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Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Greatest Gift...

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
18th Sunday after Trinity 2013
September 29, 2010

Jer 32:15         “For thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Houses and fields and                             vineyards shall be possessed again in this land.”

Our O.T. Lesson ends with a very promising note, as the Lord speaks through the Prophet Jeremiah. He tells him that there will be a repossession of the land that is now threatened to go into the hands of the Babylonians, perhaps forever. It is all the more amazing for that, since in the previous verses, we heard of all the misfortunes that are about to befall the city of Jerusalem and her king. We are told that the city is to be taken by the Chaldeans (Babylonians} under Nebuchadnezzar. We are told also that Zedekiah also would not escape his hand, but would meet him personally. One could safely assume this meeting would not be very pleasant.

We know from our history, and from the 52nd chapter of Jeremiah, that all these things came to pass. Zedekiah did rebel against the Babylonians, which meant he stopped paying tribute and tried to regain his independence.  Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem for a little over two years, at which point the whole city was starving.  At this point Zedekiah and his chief men of war escaped the city through a break in the wall and tried to make a run for it.  Of course, they were pursued and captured, then sent to Nebuchadnezzar at Riblah for judgment. As you might guess, it was harsh.  First, Zedekiah’s sons were executed in front of him, and then he himself had his eyes put out. Next, he was put in chains and carried off to prison in Babylon, which we know was not a model of hygiene or cleanliness, even for captive kings.  Soon after this, Nebuchadnezzar would have his chief captain, Nebuzaradan, return to Jerusalem to sack the Temple, then to burn it and most of Jerusalem. In short, Jerusalem was pillaged and trashed.

How then, does this reading end on a positive note? How could anything positive come out of all this? What a question, indeed.

It comes towards the end of the reading for today.  The Lord tells Jeremiah that his uncle will come visit him, and will ask him to buy a field that he has a right to redeem, if he wants it. This word of the Lord comes to pass as his uncle does indeed come and the deal is done.

How curious this is, seemingly, under the current state of circumstances!  Here we have Jeremiah on one hand prophesying about the end of Jerusalem, and on the other, seeking to buy land in a country that may be longer theirs.  What could be the meaning of this?

Our clue comes in the last verse of the reading, where the Lord says, For thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Houses and fields and vineyards shall be possessed again in this land. “The Lord promises something very special here. For further information on what the Lord may be giving, let us refer to our Epistle for today. In it, we read of the great cosmic battle between the Archangel Michael, and Satan.  Evidently, Satan had seduced a large number of angels to join him in his quest for power, for he led a revolt in Heaven against God, as sought to become the “most high.” This battle is referenced in the books of Daniel and Isaiah.  Daniel speaks of Satan’s thirst to be like God, and Isaiah tells us of his (Satan’s) fall from Heaven. Both are powerful accounts, helping us to understand how and why evil is so prevalent in this world our reading from Revelations tells us:  “Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them.”
“Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! For the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.” [1]

How could these two pieces of scripture have any connection?  Jeremiah tells us that the land will be re-possessed by the children of Israel.  He shows his faith in this by redeeming the land he has a right to buy, even though it may no longer be considered Judah, but Babylonian.  Revelations tells us that there was a war in heaven, and Michael and his angels defeated the evil host.

The connection is this: in both cases, there is a restoration, or a redemption, or, if you will, a cancelling out of evil and its power.  Although in Jeremiah, the Chaldeans are about to take Jerusalem, she will be restored.  In Revelations, although there was a war in Heaven, and although evil was cast down to earth, it will not be forever.  Jeremiah is told to buy land, because someday, all will be restored.  St. John in Revelations tells us the devil is vanquished, although his defeat is not complete yet.  Yet, it is done, as referenced here: ” And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.” [2]
Thus, the stage is set for something that God does very well: restoration. In the case of Jeremiah, God is intending to restore the Kingdom of Judah, although not immediately. In fact, it will be 70 years before the exiles will return to their historic homelands. They will return, however.  Note here an amazing similarity to the first such exile that the Jews suffered, because they failed to follow God’s plan. What was the first exile?  It occurred in the book of Deuteronomy, when the Lord commanded the people to take possession of the good land before them.  Instead of obeying Him, the people, with the exception of Joshua, Caleb, and a few others, shrank back. 
They did not have the faith to possess what God had given them. As a result, God caused them to wander in Sinai and the surrounding areas for 40 years or until mortality consumed that faithless generation.

The Babylonian Captivity worked in the same manner, except that God increased the time away from Judea.  Instead of 40 years, this time it was 70 years. Evidently, God wanted that entire generation of idolaters, and then some, dead. He did not want them to pollute the restoration of Judah, when it happened.

The point for us today is that God does indeed restore and repair. He takes us in our brokenness, when we repent, and heals us.  He restores us to our former position of favor in His eyes. All of this, of course, occurs because we have grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

This may be the greatest gift of all.  All of us have had or will have an opportunity to forgive someone for something they have done to us.  Normally, it is important to note that we are instructed to forgive a sin against us when the offending party repents. Then, we fall into that category of “70 times 7” that Our Lord spoke about.  Recall that the original question asked of Christ by his disciples was, “How many times do I forgive my brother, if he repents after sinning against me? Seven times?”    Christ’s amazing answer was “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.” In other words, if there is repentance, we are to forgive an innumerable number of times, like our Father in Heaven does.

Yes, but how about those times where no repentance is evident? Do we forgive then?  This is much more challenging….Unfortunately, even though we may not like the answer, it too is “yes.”  There are at least two reasons for this.
First, we are told to do this in the Lord’s Prayer.  It says, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”   Our own forgiveness is conditional on our forgiving others.

This is tough, but necessary.  It is necessary for our own positive spiritual condition.  If we forgive, as painful as it may be, we will become spiritually whole, rather than harboring hatred, or bitterness or negativity. As some of you know, we recently suffered the loss of our household weapons, including some very old and valued pieces by a person to whom we gave a place to stay for a while. He repaid us by theft.  Personally, I have struggled with this, but, through the grace of God, have forgiven him. The hurt of loss is still there, however.  That can only be made better by restoration, which will not happen in this case….

Yet, this highlights in stark relief the difference between God and Man.  Man may forgive, but he rarely forgets. Man may forgive, but the relationship is rarely the same, especially for adults.  Yet, with God, because of the precious blood of Christ, we are forgiven and restored.  God even said to us, “And their sins will I remember no more….”  How amazing is this!

Yet, beloved, this is our God…He forgives, and He restores us to place of favor with Him, although we certainly do not deserve it. Our good deeds, especially when weighed with our sinfulness, will never be enough for our justification.  Thus, away with works righteousness and self-righteousness! They cannot attain forgiveness or salvation for us.

But, there is a way, which we all know….It is the way of peace and joy and quiet; even though it was acquired with the opposite of all of those things…it was acquired through battle, through pain and suffering on a large wooden Cross some two millennia ago.  Because of that, we have forgiveness and restoration. Because of that, we have a special relationship to Almighty God… Because of that we are indeed most blessed.

Glory be to God!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

[1] Rev. 12:12
[2] Rev. 12:10

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Covenant and Grace

Covenant and Grace

15th Sunday after Trinity 2013
September 8, 2013
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 today’s lesson, 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,  intermarry, 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 eventually 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 and fully 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.”