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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Love and Restoration

1st Sunday after Trinity, 2012
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
June 24, 2012

Today we witnessed one of most remarkable and most important events in someone’s life: his or her inclusion in the family of God.  We are speaking, of course, of the baptism of Andrea Cree Elizabeth Gressett.  Today we welcome into her the family of God and the worldwide family of the Church.  This is a family that has millions of members around the globe.  It is one that has a single purpose: to worship and glorify God, and to love Him forever.  Into that family we welcome our newest member with great thanksgiving.

It is not a coincidence that today the Lord, through the prophet Jeremiah, tells us that He will be God to all the families of Israel.  He states that those who “ were left of the sword found grace in the wilderness; even Israel, when I went to cause him to rest found grace in the wilderness .”[i]  He is referring to the Northern Kingdom, Israel, which had been subjugated by the Assyrians some years previously.  Their idolatry and sinfulness had been so extreme that God punished them by the hand of the warlike and fierce Assyrians.  Thus they suffered.

Yet, in this passage, God promises pardon and restoration to his people, so much so that they will again plant vines in Samaria and the virgins shall dance with simple joy, as in the former days before the afflictions of the Assyrians.  Furthermore, Jeremiah tells us that they will be a day when the watchmen on Mt. Ephraim in the Northern Kingdom will  proclaim to their nation, “Let us go to Zion”, that is, Jerusalem.   Thus, the Lord, according to this prophecy, will gather all of the Northern Tribes from where they have been scattered, and re-unite them into one nation.  There will be a glorious restoration.

What is truly fascinating about this prophecy is that it did not take place in the time of Jeremiah.  It did not take place in any of the lives of the latter prophets after Jeremiah, and it did not take place even during Our Lord’s earthly sojourn. It took place beginning on May 14, 1948, when Israel became a nation.[ii]  From that time forth, Jews from all over the world could come home to Israel. God was indeed calling His people home. That prophecy is still being fulfilled today, as Jews from all over the world still return to Israel.

As is typical of prophetic vision, its fulfillment is never easily foreseen by man.  No doubt those listening to Jeremiah expected an immediate fulfillment of God’s words.  In the same way, the early Church expected an immediate return of Christ.  Instead, it’s been over two thousand years since Jesus ascended into Heaven.  We have no idea when Christ will return to Earth, since that knowledge resides with God the Father alone.

The point is this: while we do not know when God will fulfill His word, we do know that He will fulfill it. Witness the restoration of Israel. Witness the rebuilding of Jerusalem, as foretold in prophecy. Witness our Lord’s promise and prophecy of the coming of the Holy Ghost, which He fulfilled on that day of Pentecost so many years ago. Every prophecy foretold in the Bible has come true, at some point in time, with the exception of one: the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Some believe that when that occurs, it will be major sign of the end times.  Whatever.  It may or it may not be.  We do not get caught up in end time projections, which we believe are vain and ultimately not profitable.  Instead, we focus on what is important for us today: the sure knowledge that we can trust the Word of God. It is meant to be a means to nourish our faith and to enter into greater fellowship with the Son through the ministry of the Holy Ghost.

Today, we read about restoration from the Prophecy of Jeremiah. Today, we saw a concrete example of the promise of restoration in the rite of Holy Baptism. 
While Baptism does not absolutely guarantee one salvation, it does allow one to be eligible to receive the promises of God. That is, Holy Baptism is the entrance rite that allows one the opportunity to enter in fuller fellowship with God the Holy Trinity.  Without it, salvation is impossible at worst, or highly problematical at best. 
We cannot or should not limit the mercies of God.  Yet, we do Jesus commanded us, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,"[iii]

Thus, God has provided us the means by which we can restored to a better state with Him.  Rather than remain outside of grace, or as St. Paul says in Ephesians 2:12-13, “remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

Holy Baptism is the key to this inclusion in grace.  It is into this blessed fellowship that we are now very pleased to include Andrea Cree Elizabeth Gressett, our newest little Christian.  She is now a member of the family of God and an inheritor of the promise of eternal life.  Just as Christ called Matthew away from the receipt of custom, i.e. taxes, into His glorious fellowship, so we are delighted that He has chosen to call Andrea into the fellowship of the Church. It is a fellowship that we pray she will cherish and that in turn, will nurture her in her walk of faith.

All of us should be thankful for witnessing this event today, for two reasons.  First, seeing Andrea baptized should remind us all of our own baptisms, and thus our own inclusion in God’s Family. Second, we should give thanks for the ever-present miracle of restoration. Through the limitless mercies of God, we are all restored daily through the Holy Ghost.  That is, we know that we all sin.  If we humbly repent of our sins, make a firm resolution of amendment, and strive to do better, we are forgiven and restored to our places as members of God’s Household.  Yet, remembering Martin Luther’s words about the old man being a good swimmer, we know that we still commit sin, even the same sins again and again.  Dr. Luther was, of course, saying that even though the old nature of original sin is washed away in the waters of baptism, vestiges of our old nature remain to plague us.  Yes, unfortunately, we all still sin on a daily basis.  Although we strive to be saints, God knows that very few of us ever attain that level of holiness.  In fact, we are engaged in a battle against sin, the World, and the Devil from practically day one in our Christian walk.  But, lest we become downcast or discouraged in our struggle against these mighty forces, let us remember that our chief hallmark as Christians should be that of joy.

We are joyful because we know that, despite our sinful natures, Christ has won the battle.  Ultimate victory is ours through Him.  We are not saved because of our behavior. God forbid.  Instead, we are saved because of what Jesus did for us at Calvary.  He accomplished the ultimate restoration, once, for all men, for all time. This is our trust, our sure hope and our abounding joy.

So, welcome, Andrea Cree Elizabeth Gressett, to the community of eternal restoration.  Also, welcome to all of us to the refreshing restoration of God.

Jeremiah 31:1: “At the same time, saith the LORD, will I be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.”

Saturday, June 2, 2012

"Art thou a master of Israel...?"

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
Trinity Sunday 2012

Art thou a master in Israel, and knowest not these things?
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost…

John 3:3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Life is full of distinctions.  That is, we go through our earthly sojourn here constantly weighing one experience against another, distinguishing one experience by another, and often taking great lessons from that constant exercise.  I say often but not always.  There are times when all of us fail to glean the intended lesson from one of life’s vignettes, either because we were not thinking about it, or because we simply were not paying enough attention to the situation at hand.  Thus, we sometimes fail to learn the lesson that God had prepared for us that day.

An excellent example of this “missing the mark” is shown very clearly in today’s Gospel selection from St. John, in the person of Nicodemus. Here, we are told, “John 3:1  There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.”  Thus, we know that this was an important man, a substantial man.  He was a member of the prestigious Sanhedrin and thus held a position of some dignity in the Jewish community.  As we will see in a moment, he also knew that he was. 

St. John goes on and tells us in John 3:2: This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him."

Two things are most interesting in this statement from St. John.  First, we note with interest that Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night.”  Personally, I have always thought that Nicodemus did this because he was a secret disciple of Jesus, or a “would-be” disciple of Jesus, but that he was afraid of his contemporaries’ opinions.  Thus, he sought Jesus under the cover of darkness.  This may be true, for undoubtedly Jesus had some supporters, or at least those who had a benign, or even favorable view of Him.  Some, like Nicodemus, were very curious, perhaps even wondering if this “prophet” was the Messiah.  Yet, most of these men would not or could not declare for Jesus openly, for fear of earning condemnation from the Sanhedrin.  Thus, Nicodemus came by night to commune with Jesus.

Another, more positive view comes from Matthew Henry, who wrote that Nicodemus came to Christ by night out of respect for his time.  Seeing that Christ was usually thronged by a multitude, Nicodemus sought a time where he could speak to Christ quietly and confidentially.  Thus, he did not intrude upon Jesus’ ministry for his own questions, nor did he seek Jesus during the day.

Perhaps; this may be true.  One thing we do know is that Nicodemus saw something in Jesus that piqued his righteous curiosity.  He knew that Christ was truly someone special. Thus, he begins his interview with Christ with a flattering statement, perhaps meant to “butter up” Jesus, or increase his good opinion of Nicodemus: "Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.".  This tactic fails utterly, as Jesus ignores it and cuts right to the quick of Nicodemus’ spiritual need by saying, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (NKJ)  Commentators such as St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom wrote that Christ often did this when he conversed one-on-one with a person.  He usually went right to the heart of the matter and ignored the surface discussion.

For example, recall that in the story of the rich young ruler of Matt. 19, who asked Christ how to inherit eternal life, Christ perceived that the young man had righteous tendencies, but that his wealth was a barrier to real spiritual growth.  Thus, Christ gave him a shocking commandment, “Go, sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and come, follow me.” Recall that the rich young ruler went away sorrowfully, “for he had great possessions.” Also, with the Samaritan woman at the well of John 4, Christ told her to call her husband and then return to Him, whereupon she confesses that she had no husband.  Christ gently but directly tells her that she has spoken truly, for she has been a serial divorcee (5 times) and the man with whom she was currently living was not her husband.  This prompts her to say that she now took Jesus for a prophet.  In both these cases, Christ goes right to the heart of the problem and exposes that to His light before proceeding.

In today’s Gospel, Christ perceives that Nicodemus’ problem is that of pride.  He was righteous, certainly, but he knew it.  He was devout, following all the precepts of the Law, but he knew it.  He was even looking for something greater in the current spiritual environment of Israel, but he didn’t know what that was.

Nicodemus’ ignorance of true spiritual matters is evident when he answers Jesus’ shocking statement, “You must be born again.”  He uses bluster with a hint of mockery when he says, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?"  Nicodemus’ reply shows that he is actually firmly rooted in the earthly and material, without a sense of true spirituality.   Thus, Christ patiently leads him by saying in John 3:5-8,   "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God6 "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  7 "Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.'  8 "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes.  So is everyone who is born of the Spirit."

Still, Nicodemus does not “get it.”  He says, “How can these things be?”  Here, he displays his true spiritual ignorance, for it is obvious that he doesn’t have a clue.  This is precisely the point to which Christ wanted to bring him all along, in order to teach him.  Christ is very aware that Nicodemus is a “self-made” righteous man.  That is, he is a superb example of works righteousness.  He has striven all his life to follow the Law and thus, like all the righteous Jews of his generation, to earn his salvation.  Judaism today, as well as Islam and all other world religions, think the same.  A man’s behavior and adherence to an external law is the key to salvation. 

We Christians think differently, knowing that our salvation comes only from the bleeding hands, the bleeding feet and the bleeding side of Jesus; that is, only Christ’s Atonement on the Cross procures our salvation. This is the great difference.

Along with Nicodemus’ righteousness is a healthy dose of pride.  He was respected and he was proud, in the words of St. Augustine, to be thought of as a teacher of the barbarian and the child, and he clearly loved his position in society.  In short, to the exterior eye, Nicodemus “had it all together.” 

Yet, he lacked one thing, the ability to see the world through spiritual eyes and not material ones. Thus, he says, “How can these things be?”  St. John Chrysostom lamented his attitude when he wrote, “O Nicodemus, must you pull it down to earth?” In short, are you so rooted in your earthly system of salvation, your self-made righteousness and your salvation through works that you can’t see what Christ is saying to you?

Obviously, yes.  Thus, Christ cuts through his pride by saying, “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?”   This was not said to hurt, but to heal.  In his wonderfully direct and yet perceptive way, Christ exposes his pride, of which Nicodemus has a great deal. 

Now, let it not be said that Nicodemus was a bad man, he surely was not.  In fact, according to the standards of the day, he was a very good man.  Yet, he badly needed instruction and new birth.  Although he is unaware of it, Nicodemus is having an interview with the Incarnate Truth.  Nicodemus is actually speaking to the Fulfillment of the Law, incarnate in human flesh.

Thus, Jesus has already said to him in John 3:5-6: ”Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”  From his answers so far, Nicodemus has shown that he is a fleshly man.  

Nicodemus’ lesson is far from over.  Christ has already alluded to the waters of baptism as he said, “Except a man be born of water...” and its attendant benefit of re-birth as a new creature in the Spirit.   This, according to Christ, is a necessity.  He then makes Nicodemus’ spiritual poverty abundantly clear when he said, “We speak what we know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”

It is clear that, up to this point, Nicodemus has been totally unable to hear the words of Christ, for all the reasons listed above.  Now maybe he can hear what Christ tells him, as Jesus tells several spiritual truths.  First, that no one has ascended to heaven but He that came from heaven, namely, Jesus.  Secondly, from Numbers 21: 8-9, that as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness, as God told him to do, the plague was lifted for those who looked up.  They were healed as they had the faith to look up and live.  Even so, Christ says, He must be lifted up from the earth, so "that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”  Once again, it is certain that Nicodemus didn’t realize it at the time, but later on, after the Resurrection, he probably did realize what Christ was talking about.  In the words of John 12:32: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”

Nicodemus had a great lesson that day.  It may have been the seed that led to his eventual salvation in Christ.  I certainly pray so.

Let’s bring this back to us.  Are we willing to hear the word of Christ in our spiritual ears?  That is, are we willing to let Christ “peel away” our layers of separation from Him?  Are we willing to hear that hurtful, yet healing Word that causes us to cling to Christ?  While all of us experienced new birth in Holy Baptism, are we still pursuing our spiritual progress, being willing to experience new and real levels of spiritual rebirth?  In short, do we really believe that “ye must be born again?”

Let this Trinity Sunday be a day of newness to you.  Let is be the occasion where you allow the Holy Spirit to truly speak to your spirit and move you, bit by bit, into ever greener and more refreshing pastures.  Let the fullness of the Holy Trinity fill you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and let them make their abode with you this day.  As you yield yourself to the Trinity, allow yourself to be bathed in that perfect love, that perfect rest and that perfect knowledge that God has prepared for you.  When you do that, you can say with satisfaction, “Today, I was born again.”

John 3:3  3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.