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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.”

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.

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.”