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Saturday, July 28, 2018

“Covenants and Christ…”


  
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul's Anglican Church
June 17. 2018

Genesis 9:14-15  “And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud:  15 And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.”

Today’s Old Testament reading deals with the aftermath of the Great Flood.  We hear God telling Noah and his family to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” It is time to re-populate the Earth.  Additionally, we see the first instance of man’s mastery over the animal kingdom.  Man shall rule the animals, and they shall provide food for him, as well as the plants God has made. It was an unfortunate result of the Fall that we must kill to eat, but so it is. Sin always has consequences.

An interesting point about this passage is that we begin to see the Mosaic Law start to take shape, in rudimentary form. Man is told to refrain from eating meat with the animal’s blood in it, which is the beginning of the Kosher food laws. Also, we hear the first of behavioral law for man, as God tells Noah that he who kills man will also be killed of man.  It is a sin to kill another man, because he is made in the image of God. Surely we hear echoes of “an eye for eye, and tooth for tooth” here, as the Law would be later given to the Jewish people.

The main point of this passage comes in the giving of the covenantal sign to Noah. The sign of the covenant between God and man is the rainbow, the sign of which indicates that God promised never to bring water upon the earth again, to the extent of the Great Flood.

God deals with us in terms of covenant, which is a solemn agreement between two parties.  Even modern contracts often use the word “covenant” to express such an agreement or understanding. 

We know God is the Great Ruler over all things. Another word for absolute ruler is “suzerain”, or King of Kings. In such manner, God’s covenants reflect the great Suzerainty Treaties of the ancient Near East.  Once a suzerain had established his power over a region, either by conquest, or by offering a treaty, several common features appeared.  Using the acrostic THEOS:
Transcendance:          This was the statement(s) stating the power, majesty and glory of the suzerain.
Hierarchy:                   The authority and makeup of dealing with the suzerain
Ethics:                         The stipulations of the covenant or law (or code) was laid out.  This was the body of the law.
Oath:                           A statement of blessings and cursings that would follow from
                                    keeping the covenant or breaking it.
Succession:                 The succession section indicated how the covenant was to be kept for ensuing generations and by whom.

The first covenant was the Adamic. This was the first covenant made between God and His Adam.  God gave Adam dominion over the earth, to subdue it and use it. Also, God provided a garden for Adam and Eve for a dwelling.  He had one commandment, that he not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  This first covenant was based on obedience to this commandment.  In return, Adam and Eve would enjoy life in the Garden forever.

The sign of the covenant was the Sabbath, because the Lord God rested on the seventh day from his labors.

Noahic  This was the second covenant made between God and man.  God found a righteous man, Noah, and made a covenant with him. God commanded that Noah build an ark and gather into it all species of life, thus to be saved from the ensuing flood.  The basis of this covenant was grace.  God would preserve Noah, his family, as in Genesis 9:1:
“And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.“ 

The principle sign of this covenant was the rainbow, a sign that God would never again destroy the earth by water.
Abrahamic.  The third covenant with man was with Abraham, whom God accounted faithful and righteous.  The basis of the covenant was promissory, that, in return for Abraham’s faithfulness, God would bless Abraham, as in Genesis 22:17:
“That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; “ 

The sign of the covenant was male circumcision.

Synatic or Mosaic. The fourth covenant God made with man was Synatic or Mosaic. The basis of this covenant between God and the Jewish nation was obligatory.  The people were to keep the Law because they were a holy, blessed and saved nation unto God. The covenant was primarily expressed in the Ten Commandments and extrapolated throughout the book of Deuteronomy. 

The principle sign of this covenant was the Passover.

Davidic. The next covenant God made with His People was the Davidic. This was expressed in the kingship of David. The basis of the covenant was promissory; the promised blessing being a continuation of David’s line on the throne for succeeding generations.

The principle sign of the covenant was the throne.

Universal or New. The last covenant made with God and His People is universal, extending from the Jews to all mankind through Jesus Christ.  This is the Renewed (or New Covenant), in the Greek called Kainos.  The basis for this covenant is both obligatory and promissory, for through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ and keeping of His Commandments, we are promised eternal life.

The principle signs of the New Covenant are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. 
Covenants are God’s way of dealing with mankind. We in Christ’s Church are blessed to be covered by the final, complete, and covenant of Jesus Christ.

To Him be honor, glory, power, and dominion, world without end.

Amen.
H

“Love and Judgment”


The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
June 3, 2018


In our reading for today, we see two strikingly different themes: Love and Judgment.  The Epistle from 1 St. John speaks of the essential attribute of God: Love.  St. John tells us: God is love. He loves us so much that he gave Jesus to be the propitiation for our sins.  What is propitiation? It is the act of winning over, placating, or appeasing.  In Christian theology, it is “that by which God is rendered propitious, i.e., by which it becomes consistent with his character and government to pardon and bless the sinner.”[i]  John makes it very clear that Love is what God is about. It is His intrinsic characteristic.

In the gospel from St. Luke, we read of the theme of judgment.  We hear the familiar story of Lazarus, who was a beggar “laid” at the gate of a rich man’s house.  His health was not good, because he did not sit at the gates, but was laid there.  In fact, the Greek word is to “throw or discard.”[ii] He was full of sores, indicating malnutrition and a lack of personal hygiene.  He was miserable.  Hungry as well, the beggar only wanted to be fed from the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.  This is notable, because in the ancient near East, the wealthy would wipe their hands with pieces of bread, like napkins, and then discard them under the table or throw them to dogs.  This is what the poor beggar wanted. Moreover, hungry, mongrel dogs licked his running sores, hoping perhaps even to devour him.[iii]

In time, the starving beggar died.  He is carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom, where he is comforted and eased. There has been much debate as to what “Abraham’s Bosom” means.  Although that might be of great interest, that is not the focus of our discussion today. Suffice it to say that the beggar, tormented in life, is now comforted to the infinite degree in Heaven. 
Note also, the rich man died as well, but he discovers he has arrived in Hell.  Immediately, he is in torment.

The contrast couldn’t be greater. There is bliss to the beggar, and torment to the former rich man.  One commentator says, “the poor man got rich, and the rich man got poor.”[iv]
How true.  The beggar, unattended by men during life, is now attended by angels in a blessed state.  The rich man, used to attention by men, is now subject to the attention of devils, and is in a wretched, tormented state. [v]

These two scenes stand in complete juxtaposition.  Our immediate lesson is that our earthly actions have consequences. The rich man ignored the beggar deposited on his doorstep.  He was a lover of luxury and wealth, with no regard for others’ sufferings.  His complete self-interest so occupied him that he was blinded to all else, other people, and most importantly, his relationship with God.  It wasn’t his wealth that was his sin, but his complete consumption by it.  When one blots God completely out of one’s life, the result is willful separation from Him, now and forever. The beggar, although distressed in life, may have had a deeper spiritual life than the rich man.  No doubt, in his agony and deprivation, he cried out to God many times.

The question remains, how does the love of God, mentioned in the Epistle from 1 John, and judgment, mentioned in the Gospel selection from Luke, have any connection?  If God is love, why does suffering, like the beggar’s, happen?  How could judgment be linked to love? While one could argue that the rich man, in his blatant disregard for others, deserved his fate, how could a loving God impose such suffering?

Let us remember the state of our world as it is.  Since the downfall of our first parents, we live in a fallen world. It is cursed because of Adam’s sin.  Thus, suffering abounds.  We must kill to eat.  The animal kingdom is ruled by survival of the fittest. Bad things happen to good people; in fact, bad things happen to all people, sooner or later. Natural disasters happen, for no apparent reason.  It seems unjust, and perhaps it is. At times, life isn’t fair.  Thus, the poor beggar suffered in this life, unjustly and cruelly. He died and was forgotten to man.

He was, however, not forgotten by God. God is a lover and creator of all things.  He is absolute truth and absolute love, which means that He is a lover of all virtues. Chief among these is justice, which means that things will be set right, sometime, in God’s time. If God is love, from St. John, we know that He loves justice.  This means that all situations will be corrected, and consequences for all actions imposed. Abraham tells the rich man, who even in Hell thinks he is superior to the beggar, that his situation is just.  “Send Lazarus” he cries to Abraham. In life, he received the best, and ignored the rest. Now, he is in agony, while Lazarus is comforted.

God’s justice may be one of His highest forms of love.  It requires that debts be paid, and actions be accounted.  Things must be set right. Inequity and evil will not go unrequited forever. God’s complete Holiness and absolute Truthfulness demand no less.

This was once a hard concept for me.  How could a loving God separate those from Him to perish everlastingly? How could He show such disregard for His Creatures?  The answer is just the opposite.  Jesus Christ paid our debts.  He provides that God be propitiated for our actions. He is the complete expression of God’s Love and justice.  Justly, God himself bore the price that only God himself could pay.

We are unjust to Him when we reject this great, awesome love. When we live in the sin of rebellion, it is us who reject Him, not the reverse.  Yet, when we acknowledge our sin and wretchedness before Him, He lovingly grants forgiveness for one reason: the propitiation of Jesus.  Even the rich man, had he repented before his death, could have secured forgiveness.  It is not sin by itself, that separates us from God, forever.  It is unrepented sin that causes the complete break between man and His Creator.

To heal that rift, we have our blessed Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who is the propitiation for our sins. AMEN.
1 John 4:18   18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.







[i] https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/propitiation/
[ii] https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/CONF-RC08-10/the-rich-man-and-lazarus-2008-resolved-conference
[iii] ibid
[iv] Ibid
[v] CONF-RCOB, op.cit.

Righteousness in Love


Romans 6:3-4  3 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?  4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”

This week’s Epistle deals with some very important issues.  It speaks of one of the chief sacraments of the Christian Church, and it speaks of the necessity of endurance in the Christian life.

Baptism is an area of great discussion in the Christian church.  Great differences exist in its understanding, sacramental nature, and application. Since the Protestant Reformation, these discussions have continued, and probably will until Christ returns.

What is baptism?  It depends what branch of the Church from which you come.  Sacramental bodies, like Anglicans, Romans, and the Orthodox, believe it is a true sacrament, instituted by Jesus Christ Himself.  It was not the baptism of John, which was primarily one of repentance for the coming judgment.  Christian baptism is a sacramental entrance into the Christian life.  It supercedes the covenant of circumcision under Abraham and is the entrance rite of Christianity. In the Anglican view, Baptism allows the recipient to receive the blessings of the New Covenant in Christ.  Salvation is not guaranteed by baptism, yet one cannot be saved without it. With this understanding, we baptize infants, accepting their sponsors’ commitment for their training in the Christian faith.  We later hear the child’s verbal commitment to follow Jesus in the rite of Confirmation.

What then, does baptism do?  Once again, it depends which branch of the Church you call home.  We Anglicans, along with the Roman and Eastern Communions, believe that there is a mystical washing away of sin.  Whose sin?  Our first parents’ sin, Adam and Eve.  Original sin is washed away and the subject becomes fit for the promises of Christ. During the rite of Baptism, we pray the Holy Spirit be given, that sin be removed, and that everlasting life be granted through Christ. All things noted, it is an amazing rite.

 After St. Paul addresses baptism, the second point of this lesson concerns the necessity of continuance in the Christian life.  We are told: (Romans 6:6): “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.”

Note here that St. Paul does not say that we will not sin after baptism. That is a fond hope, vainly imagined.  We all sin, every day. Anyone who says differently is sadly mistaken.  Yet, the word used here is “douleo”, coming from the Greek “doulos”, or slave.  Thus, we are not to serve sin, in the sense that the slave serves his master. We are not to give ourselves over to sin, or as Strong says, “to become slaves to some base power.”[i] Instead, we are to consider ourselves dead to sin.  It is no longer our master, although for all Christians, it rears its ugly head from time to time.  Does that mean we ‘serve’ sin?  No. 
It means that sin achieves a momentary victory over us from time to time.  This victory is shortlived, however.  Once we recognize our sin and ask the Father for forgiveness through Christ, this victory becomes defeat for the mystery of iniquity.  Whatever impulse, prompted by whatever spirit, is defeated. 

Thus, take heart, Christians….yes, we all sin; but it is not our native state anymore.  Instead, we “…reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

We have discussions with many people who are confused about Christianity and the Church.  Some people think that they must be perfect to be a Christian.  Would God that were so!  Yet, how impossible it is.  Some people stay away from the Church, either because of a sense of their own unworthiness, or because of the rampant hypocrisy so easily engendered by a mindset of pretended perfection. Let us all admit it.  We are not perfect.  We never will be, except in the final perfection of our natures in Heaven.  Yet, with recognition of our condition and frequent confession to Christ, we can be better, much better.

Our job is to love Christ with all our hearts, minds, and souls. Our job is to love our neighbor as ourselves. We also strive daily against sin, knowing that we cannot avoid it completely, but we can avoid serving it.

With this attitude, we can maintain our sanity, and our growth in holiness, day by day.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
AMEN.



[i] BW, “Strong’s data for “serve”

Slaves no More

Slaves no More
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
7th Sunday in Trinity 2018

July 15, 2018         
Romans 6:20 “For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness.”

This is the second time St. Paul speaks to us about sin in his Epistles from the Lectionary.  Although it may seem repetitive, the weight of the topic demands a thorough treatment.

St. Paul speaks to us about being free from righteousness, while we were servants of sin.  Recall that we spoke last week about being a “doulous”, a slave or servant to sin.  We mentioned that since we were no longer servants to sin because of Jesus, sin had no power over us.  We were to count ourselves dead to sin, but alive to new life in Christ.  We also mentioned that while sin still occurs for all of us, sin’s power of captivity had been broken.  This is good news.

Today, we hear that when we were servants to sin, we were free from righteousness. What a fascinating concept!  It is probable that most of us have never thought of ourselves being a servant (or slave) to anything.  Now, here comes St. Paul and tells us that we either are, or have been, slaves to sin; that being the case, we were free from righteousness.  Calvin tells us: “This is the liberty of the flesh, which so frees us from obedience to God, that it makes us slaves to the devil. Wretched then and accursed is this liberty, which with unbridled or rather mad frenzy, leads us exultingly to our destruction."[i]

Personally, we are very careful about any personal protestations of righteousness, for several reasons.  Among them is the fear of being a hypocrite, for as soon as one proclaims himself righteous, a personal act of some sort gives evidence to the contrary.  Thus, hypocrisy.  Also, according to Isaiah, our supposed righteousness is but “filthy rags” to God.  The more we grow in grace, the more apparent God’s Holiness becomes to us. One of the great paradoxes of the Christian Faith is that the more holy we become, the more sinful we feel.

There is a kind a righteousness that we can claim, without fear.  That is the imputed righteousness of Jesus. Why imputed?  We can do nothing truly pure or good, but Christ already has.  The Father imputes righteousness to us because of Him.  Thus, we can claim it without hesitation. What a blessed relief! We need not feign righteousness, or struggle to appear so.  We simply accept the righteousness of Jesus with joy and gratitude.

We are called to have a new master. One commentator says, “As the same metal becomes a new vessel, when melted and recast in another mould, so the believer has become a new creature.”[ii] Rather than being the rebels we were before, free from righteousness, now we are the servants to righteousness in Christ.

St. Paul describes a dualism.  One path leads to separation from God. The other path leads us to eternal life with Him.  Paul asks, “What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death.”  If we continue to be slaves to sin, we know the result.  It is not a happy conclusion to our earthly lives.

On the other hand, “But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.” 
We have a new orientation.  This new way leads to fruit unto holiness, which is the opposite of the fruit of sin; namely a tortured conscience or a feeling of dis-ease with God.  Sin does this, if our consciences are not seared by sin. The fruit of holiness is different. We have more peace, and godly love for ourselves.


The apostle ends the section with a startling, but true phrase: (Romans 6:23) “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Going to the Greek, “wages” here is ovyw,nion (opsonion), meaning the wages given to a soldier for service. What a thought!  Those who truly serve sin, or have become its soldiers, are paid back with death. Not a good bargain.

Rather than making this bad bargain, we have something better (Romans 6:23)  “…but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” We are not soldiers to sin, but rather like Hymn 552 (Silver Street) says, “Soldiers of Christ arise, and put your armor on; Strong in the strength that God supplies thro’ his eternal Son.”

We have righteousness; not of ourselves, but of Christ. We are not free from this, nor do we want to be. Instead, we accept gratefully our wages of righteousness, eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.





[i] “Biblehub, Calvin commentary on Romans 6:20
[ii] Matthew Henry, “Commentary on Romans 6:20

Right Thinking and Repentance


9th Sunday in Trinity 2012

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
August 5, 2012

“O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall show forth Thy Praise.”

“Grant us, O Lord, the spirit to think and do always such things as are right; that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  AMEN

If there were ever a more ardent, perfectly formed plea for grace to live the Christian life, I don’t know how it could be better phrased than in this prayer. This Collect for the 9th Sun. after Trinity, no doubt written by a very mature Christian mind, recognizes the true reality of life on this earth. First, it grasps the reality that we need the right “spirit” to help us do the things that we should do.  This prayer affirms that the true nature of this world is spiritual and that we need the right spiritual orientation in order to behave correctly. 

Our O.T. Lesson from Ezekiel is in many ways a perfect example of this Collect.  Let’s consider briefly why this may be so, but first, some information about Ezekiel himself.  According to noted O.T. scholars Keil and Delitszch, Ezekiel,” יחזקאל (Ezekiel 1:3; 24:24), i.e., יחזק אל, God strengthens̓Ιεζεκιήλ (lxx and Book of Sirach, ch. 49:8), in the Vulgate Ezechiel, while Luther, after the example of the lxx, writes the name Hesekiel, was the son of Busi, of priestly descent, and was carried away captive into exile to Babylon in the year 599 b.c. - i.e., in the eleventh year before the destruction of Jerusalem - along with King Jehoiachin, the nobles of the kingdom, many priests, and the better class of the population of Jerusalem and of Judah (Eze 1:2; Eze 40:1; cf. 2Ki 24:14.; Jer 29:1). He lived there in the northern part of Mesopotamia, on the banks of the Chaboras, married, and in his own house, amidst a colony of banished Jews, in a place called Tel-abib (Eze 1:1; Eze 3:15, Eze 3:24; Eze 8:1; Eze 24:18). In the fifth year of his banishment, i.e., 595 b.c., he was called to be a prophet of the Lord, and laboured in this official position, as may be shown, twenty-two years; for the latest of his prophecies is dated in the twenty-seventh year of his exile, i.e., 572 b.c. (Eze 29:17).”[i]

Ezekiel was himself a witness to the fulfillment of God’s prophecy concerning Israel and Judah. Beginning in Deuteronomy and continuing through all of the books prior to Ezekiel, the Jews had heard the same message again and again; stay in covenant with Almighty God, or face the consequences.  This message they ignored and continued to run after false gods and various pagan religious practices, including ritual drunkenness and ritual fornication. They worshipped the Baals and Ashtoreth, as well as Chemosh and Milcom, who were the abominable idols of the Canaanites.   We learn in Ezekiel that the elders of the Jews had even carved out secret rooms in the Temple of Solomon where they offered incense to various idols.

We all know the history that followed Israel’s and Judah spiritual whoredom.  First, the Ten Tribes of the Northern Kingdom were carried away and dispersed into the vast Assyrian Empire as a result of their gross idolatry.  Next, the Babylonian suzerain Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah and carried away the “cream of the crop”, so to speak, of Judah.  The Prophet Daniel was amongst those carried away.  King Jehoiakim became a tributary.  Failing to see God’s Hand in their tribulations, this king rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar, whereupon he marched again to Jerusalem, besieged it, and eventually took it again.  This time, the Babylonian king carried away the king, his court, and many of the skilled artisans, warriors, priests and carpenters.  He left a rough remnant of the people, over which he appointed Jehoiakin’s uncle, Mattaniah, whom he renamed Zedekiah.  This occurred during the prophecy of Jeremiah, who warned the people repeatedly of their fate if they did not repent.  Meanwhile, the various false prophets concurrent with him were prophesying prosperity and peace. As we know, Jeremiah was eventually proved right, although he was accused of speaking treason against the king and was imprisoned.

 After the second fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah, speaking for God, told the people to bear the Babylonian yoke with patience and all would be well with them.  Even at this point, the leaders of Judah refused to hear the Word of God, but instead rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar, broke their treaty with him and turned to Egypt for help.  The very nation in which they had been held in slavery for 400 years was to be their savior?
This was absurd and futile.  The Egyptians were utterly defeated by the Babylonians, and now perfidious Jerusalem was to feel the full fury of Nebuchadnezzar, who had been remarkably restrained up to this point regarding the city. His forces marched back to Jerusalem and besieged it again.  Eventually, the city was starved out.  The walls of Jerusalem were breached, and in the eleventh year of Zedekiah’s reign, the city was completely destroyed.  The fabulous Temple of Solomon was thoroughly looted and destroyed as well.  Nebuchadnezzar left Jerusalem a smoking heap of stones. As we know from the book of Jeremiah, Zedekiah, his court, and his top military men tried to escape through a hole in the wall.  They were captured and brought to Riblah.  Here, Zedekiah’s sons were killed before his eyes, and Zedekiah himself was blinded.  He was led in chains back to Babylon, where he spent his days as a captive, subject king to Nebuchadnezzar.  Judah as a nation had been effectively destroyed.[ii] 

In the section of Ezekiel we read today, the last act, namely the destruction of Jerusalem, had not happened yet. The final blow had not yet been struck against the heart of Judah.  Yet, we see in the reading that the mindset that would lead to it was very much present amongst the exiles to which Ezekiel was attached.  In this passage, God speaks to Ezekiel and asks why should be He be entreated by a people whose heart was far from Him?  Even though these men, the elders of Israel, had come seeking the counsel of God, their innermost hearts and spirits were not of God.  In fact, they had put the stumbling block of their idolatry in front of the faces and had idolatry in their heart, even while they were seeking the counsel of God.  Obviously, they were “hedging their bets”, so to speak.  They obviously wanted it both ways: namely, to enjoy the notorious sensuality and wanton-ness of their pagan practices, while pretending to be holy towards the God of Israel.  This cannot be.

Our God is a holy God, who will not tolerate our allegiance to any sort of idolatry.  He will not allow His Glory to be diffused with another. He cannot allow His Holiness to be diluted in a believer’s heart, or to be mixed with an idol of any sort; that is, if one is to enjoy true fellowship with Him.  It is possible to be deceived into thinking one has fellowship with God, but it is not true.  Witness those poor, deluded souls who think they can lead one of the various “alternative lifestyles”, and then come have a meaningful relationship with God in His House.  They may be able to “play church”, but their worship is tainted and is not acceptable to God.  Their fellowship with Him is not really real, and any feeling of good will they may experience from it may very well be a satanic deception.  By the way, this is true of any for us, including this priest.  If we have deep hatred, animosity, or un-repented sin abiding in us when we enter the House of God, we cannot offer a worthy sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving when our spiritual selves are in turmoil due to sin.  One may, like these elders of Israel, go through the motions of religiosity, yet never really get close to God.

 The purpose of religion is not merely to do ritualistic things to curry favor with God, but to develop a deep and abiding relationship with the Holy Trinity.  Thus, when Christ speaks in Luke 17:21 regarding the Kingdom of God, “And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:  21 Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” This is very akin to the statement Jesus made in John 14:23 where he says, “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” This certainly sounds like a relationship situation to me.    

This sense of relationship is exactly what Ezekiel is speaking of during this interview with the Jewish elders.  God is not at all minded to listen to them because they are not truly interested in a relationship with Him. They only want to use God to get what they want, or to hear what they want.  What they really want to hear are the words of the false prophets saying, “Peace, Peace”, when there is no peace.  Through Ezekiel, God tells them that He will turn His face from those who deceive themselves with idols and will remove them from their land.  This will be done not out of cruelty, but rather out of chastisement, so that Judah would eventually truly repent herself of her idolatry.

As later history would prove, God did remove Judah from the Promised Land.  Judah did repent and was restored, but to a lesser degree until the time of the Ptolemeys.  By this time, the Jews were so against idolatry that it led to the rise of the Pharisees, who became jealous guardians of the Law. Yet, as history would show by the time of Christ, slavish adherence to the Law had itself become a form of idolatry. It is really difficult for man to get it right, isn’t it?
The point for today is that we too must remove any idols in our hearts, or any stumbling blocks of iniquity that impede our relationship with Almighty God. All of us have them, and for us to enjoy the fullest fellowship with God, they must be removed.  The Holy Spirit will keep pointing to them until one of two things happens.  Either we, with the help of the Holy Ghost, remove them in order to enjoy a fuller experience with God, or we will grow hardened in our sinfulness until a fuller relationship loses its value to us.

Pray God that this does not happen to any of us, because it had serious consequences. Rather than experiencing the wonderful fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, contentment, godliness and self control, we will bear the evil fruit of our natural natures: hate, discontent, malice, unease, fear, and infidelity.  If one reads St. Paul long enough, one will come across of these “laundry lists” of bad behavior.

In the words of St. Paul himself, he meMay it never be! We pray that all of us may continue to take daily inventory of ourselves and of our relationship with Almighty God in Christ. We pray that we may ardently seek those things that hinder our relationship and fling them from us like so many filthy rags… We pray that you may seek the power of the Holy Ghost to do so, for only through Him is it possible.

Then, unlike those idolatrous men in Ezekiel whom God would not hear, we will enjoy the warm spiritual embrace of our Heavenly Father. He will hear us.  He will come to us and tabernacle with us.  He will make His Face to shine upon us. Through His blessed Holy Spirit, He will give us peace, now and forever.

AMEN.

 






[i] Kiel and Delitzsch, “Ezekiel”, BW 7.0
[ii] ibid

“Ascension – Power and Glory…”


Acts 1:9  Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.”

Tonight we celebrate an important feast of the Christian year, the Feast of the Ascension.  Why is it important? 

The reasons for both are manifold.  Merrill Unger, a noted Biblical commentator says it is the “capstone of his earthly ministry.”  It identifies Jesus Christ as Divine, as he is received up into Heaven in the sight of the disciples.  As well, it has fundamentally important theological reasons for its importance. The chief reason is Christ’s physical ascension, taking his body (and Man’s nature) to heaven with him.

Yet, for all these reasons, Ascension is largely ignored by many Christians, who, by most measures, are pious and devout.  Why? Could it be because it is a mid-week service?  Perhaps, yet Ash Wednesday is also midweek, and I daresay that it is better attended than Ascension. 

It is my firmly held opinion that, if Christians really understood the significance of Ascension, our churches would be full.  If they really understood that Ascension actually defines their salvation, our churches would be full. Finally, if they really understood that without the Ascension, Christ would be just another great teacher, misunderstood and martyred by the Authorities, our churches would be full on this night.

Let’s consider these points in turn.  First, we should recognize that the Ascension really does sum up the whole of Christ’s ministry.  He told his disciples, “I came from the Father and now I go back to the Father.”  Christ came, the Dayspring from on high to tabernacle with us and to take our nature upon us.  He was born the normal way, he grew, matured, and became a man.  He taught, healed, did miracles, drew crowds and amazed many. He gathered disciples, drew the ire of the Jewish authorities, was accused falsely, was condemned and ultimately killed by sinful men, nailed to a cross to endure a horrible torture death. 

If this was all, Jesus Christ would have been known as just another great man.  But, we know that this was not all.  On Easter morning, Christ rose from the dead, showing that the g rave had no power over Him.  As St. Paul says in Colossians 2:15  15And having spoiled 1 principalities and powers, he 2 made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in 3 it.”  The Geneva Bible notes say, “The cross was a chariot of triumph. No conqueror could have triumphed so gloriously in his chariot, as Christ did upon the cross.”

Truer words were never spoken.  The Resurrection is the greatest act that a mortal man can imagine, as one is victorious over man’s greatest nemesis, Death. Yet, even the Resurrection, as marvelous and cosmically stupendous as it is, is not enough to completely fulfill Christ’s Ministry.  If He has risen from the dead, merely to spend another 60, 70 or even 80 years before eventually succumbing to eventual physical death, there would be no ultimate victory.  But, there was an ultimate victory.

Christ led His Disciples out to Bethany, teaching them on the way.  He then blessed them, lifting up His Hands.  As he did this, He was lifted up into Heaven, until a cloud received Him out of their sight.  This is the same Cloud that covered the Tabernacle in the Wilderness when Moses spoke with God. 
It is the same Cloud that Ezekiel saw from the inside out, full of innumerable saints of God.  Many commentators think that this was the Shekinah Glory Cloud, so often mentioned in the Old Testament.

Christ entered into this Cloud and thus into Glory, not just the great Teacher, not just the great Miracle worker, not even just the Great Martyr for Righteousness’ sake, but as the Son of God returning to His Father.  Matthew Henry asks us to imagine the scene in Heaven as Christ returns to take his rightful place at the Father’s right hand. What a celebration, what a mighty shout of triumph from an incomprehensible number of angels that must have been! Yet, even at this might moment of victory and joy, Christ thinks of His Disciples by dispatching two angels to say to them, “Acts 1:11  "Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven."  In Henry’s words, these two angels, who would rather had been in Heaven to witness the Son’s homecoming, obeyed His command and ministered to the disciples. Even in His hour of triumph, Jesus thought of us.

Thus, Jesus takes his rightful place at the right hand of God the Father. Having done all that He was to do, having served as the Lamb “slain from the foundation of the World”, he is enthroned on high to receive everlasting glory and honor and dominion. Amen.

He thus completes the great Cycle of Salvation, beginning with his Incarnation, then his Nativity, next his Atonement, His Resurrection, and finally, His Ascension.  For this reason alone, Ascension is a significant day.

Ascension also defines our salvation.  When Christ ascended into Heaven, He wasn’t just an ethereal spirit, or some nebulous apparition. No, Christ took a real flesh and blood body with Him to Heaven. Granted, it was a glorified body, but a body it was just the same.  Thus, we know that if Christ rose from the dead, so shall we.  If Christ had a real Body in his ascended state, so shall we.  As He ascended into Heaven, He took our human nature with Him to be glorified and exalted forever.  Remember, what Christ did not assume, he could not justify.  What he did not take with Him to Heaven, He could not glorify.  Yet, He did.  In his Incarnation, He took our human nature upon Him and atoned for it on the Cross.  In His Resurrection, He arose in his Human Body, thus giving it (and us) victory over the grave. Finally, in His Ascension, He arose to Heaven, glorifying our natures, our souls and bodies.

On the Last Day, Christ shall call all from their graves and they shall appear for judgment in their flesh. Those who have trusted in Christ for their salvation will reign with Him in eternal glory.  Those who rejected Christ in their lifetimes on earth will also be rejected.  There will indeed be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I weep for the unredeemed, for those who know not Christ, for they know not what they are going to lose forever.  Pray God that we can minister to some of them, to give them the Good News of Salvation.

But, Praise God, not so with us.  We who have trusted in Christ, will hear those blessed words from Matthew 25:34  “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:” Not in a sense of Christian triumphalism, but in humility and love will we welcome those words.  Because Christ, our Great Captain of Salvation, paved the way before us, will we ascend.

Thus, it is fitting and right that we give thanks and praise this night.  For now is Christ our Lord glorified and magnified.  Now has Christ our Lord taken His rightful place as Son and Heir to the Kingdom, to regain the glory he had from everlasting with the Father. He accomplished his mighty mission of salvation. His mighty cry from the Cross, “It is finished!” attests to that.  Pray God that we and all the world may let those words ring in our innermost souls.

Thus, we must take heart and be encouraged.  We are not deceived, nor are we mistaken.  We know whom we have believed, our mighty re-ascended Lord. With truth like that and the power of the Holy Ghost, our joy is unstoppable.

One last point needs to be made about the Ascension.  Without the Ascension, there would be no transcendent Holy Ghost to cheer, guide and strengthen us.  Remember that Christ said in John 16:7  1”Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.”

These are blessed words.  Jesus is promising that He will send us a Helper if He returns to Heaven.  This Helper or Comforter, is not just a fond wish or good feeling, but the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, God Himself, to be with us until our eventual journey to Heaven, where we will be united with God forever in complete love and bliss, forever.

This is the promise that Christ sealed for us in His Ascension.  This is how he defined our salvation, for as He is, so shall we be. 


Acts 1:11  "Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven."