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Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Beginning of the Gospel

The Rev’d. Stephen E. Stults
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
January 15, 2012

“The Beginning of the Gospel….”

Mark 1:1-3 “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, "Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way; 3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight.” (taken from the New American Standard Edition.)

It is very proper that we should read this particular Gospel selection for this Second Sunday after Epiphany. This is, after all, the first season in the Church year and the one that proclaims that the newly-born Messiah is here among us. Recall that we read in last week’s Gospel selection Jesus was actually manifested forth to mankind twice before, once in Bethlehem as the Magi worshipped Him, and once again in Jerusalem, as he sat among the doctors and scribes, hearing them and asking them questions.

St. Mark, in his inimitable, brisk style, launches right into Jesus’ ministry. He tells us briefly about John the Baptizer and how he baptized Jesus in the river Jordan. Recall that wonderful scene where Christ comes up out of the water: Mark 1:10-11: “And immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; 11 and a voice came out of the heavens: "Thou art My beloved Son, in Thee I am well-pleased."

For additional emphasis, recall the same passage from St. Matthew, which occurred when Christ came to John for baptism. Matthew 3:13-15 ”Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. 14 But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? 15 And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.” Matthew then relates the same appearance of the Holy Spirit in bodily form alighting on Jesus. This is, of course, the first evidence that Christ came not to destroy the Law, but rather to fulfill it. It also highlights how utterly false the Jews’ accusations were against him, as they wanted, desperately, to see him as an enemy to Judaism.

What are we to make of this? Is it “just” another amazing theophany, similar to the one Moses saw `in the burning bush that we hear through the Word Written? It is “just” another affirmation of our faith, as we read about God the Father speaking audibly to us, as he affirms his love for the Son? Is it a proclamation of the Holy Trinity, as we see, in one scene, all three Members of the Holy Trinity highlighted in stark relief? First, we have the Son, being baptized, the Holy Spirit alighting upon him in bodily form, while God the Father speaks about His Son .Perhaps a clearer example of, and witness to the Trinity would be difficult to find.

We should make note of all these things. This passage contains all of these important items, yet with one, all-important, encompassing theme: they all point to the Christ. Just as Mark uses the prophecy of Isaiah to introduce John the Baptizer, "Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way; 3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight.” With a single-minded focus, Christ is the emphasis and center of this passage, just as He is the emphasis and focus of Epiphany. He is shown forth and He is manifested to us in this Epiphanytide. With that fact presented to us, we ask again, what are we to make of this? In short, how are we to regard Epiphany and what difference can it make it our lives?

To answer that question, we must turn and consider the very nature of God Himself and our relationship to Him. Of course, we all are familiar with the attributes of God: Omniscience, Omnipotence, and Omnipresence. We know that He is all-knowing, all-powerful and always present. Perhaps we could add another great “O” to the list by saying that He is Overwhelming Love as well. After all, St John tells us in 1 John 4:16: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” While this is obvious to all of us, perhaps its ramifications are not as obvious in regards to Epiphany and our attitude towards it.

When we consider the love of God, my own mind always flies back to the concept of forgiveness and its attendant virtue, restoration. True love always forgives a fault, when it is sought with sincerity and true repentance. It also provides for restoration, or the putting of one back in the place where one was before the fault. This is the most genuine and the most absolute love possible. We all know how difficult it is to have a normal relationship with someone who has wronged us in the past. Yet, this is exactly what God the Holy Trinity does, every time we sin, repent, and seek amendment of life. In a blessed community of forgiveness, The Holy Spirit facilitates our prayers, the Blessed Son intercedes for us, and the Holy Father hears our pleas.
Through the blessed mercy and overwhelming love of God, we are forgiven and we are restored.

Can we not see the Epiphany Season in the same light? That is, what is the point of Epiphany if not to point to Jesus, which in turn points to our eternal blessedness in God the Father? In this light, Epiphany becomes something not trivial, as a mere passage of time, but something more meaningful, even momentous for our lives.

We say this because Epiphany offers us something new and something fresh. That something is simply this: a new beginning in Christ. It is simply too easy when we are burdened with the various troubles and vicissitudes of this life, and with all its daily bothersome details, to remember what we ultimately are: new creatures in Christ and the Children of God.

Forgive me if this sounds too pat, too well-worn, and perhaps just said too many times. Yet, with all the integrity of the Holy Trinity and will all the truth of God behind this statement, let me proclaim it again unto you. We Christians are blessed to be the Children of God in every sense of the word. We are not the slaves of some wrathful deity, nor are we merely the lowly and subservient subjects of a great King. No, we are something different. We are children, which means we are members of the royal household and thus inheritors of our Father’s Kingdom. Parents, think of how much you love your own children and then multiply that by infinity, if you can. That is how much Our Father loves those who love Him. It is how much He loves us as his blessed children in Christ.

Putting this in context with Epiphany, it is God’s Love that we celebrate this Epiphany Season. It is God’s Love that sent us our Emmanuel, our Intercessor, our eternal Friend. It is God’s Love, through Christ, that makes possible our repeated forgiveness and restoration. It is God’s Love that makes possible our status as Children of God.

Finally, putting this in practical terms, how do we celebrate the Epiphany Season this year?
What can we do to make a new start, to put a fresh face on our faith this year?

We will submit to you that it comes down to renewing and refreshing our relationship to God. We do this by seeking God’s Face in prayer and meditation. First, we do this by engaging in daily morning and evening prayer in our respective homes. Let us bathe our homes in prayer and in reading of the Holy Scriptures day and night. Let us also ask for the recognition of God’s continual Presence in our lives, every moment of every day. Let us, as much as possible, pray without ceasing, in the words of St. Paul. Better said, let our lives be a continual prayer unto God as we seek Him through all our activities, every day. In so doing, we will indeed be a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service”, from Romans 12; 1.

When we do this, we will find a greater joy and a greater sense of purpose than ever before. It is only in Christ that we find our true purpose. For a true succinct answer, let us recall this simple answer from the Catechism, found in our Book of Common Prayer:
Question. What is thy duty towards God?
Answer. My duty towards God is To believe in him, to fear him, And to love him with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my soul, and with all my strength: To worship him, to give him thanks: To put my whole trust in him, to call upon him: To honour his holy Name and his Word: And to serve him truly all the days of my life.

If we can fulfill this duty, we shall be a happy and productive people.

Epiphany is the beginning of this fulfillment, one that we should embrace and celebrate, every day of our earthly lives.

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

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Renewing of our Minds

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
First Sunday after the Epiphany
January 09, 2011

”The Renewing of our Minds”

“In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost….”

I bid you God’s Peace on this 2012 celebration of the first Sunday after the Epiphany, also known as the Manifestation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. That blessed event occurred on this last Friday, the 6th, and we will continue to be in the Epiphany Season until Septuagesima, or the Pre-Lenten season. It also officially ends the celebration of Christmas as we begin to move in to the church year in earnest.

Let’s consider the word epiphaneia – from the Greek, meaning “an appearance”; or the English derivative, Epiphany. It means “an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being (1) : a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something (2) : an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking (3) : an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure .”

Today, let us focus just a bit on the last definition, that of an “an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.” Let us look at what that means in our lives, and more importantly, what it means to our growth in Christ.

The realization for today comes from our Epistle selection from today. St. Paul. In this illuminating instruction from St. Paul, we are told three things that are vital to our life in Christ. With your kind indulgence, we will examine them briefly in turn.

The first instruction tells us “to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” If we examine this statement, it correlates exactly with what the Prayer Book tells us to do.
Just as Bp. Grote spoke of yesterday, we no longer need the various ritual sacrifices prescribed in the Old Testament. Instead, the sacrifice we are called to give is our “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”

That’s all well and good, but what does this exactly mean? When St. Paul says, “Present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship”, does he mean a literal sacrifice? Are we to cast ourselves into the fire, to be a holocaust, in honor of God? Forgive me, but this is, of course, ridiculous. This is one of the glories of the New Testament. We are not called upon to sacrifice poor, hapless animals for our sins. We are not required to shed any blood in any sacrifice any more. Instead, we are to remember the “one, holy and perfect sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction”, that was offered for us. Then, in remembrance, we are to offer our own sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

Again, what does mean, literally? It means that we should, without reservation, present ourselves to the Lord. Again, what this means is that we allow the light of Christ to peer into every aspect of our lives, without reservation. How easy this sounds and yet how difficult it is! That is, it is difficult if we are still holding on to something selfish, something secret, or something hidden that we don’t want God to see. Of course, how vain and how foolish this attitude is! Nothing is hid from God, despite our best efforts to convince ourselves that it is so. Many a time when younger, I heard preachers talk about this, how that we all hold our secret sins close to us, with the deluded conception that God doesn’t see. How vain, how utterly vain this is!

Yet, when we present ourselves as a sacrifice wholly acceptable to God, which is our spiritual service, something wonderful happens. Our God, our loving Fathert, sees us only as filtered through the Son. This makes our “spiritual service” worthwhile and good, despite our actual condition. This does not mean that we just sin and sin, confess, then repent and sin again, willfully. That is, we cannot test the patience of God in a willful manner, without regard to true contrition. To do so is similar to battering on the very gates of Hells itself, while praying that they don’t open. St. Paul addressed this very issue in the early church, and it was the cause of several early heresies. The point is we must be willing to let God’s light come into us and illuminate us, in spite of our sinfulness. When we do this, our desire to be godly takes on a real and almost tangible aspect.

What allows this to happen is the second instruction from St. Paul, as he tells to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” As we allow the Holy Ghost to illuminate our mind, we will be transformed in a new and wonderful way. That way is the renewing of our mind in Jesus Christ.

Once again, what does this actually mean? Simply this: we Christians have a light within us that cannot be quenched. Not misfortune, or persecution, or torture, or death can put it out. Why is this? It stems from the fact that our strength does not lie in this life. Instead, it stems from the eternal, absolute Life that is God. In short, it extends past our feeble earthly years into an existence that cannot be numbered or counted.

Yet, our light and our joy pertains to this life as well, lest one think that the benefits of Christianity are only future-based. Right now, in this life, is something that is not available to those who are not of the household of God: joy. This joy is the result of light inexpressible, irrefutable, and bright without measure, peeking around the edges of our souls. As we’ve always said, there is something different, in a good way, about a Christian. That “something” is the light that makes it way through the darkness of this world, to be seen by men. As our Lord said in Matthew 5:16: ”Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

The last point St. Paul makes our epistle is simply this: Romans 12:3: “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.” Seen another way, taken from the New American Standard translation, it says this: “For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.”

Does this mean that we Christians aren’t to have joy in Christ and in our redeemed state? Can’t we feel that we Christians are a called people, special to God? Yes, we freely acknowledge this, but at the same time, our special relationship to God through Christ can never be a source of pride in ourselves, but only in Him. That is, there may be a temptation to think that because we are Christians, chosen and called by God to receive His eternal inheritance, somehow we have merited this by something that we are or have done.

Beloved, nothing could be farther from the truth. We are called, not because of our deserts, but precisely the opposite of it. God, through His mercy, saved mankind form eternal darkness and death for one reason: He chose to out of love. He chose to despite the fact that we deserve nothing but the harshest condemnation, due to our fallen nature. Despite the seeming harshness of this statement, it is true. Man, left to his own devices, without the renewing effect of the Holy Ghost, will always descend into an increasing maelstrom of lust, envy, murder and violence. Man without God is a dark creature, indeed.

Yet beloved, that is not the message for today. Instead, it is the fact that all of us, without exception, can enjoy the renewing of our minds through the wonderful influence of the Holy Ghost in our lives. We too, with simple desire, fervent repentance, and earnest expectation, receive new life in ourselves.

We too, through Christ, can “present our bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God.” It is this “illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure” that all of us can grasp this Epiphany season. Once we realize this, our lives will never be same, for our lives will have taken on a new measure and a new dimension in holiness. As we draw near to God, He will draw near to us. As the Psalmist says, in Psalm 73: “But it is good for me to draw near to God: I have put my trust in the Lord GOD, that I may declare all thy works.”

Even so, let it be this Epiphany season this year 2012. Amen.