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Friday, December 30, 2011

Obedient to the Law for Man

“Obedient to the Law for Man”
Feast of the Circumcision of Christ
January 1, 2011
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church

“ALMIGHTY God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man; Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that, our hearts, and
all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen”

This Sunday’s lessons trace two very important events in the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Both of them have great significance for us and point to the glory of the Christmas season.

What are these two events and why are they important to note? Both are outlined in the Gospel selection from St. Luke overtly, and then referred to obliquely in the Collect for the Day and the Epistle from St. Paul. The first deals with the obedience and adoration of the shepherds. The second deals with the circumcision of Christ.

The first event involving the shepherds is important, for it foreshadows both the fame and the curiosity that would surround Jesus his entire earthly life. As St. Luke tells us in the verses immediately prior to the Gospel selection for today, the pronouncement of the birth of Jesus was extraordinary. An angel appeared to the shepherds “abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” The glory of the Lord, as reflected by the angel, appeared to them, and as might be expected, they were terrified. Imagine lying peaceably on a hillside in ancient Judea, with the stars beaming brightly overhead because there was no modern light pollution. Imagine the still of the night, broken only by some quiet breeze. Then imagine a brilliant being standing before you, in blazing light and color. I think all of us would be scared out of our socks at this sudden appearance. Then, the being begins to talk! What an experience! Luckily for the shepherds, the first words were “Fear not, for I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” As the angelic being speaks, all fear begins to subside and the wondering shepherds listen with great anticipation. The angel then says, (Luke 2:11-12) “1For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger”.

This would be astounding enough, if this was all that happened that night. But it wasn’t, as the next thing to occur was that the whole sky was filled with a multitude of angels, all singing and praising God. Can you imagine? Can any of us possibly fathom how utterly fantastic, yet completely glorious such a sight must have been?

Evidently, the shepherds were shaken to their boots, yet in a good way. The next thing they do is to agree that they must go and see this thing told them by the angel. This they do, and they dutifully find the Babe, lying with his mother, just as the angel told them. As they are impressed with this experience, in fact, they now have this happening indelibly printed in their memories, they begin to do what we all would do: tell everyone about it. In the wonderful words of the Authorized Version, “they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.” Thus begins the curiosity and the fame surrounding Jesus.

The significance to us is that we should mirror the actions of the shepherds. That is, first, we should allow our souls and consciences to be indelibly impressed by Christ. Second, we should go and see Christ. Today, we do that by reading the Holy Word and meditating upon Christ’s mighty acts, as well as regular attendance at holy worship. Third, we should “make known abroad” what we have learned and realized in our souls. We do this both verbally, as God gives us opportunity, and by a witness. How we conduct ourselves in our everyday affairs is a daily witness to Christ. By bearing the imprint of Christ in our souls and showing that forth by our conduct and our attitude, we do what the shepherds did. We make known abroad what Christ means to us.

The second event recorded in the Gospel selection deals with Christ’s compliance with the law. The collect for the day told us that God the Father “madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man.” Why would the collect expressly make a point about this? Why is it so important that Christ be “obedient” to the law? It is simply because it deals with Christ’s complete identification with man. Just as Jesus would later tell John the Baptizer on the occasion of his baptism, “Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness”, so his parents complied with the ritual law of male circumcision. Jesus Christ had to be completely, absolutely human in all respects. In order to redeem Man, he had to be completely man. He also had to comply with all aspects of the Law in order to be the “spotless lamb” suitable for sacrifice for our sins. Thus, once again, we marvel at the wonderful, miraculous nature of Christ. Only he was the complete human being who was also completely God at the same time. This is completely mysterious and totally incomprehensible by us. Yet, just as Christ would later tell his disciples in Mathew 19:24 and Mark 10:25, regarding a camel going through the eye of a needle, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.”

Indeed, with God, all things are possible. Looking around us today, we see the evidence of that. Not that this church home just appeared magically by divine fiat, but that God blessed us with a group of people, all of you Christians, that wanted to make this house of God happen. Through your careful stewardship, hard work, and cheerful giving, God has made this place possible through His People. Praise be to God, and again, thanks be to God!

We should also praise God for another thing. That simply is that God the Father made it possible for all of us to be here, worshipping in communion of spirit and of belief. Christ made this possible through his obedience and fulfillment of the Law. First, as we have mentioned, Christ fulfilled all righteousness by completely complying with the ritual demands of the law. Later, in Matthew 5:17, Christ would say, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”

How did He do this? How did He fulfill the Law so that we Gentiles could become part of the tree of life? He simply fulfilled the part of the Jewish ritual law to which He was obedient. In the Law of Moses, Abraham was given male circumcision as an outward sign that one was in a covenantal state with God. Under the Law, if one was not circumcised, one could not be included in the covenantal family and was excluded from all the benefits of being a Jew. In short, one forfeited the special state that the Chosen People had with God. Women, of course, were considered covered by the compliance of their male family members, or male head of the household. All were included by virtue of circumcision.

Now comes Christ and gives the New Testament community two sacraments, the Lord’s Supper, and Christian baptism. The Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist, fulfills the need for all of the ritual Jewish sacrifices. Only one sacrifice was needful, and that was given on Calvary. As Galatians 3:13-14 says, “ Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: 14 That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”

The other dominical sacrament, Holy Baptism, makes possible the blessing of Abraham by providing a way for us Gentiles to join the covenantal family. It does this not by the shedding of blood, as in circumcision, but rather with the washing of water. Thus, Christ fulfills male circumcision as a necessary means of salvation with Holy Baptism. We now enter the blessed state wherewith we can access the promises of God without the pain and blood of circumcision, but rather with the blessed cleansing of holy water. How wonderful and merciful this is!

This Baptism makes it possible for us to be here today and to be partakers in the blessedness of Christ. It makes possible our covenant with God and to have access to the hope of salvation. Without the sacrament of baptism, our salvation becomes at worst, impossible, or at best, problematical. Yet, through the mercies of God, all things are possible.

We are a blessed people. We are blessed because God sent a man, Jesus Christ, “to be circumcised and obedient to the law for man.” We are blessed because God the Father sent God the Son to expiate our sins. Finally, we are blessed because God loves us so much that He would do this. Humbly acknowledging this, let us enjoy and give thanks for our Christmas season. Thanks be to God! AMEN.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

“…at sundry times and in divers manners…”

“…at sundry times and in divers manners…”
Christmas 2011
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabus Anglican Church

Hebrews 1:1-2: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, 2 Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;”

So begins those stirring lines from the beginning of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Originally attributed to St. Paul, it is one of the few epistles for which we have any doubt of authorship. Today, even in conservative and traditional seminaries such as our own Cranmer Theological House, it is still noted that St. Paul’s authorship is not completely acknowledged. While this is interesting, it does not diminish the message of the epistle, nor does it dim the brightness of its significance for us.

Today, we celebrate the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We celebrate the penultimate moment in history of which the Old Testament prophets spoke. Just as we know to be true, the panoply of prophets all spoke of Christ, the Messiah. As we mentioned last week, as we examine the Old Testament we see that Isaiah spoke of Christ, Malachi spoke of Christ, Zechariah spoke of Christ, and John, the last prophet of all, spoke of Christ. Christ is the end and fulfillment of all prophecy and now he is here, Immanuel, God with us. Thus, while in the past, the prophets spoke to men, telling them of the coming Messiah, now Christ is here, speaking to us through His Holy word written and through the blessed Holy Spirit. Christ is also with us, spiritually, in the physical means He ordained for our bodily and spiritual sustenance. In short, Christ is here. We celebrate His presence in our midst and in our hearts today.

In the beginning verses of our Epistle selection from Hebrews, the author constructs it almost like a dialogue. The first lines speak of Jesus as “heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds.” Christ is also the “brightness of his glory and the express image of his person.” Christ upholds all things by the word of his power, and having purged our sins, took his place at the right hand of God.

What does this sound like to you? To me, it sounds exactly like the extolling of Christ as the Ultimate One, one superior to all others. In fact, that is exactly the purpose of Hebrews, as the author instructed the early Church on the superiority of Christ. One can sense this in the following statements: (Hebrews 1:4-5) “Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. 5 ¶ For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?” Even the mighty angelic beings do not compare with the power and glory of Christ. This is clear when we read of the throne of Christ: Hebrews 1:8 “But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom. “ Thus, His throne is “for ever and ever”, and Christ possesses a “sceptre of righteousness.” All of these are statements that pertain to a king. In the language of the Bible, they pertain to a great Suzerain who reigns over many subject kings and nations.

Yet, there is a difference in Christ as the Great Suzerain, as opposed to the earthly wielders of temporal power. Whereas men are genuinely obsessed with power for the purposes of their own aggrandizement, Christ is concerned about something else. In Hebrews 1:9, we read: “Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.” In other words, Christ is not concerned with power, for He is all Power. Instead, he loves righteousness and hates evil. He loves Good for Good’s own sake. Thus, God the Father has anointed Him with a spirit greater than any other being. This is especially clear when God the Father, in verse 8, addresses His own Son as God. This serves two purposes: first, it clearly shows us the unity of the Trinity, as God speaks to Himself. It also shows us the diversity of the Trinity, as One Person, God the Father, speaks to another Person, God the Son
Perhaps this, more than any other statement, shows us the superiority of Christ. No other being is spoken to in this way. No other being possesses the pre-eminence like Christ.
No other being is unchangeable, and as the epistle selection tells us, in Hebrews 1:11-12: “They shall perish; but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment; And as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.”

This brings us back to our purpose for today. Today we worship our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, come to us in the flesh, yet possessing all power in His divinity. Inferior to the Father as regarding his manhood, yet equal to the Father as regarding his Godhood, we celebrate His first advent on the earth. We celebrate the change in history from darkness to light, in an ultimate sense. Yet we know that sin runs rampant on the earth and the witness of Christianity has been at many times less than stellar. This may cause a problem for some of those looking at Christianity from the outside, and perhaps seeking a chink in its armor.

It does not cause a problem for us, because we know that the sinfulness of man is not Christ’s fault or the fault of Christianity. He or it cannot be blamed for the failings of men and their all-too-prevalent use of Christianity as a mask for their own sinful and selfish deeds. It is rather the opposite. Men’s misuse of Christianity is simply more evidence of their need for Christ and for the need of His coming into the world. Our sinfulness and our selfishness--are they the same?—simply show us our need for Christ’s redemptive power in our lives. The wonderful Christmas hymn “In Dulci Juibilo” (Good Christian Men, rejoice) says it all in its last lines: “Christ was born to save! Christ was born to save!”

Again, that is what we celebrate today. Today marks one of more joyous seasons of the year, only to be outdone in blessedness by Easter. Today we cherish the newness of Christmas once again. Today we cherish the first advent of Christ to the world, where we hold up the central moment of all time. Despite the perennial attempt to commercialize and euphemize Christmas out of existence, it remains. 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.

Christians, how do you feel? If you are like most people in this country, at this time of year, you probably feel some excitement, or some general exhilaration. Our unchurched friends might chalk it up to the festive environment and the anticipation of gifts. We have to ask: what, exactly are they celebrating -- some nebulous idea of the “Holidays”? Do they hold some vague notion of Christmas without Christ? Or, do they simply like the colors red and green? Who knows?

Actually, we Christians do know. We know why we are together today. We are not like the Athenian Greeks whom St. Paul upbraided on Mars’ Hill, for having an idol to the “unknown god” in Acts 17:23. They ignorantly worshipped the works of their hands and of their own minds, being yet unenlightened by Christ. In that scene, St. Paul echoed the words of this epistle by telling them there is a God who made all things.

No, beloved in Christ, we know who He is. We know why we are here. We are glad of His coming to us today in great humility. We look for His coming again in great power and majesty. This is His day and the source of our everlasting rejoicing.

John 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 anything made that was made.”

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.”

Who could say it better than that? Merry Christmas, Christians!
.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

THIS is the record of John

“THIS is the record of John…”

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
December 18th, 2011
Fourth Sunday in Advent

(On the occasion of the first Holy Eucharist in the new building)
Psalm 127:1 “Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. “

These are words to live by because today is a momentous day in the life of St. Barnabas Anglican Church. Today, for the very first time, we celebrate the Holy Mysteries in our own building, in our own surroundings. Today, because of God’s grace and because of your faithful stewardship, we are here. Praise be to God for all of His Blessings! Indeed, we are very blessed as we read the Holy Word of God, meditate on its applications to us today and feast on the Sacramental Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Of course, we are aware that the Church is so much more than a mere building, but at the same time, we give thanks for our own special place, a place dedicated to praising and worshipping our Holy and Triune God. AMEN.

Considering our Gospel lesson for the 4th Sunday in Advent, we hear the words of the scribes and Pharisees when they said unto John the Baptizer, “Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.”

This week’s Gospel speaks again of John the Baptist, prior to his arrest by Herod. We referred to him last week, as Matthew told us of his imprisonment. Recall that John sent two of his disciples to Christ and asked if he were the one that should come, or were they to expect someone else. Christ, as we mentioned last week, pointed to his work and told all listening to heed the works that he did.

Again and again, Christ tells us in the Gospels to judge him by his works. As He told us in Matthew 7:20 “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them”. From Christ’s mighty works in the Gospels, we know him to be our Lord and God. Thus, He tells us in “Matthew 7:18-19 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. 19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.”

What, might we ask, were John’s fruits? What were the things that he did? One way to answer that is to note what is amazing about this passage. That simply is that the scribes, Levites, and Pharisees were also looking for someone or something. They knew that the Scriptures spoke of the Messiah to come, and they wondered if John the Baptizer were he. They simply weren’t sure who he was and thus they asked: “Who art thou?”

To John’s credit, “… he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ” He was a prophet, yet, in Christ’s own words, “more than a prophet.” John was the last prophet sent to mankind prior to the advent of Christ Himself. In that role, He stands alone and he is magnificent. John the blessed Apostle told us: “And he (John the Baptist) confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ.” Thus, he is totally unwilling to take any credit for himself but merely says he is not worthy to unloose the sandals of the one for whom he was sent.

And they asked him, “What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No.” John refused to say that he was the Christ, or “that Prophet” (Elijah). He said simply that he was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord”. He was simply the herald of one greater than himself, whose coming was foretold for centuries before. If we examine the Old Testament, we see that Isaiah spoke of Christ, Malachi spoke of Christ, Zechariah spoke of Christ, and now John, the last prophet of all, speaks of Christ. Christ is the end and fulfillment of all prophecy and now he is here, Immanuel, God with us.

The reason I mention all of this is simply to remind us that we are to emulate that great prophet, John the Baptizer, in that we attest to something in our lives that is greater than ourselves. Like John, we say, “Lo, there is someone greater (in my heart) than I and his name is Jesus. I am not worthy to unloose his sandals.” When we have this kind of dynamic faith and this incredible humility, the Holy Spirit will be pleased to dwell with us and we will grow in Christ.

We are now on the very edge of that blessed season of Christmas. Christmas, Christ-mass, is here again. We focus on the nativity of the Christ child, come to us again in song, in liturgy and in celebration; the most blessed event in human history. God Himself is come to be one of us, to take our human nature upon him so that He can sanctify and redeem it.

Thus, the Epistle for today from that blessed letter to the Philippians tells us to “REJOICE in the Lord alway: and again I say, rejoice.” St. Paul goes on to say, “The Lord is at hand.”The Apostle goes to say, “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.” Examining this statement, we are to be anxious for nothing. Rather, we are to rely on our Lord and Savior for everything and to make our requests known to God with “prayers and supplications.” In short, our relationship with the Father through Christ is to be real and valid, alive with prayer and supplication. As I’ve often told the Lord, “Dear Lord, I ask largely only because you can give largely.” This prayer occurs when I need or want something desperately; (of course the Almighty often has other plans).

Even while we realize that God has already known every thought we have had or ever will have, nevertheless we continue in prayer, because He told us to pray and as Proverbs 3:5 says: “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.”

Thus, fellow Christians, “REJOICE in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.” Let your heart be filled with joy, for this is the season to celebrate. In Christian eyes, the world has gone from darkness to light, from despair to hope, from everlasting perdition to eternal glory with God.

Recall that St. Paul wrote this while awaiting execution in Rome. He knew that he was facing imminent departure from this world. Yet, he said , “REJOICE in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice.” Today is the fourth Sunday in Advent. The Christ child is near. As the Prayer Book says, “Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

Let us pray:

“O LORD, raise up, we pray thee, thy power, and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let
and hindered in running the race that is set before us, thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be honour and glory, world without end.”
Amen.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Judgment and Decision

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
Third Sunday in Advent
December 11, 2011
St. Barnabas Anglican Church

"Judgment and Decision"

1Co 4:5
“Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God.”

In today’s Epistle, we have some very difficult words to digest. St. Paul tells us “to judge nothing before the time” and “he that judgeth me is the Lord.”

When one hears these sayings, one could draw a couple of conclusions. First that these sayings are difficult, which is true, and second, that we as Christians are not to “judge” anyone, which is false.

The whole question of “judgment” in our society is one that is fraught with difficulty. We are told constantly that we are not to judge anyone or anything. We are told that we not to impose our value system on anyone. “I’m glad that works for you” is the modern mantra of our times.

Let’s “unpack” this saying in two ways: first, in terms of what our society means by it and second, what our Lord means by it. I think you’ll find, as usual, there is an obvious disconnect between the two. Also, when we do this, let’s examine exactly who is judging whom.

Backing up just a moment to put this passage into context, recall that St. Paul had spent considerable time and energy in his ministry to the Corinthian church. He had built up the church in Corinth until there was a need for several congregations. Of course, the problem with congregations is that, over time, different opinions and even different leaders spring up. Corinth, after all, was a large and wealthy community. It not only could afford several churches, but as time would tell, Corinth would begin to split into several different interpretations of St. Paul’s message. We see this plainly in the third chapter of this very same epistle when Paul complains that the congregations are beginning to split off into different groups according to different leaders: 1Co 3:4-5: “For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?”

Does this sound familiar with certain Christian groups? Sadly, it does. I’m not saying that all congregational groups do this, by any means, but there is a definite danger among some groups to follow the man, rather than the role the man performs. That is, among groups who do not have ecclesiastical authority structures, a tendency exists that a charismatic leader rises up to lead the group, with few checks on his authority. On the other hand, the historic episcopal-type church, that is to say, a church governed by bishops, tends to impose more checks and balances on any one individual priest or minister. Recall the famous words of James I, when he said, (paraphrased) “No bishops, no king. While I am monarch, I intend to have bishops govern the Church.” This statement indicated James’ belief that episcopal church government and the Kingdom of Great Britain were closely tied together. If the established Church fell, so would the government, in James’ eyes.

This situation of rampant congregationalism is what St. Paul faced in Corinth. Of course, the early Church had no bishops yet, but soon St. Paul would instruct Timothy to appoint “elders” and later, he would greet congregations in the name of the “bishops and deacons” that he and Titus would later appoint. In short, St. Paul saw the need for properly exercised authority in the Church of God.

Thus, authority and judgment are clearly linked in the Kingdom of God, but how does our society regard judgment? First of all, you may agree with the concept that our society hates the idea of judgment. Let me be clear on this, however. All of those in our society, except those involved in the criminal activities themselves would have no problem passing judgment on those who commit heinous crimes. That is patently obvious as we can see how full our jails and penitentiaries are.

But, that’s not really the point here. We all know that this is not what our society means when it says, “Don’t judge me.” In our pluralistic and hedonistic society, judgment is construed as any check on whatever lascivious, historically immoral or libertine-like activities in which we choose to engage. Without any anchor of morality or clear floor of reference, the only remaining standard of good behavior is that which keeps us out of jail!

We all know that the historic frame of reference for morality, the Christian faith, is being eroded day by day. fraction by fraction, increment by increment. That certainly is no secret. But, what exactly is this historic frame of reference? Is it just preachers railing against certain activities? Perhaps. But this is not where the real battle is waged. As usual, the answer comes to us from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ through his Holy Word. Consider this passage from John 7:24: “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.” In this case,
Christ had just healed a man on the Sabbath, making him whole in every way whole and for that the Pharisees were accusing him of breaking the Sabbath! Jesus had, in their eyes, done “work” on the Sabbath and for that, they wanted to accuse him. It was more important to uphold the Jewish ritual law than to do real good on the Sabbath, in their eyes. Thus, Christ says, “judge righteous judgment”.

Obviously, when we draw conclusions based on our own biases or prejudices without reference to the Gospel of Christ, or when we ridicule others, even in the recesses of our minds, are we not “judging unrighteous judgment?” Are we not being a bit pharisaical when we put people down because they don’t act or behave as we would have them to do? Once again, let me be perfectly clear on this. We are not to countenance blatant acts of moral perfidy, or dishonestly, or violence. This is, of course, considered “righteous” judgment. Concerning righteous judgment we are to put the”bridle of the Holy Spirit “, as John Calvin called it, on thoughts, impure impulses and ego drives that lead to drawing improper conclusions about others.

Envy and its close relative, feelings of superiority, often is the root of such judgments. Envy , of course, was a major reason that the Pharisees contended with Jesus, as they perceived him as a threat to their power base. That is why the battle for judging righteous judgment begins here, in the heart of man. Recall those stunningly true words of Christ as he says, in Mar 7:15
“There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.”

So it is. We know that judgment occurs all the time. It is our job as Christians that our judgment is righteous and not that of the world. When we do this, we know that the world will never reciprocate. While giving out earnest statements as to the necessity of not judging, the world is constantly judging, evaluating, criticizing and unfortunately, hating Christians and the Gospel of Christ. It has ever been so. When we Christians stand, reflecting the light of Christ in our lives, we take away the cloak of darkness from the world’s sin, thus generating its displeasure and hatred.

One can see this plainly when discussions or debates occur between those of the Light and those of the World. After a period of discussion, when the Christian has exposed the untenability of his opponent’s position, the debate will usually degenerate into so-called ad hominem or personal attacks. Truth, properly articulated, always defeats error, but no one likes to lose, especially the powers of deception, darkness and despair.

Thus, who is judging whom? I leave that obvious conclusion up to you.

The day will come when true righteous judgment will proceed, not from the heart of man, but from the Throne of God. This will be true righteous judgment, emanating from the omniscient, yet all merciful Mind of God.

This is also a theme of the Advent season. Just as we look for the first advent of Jesus Christ on the historical occasion of His First Coming, so we must expect and look for His second coming.

Yet, there is one massive difference between us Christians and the world when this true judgment occurs. Christ tells us in: Mat 24:30 “And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.

The tribes of the earth will mourn because they know that true judgment is about to occur. They will have no cloak for their sin. They will have to bear the unvarnished wrath of God against their unmediated presence when He looks on them and says, “How much did you love me?”

This is not a call for Christian Triumphalism or spiritual pride. Far be it from us. It is instead, a humble and grateful recognition of the mercies of God through Jesus Christ. We will pass, not through the awe-ful judgment the World will have to endure, but into the blessed and loving fellowship of those who love Christ. He is the reason for our boundless joy this season. He is, after all, our Lord, Mediator, Intercessor, Savior and Friend.


“Thine O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory and the majesty; for all that is in the heaven and the earth is Thine; Thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and Thou are exalted as head above all.”

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Scriptures, Christ, and Unity

The Scriptures, Christ and Unity
2nd Sunday in Advent, 2011

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
December 4, 2011

KJV Romans 15:4 “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.”

Today, we celebrate the Second Sunday in Advent, better known as “Holy Scriptures Sunday”, or simply, “Bible Sunday.” Recall that our Collect for the day asks us, in regards to the Scriptures, to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”

In other words, it is through the Scriptures that we Christians learn to hope in Christ and it is from the Scriptures that we Christians learn how to be like Christ. We learn to be Christ-like following our Lord’s example in the Gospels, and we learn the applications of these lessons in the words of the Apostles given to us in the Epistles. These lessons, when combined with the prophetic and historic underpinning of the Old Testament, give us modern-day Christians a complete picture of God’s Will for His people, the Church.

This particular Sunday, we give thanks to God for the wonderful gift of the Word Written. What a wonderful gift it is indeed! Not only do the Holy Scriptures give us a “blueprint”, if you will, for our lives in a moral and ethical sense, but they also allow us to invoke the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Let me explain. We Christians study the Word for its moral and ethical content. We do this on Sunday; when we read together a Psalm, listen to an Old Testament lesson, followed by the Epistle and the Gospel selection appointed for the day. The purpose of this, of course, is to make sure that we ground our worship in Scripture. We hear the teachings of Christ and we hear the Apostles’ exposition of the same theme in the various Epistle readings. Thus, our moral and ethical path should be clear to us, illuminated by God’s Holy Word.


The Holy Bible is, however, more than just a collection of moral teachings. St. Paul tells us in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:” The actual Greek word translated as “inspiration” is qeo,pneustoj (“theoneustos”), or literally “God breathed.” Thus, being the God-breathed Word, the Scriptures are actually alive with the Spirit of God. When we study them, either corporately, or in our own private devotions, we actually have the aid of the Holy Spirit in reading, learning, marking and inwardly digesting them. In fact, in order to make any real sense of the Bible, we need the help of the Holy Spirit Himself to unlock the wisdom and the sense contained within. Thus, before one reads the Bible, a brief prayer for inspiration and revealing is appropriate.

As you all know, I really discovered the Bible, at least initially, in college. At first, I admit, it still did not have the verve or the spark that I needed to have from it. At that time, I had not really sought the aid of the Holy Spirit to open the Scriptures to me. As most of you know, that enlightenment came later, during a brief fling with Fundamentalism in my early 20’s. Ever since that time, however, the Holy Bible has become a different book to me. Now, rather than being a boring account of an ancient people, it is fascinating history, glorious prophecy, and wonderful, Spirit-led acts of God through his People. That’s why I believe that reading the Word of God and meditating on it actually invokes the power of the Holy Spirit upon us. Not in some superstitious or magical way, but rather in a rich spiritual diet that only the Holy Ghost can provide. In short, when we read the Holy Word of God, the Holy Spirit is there. The more we read and mediate and pray, the more the Holy Spirit finds us a fit dwelling-place. The more that the Holy Spirit dwells in us, the freer, the happier, and more joyful we become. As we seek God, God rewards us with the very best that He has, Himself. The result of this is that we derive more joy out of life, now and forever.

With that thought in mind, let us turn our attention to what St. Paul is telling us in today’s Epistle from the 15th chapter of Romans. First of all, he says, Romans 15:4 "For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” Paul is saying, rightly, that we are to take comfort in God’s Holy Word and from it derive patience. Of course, this makes sense, but to what Scriptures, I must ask, is he referring?
Is he speaking of the Gospels? Possibly Paul was, but not as we know them today, although they were early manuscripts of Mark and Luke just beginning their circulation. John had not yet written, predated by Matthew. Is he referring to his own letters? Possibly, but his writings hadn’t yet achieved the wide circulation and the Undivided Church’s approbation to be called “Scripture.” More likely, he is referring, amazingly enough, to the Old Testament. He is referring to first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, and the books of the Law, called the Torah, as well as the various prophecies, especially Isaiah, from whom many of our Advent readings come.

This is certainly amazing, because these early Christians, with the help of the Apostles, saw Christ clearly in these books. Bp. Lightfoot once remarked about the total unity of the Scriptures, saying, “In the Old, the New concealed; in the New, the Old revealed.” We Anglicans have always held a view of the totality, or unity of the Scriptures, knowing that Christ is found in both the Old and New Testaments. We reject any division of the Testaments, but rather believe both Old and New are one seamless cloth, like the cloak of Christ Himself. Both Testaments bear witness to Christ.

St. Paul confirms this when he says, “Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers: 9 And that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name.” Christ was indeed sent unto the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” , as he once said to the Canaanite woman who sought healing for her daughter in Matt. 15:24. Christ, through the magnificent mercy and wisdom of God, was sent to Israel to fulfill all prophecy.
That generation of Jews actually saw the ancient prophecies fulfilled in the person of Jesus, but were unable to receive it. Yet, according to prophecy, he came.

St. Paul then links this thought with the glorious hope of our salvation when he says, Romans 15:9 “And that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name.” Paul now quotes the Old Testament, when he says, Romans 15:10-11 “And again he saith, Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with his people. 11 And again, Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles; and laud him, all ye people.” He caps this with a stirring reference to Isaiah 11:10: "And again, Esaias saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust.”

Thus, St. Paul preaches Christ out of the Old Testament. He exhorts his readers thus: Romans 15:6 “That ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul ends this particular passage with a beautiful prayer: Romans 15:13 “Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.”

Thus, St. Paul teaches us out of the Scriptures. Without a doubt, he has illustrated the unity of the Word of God, both Old and New Testaments. He calls on his flock to be like-minded and believe wholeheartedly in the salvation that is theirs through Jesus Christ. He accomplishes all of this using the Old Testament and his own accounts of the power of Jesus Christ. How much better, or better said, how much more fortunate are we to have the entire Word of God right at our fingertips? How blessed are we to have our daily Lectionary to guide us, morning and evening, through this wonderful tapestry of history, hope and salvation? We are, indeed, immeasurably blessed.

My prayer for you this Advent season is that you take advantage of the Scriptures, morning and evening, to refresh your mind, spirit and soul. There is no better time. During this Advent, all of us have an opportunity to prepare for the Messiah.

We have two choices. We can be engulfed by the secular tide of the “Holiday” season, with its relentless emphasis on merchandizing and merrymaking. Or, we can also stand gently aloof from it, strengthened by the Word of God and the blessed Holy Spirit as we prepare a place in our heart for the true King of Kings and Lord of Lords this coming Christmas.

The choice is ours, the time is now. May we make the most of this Advent Season.
Amen.



KJV Roman 15 ”And that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name.”

AMEN

Friday, November 25, 2011

Covenant and Prophecy

“Covenant and Prophecy…”
1st Sunday in Advent, 2011

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
Nov. 27th, 2011


Happy New Year, Christians! We bid you welcome to another new church year. This is the beginning of our annual earthly re-birth, our spiritual reawakening in Christ. Last Sunday, we head of the prophecy of the Messiah, “the Righteous Branch” who will bring salvation to all mankind. Recall that Jeremiah told us of the One who would save Israel from its sins. Recall that He would be the one to lead us to righteousness and peace.

Would it be so. Would it be so that the whole Earth would blossom forth with the Spirit of God! Would it be so that the whole Earth would break forth into song of the glories of the Lord as it proclaims another year in Christ. Why? Because this is Advent… this is the time that orthodox Christians praise their King and Creator, Jesus Christ. We recognize that this is the time to celebrate the coming of "Once and Future King", to borrow a phrase from T. H. White.

Last week, we spoke of our witness to the cycle of salvation, as mirrored in the Church Year. We spoke of how the panoply of man’s deliverance from eternal death and sin is recounted year after year, from prophecy to fulfillment. And so it is. So, welcome Christians to the opening act of mankind’s drama of deliverance. Welcome to Advent 2011!

Our Old Testament Lesson for the day is, to my mind, one of more fascinating and instructive passages in Genesis, although there are many. In it, we see a clear picture of the principle of Covenant. We see both the positive and negative sides of living in covenant with Almighty God. In other words, just as Moses would later tell the children of Israel in the book of Deuteronomy, when one lives in covenant with God, one will receive either blessings or cursings, depending on one’s behavior, actions, and attitude. All of this is contained in this little passage from Genesis that we read today.

To recount the scene, Abraham is sitting in his tent door, in the “heat of the day.” He saw three visitors coming towards his camp and he ran to meet them. As Matthew Henry says, “despite his age and gravity”, he ran and did obeisance to them. Obviously, there was something about these three “men”, or beings, that caused him to do this; yet one would like to think that a prosperous and gracious man like Abraham would have offered hospitality to any who came to him.

The Scripture, however, clearly tells us that the LORD visited Abraham that day. Three mysterious strangers suddenly showed up in his camp, and one can’t doubt there was something about them. Since the Word itself says the LORD came to Abraham, we are disposed to consider that this was a visit by the pre-incarnate Christ, accompanied by two angels. This is logical and can be supported by evidence from the text. For example, we read later in Chapter 19 that two angels came to Sodom in the evening, where they met Lot and warned him of the destruction to come. This was the same destruction of which the LORD had told Abraham, most likely earlier in the same day.

Some commentators have speculated these “three men” were actually the Holy Trinity, or a symbolic representation of it. After all, since we are told that the Lord visited Abraham and three figures appeared to him, this could be. It could also be a prefiguring of the Trinity, with Christ and the two angels representing the other two persons. Although this view is attractive to me, personally, I think the view that it was actually Christ and two angels is more likely. At any rate, of one thing we are sure: the LORD did appear unto Abraham.

Another point is that Abraham entertained the visitors courtesy and with honor. This brings to mind St Paul’s statement in Hebrews 13:2”Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” This has always been an interesting and intriguing passage for me because of the sheer mystery of it. It does remind of a road trip I took while in college. Returning to Missouri from Arkansas, where I had gone duck hunting with an old high-school friend, I found myself driving down a picturesque two-land highway. As I topped a hill, there was a young, rather pleasant looking man about my own age walking along the highway, hitchhiking. I pulled over and offered a ride. He accepted and we rode for several miles with very little conversation. He was quiet, even solemn, but in a good way.
It so happened that his stop was right along my route, so I was able to drop him close to where he needed to go. As he left the car, he turned and said, “God Bless you…” I said “Thanks” and drove off. What was curious was the atmosphere inside my car had a wonderful light “feel” to it. As I reflected on it later, I thought it was like St. Paul’s statement in 2Corinthians about Christians being “a sweet savour of Christ.” In short, it was a blessed air in the car. Later that evening, I told my mother about the experience and she said that I may very well have entertained an angel. It was a wonderful and curious experience.

The question remains, however, why did the LORD choose to visit Abraham again? After all, in Genesis 17, he had just appeared to Abraham and made a covenant with him. He told Abraham that Sarah would conceive, even though she was well into menopause, and that he must circumcise all the males in his household, including himself. He also assured Abraham that his first son, Ishmael, would not be abandoned, but would become a great nation.

Abraham was faithful to God and fulfilled his side of the covenant. He circumcised every male, and was himself circumcised when he was ninety years old. He obeyed God’s word and, as a result, received favor from God. In the plains of Mamre, during the second visitation, God again reaffirms Sarah’s coming motherhood, which she overhears. Perhaps it is a natural reaction, or simply astonishment, but she laughed when she heard the words. I don’t think it was a mocking laugh, but one that only a ninety-year-old woman might give when informed that she is about to be pregnant. She is caught in the act, but the Lord merely gently reproves her and moves on to tell Abraham about the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Here, faithful Abraham has been blessed by God. His wife will conceive and bear him a child to bring him the long-awaited heir. He has also been the confidante, if you will, of God, as God tells what He is going to do regarding the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Now contrast this treatment with the coming doom of those satanic places. Those cities, which were so evil, perverted and dark that the cry of them went up into Heaven, were about to suffer the curses, or the negative side of violating covenant with God. Their fate is recorded in Genesis 19, as we read about Lot’s deliverance at the hands of the two angels who hustle him and his family out of the doomed place. Soon, fire from heaven would fall upon them, destroying them utterly.

What, then, is the lesson for us today? If we remember the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 8 for the Thanksgiving service of Morning Prayer, we hear him warning the Israelites of this exact situation. After God has led them into the Promised Land, they will prosper as long as they remain true to Him. If they will praise Him, honor Him, and worship only Him, their prosperity will continue. On the other hand, if they become willful and arrogant, ascribing to themselves
their success, their situation will change. If they forget God, they will incur curses and misfortune. Much like the Sodomites, who so turned to evil that even God could not tolerate it, Israel would violate the covenant, be judged and punished, and then turn back to God for a period. As we well know, this “sin cycle” would be repeated many times until the final destruction of Israel in 70 a.d. at the hands of the Romans. By this time, Christ had already come, ministered, died and rose again to fix the problem of man’s persistent sin. The New Testament era had well begun, and the Old Testament and Intertestimonial periods had been closed. In short, since the coming of Jesus Christ, earth had a new frame of reference on sin, repentance, and eternal salvation.

This Advent, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate our covenant with God, the Holy Trinity. It is a good time to start afresh and examine how much we hold Him first in our hearts, minds and spirits. If we look into our own spiritual treasure houses, do we find them full of the richness and bounty of God’s Grace, or do we find full of our own sinful and self-centered desires and inclinations? In short, do we love God enough to merit the bounty of his grace and love, or better said, do we reciprocate His love to us? After all, in the perfect being of the Almighty, we merit nothing but the curses of the covenant. Yet, through His overwhelming love and mercy towards us, we are able to reflect a little back to Him and to our fellow man. When we do this, we are learning to live in the fullness of God’s Covenant with us.

This Advent season, let us make us a new start. Let it be so. AMEN

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Grace and Peace from God

Grace and peace from God
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
Sunday Next before Advent, 2011

Philippians 1:2 2 ¶ Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the Epistle selection for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, St. Paul bids peace and grace to the congregation at Philippi, both in his own name and that of his traveling companion and mentee, Timotheus. This is, of course, the same Timothy to whom Paul would write two instructive epistles, called “the Pastorals.” Among orthodox Anglicans, these epistles are still used in diaconal exams to this day. As later history would unfold, this same Timothy would become the first bishop of Crete and would help spread the Gospel for years after Paul’s martyrdom in Rome.

Of interest also is mention of two of the Church’s historic orders here, as St. Paul mentions the bishops and deacons in the church at Philippi. This is interesting and as well as instructive, for it shows us clearly that these orders existed in the earliest days of the Church. Sometimes, other branches of Christ’s church yearn to return what they term as the “primitive church”; while at the same time they reject the historic orders of church as Popish or medieval. The figure in the business suit is something they prefer, rather than the historic minister in his alb and chasuble. Perhaps they are still fighting the battles of the Protestant Reformation.

Why, one might ask, is the office of the presbytery, or the priesthood, not mentioned? Simply because that at this time it did not exist. The priesthood did not come into being a little later, when the Church had grown so much that bishops simply could not handle the ministry work load. At the same time, it was not thought prudent to consecrate many, many more bishops just to baptize, celebrate the Eucharist, and to perform other duties considered beyond the diaconate, but not necessarily rising to the level of bishop. The office of priest - our church actually terms it as presbyter- was to do this work of the Church. Thus, the office of priest/presbyter was created.
The reason we mention this is twofold. First, we want to reinforce the validity of clerical orders in the Church, and by so doing, show that we orthodox Christian are striving to the utmost to preserve the Church according to its earliest model. Churches who have cast aside the offices of bishop, deacon, and the later office of priest are doing so to the weakening of their claims to be “primitive” Christians. In saying this, we do not in any way seek to un-church anyone or accuse their witness in any way. Yet, suffice it to say that those bodies that have retained the historic clerical model are actually exactly in line with Scripture. We can also say that those churches, such as the Anglican Communion, who have kept the historic lines of bishop, priest and deacon, have a very desirable and valid form of church polity.

The second reason is to emphasize the orderly nature of our God. As we have said many times, and as all of us have heard many times, we worship a God of order. He is not a God of disorder or confusion or chaos. He is never hurried, hasty, or uncertain. He simply IS. Our God, in His complete serenity, sees eternity at a glance. Better said, He IS eternity. Just as Moses heard from the burning bush, Exodus 3:14: " And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you. “

With that thought in mind, let us briefly consider the prefect plan God prepared for the salvation of mankind. Consider the epistle selection from Jeremiah, taken from the lectionary for the Sunday Next before Advent. In it, God speaks through the suffering prophet, Jeremiah In it, God makes a startling statement, so very fitting for this Sunday Next before Advent: Jeremiah 23:5-6: “ Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. 6 In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS” In other words, God didn’t just “wake up” one morning and decide that Jesus Christ should leave His glory, take the form of a man, and come save mankind from his sins. Rev. 13:8 speaks of the “…lamb slain from the foundation of the world.". In other words, God had planned for the advent of Christ from the beginning of the world. Seeing eternity at one view, our God knows all things, sees all things, and in a strange and mysterious way, directs all things. This happens all at once in the reality of God.
Thus, in our limited reality, we are experiencing the Sunday Next before Advent. In the church year, we are re-living the spectacle of salvation from its prophetic beginning now to its dramatic conclusion on Easter morning. Consider these words from Jeremiah 23:7-8: “Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that they shall no more say, The LORD liveth, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; 8 But, The LORD liveth, which brought up and which led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries whither I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land.”

At first glance, these words may seem to have little significance for us. A closer examination shows that they have great, even monumental significance. The first part of the statement says that the people -both the Jews and the redeemed in Christ- will one day not just say that their God lives who brought them out of Egypt. In other words, God is not just the Lord of the Old Testament - the witness of the deliverance from Egypt. He is not just the God of the Law and the Prophets. In the more perfect revelation of God received by the people, they will now affirm that their God will restore them to their own land, from which He had driven them because of their sin. What this means for mankind is God is completely aware of our state of being and of our need for an eternal solution to our problem of recurrent sin. Thus, while the deliverance from our original state of bondage was wonderful, symbolized by the Jew’s deliverance from Egypt, their salvation was not complete. Much later in the Bible we see the complete fall into sin by both Israel and Judah. The Law was not enough, nor was the witness of all the prophets who were sent to warn them from their sin. Something else was needed. This complete and efficacious salvation is symbolized by the people’s worship of God as He restores them to their original land, their own land. This “land” is, of course, is more than the restoration of the Jews to Palestine; it is our eternal home with God and in God. It is that perfect country which we all seek and for which our souls ultimately long for. It is brought about by the Gospel message of the New Testament. Thus, while the first statement glorifies God in the Old Testament witness of deliverance from bondage, the second statement glorifies Him in the New Testament witness of restoration and homecoming.

This begs the question, how will this restoration and homecoming be accomplished? In God’s perfect Mind, it has already been accomplished through the King about whom Jeremiah prophesied: (Jeremiah 23:5-6): 5 ¶ Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. 6 In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.”

This is clearly a prophecy of the Messiah, the one who will deliver Israel from her sins and lead her to righteousness. We, who have been “graphed in” to the Tree of Life, to reference Paul’s statement in Romans 11, will be included in the family of God by virtue of our King and Savior, Jesus Christ. We are the children of promise and the lucky recipients of God’s Grace.

This is what we are preparing for this Advent Season. Not for the family gatherings, the presents, the decorations and all the hoopla of the Christmas Season. All of these things occur because we are celebrating the fulfillment of a prophecy uttered some few thousand years ago.
It is a prophecy that came true in the Person of Jesus Christ. It is a prophecy that can come true in our hearts today as we prepare for the Advent season.

Thus, we challenge you to grasp this Advent Season with all of your spiritual strength and hold it close to you. Take from it all of the meaningful inklings of the coming Christmas Season. Discard from it all distracting and ultimately meaningless celebrations that do not honor Christ.
Let this Advent be a time of wonderful preparation and anticipation for the fulfilling of Jeremiah’s prophecy.

If you do that, it will be more than just preparation for another Christmas. It will be a preparation for an eternal Advent, shining forever in our hearts.

Jeremiah 23:6 “In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.”

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Truth Faileth

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
Twenty First Sunday After Trinity
November 13, 2011

“Truth Faileth”

KJV Isaiah 59:15 Yea, truth faileth; and he that departeth from evil maketh himself a prey: and the LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no judgment.

From our Old Testament lesson for the day, the prophet bewails the situation of the times in which he lived. It is both a complete condemnation of the society of Isaiah’s time and a dark portrait of unredeemed human condition. First, the prophet says, “truth fails.” What a concept! Truth FAILS! That is, it had no application or efficacy for the society in which Isaiah lived. This is astounding. Sin had so permeated society that truth was an alien concept. Deception, falsehood and shades of meaning were the norm. Thus, truth failed. The second astounding statement the prophet made was that he who departed from evil in Isaiah’s time made himself a target, a prey for who delighted in so doing. This is a dark picture, indeed.

Considering how our society treats so-called “whistleblowers”, those who point out graft, corruption, or gross ineptitude in high places, this may sound familiar. As you know, for the most part, these people are often destroyed or discredited, because they bring to light evil deeds. Evil, after all, prefers to stay in the dark, where it can do the most damage and enjoy the greatest camouflage.

This ringing condemnation of Isaiah’s society is even more apparent when one considers this passage, which follows immediately afterwards: Isa 59:15-16: (NAS) “Now the LORD saw, And it was displeasing in His sight that there was no justice. 16 And He saw that there was no man, And was astonished that there was no one to intercede;”
The prophet is saying that there was no one who would intercede for righteousness and true religion. At this time in history, Israel and Judah were both corrupt, giving themselves over to the various fertility religions of the Canaanites and to their immoral behaviors. Recall that the Canaanites were the very people that the Lord had declared anathema because of their abominations. Now the Jews were gladly embracing their earth religions and forsaking the Lord who had brought them out of bondage in Egypt. Please note that these base and profane religions considered drinking copious amounts of wine and engaging in immoral acts with temple prostitutes “worship” and pious behavior! This is a very dark picture of fallen human nature.

If this were the end of the story for mankind, it would indeed be a very dark picture. For both Israel and Judah, it would turn out to be tragic. First, the mighty Assyrian Empire consumed Israel and scattered its ten tribes into different parts of its vast territory; this accounted for the so-called “ten lost tribes”. Later, Judah succumbed to the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar following the dreadful siege and near-total destruction of Jerusalem. As prophesied by Jeremiah, the end did come for Jerusalem and the best of the population, those who survived the siege. As related in the Book of Daniel, they were carried off captive to Babylon for 70 years.

Yet, even in judgment, the Lord had mercy on Judah. Mighty Babylon would eventually fall to the Medes under Darius and later, under the edict of Cyrus, the Jewish remnant would rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, as recounted in the book of Ezra.

In Isaiah’s prophecy, the Lord himself will bring this salvation to Judah, as he says,
Isa 59:17 “For he put on righteousness as a breastplate, and an helmet of salvation upon his head; and he put on the garments of vengeance for clothing, and was clad with zeal as a cloke.”

Thus, the Lord will rouse Himself to fight for Judah and bring justice to His people.

The prophet says: (Isa 59:18): “According to their deeds, so He will repay, Wrath to His adversaries, recompense to His enemies; To the coastlands He will make recompense. 19 So they will fear the name of the LORD from the west And His glory from the rising of the sun, For He will come like a rushing stream Which the wind of the LORD drives. 20 "A Redeemer will come to Zion, And to those who turn from transgression in Jacob," declares the LORD.”

As is common in Biblical prophecy, we see in the passage both the near future and the far future. Isaiah’s prophetic vision takes in both, as he foretells the near-term deliverance of Judah from Babylon and the coming of the Messiah in the longer term.

The Lord’s mercy is so evident here, as he promises deliverance for Israel, which occurred via the edict of Cyrus and provides for the salvation of the human race by the foretold gift of his only Son.

Our epistle from Eph. 6:10-20 echoes this passage from Isaiah as St. Paul tells us:

“13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”

Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul evidently had Isaiah in mind as he penned this wonderful passage for the church in Ephesus. It is not only one of my personal favorites, but is one of the more useful and instructive passages in the N.T. It is not mere spiritual “pie in the sky”, but has real constructive value for Christians today. To the world, it is foolishness, but to us, it is truth. Recall that St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 2:14-15: “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15 But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one” The world thinks Christianity (true spirituality) is foolishness, yet the Christian in his/her walk with God judges all things.

Thus, the Christian, more so than the unredeemed, carries a realization of his or her dual existence: physical and spiritual, made possible because of the dual nature of mankind.
Recall that in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the senior tempter, Uncle Screwtape, tells his nephew, the junior tempter Wormwood, that man is a fluid being, with one part rooted firmly in the physical plane, while the other part undulates in the spiritual realm. That is, since one part is physical and one part is spiritual, both physical and spiritual events can influence us. In my humble opinion, the spiritual events may have greater power to affect us than the physical since they have eternal consequences.

St. Paul begins the passage by exhorting us to rely on God and not on ourselves by saying, “My brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.”

There is a great question inherent in this statement; in whom do we trust? Do we trust in our own power or that of God? The answer to this is rhetorical and can only be answered by each of us in the quiet of our soul. Suffice it to say, however, that in the spiritual realm, absent God, we are in very perilous territory.

The very heart of the matter comes in (Eph 6:12):
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

If we break this down a bit, we see that the Christian life, while joyous and fulfilled, is one of struggle. In this case, the apostle Paul tells us that we are not “wrestling with flesh and blood”, but with “principalities, with “powers”, the “rulers of the darkness of this world”, “spiritual wickedness in high places.” The World is God’s Creation, and thus inherently good. Yet, at the same time, it is populated with beings who possess free will and who can accept God or reject Him, while simultaneously being affected by the malignity of the Devil, with his temptations, suggestions, influences and the like.

Christian maturity is the key to spiritual survival and health in this fallen world. As one grows in Christ and the Christian experience, one is more aware of the spiritual environment in which one lives.
When a spirit of anger, greed, lust, pettiness, wounded pride, or self-importance assaults a mature Christian, he or she has developed defenses against them. Unlike the carnal man, who is either oblivious to the spiritual forces around him or denies outright that they even exist, the mature Christian has a means to deal with these “principalities”, these “powers”, the “spiritual wickedness in high places”, found in Eph. 6:10-20.

They read, “Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” Note the language used here. It is strong; it is fervent. The word used is “stand,” not “sit down in a discussion group” with evil, or “establish a commission” to study evil, but to vigorously stand against it. We do not dally with it, or much less roll over in the face of it, but we strive to “withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”

Listen to the words of Martin Luther in his wonderful hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God”: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing.” Thank God, Praise God, we are not solitary in our defense. We have the “whole armour of God” to protect us. St. Paul again exhorts us to “Stand.” He writes, “Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness.”

Thus, we must have our spiritual “loins” wrapped in truth. Now, what is the Truth? How about John 3:16: “So God loved the world, that He gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Jesus Christ is Truth incarnate.

After we are girt about with truth, we are put on the breastplate of righteousness, echoing Isaiah 59, and to have our “feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace”. The Lord wants us to walk as peacefully as possible in a fallen world,
“Above all”, says St. Paul, “take the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all of the fiery darts of the wicked.” When doubts, temptations, fears or unwelcome suggestions threaten you, your Christian faith is your shield. Finally, take the “helmet of salvation” to repel the mental assaults which our spiritual Adversary hurls at us. Rev. 12:10 refers to Satan as “the accuser of the brethren” for a very good reason, for he attempts to be very active in our mind and our intellect. Yet, we are not powerless against him. Rather, as James 4:7 tell us: “Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”

St. Paul’s final plea in this wonderful epistle is that prayers be offered for him, that “utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel”. Beloved, we have a part in that. Wearing the armor of God, we are defended against the evils of our day. Filled with the love of Christ, we are ambassadors of the Gospel. Wielding the sword of the Spirit prayerfully, we can, through Christ, bring light to dark situations, give hope to those without hope and “make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.”

To do this, it all comes down to one question: in whom do you trust?

KJV Isaiah 59:15 “Yea, truth faileth; and he that departeth from evil maketh himself a prey: and the LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no judgment.”


AMEN

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Marriage Feast of the Lamb

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
Twentieth Sunday after Trinity (All Saints observed)

October 25th, 2011

“The Marriage Feast of the Lamb”

Matthew 22:2 “The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son,”
Today we are observing the great feast of All Saints. This is perhaps the most all –encompassing feast of the church, simply because it celebrates the inclusion of all of the saints of the Kingdom.

Sometimes people are shocked to learn that they, too, are considered saints. Consider what St. Paul says in Romans 16:15 : ”Salute Philologus, and Julia, Nereus, and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints which are with them.” Also in 2 Corinthians 1:1 “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, unto the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints which are in all Achaia:”

With that thought in mind, do we all have the stature in the Kingdom of a St. Theresa, or a St. Paul, or a St. Andrew? Perhaps not. These people are giants in their way and certainly towering figures in the Kingdom of God. Yet, all of us, in some way or another, are called to be saints and to provide a witness to Christ is some way or another.

Yet, despite our failing and our foibles, which are many, we too are called to be saints. All of us are called to be reflectors of the light of Christ; and to so reflect that light as to give credit to our Father, which is in Heaven.
This is reflected in our Gospel lesson for the day, which focuses chiefly on our calling. In today’s Gospel, for example, we see the lesson of calling and of our answer at its most stark and self-centered. We also see Christ at His teaching best. He uses one of the most time-honored teaching methods, use of an analogy, to inform us of certain events that will come to pass. In fact, this analogy is so perfect that Christ and His ministry can be clearly seen throughout it. Yet at the same time, it is a message very well hidden from those not of the household of faith, or said another way, it is not apparent to those who have received the illumination of the Holy Spirit. All of this is caught up in our Gospel for the day.

Allow me to elaborate just a bit. First, we have Christ giving us the statement that the kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king who is giving a marriage feast for his son. This King sends forth his servants to call those invited guests to the wedding and they, we are told, would not come. In fact, “they made light of it.” The same story is also told in Luke, where he tells us “And they all with one consent began to make excuse.” The point is plain: these men were not interested in coming to the King’s Son’s wedding.

This is their response when the King sends other servants to call them. When he is again repulsed, the King is understandably angry for having made the preparations for a grand feast and then having no guests to enjoy it. He instructs his servants to go out and bring in those from “the highways” and to furnish his house with guests. This is done, with both the bad and the good making the guest complement complete. The King comes in to survey the party and he sees a man that does not have on a wedding garment. When asked why he is not wearing the wedding garment, the man is speechless. At this point, the King commands him to be bound and cast into “outer darkness”; that is, oblivion. He ends us this amazing story with the puzzling, yet chilling statement, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Let’s back up for a second and examine this moirĂ© closely. Earlier, we mentioned that this is a perfect analogy, and so it is. We also said it could not be understood and fully appreciated without the benefit of the Holy Spirit; and so it is.

Looking at the various pieces of the story, we find that there is a direct and plain tie-in with Christ and his ministry throughout. First, we must consider who is this King and why is He throwing a wedding feast for His Son? We understand the King’s fury when those invited guests refuse his gracious invitation, but how could He throw a man, whom he compelled to come in, into “outer darkness” because he didn’t have a wedding garment? It just seems terribly unfair, doesn’t it?

Having heard this parable all of my life, I must confess that until I heard a sermon on it some ten years ago, I shared similar feelings of puzzlement and even outrage about it. Yet, when one understands it, it makes perfect sense. So, here we go…

First of all, we all recognize without any difficulty that the King is God Almighty, the Father and Lord of all. He is preparing His Creation for the great Marriage Supper of the Lamb, in which all things will be consummated and completed. At this feast, the Creation will be wedded to Christ, just as a bride is wedded to her spouse. In anticipation of this great event, He calls his guests, His Chosen People, to share in the feast. To facilitate this, he sends “servants” to call them. These servants are obviously the various prophets whom God sent to Israel and Judah to call them into repentance and into fellowship with Him. These servants are rejected and the invitation is spurned. In short, God sent His best servants to call His People to the best thing that He has, which is fellowship with Him. He sent to His chosen People, but they would have none of it.

Yet, God being God and infinitely patient, He sent other servants (prophets), only to find that they too, were not accepted. In fact, the Chosen People not only rejected the prophets, they insulted and even killed them! It is at this point that the King has had enough. He exacted judgment and vengeance upon them, sending His armies who “destroy those murderers and burned up their city.” Of course, we know from history and from the Bible that this is exactly what happened to Jerusalem, both at the hands of the Babylonians and the Romans. Other armies have also had their turn sacking and destroying Jerusalem.

Now the King has His servants do something different. He commands them to go into the highways and bring the general population into the wedding. It is at this point that we Gentiles should be most interested, for this directly concerns us. Although it is not flattering, the fact is that God desired to extend his original invitation to the Jews, and when this was rejected, to turn to us Gentiles. Yet, we are not the “second choice” or Plan B, as some commentators have termed it. God did not have a “back up plan”, so to speak, when His People rejected Him. No, it was His Plan all along that salvation should be extended to all men through the sacrificial offering of His only Son, offered by His sacrificial people. As St. Paul tells us, the Jews’ failing is our glory, and thankfully so. Yet, to my mind and to many others, it remains mysterious why this is so. Only the Almighty and Omniscient mind of God knows.

Now we come to the crux of the story. Having filled his house with guests, of varied backgrounds and inclinations, the King comes to inspect the wedding. He spies a man without a wedding garment and questions him. On first examination, the King’s reaction seems harsh and unreasonable. He commands severe punishment for the man whom He required to come in! How unjust, we think.

Yet, when we know the customs of the day, the King’s reaction is totally understandable. The ancient Jews celebrated weddings for a number of days, not just for a few hours as we do. Recall the Marriage at Cana, where the crowd consumed some sixty-odd gallons of wine before Christ in his munificence made more! Aside from the lavish food and drink, it was considered important that the guests be attired properly. The wedding also called for a wedding garment. Now, it was customary for the bride’s father to furnish the wedding garments for his guests, so that no one would be excluded or unable to attend because they couldn’t afford the clothes.

One was given the very attire to be presentable, at no cost to himself. Thus, when one had received such a gracious and generous invitation, refusing it was virtually unthinkable. It was simply not to be done.

Yet, this is the situation in which the King finds himself in the parable. He has graciously invited guests to his banquet and has even provided them a wedding garment. He has offered his very best for them and he is soundly rejected…

Let us close this analogy. God Himself has invited us to partake in the heavenly banquet with the Royal wedding party, in a feast that will continue forever. He has not only invited us, He has also provided the wedding garment, Christ, in which we are to be clothed. In short, in order to attend the heavenly banquet, we are to “put on” Christ. He is our new identity, our new appearance in which we will be presented to God the Father. As we see from the parable, it is the only appearance that is acceptable.

When the King commands them, the general population, to be brought in, it is also a picture of the Last Judgment. This is why the King commanded all to be brought in from the highways and bi-ways. In Luke’s version, the King’s servants “compel” them to come in. It is not a voluntary appearance.

Finally, we come to the last, chilling statement where the King informs us that “many are called, but few are chosen.” This calling takes two forms: first, the all-loving, all-encompassing call of Christ from the Cross, where the grace of God is extended to all men. Salvation is offered to all men by this gracious call. Second, the call comes in the form of the Last Judgment, where all men will be held accountable. In fact, in the Family Prayer of the the Prayer Book, it tells us “we must give a strict account of our thoughts, words, and actions” to Christ. Those of us who have accepted the gracious invitation and who have put on Christ will be invited into eternal fellowship with Him. Those who have spurned, ignored or willfully rejected the call will be cast into “outer darkness”, where “there shall weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Yet, God the Father is not unreasonable, nor is he unjust or unkind. After all, He has provided us the wedding garment. He has given us exactly what we need. It is up to us whether or not we will put it on.

Beloved, let us embrace this gracious and wonderful invitation. Let us continually, day by day, put on Christ. Let us, day by day, know that God so loved us that He not only desired to have fellowship with us, He also made it possible. Those who do so will not only be called, they will also be chosen.

It is up to us. Let us accept this calling. Let us put on Christ and let us be the Chosen, beloved of God forever.

Matthew 22:12 “And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless.”

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Famine of the Word

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
18th Sunday after Trinity
October 23, 2011

Famine of the Word

Amos 8:11 ”Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD: “

These are the chilling words that the Lord utters through his prophet Amos in today’s Old Testament Lesson. He tells the people that there will not be a famine, or a drought, but a dearth in prophecy and guidance from God. The words of the Lord will be few and far between.

To the vast majority of mankind, this may be a “so what” moment. After all, what does it matter whether or not we hear Scripture, or prophecy, or exhortation? What need we of that, they say, when we have many, many other voices to lead us to righteousness? After all, hasn’t man become so enlightened that he can make his own destiny? In short, what need have we of God?

This is a fair question. Why does man need God, or even the need of anything beyond himself? Once our physical needs are satisfied, and our material wants are more or less satiated, what need is there of anything else?

Let’s return to that question in a minute. Before we attempt to make any sense of that, let us step back into our Old Testament lesson and examine why God might make such a prophecy? What could prompt God to utter such a thing?

Consider this: (Amos 8:4-6) “Hear this, O ye that swallow up the needy, even to make the poor of the land to fail, 5 Saying, When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell corn? and the Sabbath, that we may set forth wheat, making the ephah small, and the shekel great, and falsifying the balances by deceit? 6 That we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; yea, and sell the refuse of the wheat?”

These very words condemn the speaker and those who think like him. Listen to the words and consider the actions which underlie them: “swallow up the needy”, “make the poor of the land to fail”; lamenting the new moon, which prevents them from selling corn, and even bewailing the Sabbath itself, which prevents them from selling wheat. To make it worse, it isn’t even honest commerce, but crooked. They desire to make the ephah, or grain measure, small, which makes the shekel great! Obviously, this means that they will lie about goods being sold by falsifying the scale and defrauding their customers. Finally, they will take these ill-begotten gains and buy the poor of the land. What are they worth? A little silver, or merely the cost of a pair of shoes. Any way you look at it, this is a dark picture, indeed.

Amos returns to this theme again and again. Judah and Israel are wealthy, sensual, and corrupt. They have corrupted themselves in every aspect of their lives, especially the one that God cares about most: the allegiance of their soul. As if their personal behavior is not bad enough, they have turned away from the One who brought them out from Egypt. They have paraded images of pagan gods and have wholly followed the idolatrous calves set up by Jeroboam in Israel at Dan and Bethel. Recall that Jeroboam was concerned that if the tribes went up to Jerusalem to perform their mandatory worship, he might lose the kingdom. One modern translation says this: “1 (Kings 12:26-31) 26 Jeroboam thought to himself, "The kingdom is now likely to revert to the house of David. 27 If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam." 28 After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, "It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt." 29 One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan. 30 And this thing became a sin; the people went even as far as Dan to worship the one there. 31 Jeroboam built shrines on high places and appointed priests from all sorts of people, even though they were not Levites.”

This was a major step in the Israelites’ slippery slope towards moral degradation and eventually, divine punishment. Yet, even this divine retribution took place in stages. God did not just pronounce them corrupt and send them off into exile. Instead, God punished the Israelites in steps, each time waiting for them to return to Him. He sent them drought, which brought on famine. He sent them war, which took away many of their young men. He even had some captured and carried away as a warning. Yet Israel did not repent, nor did it turn to the Lord.

The Lord continues his warnings, as He tells the Israelites: (Amos 5:5)” But seek not Bethel, nor enter into Gilgal, and pass not to Beersheba: for Gilgal shall surely go into captivity, and Bethel shall come to nought.” He is telling the people of the captivity of the Northern Kingdom, which would eventually come to pass. The huge, pagan, Assyrian Empire would eventually swallow them up. Later, in history, as their sister nation, Judah, continued in apostasy, she too would be carried away by Nebuchadnezzar, which would begin the 70-year Babylonian Captivity.

Yet, at this time in History, God is still warning the Northern Kingdom, although it seems as if His patience is ending. In Amos 8:7-9, we hear these dreadful words: “The LORD hath sworn by the excellency of Jacob, Surely I will never forget any of their works. 8 Shall not the land tremble for this, and every one mourn that dwelleth therein? and it shall rise up wholly as a flood; and it shall be cast out and drowned, as by the flood of Egypt. 9 And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord GOD, that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day:”

Here, God is telling them of things to come, while also prophesying that fateful Friday when His own Son would be offered as the perfect sacrifice.

Regarding the acts of men to justify themselves, consider how God regards the current religiosity of the Jews: (Amos 5:20-23) “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies. 22 Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. 23 Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols.” So, it seems that the Israelites obviously believed that they could act as they wanted to personally and in business, just as long as they offered the prescribed sacrifices and rites to God. Call it what you will: symbolism over substance, works righteousness, or even “gaming the system”, it was false and hollow. To top it off, many Jews worshipped other gods to boot!

Thus, even the seemingly limitless patience of God has its limits. Note, however, that even at this late date, if Israel had turned from idolatry and back to God, He would have forgiven them. Regarding man’s true repentance from sin, God’s mercy truly is limitless. Remember Jesus’ words about this in Matthew 18:22, when asked about the number of times one should grant repentance:”Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” In Israel’s case, this is not going to happen. They are hardened in their sin and idolatry, past the point of going back to righteousness. Thus, God not only pronounces their sentence through His prophets, but as history later attests, brings it to pass.

In light of all this Old Testament history, let us return to our original question: what need have we of God? The answer may be blatantly obvious, but for the sake of clarification, let us rehearse it here. We saw that as Israel fell away from their true faith in God who delivered them from Egypt, their behavior, moral and otherwise, became degraded also. In fact, a key component of all of the pagan gods’ worship necessitated some form of degradation. Note, however, how that degradation spilled over into their business behavior and their ethics, or lack thereof. At this point in their history, religion has become only a show, or worse yet, a means to curry God’s favor while they do as they like. Not only did they renounce God in their worship of other false gods, but they were totally hypocritical in His worship as well.

Thus, do have need of God? That answer I leave up to you. As you ponder that question, consider this: religion, especially Christianity, cannot be merely a surface affair to be effective in our lives; it must be transformational. Granted, what we Christians have the early Jews didn’t is a full realization of our relationship with Almighty God through the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Ghost. Whereas they attempted to commune with God through the Law and its statutes, we have the ability and the permission to come boldly to the throne of Grace because of the Son, through the Holy Ghost. We have that realization of the direct connection with God. Instead of the thick darkness of the Temple, which was a pervasive theme of the Old Testament, we have brilliant, dazzling light of the Christ of the Transfiguration. This only occurs in the New Testament. This light, as accept it, rejoice in it, and literally bathe our souls in it, makes a difference in our lives. We are not a transactional people, seeking to make a bargain with God, but rather we are a transformational people, seeking new life in Him. This new life affects everything that we do. It should affect how we think and how we act We should be the standard bearers of true, loving, righteous behavior, not of ourselves, but because of our relationship with Christ.

Once again, what need have we of God? You be the judge of that….

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

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Exaltation and Humility

17th Sunday in Trinity 2011
“Exaltation and Humility…”

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
October 16, 2011

Luke 14:1 “And it came to pass, as he went into the house of one of the chief Pharisees to eat bread on the sabbath day, that they watched him.”

This Sunday’s Gospel selection from St. Luke, chapter 14, contains one of the single most important teachings from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It goes to the heart of what it means to be human, as well as what it means to have successful relationships.

Once again, this preacher is making a mighty big claim. He would not make it if the Word of God were not able to deliver this teaching and much, much, more. In this particular passage, our Lord has entered into one of the chief Pharisee’s house for dinner. He is being watched closely, as usual, while the Pharisees sought some occasion to accuse him. While there, Jesus heals a man who had the dropsy, then delivers one of His very important discourses. John Calvin says this about the passage: “The law of the very sabbath ought not to hinder the offices of charity.” (This is reference to the healing of the man.) In other words, we should never let the conventions of men impede our ability to do some good in this world. This is, of course, what Christ did. As to the place of the meeting, Calvin says that the home belonged to: “Either one of the elders, whom they called the Sanhedrin, or one of the chiefs of the synagogue: for all the Pharisees were not chief men of the synagogue; for this word Pharisee was the name of a sect, though it appears by viewing the whole history of the matter that the Pharisees had much authority.”

Allow me an aside here. Why did the Pharisees invite Jesus again and again? What was it about Him that fascinated them? Was it his reputation for miracles? Was it His amazing preaching? Was it His personal charisma and natural attraction? Just like the dinner guest who responds to the question, ”Would you like peas or carrots” with an unqualified “yes”, the same can be said about the Pharisees. They were fascinated and envious at the same time. Perhaps the old saying, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” may have some relevance here. They were always listening and watching him, so as to catch Him in some doctrinal or theological trap. As we are told in Luke 11:53-54 ”And as he said these things unto them, the scribes and the Pharisees began to urge him vehemently, and to provoke him to speak of many things: 54 Laying wait for him, and seeking to catch something out of his mouth, that they might accuse him.”

As usual, the Pharisees tried and failed. In the scene the man with the dropsy appeared before the group and Christ obviously had compassion on him. He asks the general question, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath day?” McGarvey and Pendleton mention this about the passage: “But they held their peace. And he took him, and healed him, and let him go. But they held their peace. If the lawyers and Pharisees declared it lawful, they defeated their plot, and if they said otherwise, they involved themselves in an argument with Jesus in which, as experience taught them, they would be humiliated before the people. Hence, they kept silence, but their silence only justified him, since it was the duty of every lawyer to pronounce this act unlawful if it had been so.” Christ nails the argument shut, so to speak, when he asks them if they would not rescue a domestic animal that fell into a pit on the Sabbath. The Pharisees, as usual, end up speechless and defeated.

Observe, however, one amazing point about the healing described in this passage. It is described without fanfare and without much buildup. Christ simply takes the man and heals him, or in the words of Luke 14:4: “And he took him, and healed him, and let him go;” At first glance, one might be tempted to simply say (or think), “Very Good. Here’s another miracle done by Christ. How wonderful.” To do so would miss a marvelous sub-point about the passage. Christ performs this healing almost casually, even nonchalantly. Now, of course, we would never term any miracle of Christ as such, but that is just the way it seems to be portrayed here. Yet, to conclude that too would be to miss the point.

The reason the miracle is mentioned in just such a way is to emphasize the Lordship of Christ over all Creation. It is shown here in this fashion to emphasize his authority. After all, our Lord created the heavens and the earth; should he not choose to alleviate some negative aspect of it if He chooses? The question following the miracle, addressed to the Pharisees says just that, when Christ says, (Luke 14:5): “And answered them, saying, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day?” The analogy is obvious. Just as a Pharisee would pull out his ox or his ass from a ditch on the Sabbath, so our Lord can pull us out of our proverbial ditches if He so chooses. How clear this saying was to the Pharisees, at least on the surface, is not immediately apparent, but having the benefit of 2,000 years of Christian history makes it very clear to us.

We are Christ’s creatures; He is our Creator. He is the Lord of this Universe and every other one. Jesus is therefore, declaring that to all in this passage. In short, in doing this miracle in this way, Christ is demonstrating his absolute authority over all things.

Now, as the fascinated (and probably envious) Pharisees watch, Christ drills into the heart of this passage and into the very bone and marrow of the Pharisees’ chief sin, pride. Christ noted how the men chose out the best places to sit, or recline, as was the custom of the ancient world during dinner. He uses this to teach them about the folly and the futility of pride. Jesus tells them that when they are invited to a wedding or to a party, they should not assume the most honorable place, which would be nearest the host, but rather choose a place lower on the table or in the room. The folly of choosing the highest place is the chance they might be asked to give place to man considered more worthy than they. In that case, they would be publicly humiliated and would have to retreat to the lowest place. Instead, Christ says, enter the area with humility and choose the lowest, or least honorable place in the assembly. Then, the host may come to them and say, “Friend, go up higher.” In that case, in the wonderful words of the Authorized Version, (Luke 14:10): “…then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee”

As is typical with our Lord, His teaching comes to an end with a dramatic statement: (Luke 14:11) ”For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”Here is where our Lord teaches us about the futility of pride. We may exalt ourselves and we may extol our supposed virtues to the skies, but in the end, it will bear no fruit. As one of the hymns says, “Our vaunt is stilled.”
Thus, our self-exultation will result in abasement, showing our effort towards self-advertisement as merely futile.

Yet, this raises an interesting point. Why does it seem as if some in this world do exalt themselves and do enjoy the finest things life has to offer, yet seemingly suffer no abasement? Does this mean that Christ’s words are not true?

Far be it from us to think so. We know that Christ always speaks truth. For example, we know this saying is true intuitively, for how many times in our lives have we been feeling pretty good about ourselves and even feel that we are the “cat’s meow”, so to speak, only to have some calamity, major or minor, befall us? When we puff ourselves up, we are certainly asking for some kind of deflation. Can any one of us deny this?

Returning to the seeming flawless people in our society, those for which life never seems to touch, there is a more subtle point to consider. For that, let us consider Solomon, the son of David, the richest and wisest King of Israel. He was fabulously wealthy. He was wise, so much so that many kings and queens of the ancient world came to hear him. Even the famed Queen of Sheba came to him and was amazed. In addition to all this, he had over 1,000 wives and concubines. What more could a man ask for?

Yet, consider the book of Ecclesiastes, which has been credited to Solomon. In the book he is called “the Preacher.” First he says, (Ecclesiastes 1:2): ”Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” After considerable discourse, Solomon concludes: (Ecclesiastes 1:14) “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” Thus, even those who seemingly have it all, really don’t. They have exalted themselves, but in the very base of their soul, there may lurk an abased spirit, a sense of non-contentment. Once the chase after material and worldly success is finished, what is left? Merely emptiness. This comes, not from a lack of material wealth, but from a paucity of spiritual well-being. On the other hand, happy is the man who loves the Lord and who has been blessed with material abundance. He knows that all that he has comes from God and is blessed by God.
Like Job, he could lose it all and suffer for a season, but if his heart is right with God, all will be well sooner or later.

If we abase ourselves before God and acknowledge our wretchedness in the face of His absolute Holiness, while accepting his gifts of His generosity, all will be well with us. Using our God-given talents and abilities, we pursue our earthly path with perseverance and good will. In His time and in His will, we will be exalted; not only in this life, but in the life to come.

Unlike those who exalt themselves to the exclusion of Jesus Christ, we will be exalted forever with him. As we process through the heavenly gates, garbed in our robe of immortality, we can affirm the words of Christ: (Luke 14:11) “ For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”

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