honor.  But the most important thing for us to realize is that, the disciples had faults and they had weaknesses, but Jesus saw past them, just as we see past the faults of our own friends.  Jesus was able to use these men with all there vulnerabilities just as he is able to use us with all of ours.  What separates us most from Jesus are just those kinds of things, i.e. feelings of unworthiness, feelings of lust, greed, laziness, and fear . . . feelings we all have within us to some degree or another; but God uses us for his purposes despite our faults.

And that is the great mystery of His relationship with us.  Amen.

 

Epiphany

Epiphany icon

Often, over the course of our lives, we have heard the expression, “I had an epiphany last night!”.  It is a saying that kind of reminds us of the “Eureka” that Alexander Bell shouted out when he heard his telephone work for the first time.  An epiphany with a little ‘e’ is about a life changing experience that happens perhaps once or twice in a lifetime that changes everything about the way we think, the way we live and the way we are.  Just such an epiphany was the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan for John and John’s disciples.

In our Western churches, Epiphany (with a Big ‘E’) commemorates the revealing of the infant Jesus to the Shepherds and Three Wise Men who had come from the East. In Eastern churches, it celebrates the baptism of Jesus.  In the Anglican tradition, we walk the fence . . . as usual . . . and celebrate both.  The word Epiphany comes from a Greek 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 the Feast of Epiphany gospel we heard a week ago 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.  (We have no idea whether he liked broccoli or not.) There exists an additional text not used in the Bible 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 a 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 the day he was baptized.  They believe that this miracle caused his epiphany, and that his ministry began at these words from the Father in heaven.  Others believe that Jesus always was aware of his true identity from birth and that the voice was manifested to confirm it, not only to Jesus, but especially to others like John and his disciples, standing by.  They believe the voice of confirmation caused John the Baptist to have an epiphany and confirmed his role as the Preparer of the Way, which also lead to his eventual arrest and execution by Herod.  It also confirmed for John’s disciples, that here was the Messiah, pronounced by their own master, as the one. . .  “And I myself have seen and testified that this is the Son of God”.  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 experiences come in many forms and in many ways.  In today’s story, the disciples of John will eventually leave the Baptist to go and stay with Jesus.  They never look back after that, and are always with him throughout the gospels up until the time of the end.  And that is the way Jesus works, through life altering encounters, for some, similar to Jacob, wrestling with an angel, and for others, simply an invitation to ‘come and see’.

I have witnessed many people having life changing experiences at Cursillo.  One of those was that of Bob Coykendale, a local justice of the peace and an Historian. He came to Cursillo No. 1 and was totally startled into the realization that God could reveal Himself in such a profound way to him.  I was Bob’s table leader, and every time I ever saw him after that time, he reminded me of the event.  And that was almost 40 years ago.  Others in the Cursillo movement could tell you of many, many people to whom God revealed himself in the three day encounter.

Other life changing experiences come in times of sickness or distress.   In my own life, I have nearly died twice. During these times, at each moment, when I felt most abandoned, here was God, ready to release me from my pain and uncertainty, and envelope me with his healing touch.  These times were for me, my own epiphany, the times when I felt most changed and most committed to doing his will.  But, it should come as no surprise that God would reveal himself at our weakest, most vulnerable moments in our lives.  It is at those times in our lives that He has our full attention.  It is at those times that we are most vulnerable and most open to his spirit . . . especially if we want to live.

But, there are other times . . .  times of God’s own choosing, when he reveals himself to us that causes us to change our lives in mid-stream.  These are the 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 continually to 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.

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, perhaps more importantly, he would know all of our faults and foibles.  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 by 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.  The most important thing we all should realize and keep forever in our hearts is that the only Christ that some may meet in their lives is the one that we mirror in our thoughts, in our words and in our deeds.  This is how Jesus worked back two thousand years ago when he told the disciples, ‘come and see’ when asked where he was staying . . . and it is the same way he works today in the hearts and minds of all the faithful.  Amen

 

2nd Sunday in Christmas

three kingsthree kingsthree kings

Last week, if you’ll remember, I mentioned a water color from the year 1794 painted by William Blake entitled ‘The Ancient of Days’.  It is a picture, 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 . . . as it could very well be the end as well.  In effect William Blake was trying to show God in the person of an architect, one of the few professions beside builders who used dividers at the end of the 18th century.

The message of this work speaks about the design of creation and just how involved God is in it.  We often picture God as a kindly 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 taught that our 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 in the beginning 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 the lessons ask us to think about today.

As a general contractor, I am often in contact with the architects of the buildings that we estimate and construct. As a lead project manager, I am responsible to see that that the intent of the architect’s design is accomplished and built as precisely as possible to the design drawings.  Sometimes it is difficult work, because being human myself, I have found that architects and engineers make mistakes . . . as well as builders.  When this happens, adjustments are made to compensate for error.  Fortunately, no one ever notices these adjustments and the only ones who are aware of them are the builders themselves and a few astute construction 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 perfect architect and he chooses some from among us to be his builders. And occasionally we 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 son 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 older brothers got together and sold Joseph to a slave trader bound for 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 son was named Ephraim.  The short story is that after Joseph saved his entire family from a famine through the interpretation of a dream, Jacob, Joseph’s father, blessed his two grandsons, knowingly promoting the second born, Ephraim to firstborn status and adopting him as his son into the nation of Israel.  God told Jacob, we assume in a dream, that Ephraim was his choice to be placed ahead of the others because Ephraim’s descendants were destined to become many nations.  In this way God, thru Jacob was showing us that the last would 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 way God was predicting an adjustment that would be made in creation . . . one that he planned all along to redeem the gentiles and adopt them into the household of faith.

 

Next from the Gospel of Matthew today we read:

 

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet . . . .

 

It was no accident that Bethlehem was destined to become the birthplace of the Messiah, because the rest of the story is that this is the place from which Jacob brought his whole family into Egypt to escape the famine foretold by God to Joseph in Pharoah’s dream.  The entire lineage of Jacob’s family heritage was buried in Bethlehem including Rachel and Leah his wives and Jacob himself whose bones were brought out of the eventual slavery in Egypt and buried there by Joshua some 200 years later.

I believe that the most important part of the story of the wise men is that somehow, these gentile men were given advance notice that someone great was to be born and the general place of the birth was to their west in the tiny country of Israel.  The other part is that they actually went off to seek the object of their desire, carrying gifts no less, indicating that they had great faith and truly expected to find a real king born to whom they could pay homage.

One of the repeating themes throughout the Christmas story is how God communicates with us and how he continues to get his message across.  Mary, of course, has the most famous story having been visited by the angel Gabriel announcing the birth of Emmanuel and also of John the Baptist.  But others in the Christmas story were also inspired with messages from God.  One of the most important was the message Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, received in a dream telling him to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt because King Herod’s forces were out to destroy the baby Jesus.  The wise men, we are told today, also had a dream telling them not to return to King Herod but to leave the country by another way.  The wise men were led by a new star, today believed to have been a super nova that appeared in the night sky around 3 AD . . . but no one really knows for sure.

By communicating to us in many different ways and by manipulating the outcome of the design of creation, God has been proven to sometimes predetermine outcomes and to sometimes change things as it may please him or as may be best for us.  The Church calls this doctrine ‘predestination’ and it has in the past been a controversial 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 do you think is Paul saying here . . . Were we adopted and destined to be believers before the foundation of the world?  Isn’t this the definition of predestination?  And if so what about free will?  Theologians have pondered these questions over the centuries and have found only paradox . . . an unanswerable question . . . a ‘catch 22’ . . . in our own vernacular.

 

During the age of Elizabeth I, the western orthodox faith endeavored to answer the 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.”

 

The Bible is clear that God’s predestinating and electing love, his apparent 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 both the Old and New Testaments, is the story of God’s choice, for his sovereign purposes.  He chose Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, David, and all the prophets. On a grander 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 pure and unmerited love.  All these Old Testament choices pointed to the coming Christ at Bethlehem.  God was choosing these people to be the ancestors and the bearers of the new covenant, his chosen one, his Messiah.  In the New Testament Jesus himself is the only one who is called elect.  Members of his church are described as being chosen in him. Jesus has from the beginning been the focus of God’s choice.  The Important thing to remember here is that apart from Christ 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 to us) and that gives us grounds for assurance.  How can I know I am going to heaven?  Because I know that Christ died for me, that I am one of those chosen by God in Christ to receive the benefits for which He died.  If my eternal salvation depended on the strength and lasting quality of my choices in life, there would be little hope for me.   Because it rests on the foundation and constancy of God’s choice, you and I can be completely secure.

The doctrine of predestination should be of unspeakable comfort to Christians and to those who feel within themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ.   We are meant to be assured that He has set His love upon us and will never let us go.

We, as human beings, 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 all. It may be a mystery but our task is crystal clear.  We are to be about building and sustaining God’s Kingdom here on the earth.

What the readings today 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. He ensures our salvation by not only calling us in all the varied the circumstances of our lives, but calling us effectively with words of love and a gospel of truth and power that people of faith cannot refuse. He promises never to let us go when we come to Christ. He keeps us secure in Christ for all eternity.  And that my friends, is Good News.  Amen

At the Name of Jesus

KingJesus

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name.  Back in the days of my youth, the Church Calendar recognized this feast as the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus.  But in more recent times we have become a little queasy with the word ‘circumcision’ and this holy day (transferred to today) has become secularly known as New Years Day, but in the church it is known as Feast of the Holy Name.

In order to understand this feast day, we really need to go back to the gospel for today and find out more about what is happening in today’s continuation in the reading of the Christmas story.

As you should know, Jesus was a Jew.  He became Jewish on the eighth day of his life when Joseph took Jesus to present him to the temple priest for circumcision and to receive a name.  Today there is a lot of controversy over the custom of circumcision, but in the days of Jesus and even to this day, all males who are born into or who are converted to the Jewish faith are required to be ritually circumcised as part of the covenant between God and the children of Abraham.  It was only through a personal sacrifice, which to the Old Testament Jews meant, the literal separation of blood and flesh that the covenant could be consummated.  The covenant was a contract and was done, as we understand it, for a very mystical but also a very practical reason, so that a man might be able to hold the Torah in his hands and interpret its meaning. 

The practice of initiation through circumcision was one of the first controversies settled by the Christian church fathers. The Jewish converts into Christianity wanted to continue this ancient practice and require that every male who adopted Christianity be circumcised in the tradition of the covenant with Abraham.  But it was Paul, himself a Jew, who argued against this because as he put it, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and faith in his blood, there is no longer a need for an outward sign of the covenant because we have all been reborn in the Spirit and are adopted through God’s grace into a new covenant between God and all of mankind.  You can imagine that many of the gentile coverts in the early church were quite relieved at this far reaching decision. 

But for Jesus and Joseph this was quite normal and it was at this point that Jesus received his name, which in Aramaic is Yeshua which means literally, ‘Savior’.  But the interesting part of the story is that Jesus did not receive his name from his parents or his family, like most kids.  If you remember, it was Gabriel who told Mary at the annunciation that she was to name the child ‘Jesus’ and that he would be great and be called the Son of God and that he would save his people.  And so, it was God himself who named Jesus.

Names are of great importance in Holy Scripture.  In the Old Testament God reveals himself to Moses and pronounces his name.  Now the name of God is steeped in mystery because the priests of the temple did not want the name to fall into the hands of evil men.  The closest we have come to know it is as ‘Yahweh’ which means ‘The one who causes things to happen’ or ‘the Lord’.

Think to yourself for a moment where you would be without your name.  Like the ‘bulletproof monk’ you would be like the wind.  No one could control you if they could not call on you.  You would be invisible, wouldn’t you?  Names are one of the most important things that define us.  Our names, both first and in many cases last names all have meaning, many of them hidden within our family’s history.  My name, Edward for instance is Anglo Saxon and means ‘Guardian’.  I have known this all my life and have often felt that it has defined part of who I was to become as I grew up.  Many people I know have been greatly influenced by the meaning of their names, especially among the clergy.

Right up there with the gift of Free Will, one of the greatest gifts we have been given is the ability to name things.  If you remember from the story of Genesis, it was God who called the firmament heaven and the land earth.  It was also God who named the sun and the moon and day and night.  But then, as the story goes, God made man and named him Adam and he gave to Adam dominion over creation as the text reads from Genesis . . . ‘And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them: and whatever Adam called every living creature, that was the name it was given.’

One of my favorite paintings is a very famous one called ‘the Ancient of Days’ by the writer/artist William Blake.  I inserted it in this month’s Newsletter.  It depicts God the Father as a weathered windswept ancient man with a giant pair of dividers in his hand hovering over the earth as an architect over his design.  As the great I AM ‘who causes things to happen’, God provides all the mathematical equations, the laws of gravity, motion and thermodynamics, a design and a platform in time and space on which his creation is based.  In all this expanse of the universe, God creates galaxies and suns and planets in their courses but gives names to only a few things that we know of . . . they are the sun, the moon, the earth, the sea, heaven, Adam and of course, Jesus.  The rest, for some reason known only to Him, he leaves up to us to ponder, to discover and to name like a gigantic game of Pictionary.  And we’ve been trying to figure it all out ever since.

Today we celebrate the one name that God shared with all of us, a name that is on par with creation itself, the name of Jesus, at which all knees will bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth.  I believe that this is just how important this event of the incarnation was.  For at the naming of Jesus and the passing of the Davidic Kingdom to him, time itself began afresh thanks to the forethought of the church fathers at the Year 1 and continues in every land and nearly every language two thousand and fourteen years later until this very day.

Jesus was named Savior and came to earth for one reason and one reason only.  That was in fact his name’s sake . . . that he would be the savior his people. 

To understand the importance of the name ‘Jesus’ we must go forward in time about 33 years into the infant Jesus’ future.  Here we will find him at Passover with the disciples where they will break bread together, and during his last hours with the disciples before he dies Jesus will offer up broken bread and wine poured out as a perpetual memory of the coming sacrifice of his body and blood on the cross.  Because, just like the sacrifice of circumcision that required the separation of both flesh and blood, the new covenant that God had in mind also required personal sacrifice in order to consummate it.  It was Jesus who was appointed from the beginning to be that sacrifice, appointed by his Father from before he was born in order to save his people.  For in the very hour that Jesus was hung dying on the cross, what some may have not realized is that the Passover lambs in the temple were being sacrificed for the sins of the Jewish people.  This is why the church calls Jesus the Lamb of God. . . for in so doing, by willingly going to the cross and taking onto himself the sins of the whole world, Jesus became the means of sacrifice that saved his people.

So what should the Feast of the Holy Name mean to us in this place and at this time?  For me, it gives me peace in knowing that all is as it was destined to be, that the order of the universe which was broken by man’s sin has now been restored and that believers in Jesus the Savior live in victory over the grave.  It gives me hope that the miraculous story of the incarnation will continue to unfold through future generations as the church cycle of seasons continues and until we are all finally called home.  And it gives me a feeling of deep and abiding gratitude that God would humble himself to live among us as one of us and to offer his life so that I might live in him; and finally it gives me a feeling of resolve to live a life worthy of his call to me as a servant, as a brother and as a friend.

Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

In the beginning was the Word . . .

 

Beginning

The three gospels that we are most familiar with, that of Matthew, Mark and Luke, give us an eyewitness account of the birth of Jesus . . . a story that we all know very well.  They recount the story of Mary and Elizabeth and their pregnancies.  They tell about Joseph and his dreams sent from God to protect the Holy Family.  They each tell of wise men and the holy angels and poor shepherds who visited the baby in the manger.  They each tell of the evil deeds of King Herod when he found out that he was tricked by the wise men, and they all tell about the holy family’s flight into Egypt and their eventual return.  These are the stories that we know, that we’ve grown up with and that are familiar to us in our carols and hymns at Christmas time.

But the fourth Gospel, the one we read this evening is quite different.  The Gospel of John tells us about who Jesus really is. 

‘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 . . . . . No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.’ It is he who has become for us – Emmanuel – God with us.

Human beings, for the most part, think in terms of months, years and decades.  We do this because we are time driven, finite beings.  We all know that we have a beginning, and we are all (sometimes painfully) aware that someday we will have an end.  It is hard for us to think in perspective of hundreds of years.  I can remember back perhaps forty of my sixty-four years.  Before that it becomes a blur.  In history, we learn about things that happened hundreds of years ago and some things that happened perhaps thousands of years ago.  But for the most part, things that happened beyond six or seven thousand years ago tend to remain somewhat obscure in our collective human conscience.  We aren’t that clear on the dinosaurs or on the ice age because we only have fossils and a few footprints left to identify with.  The baby Jesus in the manger is relatively easy to envision at a mere 2,000 years, but the creation, we tend to limit with our understanding of the event.  For some, there is the feeling that 8,000 years is a good estimate and yet for others 8 million years might be better.

But science today has been given a number of clues that the creation was not millions of years ago or even tens of millions.  It has been estimated that the universe we live in is at least fourteen billion years old; and that this may not be the only universe ever created; there may be others.  Science has also been given clues as to our own origins and the origin of all matter.  There is clear evidence that the creation we see, the rocks, the metals, the air and everything that is, is the result of the implosion of hydrogen and helium driven stars.  There also seems to be evidence that at one time there was nothing and then  . . suddenly . . . there was everything, as if someone ‘gave the Word’ and it was.

It is even harder to imagine that every particle of every being . . . every atom that ever existed or was created is still here and yet even more bizarre, if you think about it long enough . . . they are within all of us and make up our very being.  I may be 64 years old, but the components that make me and you and the entire world around us are in a word . . . ancient, created hundreds of millions of years ago by the God of creation who we can only regard as incomprehensible.

Then there is DNA, the stuff of life, a molecular compound that within every cell stores a nearly infinite record of our collective histories and exact instructions on how to build a human being . . . and not just any human, but a particular human like ‘me’ and a particular human like ‘you’ from the primal elements of creation.  And what of the prime mover in all this?  Is it a mystery for us to ponder, as many secularists have declared –or- have, we who believe, been given clues to the origin of our creation? 

The Christmas gospel we read tonight from John the Evangelist bears witness to these mysteries that in the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was 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.

Jesus, the Christ, has been described in the scriptural texts as the Author of Life.  Life itself is God’s crowning glory of his creation.  For out of the billions of suns and planets in the universe, it was on this planet earth where God chose to create life where there was none.  The gospel bears witness to the fact that Jesus was with God billions of years before the world came into being.  That alone is hard for me to imagine.  But harder still, is the fact that he came personally to save this creation from certain doom in the form of one of us as Emmanuel – God with Us.  Why do you suppose he did that?  I believe that life itself is so important, so unusual, and so delicate an event in the universe that it continues to command God’s every attention.

That is why Jesus tells us in the gospels that every hair on your head is numbered and that not even a sparrow falls out of a tree without God’s knowledge.  That is how important all life is to God’s purpose.  So important, in fact, they He came personally to protect what was His from the beginning so that nothing would be lost, but would forevermore be with Him, where he is.

Jesus came into the world, born of a woman, to buy back his lost creation with his own blood.  As Paul tells in his letter to the Galations  . . . before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.  Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.  In other words, before Christ, we were subjects under the law and we were also condemned under the law.   But through Christ and faith in his blood, we have been acquitted under the law and made free to become adopted into the family of God where we are able to call God ‘Abba’ father – or a more literal translation – daddy!

This is the ultimate gift of Christmas: that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that none would perish but have everlasting life.  By accepting this free gift, we become true sons and true daughters of the most high and heirs to the Kingdom of God.

We celebrate this truth each and every week in the Eucharist as we perpetually remember the great mystery of Christ’s sacrifice  . . .  We who are believers can bear witness to these great events by living lives worthy of God’s call to us.  Whether we call ourselves Protestant, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, or Messianic Jew, we have been chosen by the Lord of Life and author of all creation to respond to him in praise and adoration through acts of hope, love and charity for all people.   And I am not talking about the ‘ho-hum’ lives of faithless humanism in which we Americans tend to find common ground, but in justice and in truth and in service to all people everywhere and in all the varied situations of life.  To be excited about our freedom and our faith just as King David was in tonight’s Psalm . . .

 

Sing to the LORD a new song, *

for he has done marvelous things.

With his right hand and his holy arm *

has he won for himself the victory.

The LORD has made known his victory; *

his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.

He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel, *

and all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

 

The prophets of old weren’t complaining about getting out of bed each week to go to temple, they were . . . all of them . . . living their faith like . . . ‘free men’  . . . who were once condemned under the law!  And so should we see each and every day as a blessed opportunity to praise God and to serve all God’s people where ever we find them.  This year we found that our Anglican friends in Tanzania live life loving and praising God even in the worse imaginable circumstances.  Their families live in poverty and have suffered for years from AIDS and HIV.  And yet, one of their greatest pleasures is in praying for us in this church . . . for this ministry so that through us they might be relieved and protected in some way in the circumstances in which they find themselves.

What we have learned from Fr. Kahene and his congregation is that we should praise God in all the varied circumstances of life and never write anyone off . . . because God has a vested interest in each and every soul that he has ever created.  When we give up on people who we believe are unreachable, we diminish the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the lives of all the faithful.

The Christmas Story is a story of redemption for God’s creation.  And much like the air we all breathe and the water we all drink, God’s redemptive grace must apply to everyone . . . every gender, every race, ever age, every body or it is meaningless for all.  Our job in this season is to spread the good news of the Christmas message, to rejoice with God and his whole creation that once all was lost, but now all shall be restored through Jesus, the Christ and our Messiah.                  Amen

The Holy Way

3rd Advent

Out of the midst of our Christmas shopping and preparations, our gift lists and celebrations, our Christmas cards and our merriment, comes the sobering voice of one crying in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight”.  To which most of think to ourselves, “What a Downer!”

What is it about John the Baptist that evokes such hostile thoughts in the middle of our rush to buy Christmas.  Is it his camel hair clothes or his meals of locusts and wild honey?  Or could it be something a bit deeper than that, perhaps some ‘spiritual nagging’ that demands our attention to be turned away from our holiday lights and decorations?

John the Baptist appeared last week in our readings as ‘one crying in the wilderness’.  This week, he appears again, but from the confines of a prison cell.  If you will recall, it was John the Baptist who angered King Herod because he chastised the King publicly for having married his stepsister.  That is why in the story today, he sits today in prison.  And from prison, he sends his disciples to ask of Jesus, “Are you the one . . . or should we wait for another?”.

Why he did this is up for debate.  Most have surmised that he already knew Jesus was the Messiah, but he wanted his disciples to hear it for themselves.  He knew he only had a few days of life left, and he may have been concerned where his disciples would go after he had died.  Others think that perhaps he would attempt to escape if Jesus was not the one (the messiah) so that his work might continue.  Still others think that he felt betrayed, and that if Jesus was the Messiah, he might send angels to break him out of prison.

Personally, I think he needed validation, that his work was now truly finished and that he could go to his death in peace knowing that Christ had come into the world and that all was well.

John, as you know was an ascetic.  He lived a life that very few of us would choose.  But because he lived the life he did, God was very close to him.  Why do you think this would be?

Some while back, Barbara and I were invited to a company Christmas party at the Niagara Falls Country Club.  There were probably well over two hundred people there all talking, drinking, and eating, all at the same time.  You probably know the type of party, where everyone stands up the whole evening, trying to find someone to talk with, and a free chair to finally sit down on.  Well the only person I really knew in the whole crowd was the fellow I work for.  I stood near him for almost half an hour hoping that I could get his attention but unable to break into his conversation with some others that he knew.  When he finally paused to get a refill, he was completely surprised to see me standing.  He asked if I had just come in.

In a very real way, our lives are a lot like a stand up party where there is a lot of noise.  People talking, radios blaring, the television on, computer games beeping and bopping; the ever present functions of eating, and sleeping, and bathing, and dressing, paying our bills and basically worrying about everything.  And then, add to this ever-present madness, the once-a-year pursuit of the dream of Christmas and you have the maddening effect of a double expresso after a ten-hour workday.  We become so hyped and stressed and so concentrated into what we are trying to accomplish that we become disoriented and disconnected from what is really important.  Because, there, in our very reach, at every moment is God, waiting for his turn to talk with us and perhaps to give us a little break from all that is stressing us.

Ascetics, on the other hand, will have none of this.  They have forgone family, the pursuit of material possessions, the climb to financial independence and the noise of life.  Their only focus is on God . . . period.  And because of this, they are more close to God than any of us can imagine. . . and we admire them for it.  Ascetics like John the Baptist, Francis of Assisi, Saint Benedict, and many of the Church Fathers have been emulated for centuries as a way to communicate more readily with God.  Men and women alike have joined monasteries and convents in the hope that by shutting out the noise of the world, they might somehow become in more touch with God through prayer, fasting and denial of self.

This week of course there was the funeral of Nelson Mandela, a man who went to prison convicted, angry and dejected only to emerge twenty seven years later a man of conciliation and peace, completely changed in his spirit by the circumstances in which he found himself.  Nelson Mandela was changed because the world had been denied him and the only company he had those long years was God and his own thoughts.  Most of us would not have emerged from a cell as he did.  Most of us would have been beaten.

At the end of Ramadan, there is a feast called ‘the return’ where prayerful pilgrims of the Islamic religion return to their former lives, hopefully a better people for having kept the fast.  In our own order, we have the season of Lent, but much of the meaning of lent has been forgotten or lost over the years.  We also have the season of Advent, which we are in now, which like lent, has lost much of the flavor of penitence and preparation that it once had as it has been replaced with the Christmas rush of decking halls and jingle bells.

But what many of us don’t understand is that we don’t need a set season in order to get closer to God.  What we do need, is a kind of spiritual ‘time-out’; sort of a holiday from the world.  We can do this by going on a retreat, by fasting, or praying, or simply by turning off the TV and going outside for a walk, anything that is different from the normal rhythms that control our lives.  Because when we break from the rhythm of eating, or sleeping, or working, or worrying, we give God a chance to talk with us and that makes us all a better and more holy people.

And if we do this thing, then as in the lesson this morning, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing”.  For we have two lives, if you will, the physical one where we eat and sleep and have fun and make merry; where we work, and where we cry and where we are run ragged most every day of our lives.  And then we have a spiritual life, where we are inspired and where we dream; where we contemplate and meditate; where we can find rest and where we sing hosannas and write song.

The scripture verses of the Bible predicting the future of events is not limited to the physical world, but is also a predicator of the Spiritual world as well.  When Isaiah writes “then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing with joy”, he was not only talking about physical future events but also of the spiritual lives of the faithful that would follow the coming of the Messiah.  “For the waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert; the burning shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground, springs of water . . . A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way . . . it shall be for God’s people . . .and the redeemed shall walk there’.

The season of advent embraces the gospel of Christ that is good news not only of what Jesus ‘did’ for us in dying on the cross but also of what he now ‘offers’ to us as a result.  He promises to those who respond to him both the forgiveness of sins (to wipe out the past) and the gift of the Spirit (to make us new people).  Together these constitute the freedom for which John and his disciples were searching . . . freedom from guilt, defilement, judgment and self-centeredness. . . but most importantly the freedom to be the persons God made and meant us to be.  These two, Forgiveness and the Spirit comprise the essence of ‘Salvation’ that was promised through the prophets at the coming of the messiah.

This then is the message of Advent for us today, that though we are hindered by the enormous rush of life’s urgencies from God’s presence, we may take comfort in knowing that He is always here us, waiting patiently to put us back on the spiritual road, the Holy Way to health and well-being if only we are willing to seek him out.  Amen.

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The Rabbi’s Gift

Monk Reading

There is a story, I once heard, that concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, but as a result of waves of anti-monastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth century, all of its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house . . .  the abbot and four others, all of them, over seventy in age . . .  clearly it was a dying order.

       In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and con­templation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again,” they would whisper to each other.

       As he agonized over the immi­nent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.  And so he set out to visit the Rabbi.  The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me. . . no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”

       “No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that God has blessed one from among you to do a great thing”.

       When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well, what did the rabbi say?”

       “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say. . . just as I was leaving—it was something cryptic—was that God has blessed one from among us to do a great thing.  I don’t know what he meant.”

       In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. There is one of us chosen by God? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery?  If that’s the case . . . which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot?  Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.  On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas.  Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man.  Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Eldred! Eldred gets crotchety at times.  But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Eldred is virtually always right.  Often, very right!  Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Eldred.  But surely not Brother Phillip.  Phillip is so passive, a real nobody.  But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him most. He just magically appears by your side.  Maybe Phillip is the one.  Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me.  He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary man.  Yet supposing he did?  Suppose I am the one? O God, not me. I couldn’t be chosen by You, could I?

       As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the one who God had chosen.  And . . . on the off chance that each monk himself might be the one, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect. . . .

       Because the forest in which the monastery was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate.  As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it.  Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monas­tery more frequently to picnic, to play, and to pray.  They began to bring their friends to show them this special place.  And then . . . their friends brought their friends.

       Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And then. . . yet another.  So within a few years the mon­astery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.

          This is a story about the relationship between one’s faith and one’s good works.   Many grow up with the thought that by good works, that is by living a good life, that they are saved by what they have done.  This of course is not a Christian belief but it is a theory prevalent today by those who do not practice any particular religion but have it in the their hearts that, if there is a God, this (i.e. good works and a good life) is what God expects.  

          Then there are those who believe that it is through an abiding faith that we are set free and welcomed into the kingdom.  After all, did not all of the healings that Jesus performed come as a result of personal faith . . . and is it not by faith that we are saved?  

          In the book of James there is written a cryptic verse that reads . . . ‘Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.  But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” If you believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.  But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?

          The monks in our story today had faith . . . after all they were monks . . . they believed in God, but they were dying because somewhere along the way they had lost something,  something important that once set them apart from the world.  Something that the world desires more than anything . . . even more than gold.  They had lost the primary work that is required of a believer; that of bringing hope into a darkened world.

          If faith can be compared to a brilliant sun shining on the dawn of a new day . . . then works is the radiant warmth and light that is generated by it.  Jesus tells us that no one lights a candle and then hides it under a basket . . .  no, he puts in a lampstand to give light to the entire household . . .  and so should all who have faith not hide out in our homes and churches waiting for the coming of Christ . . . but instead we should be actively working and searching the world over for places and people in which to instill hope through the gifts that God has given us.

          The monastery, in the end, began to grow because people now began to sense the faith that the Monks had once hidden within their walls.  By the simple act of being kind to each other, they infused into their environment the prophetic message of faith for all to see and experience.  This infusion of hope into a dying world is what the Universal Church of Jesus Christ is all about . . . people helping God’s people with the aid of prophetic message and the Holy Spirit.  But it is not without risk.

          The gospel story today about John the Baptist is a prophetic message that changed the lives of those who heard it.  There were many prophets in Biblical times, just as there are many prophets even in our own times.  Jesus called John the Baptist the greatest of them.            Unfortunately, most (if not all the prophets) in the Bible were killed because of what they said.  A prophet who insulted a King did not stand much of a chance for a long life and a quiet retirement.  Like John, (who was beheaded for what he said), the prophets were summarily slaughtered and executed because of their inclinations to bad tidings.  But for those who listened to their words, they found peace and understanding and God’s blessing.

       How many of us have been given the mantle of a prophet?  And how many of us, have been persecuted because of it? 

       John the Baptist came into our world to announce the coming of the Messiah.  Many listened to his words and received healing and forgiveness and new life through repentance.  His words are just as valid today and for us as they were 2000 years ago.  During this Advent Season, let’s try to be more open to God’s prophets as we go about our daily lives.  Let’s listen to what the prophets are telling us about our lives and about our culture as we await a new heaven and a new earth at the Advent of Our Lord.  And as we go about our week . . . “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven”.  Amen

Advent

SecondComing

Today is the first Sunday in the season of Advent.  The green of Pentecost (or ordinary time) is finally put away, and the royal purple of Advent is brought out to herald once again the coming of the Messiah.  Our church’s Advent wreath marks this time with four candles (as in the four weeks before Christmas); and we begin again the Church year by singing familiar Advent Carols like ‘Come thou long expected Jesus’.  But how many of us know just what it is we Anglicans are celebrating each year with our somber songs and purple and gold colors while the world outside rejoices in Christmas glitter and ‘Jingle Bell Rock’?

I am sorry to say that most of us who keep a holy Advent every year have only a little understanding about what we are doing.  Most of us know about Christmas of course, the three wise men and the baby Jesus.  Everyone seems to know about Easter and Good Friday and perhaps even about the ascension of Jesus into heaven.  But, what about the Season of Advent?  What do we really understand about the first and second coming and how should it influence our lives?  When I asked my Roman Catholic school educated son, Ethan, some years ago “What is Advent?” he answered “It’s about Christmas”.  Well is Advent about Christmas, or something else?

In this morning’s readings we hear a great deal about Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives.  We also hear about armor of light.  We also hear about people beating their spears into plowshares and about an everlasting peace that will come at the end of the age.  Perhaps the most important clue to all this is the passage from the gospel that states ‘For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.’

So how were things in the Days of Noah?  The book of Genesis tells us that evil prevailed everywhere.  “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”  But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.  Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth.

At the time of Noah, God came to destroy the creation which he hade made.  He came at a time when no one had a clue of what was about to come on the earth.  The Bible says that people were eating and drinking and marrying and living . . . and then it came, the flood, and washed them all away; all that is except Noah, his family and the animals in the ark.  Jesus tells us that the end of the world, when He will come again, will be much the same as in the days of Noah.  Evil will prevail, and unless God himself puts an end to it, no one will survive.  And that is what Advent is about today; the second coming of Christ as the King of Glory.

So you might wonder, how does Christmas, the first coming, get mixed up with the second coming?  It gets mixed up because our church year, even though we complete it in one year, is really three years long.  The Christmas that we celebrate this year, as the first coming with the wise men, doesn’t really complete itself until the first Sunday in Advent, 2016.  The holidays in our Lectionary sort of leap-frog each other which causes a lot of confusion.  If we actually followed the church year correctly, we would only celebrate Christmas and Easter every three years.

The Second Sunday in Advent looks to the First Coming of Jesus through the line of Jesse.  This is the Sunday when John the Baptist appears to “Make Straight the Pathway for our King!”

The Third Sunday in Advent jumps 30 years ahead of Christmas to ask about Jesus’ earthly ministry.  John the Baptist asks “Is Jesus is the Christ or should we look for another?”

And finally the Fourth Sunday in Advent goes back in time 2,000 years and speaks as a witness to the birth of Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem.

But today is First Advent which represents Hope as in the Psalm . . . “My whole being will hope as I await God’s promise” . . . The promise being of course the Christ will come again.  What we ought to remember, at least for today, is that Christ will come again.  He will stand on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem and the mount will be split in two with a cataclysmic earthquake.  Living water will gush forth out of the mount and flow down into the neighboring waterways purifying them which in turn will purify the water of the entire earth.  An entirely new city will be built in Jerusalem that will be brought down from heaven.  Jerusalem will become the capital of a new government and Jesus himself will be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  All nations will go to Jerusalem for instruction and enlightenment.  And His Kingdom will rule earth with justice and equity.  And the world will for once live in peace.

But before this happens, the nations of the world will come together to fight against Jesus as he comes from the sky.  This will be the time of the anti-Christ who will deceive all the nations into believing that he alone is God and that Jesus and his angels are the real threat to the world’s peace and security.  The anti-Christ will make true Christianity illegal and will set up a false Church using the same structure that now exists to make his will for mankind known.  Evil will prevail for seven years.  And then the end will come.

As much I hate to admit it, very few of us today 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.

The season of Advent on which we embark today, is a time of preparation and looking forward to the coming of Christ our King to reign on earth.  Although we say all the nice prayers and sing all the advent songs, most of us have no idea what actually awaits us at the second coming of Christ and the cataclysmic changes that will occur when this event unfolds.

Paul writes to the Church at Rome in today’s epistle to put on the armor of light so that we might be protected from the darkness of evil.  The armor of light is the understanding of God in the light of the Gospel message.  Those who know the message and understand the meaning will be well prepared for the time at the end.  Those who do not, may be lost to the darkness as evil encompasses the earth and destroys everything in its path.

As we begin the Advent Season, let us 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 know exactly what to do.  Amen

Giving Thanks

Give Thanks

For much of our lives, we Americans have been taught about the origins of the holiday of Thanksgiving…we all know about the feast co-hosted by the native American Indians to the near starving Puritan settlers at the end of that very first year of 1620 in the New World.  We remember stories about how the Indians introduced the settlers to corn, squash and wild game turkey and deer that was so prevalent in North America at that time.  We also know how grateful the pilgrims were to receive the help of the Indians in their time of need.  The story of the Indians and the pilgrims is truly a Thanksgiving story that will live on and on as we pass this story from one generation to another as a never ending story of hopefullness, helpfullness, and happiness.  The story we remember is like a snapshot made in heaven of what the world ought to be like…about how one people can help another people… not because of some article of religion, or some commandment that says we have a duty to help (I doubt the Indians of the day had yet to hear about the Bible or about Jesus or about Christianity), but because of some greater, deep down, good that says to us down in the depths of our soul that, ‘Yes, you need to help, for the good of your brother, but also for your own sake as well and for the sake of your soul’.

            This need, or yearning to help, is what St. James explains to us in his epistle.  That every act of generous giving is from above and in his words . . . ‘comes down from the Father of lights’.  Giving is not a natural tendency among humans.  It may be ‘more blessed to give than to receive’…but most of us find it is a lot easier to keep than to give away.  Why do you suppose that that is true?  Do we have a tendency to keep things because we are so attached to them that we cannot bear to part with them…or is it because we have some deep seated feeling that in giving we may someday go wanting?  Jesus talked about our dependency on material things in the gospel reading today.  How many of us could really live these words that he spoke to us this morning?  He basically is saying, have a deep and abiding faith, give generously, and with abandon and God will replenish your supply, God will fulfill all your needs.  But to a person like me with gas bills, electric bills, insurances, mortgages, kids, tuition, two cars, two cats and a dog, it becomes a little more frightening to give with the abandon he describes, to go out on limb, unsure of how or when my own future needs will be met.

            But that leads us right back to the story of the Pilgrim fathers, who, for the freedom to practice their religion they chose to abandon everything they knew in England and in Europe, to abandon their homes, their families, their jobs, their careers, in order to face a very uncertain future in the New World.  Armed with only faith and a prayer, they gave up everything to face unthinkable dangers and struggles and starvation in a land that only held for them one promise, the freedom to worship as they chose.  And I’ll tell you, I think that is why they succeeded.  They were armed with only the faith that the God they knew would provide for them and an earnest prayer giving Him thanks for all things, no matter what the outcome.  And isn’t that the mark of true discipleship in Jesus Christ?  Isn’t that what Jesus was trying to explain to all of us today?

            I want to remind you of a modern day thanksgiving story you may remember that was printed in the Buffalo News a few years back.  It was an Associated news release about how, during the American invasion of Haiti, the people there were seen dancing in the streets, because, all of a sudden besides a new found freedom, they have so much to eat.  You may know that Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and most Haitians, at least before the Americans came to their country, only ate one meal per day.  Well, the article interviewed many mothers who were so grateful for the extra food that was available after the Army came to her town.  She recounted how now she could feed her family twice a day, with good food, American food like lasagna, and brownies and Rice Krispies.  The reporter told about how whole cottage industries that had sprung up selling this wonderful stuff and how that year (the year 2000) would be the greatest Thanksgiving in recent Haitian memory.  The writer became very interested in which agencies distributed food to these Haitians but was taken by surprise when the lady told him that, there weren’t any agencies . . . no NGOs . . . no Red Cross . . . nothing.  Incredibly, the people simply went to the Army Dump every day and picked up the garbage of what the American soldiers threw away!  Can you imagine an entire country living off of what a few thousand soldiers threw in the trash?!  To the Haitians it was a blessing from God.  To us, I am sure, it is an appalling embarrassment.

            In our Eucharistic Service each week, we are reminded that it is our bounden duty, at all times and in all places to give thanks for what God as done for us.  How often do we unconsciously worry about how we expected so much more out of our lives than what we have, and yet in comparison, everyone in this room lives like a virtual king when compared to the lives of the vast majority of humanity living outside this building.  We have been richly blessed by God and for that I am sure we should all be exceedingly thankful.  But how can we express this thankfulness, our thanksgiving if you will?

            The easiest way that I know of is to simply emulate as closely as possible the giver of all good things.  Go out of your way to find someone, some family, some organization, someone or something that needs your help, your prayers, your money or your enthusiasm and simply give of what has been given you.  If you know a person you can’t stand – start praying for him.  If you have a neighbor or a relative who is in trouble financially – then give them a boost anonomously  with no strings attached.  If you are asked… say YES – if you aren’t asked… then volunteer.  In this way you will be sharing with others what God has given you, you will be sharing God’s love for all of his creation.  You will be showing your thanks, and not merely saying your thanks for all that He has done for you in your life.  Amen