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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

In the Beginning....

“In The Beginning…”
Christmas 2010
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabus Anglican Church

Joh 1:1-3
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.”

In these short verses, St. John sums up that on which theologians have written literally thousands of pages. In the next three verses, John will give us the Gospel compressed, in terms that are at once simple, irrefutable and theologically correct. What an appropriate Christmas reading!

John tells us that God and Christ have always been, i.e. “in the beginning.” He emphasizes this by saying that “In the beginning was the Word.” Now, we Christians know that the Word, when capitalized in the New Testament, always refers to Jesus. St. John thus emphatically tells us that Christ has always been, with, and is God. This is doubly emphasized when the Gospel says, ”The same was in the beginning with God.” John does not want us to miss the point that Christ is God, co-equal and co-eternal with God the Father and God the Spirit, here unsaid but definitely implied.

In vs. 4-11, John unfolds his Gospel message like a flower, each line opening another petal until he reveals the underlying beauty. In vs. 4-5, John tells us that Jesus Christ is life, and that life is the light that illuminates our sad, dark world, bringing life into every heart that is called to receive Him.
Note, however, not all men are called to salvation. John says that “he came unto his own, and his own received him not” and “the light shineth in darkness and the darkness comprendeth it not.” We have to realize that rejection came first before the Gospel took root in those called to receive it.

Notice too, how the Gospel came to us before the 1st Advent of Christ. The Apostle John tells us about the last and greatest of the prophets, John the Baptizer. He was to bear witness to the True Light that “lights every man who comes into the world.”

As we have discussed in our treatment of the Gospel proper for the 4th Sunday in Advent, John did not claim to be the Christ, or “that prophet” or Elijah come back to life. He simply said, ”I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.” John the Baptizer was a man filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb.
we spoke about the reaction when Mary was visiting her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptizer. Recall that when Mary entered the house and said hello to Elizabeth, the babe in Elizabeth’s womb leaped with joy at the salutation. When Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost, Mary responded with that wonderful canticle that we sing or say at Evening Prayer, the Magnificat. This great paen of prase begins: “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit doth rejoice in God my Savior.”

This is the reaction Jesus provokes in those that love Him. This is what we should say in our hearts and souls when we fall down and worship Him: “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit doth rejoice in God my Saviour.” As the result of receiving Jesus into our hearts, He gives us “power to become the sons (and daughters) of God.
” To those who believe on His Name this power comes “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” God calls us and chooses those whom He will to be saved. Glory be to God!

This brings us to the crux of this wonderful Christmas Gospel selection. John tells us that the Word “was made flesh and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”) In John’s beautiful style, he tells us the most momentous event in history in just six little words: “And the Word was made flesh…” This is the Incarnation, where God became man, where the Second Person of the Trinity became human and “dwelt among us.” Now, we Anglicans have always held this event in very high regard. In fact, one party of the Anglican Communion, those called Anglo-Catholics, hold the Incarnation to be the special moment of all time. They believe the Incarnation to be the moment in history, when God took on manhood, where Divinity put on Humanity, in order that humanity might be saved through Divinity.

How can we disagree with that? We must agree that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is the central moment of history, which is why history is (or was) divided into B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, the year of the Lord). Despite liberal scholastic attempts to change this into B.C.E. (before Christian era), the fact is plain: Christ’s coming to us in human flesh changes the creation dynamic completely. The Incarnation changes everything because it ushers us into the New Covenant era through the ministry of Jesus Christ. Thus, it really is the central moment of all time. Without the Incarnation, it is impossible to have the miracles, the teachings, the healings, the Transfiguration, the Passion, the Resurrection and the Ascension of Christ. Without Christ, it is impossible to be saved.

Yet, one must focus on the entire life of Christ to really appreciate the Incarnation. Those who focus only on the Incarnation are doing Christ honor, but perhaps are “missing the forest for the trees.”

The Incarnation is where it all begins. This is where the “rubber meets the road”, to quote an old Uniroyal tire ad. The topic of Jesus Christ, man and God, is the center of most of the heresies in the Christian Church. It is the stumbling block for those who do not have the gift of faith. Looking at it outside a Christian viewpoint, it is truly mind-numbing to consider how God, infinite and all-powerful, could take on Man’s nature without diminishing His own Divine nature. Or, that Man could assume Godhood without changing his nature in some respect. Yet, that is exactly what happened in Bethlehem. God took Man’s nature upon Him and in Jesus Christ a new creature was born, one person with two natures, perfect God and perfect Man.

This is exactly where the various heretical sects had their problems. For example, the Arians tried to promulgate a view that there “was a time when Christ was not.” The Council of Nicea quashed this view, and produced the Nicene Creed. Thus, the language, “one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God” came forth to clearly delineate the uniqueness of Christ. Other groups, like the Montanists and the Marcionites, had problems with either the divinity of Christ or the humanity of Christ, or both.

The worst and most pervasive group was the Gnostics, who erred on both sides of the God-Man equation. They either denied the divinity of Jesus or impugned His humanity. Thus, it was impossible for some to accept the gospel of John at face value. Instead, man had to try to figure out everything about God.

For some people, mystery is unacceptable. Like the 17th and 18th century Rationalists, some people refuse to believe in the possibility of mystery. They do not believe that “there is a God and we’re not Him” to quote a favorite Sunday School teacher of mine.

The fact is, some parts of the Christian religion are mysterious. How is it possible for God to take on Man’s nature without diminishing His Own? How could Mary produce a child without a human father or human seed? How could Jesus Christ heal the sick, cure the blind and raise the dead? How could Jesus Christ, a man tortured to death on a cross, rise from a sealed tomb and be seen of hundreds of disciples at once? We don’t know. Shakespeare said, “herein lies the rub.” At some point, the intellectual arrogance of man meets the mysterious infinitude of God and stops cold. Then, the faithless and self-willed turn away and say “It can’t be done, it is impossible.” The faithful, on the other hand, behold the miracle of Christ and say, “All things are possible with God.” The faithful in Christ fall to their knees and say with St. Thomas: “My Lord and my God.”

So it is with us this Christmas, as we celebrate this central moment of all time. Despite the perennial attempt to commercialize and euphemize Christmas out of existence, this is the central moment of history. This is the most wondrous co-joining of Divinity with Humanity in a way that is recognizable but not comprehensible by us. The Council of Chalcedon explained it wonderfully in a doctrine called Intimacy, where the combination of the two natures of Christ occurred without “separation or division”. As well, Chalcedon put forth the doctrine of Integrity, where the two natures of Christ co-exist and co-inhere “without confusion or mixture.” As Anglicans have always believed, Jesus Christ was true God and true Man, at the same time.

Thus it is the most wonderful happening of all time. It is THE penultimate event that saves you and me from death and eternal damnation. Put in a positive sense, we are inheritors of eternal life through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

As our Epistle from Hebrews tells us (from the New King James version):

Hebrews 1:1-5 God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, 2 has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; 3 who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. 5 For to which of the angels did He ever say: "You are My Son, Today I have begotten You"? And again: "I will be to Him a Father, And He shall be to Me a Son"? Who could say it better than that?

Amen, even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.

John 1:14
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Advent of the Christ

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 19, 2010

Advent of the Christ
John 1:19-20
“And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ.”

Our Gospel for the 4th Sunday in Advent begins with the momentous line, “And this is the record of John….” from the Authorized Version. Some versions, notably the American Standard Version of 1901 and the Modern King James Version, say: “This is the witness of John”, others term it the “testimony” of John. Consider these words, record, witness, testimony. Webster tells us, regarding the word record: “an account of important events in the order in which they happened”; for testimony, “something presented in support of the truth or accuracy of a claim”; and finally, witness: “attestation of a fact or event “. Condensing these statements we get three important phrases: “important events, the truth, and attestation of a fact.” This is what John the Baptist brought to us.

Who was this John the Baptizer? From Luke we know that he was the relative of Christ, probably a cousin, because Luke tells us that Elizabeth, John’s mother, was a kinswoman of Mary the mother of Jesus. He was six months older than Christ, a man who was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. Recall the passage from Luke, when Elizabeth went to visit Mary. Both were pregnant. Recall the salutation of Elisabeth to Mary in Luk 1:41:
“And it came to pass, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit;”

Elizabeth then utters one of the great statements in the New Testament, in praise and adoration to God for his work through Mary in Luk 1:42-44
“and she lifted up her voice with a loud cry, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come unto me? For behold, when the voice of thy salutation came into mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.”

This is the same John the Baptist, a man born for one purpose: to point to the Christ. Thus, when the messengers from the Pharisees, notably priests and Levites, asked him, “Who art thou?” John confessed and denied not, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” It is important to note that “priests and Levites” were sent to examine John, because John was of the heritage of Aaron, himself a priest and a member of the hereditary priestly lineage stemming from Aaron, the brother of Moses. Also, they sent knowledgeable men, which indicated their seriousness. The fact that they sent anyone at all shows that the spiritual men of Israel, were indeed looking for something or someone.

Thus, John the Baptist, the last of the prophets, points towards the One who is the fulfillment of all prophecy in a self-effacing way. John took no credit for himself, but as he will later say in: Joh 3:30 “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John the Baptizer is totally self aware of his mission as the harbinger of the Christ. This is the role for which he was born and it is the role he joyfully plays to the end. Jesus himself gives testimony to John when he says in Mat 11:9-11: “But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” This is high praise, indeed, coming from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Why all this discussion about John the Baptizer? We talk about John because he talks about and testifies to the One for whom the approaching Christmas season is all about. Thus, John points to the Christ, who is living Theology itself.

All of us, laymen and clergy alike, must have a firm foundation of theology in these spiritually perilous times. While we don’t need, or can attain, the level of erudition that Christ displayed even as a young man, as his parents found him “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. “ We do, however, need enough theology to be able to recognize truth from error.

As you well know, there is plenty of error these days. We find it in many areas and in many varieties, all too numerous to speak of in one session.

Today, however, we are going to speak of the Truth. To find truth and to find some of the most concise and most correct theology right at our fingertips, all we must do is turn to the Gospel of John. Reading as little as the first three verses, we garner several important truths about Christ: (John 1:1-3): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God (Christ is the pre-existent Word - Ho Logos, always with God the Father), and the Word was God (Christ is God, co-equal and eternal). The same was in the beginning with God. (Christ is begotten, not made or created, as the Arians thought). All things were made by him (he is the Creator); and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (He is Self-sufficient God –autotheos –who alone created all things.)

Thus, this is the One to whom John pointed:
1. The eternal One, Lord and God
2. The Son who had co-equal glory with the Father before all time.
3. He who created all things ex nihilo, out of nothing
4. He who was both perfect God and perfect Man in one Person.
Any other assertions about Christ are contrary to the teachings of the historic Church and are heretical.

We all know the times are spiritually perilous. As we see some of the mainline churches, as well as many of our Pentecostal and Fundamentalist brethren, move away from the historic creeds and traditional theology of the Church, we are seeing many of the old heresies creep back in to the Church. We recognize that our Enemy below, Satan, is not creative, but is merely repetitive and persistent, as we’ve mentioned many., many times before. Thus, as the old heresies are recycled, we should not be amazed or even surprised. Instead, we should be thankful for the Word of God that we read and the Word of God in the Sacraments that we ingest and for correct belief in the Nicene Creed, which we affirm. We should be thankful that we stand on the Rock of Christ day by day, season by season, and year by year.

This is what we celebrate now, in our Christmas season. Not as the world celebrates their Christmas merchandizing season, which runs from early November to the 25th of December and then they are done. No, rather we celebrate Christ’s first Advent, which begins on the 25th of December, Christ-mass Day, the Nativity of our Lord and continues until the glorious Epiphany, or The Feast of the Manifestation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, on the 6th of January.

This is the true Christian Christmas season. We all recognize, however, how difficult this is to do in our modern, move-to-the-next-event society. After the 25th, the world will be rushing towards the New Year’s Celebration. Christmas will be forgotten.
The world rushes on, in break-neck fashion to the next thing, which, for the most part, concerns revelry and drunkenness as it celebrates the onset of the New Year. The world looks for a New Year, which it hopes will be better, but will simply be the same cycle of quiet desperation, broken up by one secular celebration after another. The secular world doesn’t really know why it is so incomplete, but we Christians do.

This Christmas season, starting on the 25th and running until January 6th, let us all hold Christ in our hearts in a special way. Somehow, in our interior lives, despite the rush and hurry and madness that surrounds us, let us all cherish the One who came to us, our Emmanuel, the perfect God-man who came to tabernacle with us, for the sole purpose of redeeming our fallen natures and to exalt our humanity into the Godhead itself.

This is Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of all prophecy. This is Jesus Christ, our High Priest, who offers mediation and intercession for us to the Father. This is Jesus Christ, the King of all Creation.

Let us honor Him. worship Him and exalt Him in our hearts, now for these next 12 days of Christmas and for ever.

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

AMEN