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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

Monday, October 10, 2011

Arise and Walk

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
19th Sunday after Trinity 2010
October 10, 201

Arise and Walk
“Matthew 9:5 For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk?”
Have you ever witnessed a public scandal? Have you ever heard someone say something so outrageous that it took your breath away? In short, have you ever heard something that literally shook you to the roots?

We have an example of that in today’s Gospel. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ says something that shakes the scribes to their very roots. Recall that these men were the ones who had devoted their very lives to the preservation of the Law. The scribes were in charge of copying the Talmud and the Torah, all without a single mistake. In addition, they would make pronouncements based on the Jewish Scriptures, always with an eye on complete compliance with the Law.

Now, here comes into their midst a seemingly simple rabbi from Nazareth who says, Matthew 9:2: “Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.”The sheer audacity of the statement must have been most upsetting and unsettling to them. How dare he say such a thing? What a scandalous thing to say! Imagine how you would feel. Let’s say a person walks into your office or place of business and presumes to know everything about what you are doing. Assume further that this “officious interloper”, as our legal friends might call him, makes a pronouncement that strikes at the very root of our profession. In other words, the very boldness and audacity of the statement makes your jaw drop.

This is exactly what Christ did in this situation. When some men brought to him a man “sick of the palsy”, Christ did not merely heal the man and send him on his way. That would have been too easy (for him) and would not have provided the witness that He wanted at that time. After all, our Lord had been doing miracles for some time now and his fame would have spread far and wide, else why would the men come to Him?

For example, in the Book of Matthew up to this point, Christ has healed the leper, the centurion’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, and the demoniac. In addition, he rebuked the storm on Lake Genessaret and astonished his own disciples. These, of course, are only the documented miracles and healings. There were no doubt hundreds of others in addition to these. Thus, the healing of the man with the palsy was not the question.

Christ wanted to make a statement about himself, in such a way that told the scribes and Pharisees who He was without an overt claim made by himself. After all, a self-proclaimed prophet or messiah is usually met with extreme cynicism, and even scorn except for the weakly credible. For example, recall the words of the Pharisee Gamaliel in Acts 5, where he listed several of the messianic figures: “Acts 5:36-39 36 For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nought. 37 After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed. “

Thus, Christ’s intent was not to tell about himself, for as the old saying goes, “Talk is cheap.” Instead, Christ constantly provided signs which pointed to His Lordship. For example, the entire Book of John, which happens to be one of my favorite books of the Bible, is constructed around signs, all of which point to Christ. With the idea of signs in mind, let us look at this particular one.

Once again, note that Christ did not merely say to the man, “Arise, take up thy bed and go unto thine house.” Although this was the outcome of the event, it is presented almost as an afterthought. Instead, he first looked at the man, and said, (Matthew 9:2)” Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.” Of course, this is the scandalous statement that shocked the scribes present. These holy men thought to themselves, “This man is a blasphemer. Who can forgive sins except God?”

Then, Christ draws the sign to a close by asking a simple question, (Matthew 9:5-7) “For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk?” This must have shocked and unsettled them quite a bit. While they were pondering this, Our Lord continued: “But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. 7 And he arose, and departed to his house.”The sign is complete. Christ clearly drew the comparison that said, simply, that the One who could forgive sins was also the One who could heal a sick man with a word. He left it up to the scribes to make the obvious connection.

No doubt they did make the connection, but not being mixed with faith, it was not the kind of connection you or I might make. Instead of using the sign to help them realize that a momentous occasion was happening in their midst, they were filled with an opposite or unworthy emotion, probably scorn, envy, or simply disbelief. It was impossible for them to realize what was really happening. Again, although they saw the sign, they did have the gift of faith to see that God Himself was among them. Emmanuel had indeed come, according to prophecy, but their minds were closed, being blocked by sheer incredulity or even sheer obstinacy.

In other words, God uses signs everyday to point us to Himself. For traditional, historic Christians such as ourselves, we already have the most powerful and readily accessible signs available to us. These are the Word of God and the Holy Sacraments, both of which are meant to point us constantly to Jesus and his saving grace. When we think of our advantages as modern Christians, it seems as if it would be so much easier to believe, doesn’t it? After all, we the Word of God readily available in every bookstore, even every supermarket, all over the Internet, and broadcast on the airwaves. We have churches on virtually every corner all over this country, and we have the Holy Sacrament available on a wide-scale basis. In short, we have signs literally shouting the name of Christ virtually everywhere.

Why then, are not all churches full? Why, with all the abundance of signs, is not this country, even all the world, literally bursting with vibrant enthusiasm for God?
The fact is that signs alone are not enough. Note that Christ saw the men bringing the sufferer into His midst, and “seeing their faith”, proceeded to heal him. Signs merely point out the way to us. It is up to us to follow their direction.

I know of many times in my own life when, travelling or otherwise, I have ignored signs, usually to my own dismay or detriment. Sometimes I didn’t have enough faith to go where I should have, or to take the right route. Sometimes I was too distracted by other things to follow the right sign. Other times, I was simply too arrogant to go where the sign pointed, trusting instead in my own sufficiency for direction. Suffice it to say that my faith was lacking to follow the right sign.

Whatever they may be, and however they may show up in your life, watch for your personal signs that point you to Christ. Look for signs in your own spirit that lead you to a greater awareness of His power in your life. Above all, use the signs available to us to take the right road to Christ.

Signs point us to many directions and many places. Some places point us to the good places that God wants us to go. Other signs, just as appealing, point us to places where we should not go. Ending up in these destinations may result in regret and confusion, instead of the peaceful destination that we have in God.

Thus, when God calls us to heed a certain sign, let us all hope and pray that we have faith sufficient to take the road He has pointed out to us. It is that road that leads to our ultimate fulfillment.

Matthew 9:2 : “And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.”

Now to him, who is Lord of Lords and Kings of Kings, to whom belongs all majesty, glory, honor and dominion, now and for ever.


Saturday, October 8, 2011

Bowed to Glory

16th Sunday after Trinity 2011
Bowed to Glory
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
October 9, 2011

Ephesians 3:13-15 1” Wherefore I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. 14 ¶ For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named,”

Let me acquaint you with historical survey I once heard. You may be familiar with it. It was done by a historian some time ago and it asked, “Who is the most important or influential person in history?” Now, if you are a Christian, there is no question. It must be Jesus Christ. If you are a Jew, you might very well say Moses. If you are a Muslim, no doubt you would say Muhammad.

Here’s where it gets interesting. This particular historian thought that it was Muhammad. He thought so because Muhammad was both a spiritual leader and a secular leader. His name is Michael Hart, who said this: “There are two principal reasons for that decision. First, Muhammad played a far more important role to the development of Islam than Jesus did in the development of Christianity. Although Jesus was responsible for the main ethical and moral precepts of Christianity (insofar as these differed from Judaism), St. Paul was the main developer of Christian theology, its principal proselytizer, and the author of a large portion of the New Testament.”

One might suppose that if one looks at Christianity just from the worldly view, this opinion has some merit. After all, it is true that St. Paul was the principal proselytizer and that without him as the chosen vessel of God, Christianity might not have spread the way that it did. It is also true that Muhammad was a great secular leader, or better said, he was a conqueror, whereas Christ was a converter. Muhammad thirsted after earthly power, whereas Christ had no such aspirations. As he told Pilate, John 18:36 “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.” Thus, one might be tempted to buy into Hall’s argument; that is, if one ignores the Resurrection and the numerous miracles Jesus did throughout His ministry. Unfortunately, one cannot see Muhammad in the same light, for to my knowledge, Muhammad did no miracles, except, perhaps to appear at the head of an army to conquer the city that once thrust him out.

Thus, it comes down to a comparison of two gross inequalities. One side consists of a soul that has been, or rather, is being indwelt with the Holy Spirit; for as St. John tells us: “1 John 4:15 15 Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God.” The other is one who confesses a secular worldview, or one who cannot see Christ for what he is. Granted, the Muslims do not worship Muhammad, although they venerate him as the Chief Prophet of Allah. In fairness, they also venerate Prophet Jesus, as they term him, but cannot name him as God. The Koran itself expresses repulsion of the concept of God having a Son. Thus, this secular worldview, which seems so wise, is actually stunted and blind. That is why, in this priest’s opinion, one can be so cultured, so urbane, and yet be so utterly lost.

At the very heart of the matter, it seems that Islam cannot accept the mysterious truth of the Trinity. After all, it is beyond us and is an item of great faith. In this respect, it is like the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord. Yes, we can read the account of Christ’s baptism in Jordan in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. We can see the three persons of the Godhead present at the same time. Finally, we can hear the voice of God the Father saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” It seems then, that despite the modernist tendency to explain away the duality of life, it comes again to the surface.

Let me issue a disclaimer here. My purpose here today is not to slam or defame a great world religion. That would be wrong and not Christian. My purpose is to simply point out the duality of life. There is a wrong side of things and there is a right side of things.

Thus, one can be married to the world in one’s spirit and reject the Spirit of God, who made all things. Or, one can seek the indwelling Spirit of God and freely inherit all things, including eternal life.

Returning to concept of Christ as the most influential person, one can absolutely say that He was not a powerful secular leader. That is not the record of history given to us in the Bible… Yet, it is a fact that Christ did more, so much more.

There has never been, nor will there ever be another being like Christ. No other figure in history did what He did. No one has ever performed the miracles He did, which were meant as signs to point to His Divinity. No one has ever led a completely sinless life like He did, which is a sign to point to His perfect humanity. Finally, no one has ever risen from the dead in glorified perfection like He did, which points to man’s ultimate state of being with God.

Yet one can accept none of these facts without the enabling of the Holy Spirit. As a child, I could not understand nor receive the reality of the Trinity. As an adult, while I still do not understand the concept of the Trinity, because it is beyond my limited powers of perception, I do receive it as an article of faith. I could not do so, however, without the help of the Holy Ghost. Only with Divine power can one receive Divine illumination. Only with the help of God, can one accept God.

Divine power is shown clearly in today’s Gospel, where we see Christ meeting the funeral bier of a young man’s funeral procession leaving the city of Nain. He was accompanied by a throng of people, as He often was, when He encountered this mournful occasion. Instead of simply commiserating with the widow, who was also accompanied by “much people of the city”, he had “compassion” on her. Luke tells us plainly that Christ had “compassion” on the widow. Why? Christ, knowing all things, knew that this woman had only one means of support, her son. According to the story, he was now dead in his youth. Recall that the state of widowhood was dire in 1st century Palestine. If a woman was young enough, she could remarry and be a wife. Her other option was to be a prostitute. Apart from these two options, poverty loomed over many virtuous but unfortunate women. Without family or riches, a woman’s place could be perilous indeed.

But, Jesus had compassion on her. He tells her, “Do not weep.” Then, he touches the funeral bier, causing those carrying it to stop. It is obvious what kind of authority Jesus Christ exuded. He stops the death procession with a mere touch, a word, and with his Presence. Then He commands the young man to arise from the grip of mortality: (Luk 7:15) “And the one who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He delivered him to his mother.’ Note that Jesus did not pray for, or supplicate some deity for the young man’s resurrection. No, as God Himself He speaks with authority and the young man arises immediately.

This story boldly illustrates why Christ is the true Messiah. It illustrates without fail or contradiction that Christ is the central figure of all time. No other earthly figure could possibly do this. No other earthly figure would do this, without some calculation of gain on their part. Yet, Christ did. Why? At the risk of seeming trite, or even to potentially trivialize something so monumental, it is because only Christ really cares. That is, only in Christ do we find a completely selfless love projected towards others. In this regard, note that Christ did not offer the widow food, or money, or even emotional support. No, He went right to the root of the problem and eradicated it. He told the man to come back to life. With a word, He defeated death.

The question is. why did He do this? If you will, why He bother with it? Could it seen as a sign of our own personal resurrections? Certainly. Is it a sign the points to Christ’s immeasurable love for us? Absolutely. This whole episode is caught up in the mystery of God. It involves issues such as God’s Glory and His magnificence, but most of all, it deals with His love. We don’t understand this love, nor are we truly able to comprehend it. We don’t understand a Being that truly loves us more and better than we love ourselves. How? Why? It is a mystery of the first magnitude.

Yet, although we truly cannot comprehend it, we can recognize a demonstration of it. For example, this love was demonstrated very clearly and tangibly in today’s Gospel. It is love that is universal yet incomprehensible; vast, yet localized; transcendent, yet immanent.

We must ask, is it enough merely to bask in the immensity and profundity of God’s love? Are we merely to be passive receptors of it? The question is rhetorical, but the answer is intensely personal. We will submit to you that Christianity is a call to action tempered by the Holy Spirit.

Rather than just be passive and appreciative; we ought to be active and reciprocal. May the light inside us be so intense that it shines through the fissures of our being to illuminate those around us. Let them see the light and want it too. Let it simply be that the world knows us by our love.

Therefore, we must leave it up to St. Paul to summarize this magnificent love, as he says from our Epistle for the day: (Eph 3:20-21) “Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, forever. Amen.” This is our Lord. This is our Christ. Is He the most influential figure in history? I leave that answer up to you.

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


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Covenant and Grace

Covenant and Grace

15th Sunday after Trinity 2011
October 2, 2011
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
Rev. Stephen E. Stults

From our O.T. Lesson for today, please hear this:
Deuteronomy 7:7-8 ”The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: (and) Deuteronomy 7:9 9 “Know therefore that the LORD thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations;”

These words, taken from the Old Testament Lesson for the 15th Sunday after Trinity, have both great significance and prophetic power for us today. They are significant because they tell us what we are as the people of God. They are prophetic because they tell us what we are to expect from God in that role.

These are weighty and powerful statements, to be sure. Let us examine the context in which they were said and see how they apply to us today. The Israelites had been encamped on the slopes of Mt. Sinai for some time. According to God speaking through Moses his prophet, the People have stayed there long enough. Here they received the Law. Here, no doubt, they have had many excellent and fulfilling discussions about it, but now it is time to move the Law out into the world. Before they go, Moses reminds them how they were brought out of Egypt, with a mighty hand. He also reminds them of the former generation’s fear of possessing the land. Recall that the fact-finding mission of Caleb, Joshua, and a few other faithful men many years ago urged Israel to rise up and possess the land. Recall how they brought back the fruit of the land and joyfully told the congregation of Israel that it was a good land. Yet, instead of moving forward in faith, the congregation cowered in fear. They talked of the Anakins, the giant people of the land, and they spoke of all the obstacles they would have to overcome. The group that came out of Egypt was afraid. They had already forgotten what their purpose was and who they were. As a result, they did not do what God commanded them to do, despite the fact that He said that He would fight for them. Instead, they shrunk back.

Now, in Deut. 6, we have a different scene. Since God had them wander about for forty years, the majority of that original murmuring group of ex-Egyptian slaves were now dead. In place of that generation are a group of people who want to do God’s will and who want to go in to possess the land. Some of them must have been very eager, “chomping at the bit”, so to speak.

It is to this group that Moses speaks. He tells them what they must do, as well as what they mustn’t do in order to reap the benefits of God’s favor. First, he tells them that when, not if, God destroys their enemies before them, in order to establish them in the land, they must not mix with, marry, or adopt the ways of the people around them. After all, these were the detestable, pagan, satanic Canaanites, who practiced devil worship, human sacrifice and unclean personal relations. In short, they were corrupt. God did not want His People to be so corrupted. As we know, later in their history, the Israelites would be very much influenced by their pagan neighbors and pay a heavy price for it. At this point, however, they were not tainted. Moses hoped to keep it so by presenting to them the advantages of keeping pure. He also showed to them the negative consequences of breaking covenant with God.

In the verses immediately preceding our reading, hear the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 7:2-3: “And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: 3 Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.”

The reason is clear when Moses continues: Deuteronomy 7:4 “For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly.” It is clear that evil tends to corrupt, and that absolute evil tends to corrupt absolutely, to paraphrase Lord Acton’s aphorism about power. There is no doubt that corruption does spread, like a contagion. This is exactly what Moses fears and what he preaches against in this address.

Perhaps the most interesting point is when he says, (Deuteronomy 7:7) “The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people:” God did not choose a mighty people on which to manifest his glory. Instead, He chose a wretched slave people, now freed, to be His ambassadors throughout the earth.
Moses’ statement are compelling, because he says: (Deuteronomy 7:8) “But because the LORD loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the LORD brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” In short, God did not choose the Israelites because they were powerful, or even numerous in terms of what a nation should be. He did not choose them because of their righteousness or their just deserts. He chose them because of the oath He made to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. God is being true to Himself, which is what He must always do.

Moses continues to expound on the relationship when he mentions that God will destroy those who hate him. He will not be “slack” in repaying those who reward love with hate. As an aside, it is truly an amazing thing when one finally realizes that he or she is truly loved by God. Not in some ephemeral, surface sort of way, but in the deep meaningful sort of way that one loving spouse says to another, “I love you.” Yet, even this is inadequate to describe the love of God for us. It goes way, way beyond the human capability to love. It is a love that is so deep and so profound that it cannot be described with words. The only way it can be described is with actions, and the action that describes God’s true love for us is the Cross. All of the other actions that are meant to signify God’s love for us pale in comparison to this. All of the puritanical rules and codes of conduct that have turned so many against Christianity, yet that are done in the name of Christ, are meaningless and destructive without the true spirit of love in them. Loveless, joyless life, if one can call it that, does not please God. We are to show God how much we love Him by loving Him, and our neighbor as ourselves. The formula of love is simple, but not easy. It is: love God, love yourself in and through God, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Yet, in the mercy and love of God, He does more, if that is possible. God did not just provide for our eternal destination and then leave us to survive as best we can until we get there. No, instead He promises to keep covenant with those who keep covenant with Him. In keeping covenant, He provides for our earthly needs as well. Thus, if we remain faithful, He will keep faith with those who keep faith with Him. Moses tells us this in Deuteronomy 7:12-13:“Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep, and do them, that the LORD thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers: 13 And he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee: he will also bless the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy land, thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep, in the land which he sware unto thy fathers to give thee.”

There is a great lesson in this for us, in several ways. First, we should consider the numerical question. Yes, we are small at this point, but so were the Israelites at one time. Yet, God blessed them and increased them. Recall how Jacob rehearsed God’s words to him, when he encamped beside Jordan on that fateful night when he would become Israel: (Genesis 32:12) ”And thou saidst, I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.” In like manner He will do the same with us, on one condition. Just as the Israelites were to remain faithful, so we must continue to remain faithful. As we obey the law of love, so God will love us, keep us, and multiply us.

We are the blessed people of God. We are the new Israel, blessed in God, blessed in the love He has for us, and most importantly, blessed in the love we have for each other.

It is all important that we remain faithful. It is all important that we obey the law of love. Finally, it is all important that we rejoice in the love God has for us.

Deuteronomy 7:6 “For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.”