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Sunday, March 13, 2011

The God of "If"?

1st Sunday in Lent 2011
“The God of “IF?”
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church

Mat 4:3
“And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.”

William Golding’s novel, The Lord of the Flies, caused quite a stir when it was released in 1954. In this small but important book, he tells us about a group of English schoolboys whose airplane is shot down during WWII, leaving them stranded on an island, presumably in the Pacific. The story relates relates how this group of middle and upper-class boys quickly reverts to tribalism, savagery and barbarism in a very short period, even going to the point of idol worship, the so-called “Lord of the Flies.” It is a vivid picture of our true fallen state, when Law or Gospel does not govern it, or in this case, even human maturity. In short, The Lord of the Flies goes to the heart of what we believe makes us human.

Similarly, our Gospel for the day goes to the very heart of what we believe to be true as Christians. It is about as basic as that. In the opening lines of the Gospel passage we read, from Mat. 4:1:”Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.”

Recall that at the end of the previous chapter of Matthew, Chapter 3, Christ has just come from His baptism in the river Jordan at the hands of John the Baptizer. In that amazing scene, remember that the Spirit of God had just descended upon Jesus and a voice from heaven had said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Christ submitted to baptism (though of course He had no original sin to wash away) and showed us the way, while receiving glory and recognition. Christ also more closely identified with our humanity by His Baptism in Jordan, just as He assumed our Humanity at the Incarnation, yet without sin. Remember that what Christ did not assume, he could not redeem. What he did not redeem, he could not glorify. Yet, the glory of Christianity is that Christ did assume our humanity. He fully identified with us in His humanity and paid for us on the Cross, thus accomplishing the Atonement. After his mighty Resurrection, He glorified our humanity by taking it to heaven with Him in the Ascension. Thus, these four doctrines: Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection and Ascension are key to our beliefs as Christians.

Note also, the direct inference to the Holy Trinity in this passage, as we see Jesus recognized by a “voice” that says, “this is my Son”, which necessarily implies a Father. Next, the Holy Spirit comes to him like in bodily appearance, “like a dove” and lights upon Him. Those who have doubts as to the Trinitarian nature of God need to review this word of Scripture. The early church Fathers used this important passage as they culled the doctrine of the Holy Trinity from the Scriptures.

Now, comes the temptation of Christ. Satan tries to undo God’s Plan by the invocation of one little word, “if.” Christ had just been exalted, and now as Matthew tells us in Mat 4: “Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.” Oftentimes, honor precedes humbling or trials; as Matthew Henry tells us: “After we have been admitted into the communion of God, we must expect to be set upon by Satan. The enriched soul must double its guard.” If we see Christ, the Lord and Captain of our Faith set upon by Satan after having received great honor, should we expect different treatment? It is an interesting question, is it not?

Many commentators on this passage have mused as to why Jesus Christ would need, submit to, or even agree to such a situation. Although there is much discussion of this, we may safely assume three areas of consensus:
1. Christ suffered temptation that he might fully identify with all aspects of our human condition, yet without sin.
2. Christ battled with Satan and overcame him, not in evidence of divine power, but in the absence of any outward manifestations of power.
3. Christ, in his human nature, exhibited complete reliance upon His Father and his Holy Word, thus giving us the perfect model.

Turning to the temptations themselves, note that there three of them. It’s always been interesting to me, as an aside, the role that numbers play in the Scriptures, especially the numbers three, four, seven, twelve and their respective multiples. Examples of this can be found in the Holy Trinity and the temptations of Christ (representing three), as well as the Four Last Things on which we preach from time to time, which are Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Other examples abound as well. Although being an English major and therefore not necessarily a “numbers guy”, I do respect the way that numerology plays such a significant role in the Bible. The point to be noticed here is that the Scriptures themselves testify that we have a God of order, who “rulest all things well.”

The first temptation deals with Christ’s physical well-being, as we see Him hungry and in the wilderness, tempted by Satan to make bread out of stones. This attack is both insulting and predatory. First, comes the insult, “If thou be the Son of God…”, as if the Son of God was not self-aware. This is course is manifestly false, as we have been tutored out of Luke 2:49, when Christ tells his parents, ”And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?” Recall that this episode occurred at the age of twelve, when his parents found him “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions.” Here, Satan the Great Deceiver is seeking to cause Jesus to doubt himself in his physical weakness.

This leads to the predatory aspect of Satan’s attack on Christ and on us. Being the wicked and brilliant tactician that he is, the Devil attacks us when we are weak. Be it through physical need, be it through sickness, be it through melancholy, be it through (God forbid) despair, he seeks a chink in our spiritual armor in which to insinuate his infernal suggestions, temptations and fears.
Of course, there are times when all of us, being mere flesh and subject to the weaknesses of the same, fall prey to his devices. However, if we keep our minds and our spiritual eyes on Christ, we will frustrate the plans of the devil. In this instance, Christ dismisses Satan’s assault with a word of Scripture. From Deut. 8:3: “And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.” Satan is rebuffed.

Having failed in his first attempt, Satan then takes another approach, this time appealing not only to Jesus’ physical safety, but to the very image of who He Is. Now we see Jesus taken by the devil to a pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. Again comes the insult and the word of doubt, “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down…” Here is a great lesson concerning evil, the nature of sin and Our Adversary’s dealing with us. Note that Satan does not throw Christ off the pinnacle himself, thus doing Him direct harm, but rather, suggests that Jesus “cast” himself down. Thus, Satan has no power over us but is limited to the power we give him in our lives. Sin always requires an active response from us in some assent of the will.

In this case, Satan’s temptation is obvious and flagrant. Once, again, Christ repels him with a word from Scripture, “It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” Some commentators have interpreted this as “Don’t presume on God to save you when you engage in some self-destructive or sinful act, in exercise of your free will.” Yet, even when we act stupidly or behave in a flagrantly sinful way, or are self-destructive, God in his mercy often mitigates the ill effects of our actions. Somehow, by common grace, He does not allow to be as bad as we could be. He may also allow us to realize the consequences of our sins to teach us. We know that, while God forgives us our sin, the “scar tissue” of our misdeeds remains. Forgiveness abounds from God’s mercy when we truly repent, but the consequences of our sin are a lasting reminder of our rebellion against God.

It is not so with Christ. Satan is defeated again with a rebuke from Scripture, but being the persistent, devious “devil” that he is, he takes yet one more approach and makes an appeal to Jesus’ supposed pride. In a twisted, perverted view of Christ’s Kingship, Satan shows Jesus all the earthly glory, or at least the satanic version of it. In Mat 4:8 “Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.” Here is where Christ’s patience is exhausted at last, for as the Tempter says, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me”, Christ expels him a command: “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”

This is the so-called “last straw” for Christ, for the idea of the Lord of Heaven and Earth prostrating Himself before this hideous fallen angel is too much. Christ speaks with authority and the Devil leaves, defeated and frustrated.
Now, the victory is won and the angels, who had been watching this whole contest with worshipful admiration, came and ministered to Jesus, tending to His needs. Satan had done his best and had failed. Just as Christ would defeat Satan on the battleground of Calvary later in His ministry, so he vanquished him now.

At the start of this homily, I mentioned that this passage “goes to the very heart of what we believe to be true as Christians.” Satan used the “if” word three times, once for each temptation: “if thou be the Son of God, “if” thou be the Son of God, and “if” thou wilt fall down and worship me.” Each of these is a conditional statement that seeks to provoke doubt or sin. Each time, Satan seeks to cause Jesus to question Himself, and/or he mockingly insinuates that Jesus Christ is not the One, the eternal Son, and the Spotless Lamb of God.

If this were true, Christianity would be shattered. If Christ is not who He says He is, the Son of the Almighty God, the Lord and Savior of Mankind, we are confounded and hopeless. If Christ is not the Son of God, we might as well submit to the toothless doctrine of the Enlightenment, where Christ’s dying on the Cross is not substitutionary, but merely a supreme example of what a good man does. Finally, if we worship an “If” God, we Christians are, in the words of St. Paul, the most miserable of all people.

“But, now is Christ risen from the dead and become the first fruits of them that slept.” (1st Cor. 15:20) In the eternal sense, now is our Savior Christ victorious over sin, death, hell and the Devil. We do not worship an “If” God. No, we worship an “Is” God, He who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. The Great “I AM THAT I AM” does not exist in the past, He does not exist in the future, He simply exists. Thanks be to God.
Glory be to God the Father, and to God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, now and forever. AMEN

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Tale of Two Lents

Ash Wednesday 2011
“A Tale of Two Lents”
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
March 9, 2011

In Charles Dickens’ famous novel A Tale of Two Cities, the book begins with the line. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…” This historical novel is very heavily dependent on Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, which I am sure is familiar to many of you. In it, you will recall Carlyle’s description of the French revolutionary state, cut loose from the traditional moorings of the historical aristocracy and the historical church, thus running rampant
under the forces of humanism and atheistic influence. The atrocities resulting from the denouncements of the ancient French aristocratic class and the resulting simple answer, Le Guillotine, are well known.

Dickens uses a wonderful bipolarity in his novel by focusing on two cities: London and Paris. Looking at the book symbolically, one can see two views of the human condition, according to Dickens. London represents the reasonable, rational side of man, reflecting the prevailing mode of English philosophical thought, called empiricism, while Paris represents the results of human will “run riot”. Paris, in contrast to London, brims over with revolutionary fervor, producing an emotional “stew” of hatred, envy, murder, false witness and lust. This philosophical position reflects the influence of Naturalism and Determinism, schools of thought espoused by men such as Rousseau and later, Nietzsche, and Hegel. The contrast is very clear, London vs. Paris, as Dickens then weaves in the elements of a very entertaining, yet powerful and thought provoking novel.

In our own minds, we might have a somewhat similar view of the impending season of Lent, in that, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Let us consider, then, not a “Tale of Two Cities”, but “A Tale of Two Lents” as we embark upon this somber, yet beautiful season.

We are now entering into one of the most potentially meaningful seasons of the Church year, Lent. It can also be one of the most misunderstood and most ignored church seasons of the year. Thus, we too are confronted with a dichotomy, or bipolarity concerning how we view, meet and “use” the Season of Lent.

On the one hand, we can view Lent as a time of spiritual and even physical “heaviness”. That is, we can inflict severe disciplines on ourselves, as we labor under the impossibly leaden weight of the consciousness of our own sins. We can realize our sinful, fallen state and our woefully inadequate response to it, through the repeated promptings of the Holy Spirit as we trudge through Lent. In addition, we can add physical deprivation to this, as we fast and pray, bewailing our own spiritual wretchedness.

This doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? Certainly, it does not appeal to the modern mind, which obviously runs to the other direction as quickly as possible. Yet, we know that the season of Lent does call for a certain degree of self-denial and self-examination. It is good to focus, at least a bit, on the incredibly self-centered, self-serving and discomfort-avoiding way in which we all live, especially as contrasted with 100% giving aspect of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Christ gave all of Himself to us, whereas we are unable to reciprocate due to our own sinfulness. Instead, we clutch ourselves to ourselves, seeking to retain our own autonomy and the sinful desires of the same.
We seek always, in some fashion, to be our own gods. Lent helps us deal with this unhealthy aspect of our fallen natures by requiring some discipline from us, to strip away our “dross” that our gold may shine.

Yet, as is the fashion of man, we usually never get it quite “right.” Most of us, to some degree or another, usually run “into the weeds” on the right hand or the left. For example, on the right hand, we might seek an overzealous approach to Lent, where we emphasize a deleterious self-examination of the negative aspects that we all share as fallen human beings. Here, as in the Middle Ages, Lent can be a time of pure “hell” spiritually and physically, as penitents literally whipped their sinful flesh, while pondering their sinfulness. In addition, strict fasting was the rule, as the faithful denied themselves not only flesh meat, but also eggs, cheese and milk. This is discipline to the extreme and herein lurks another danger, that of unduly focusing on the “self” in a negative way. Just as it is a sin to celebrate one’s vitality, one’s self-sufficiency, one’s self-esteem without God, so it is a sin to focus on the negative aspects of self to an inordinate degree. The most healthful spiritual route to sanctification is to focus on God and to forget the self as much as possible.

Of course, the modern world and modern man will not do this. They will not subject themselves to any degree of spiritual discipline, at least not Christian discipline. Like the Galatian Church with whom the Apostle Paul labored for so long, which then fell into grave danger by embracing another gospel, we in this age usually turn to other things for our spiritual health, rather than to the One, the Great Physician Jesus Christ, for our spiritual healing and health. We will not weary you by a catalogue of the familiar substitutes for true fulfillment, namely psychotherapy, group therapy, yoga, Eastern religions, alcohol, drugs, erotica, etc. We all know and are familiar with someone or somebody who has sought one or more of these things in endeavor for real spiritual nourishment.
No, the modern world will not submit to discipline like this. Instead, many folks, Christian or not, take a “middle way” to Lent, they simply ignore the whole thing. As society pushes Christianity to the outer limits of relevancy, this trend will likely continue. Many of us, even in the Church, just want to “get through” this whole Lent thing and “move on” to the joys and festivities of Easter. For example, how many of the revelers in New Orleans or Galveston really understand the reason for the party on Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday?” Likewise, even we in the Church may be tempted to “turn our heads” spiritually and just wish the whole thing were over.

Beloved in the Lord, this is a grave mistake. If we seek to deaden ourselves to the rigors and discomforts of Lent, to whatever extent we do indeed open ourselves up to them, it is not profitable for our souls. Just as Satan seeks to draw us away from God with all the enticements, pleasures and problems of life, we must take great care that we do not intentionally or unintentionally ignore the formation of Christ in our lives. Recalling that just as man reaps what he sows, so will we reap our spiritual harvest on the Last Great Day. Those who have sought to love Christ with their whole heat, mind and soul will be welcomed to the eternal Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Those who have ignored Him will hear those chilling words from Mat 7:23 “And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” Praise God that we in this room will never hear those words. Your very presence here today is evidence that the Holy Spirit is working in your life, not only to begin a holy and blessed Lent, but also to seek the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to continue your growth in the Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God, we have already begun a good Lent today.

This leads us to the last and best way to observe Lent. We have seen that one can be overly severe, thus defeating the positive side of Lent through obsessive personal meditation on one’s sins, to the point of self-absorption. We have also noted that one can simply ignore Lent, hoping that it will just “go away”, or worse yet, be so far outside the Christian experience that one doesn’t even know that Lent is occurring. This is the sad state of affairs for many, many people today.

There is a better way to observe this valuable and holy season. This is to embrace and celebrate the solemn joy of this season. Let me reiterate that. First, this is a solemn season; one is which we move carefully through the spiritual recesses of our souls. We look, we see, and we even marvel at the fallen-ness that exists within us, yet not in an unhealthy or morbid way, but in the clean mode of self-examination that exposes our sins to the Light of Christ. Just as pure sunlight has a dissipating effect on bacteria, the Light of Christ cleanses the decay in our souls.

In opening ourselves up to the light of Christ in healthy examination, we also experience the joy of Lent. Just as an injury may itch occasionally while it heals, so we will feel the slightly painful “tearing away” of the obsessive attachment to ourselves and our sinful impulses and desires. Here is where the joy arrives, for we know that as we grow less and less attached to ourselves, we are growing more and more attached to Him, He who is capable of granting us eternal health. Yes, our flesh grows more troublesome and our bodies experience a sort of entropy, as they wind down to their determined state, but our souls do not. Fed by the new life of Jesus Christ, they become springs of living water, gushing joyfully into eternity. Cleansed continually by the Light of Christ, they become reflectors of the Light that has no end.

How do we obtain this “solemn joy?” How do we allow ourselves to be bathed with and cleansed by the Light of Christ? Well the good new is that we have already started. Together, we have begun to make this Lent a holy, blessed and quietly joyful one. Today, we begin to ask the Great Healer to purify the decay in our souls, wherever it may exist. Now, we must continue our spiritual journey by continuing to meet together in holy worship. We must continue our spiritual feeding by daily reading and ingesting of the Word of God. Taking the Scriptures as our cue, we also need to engage in healthy spiritual self-examination.

These are the keys to a fulfilling and wonderful Lent, just as they are to a fulfilling and wonderful Christian life. The “recipe” never changes; it’s just how the cooks (us) put the ingredients together. Thank God, we have the Church to guide us and to carry us, Thank God, we have the Scriptures to feed us, and Thank God, we have each other for fellowship and support. This triune approach to Lent, in worship, in study of the Word of God and in godly fellowship, is a guarantor of spiritual progress during this holy and blessed season.

With the right attitude, we have begun again one of the most important spiritual journeys of our earthly sojourn. Let us embrace and celebrate the solemn joy of this season.

This is the promise of Lent. This is the promise of our salvation.

1Ch 29:11
“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 in the earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, O LORD, and thou art exalted as head above all.”