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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Rags and Riches

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
Twenty First Sunday after Trinity
October 20, 2013

 “Rags and Riches”

Isaiah 64:6   But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”


John 4:50  Jesus saith unto him, Go thy way; thy son liveth. And the man believed the word that Jesus had spoken unto him, and he went his way.”

These verses come from our O.T. Lesson and the Gospel selection for the Twenty-First Sunday after Trinity, which we just heard.  How could there be any connection between the two? Surely, there is not, because at first glance they seem diametrically opposed. 
After all, one is fairly negative statement from Isaiah, the other is an extremely positive, even miraculous statement from Our Lord.

Actually, these two verses encapsulate the entire Christian experience.  Once again, how can a prophecy from an early O.T. prophet and a miracle of Our Lord have any relationship? What a question…the large answer is that both Scriptures actually “bookend” the Christian good news of our journey from desolation to acceptance by God.

Let’s begin to examine this by looking at the passage from Isaiah first.
The prophet begins with almost a note of frustration, that the peoples of the earth would see the majesty of God.  He asks that God would comedown and literally melt the mountains, so that all men would tremble at the presence of God.  As we will learn later in the reading, it is clear that we are not worthy of God’s regard.

Vs. 4 tells us “For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him.”  Does this verse sound familiar?  It should, because St. Paul quotes it almost verbatim in 1 Cor. 2:9, when he says, “But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” What is so wonderful about this is the wonderful foundation that Isaiah provided for the New Testament Church. If there was ever any doubt that then\ O.T. and N.T. are one seamless cloth, like the cloak of Christ, let it be dispelled.  Those who ignore the O.T. do so to their own spiritual peril.

Isaiah then mentions our true nature and the basic unredeemed nature of mankind when he says, (Isaiah 64:6)   But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” He continues with the statement that all have turned away and have forsaken God and his ways. He mentions that God has “consumed” them because of their iniquities. He then uses a beautiful analogy that God is the potter and we the clay. This is a concept that has come down to us through the centuries because of Isaiah.  He ends with a plea that God, although He is “wroth” with His People, would restrain his righteous anger.  Isaiah cites as evidence of God's displeasure that the beautiful cities are destroyed and that the fabulous Temple is destroyed.

If one looks at Biblical history, one can see these things clearly told in 2 Kings Ch. 18.  The writer of that book tells how the King of Assyria besieged and took the Northern Kingdom, including Samaria, and that Hezekiah stripped the gold and silver from Solomon’s Temple to pay tribute to him. In short, all of the prophecy of Isaiah comes to pass.

This reading from Isaiah couldn’t be more negative.  Man is impugned, his creations are being destroyed by other fallen men, and God has turned away His face.  What could be worse?

Fortunately, it gets a lot better for mankind or, more accurately said, for the household of faith.  Luckily for us, most of Isaiah’s earlier prophecy dealt with the coming of the Messiah. Isaiah’s prediction of the Virgin Birth and the coming lordship of Christ shine brightly in a book wherein lies much darkness, due to the sinful nature of man.  For example, in Ch. 59, we read this: “(Isaiah 59:15)”Yea, truth faileth; and he that departeth from evil maketh himself a prey: and the LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no judgment.” He speaks of the corruption of his age.  Yet, in the very same chapter, Isaiah tells us that the Lord will put on righteousness as a breastplate and a helmet of salvation on his head.  This is the same language St. Paul will use much, much, later in his Epistle to the Ephesians. Isaiah becomes much more positive as he reiterates the coming of the Messiah in Isaiah 59:20:”And the Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, saith the LORD.”

Shifting to our Gospel for the day taken from St. John IV, we see the fruits of righteousness, as modeled by Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  He, who came exactly as foretold by his faithful servant Isaiah, has brought something mankind could never have: new and unending life. In this case, Jesus heals a nobleman’s son with a word of healing from afar. He tells the nobleman to go his way, for his son lives. Note, first, that even our Lord expresses a  bit of the same obtuseness in man noted in Isaiah as He tells us: ( John 4:48) “Then said Jesus unto him, Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.”
Nevertheless, as the nobleman persists, Christ completes the miracle with a word.  Note, however, that the nobleman “believed the word that Jesus had spoken to him” and goes his way.  Nearing his home, his servants run to tell him that the boy is alive and well.  This, in turn, causes the man and his household to embrace the Way.

St. John notes that this is the second miracle that Christ performed as he began His ministry, the first being the changing of water into fine wine at the marriage at Cana.

Earlier, we said that these two readings “bookend” the Christian experience.  That is, they chronicle our progression from death unto life in Christ.  And so it is, as we move from the somber history and prophecy of Isaiah to the glorious fulfillment of that prophecy in John (and the other Gospels.) Isaiah couldn’t be more bleak at times, contrasted with the new life revealed in the Gospel of John.  We see man’s progression from complete corruption, death, and destruction in Isaiah, to an era where new life is granted with a word. This is marvelous and glorious.

Yet, this new life did not come without a price.  As the Gospels tell us, the Jews would continue in their hard-heartedness.  Just as they rejected the teachings and warnings of the prophets, so will they do to the Last Prophet, Priest, and King, Jesus Christ. They will reject him to the very end, until He expired on a criminal’s cross in a garbage dump outside Jerusalem.   Here, like in Isaiah, is where God’s Glory shines all the more brightly, despite man’s attempts to quell it.  As in Isaiah, the good outshines the bad, as Christ seals our redemption and our salvation with His own blood. Despite man’s best attempts to thwart Jesus, He triumphs, and He triumphs gloriously.

As we enter the last weeks of Trinity season into the somber, yet glorious season of Advent, it is good for all of us, with uplifted faces and grateful spirits, to meditate on this mighty progression from death unto life. Recall that our natural state is like that portrayed in Isaiah.  Yet, thanks be to God, our intended state is that of the nobleman’s son, who was given new life through Christ.  It is into this state that we have come, thanks to our Lord and Savior Jesus and to the ministration of His Holy Church. May we ever give thanks that all of us are part of that body, now and forever.
Thanks be to God! AMEN.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Timing and Action

The Rev’d.  Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
October 21st, 2013
“Timing and Action

From the Collect for the 20th Sunday after Trinity:
“O ALMIGHTY and most merciful God, of thy bountiful goodness keep us, we beseech thee, from all things that may hurt us; that we, being ready both in body and
soul, may cheerfully accomplish those things which thou commandest; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Amen.

The comedian Woody Allen once said, “The greatest part of life is just showing up…”
Regardless of what one may think about that particular comedian, that is a very interesting comment.  What he was talking about may boil down to one word: timing.  In others words, being in the right place at the right time.

For example, some of you may be aware that Bill Gates profited greatly from timing, or more properly said, a missed opportunity.  It seems that in the dawning of the personal computer age, back in the late 70’s and early ‘80’s, IBM was seeking a functional and durable operating system for their proposed PC. A man, who name is well almost forgotten, had developed a very good one, in which IBM was interested.  Gates had also developed and/or acquired one, called DOS, or Disk Operating System.   IBM called the first man and left a message with his wife for him to call.  They wanted to collaborate, and perhaps put his system on their new PCs.  For some reason, his wife failed to give him the message, so assuming he was not interested, they turned to Gates. Here was a Harvard drop-out, although brilliant, who actually took his mother with him for his first big demo with the IBM executives. During this demo, the system became unstable and crashed.  Nevertheless, IBM adopted it.
Bill Gates eventually became the richest man in the world, and the other man went into obscurity.  All of this happened because of timing.

No doubt some of this congregation are thinking, “Very interesting, but what does this has to do with us?  What word is the Lord speaking to us today?”  What “golden thread” of truth can be found in the Scripture readings for today?

The propers for the 20th Sunday after Trinity, just like the story about B ill Gates, have to do with one very important aspect of life: timing. Comedians and raconteurs know that the key to telling a joke successfully lies in timing. A great joke without timing usually does not work.  Gates was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time.  He also had the willingness to do what was necessary to achieve success. 

Similarly, we too need to both ready and willing to respond to God when He calls. Our Collect for the day asks that "we, being ready both in body and soul, may cheerfully accomplish those things which thou commandest;” That is, when the call of God comes, we ought to have the willingness and the open-ness to do what God calls us to do.

As usual, this sounds simple, but as with many spiritual things that are enmeshed with this life, can be very difficult to accomplish. Why? Simply because of the many distractions of life, most of us find ourselves in a constant tug-of-war with our calling to be closer with God versus the constant, incessant, voices of the World.  They call us one way, while the Holy Spirit is always calling us to greater fellowship with Him.  Unfortunately, this is an ongoing conversation that never ends while we are on this earth.

How then, are we to heed the voice of God, as opposed to the voices of the World? This is a great question…. One very great clue is given us in today Epistle from Ephesians.
First, Pau deals with timing, telling us to be “redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” That is, we are to use our time wisely while we are here, and to seek to understand what the Will of God is for us.  He tells us not to be filled with the excess pleasures of the flesh (i.e. “drunk with wine”) but to be filled with the Spirit.  Now, here is our clue to replacing the voices of the world with the Voice of the Spirit.  The Apostle tells us to be “speaking to you in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ….”

If we have an interior conversation with God going on all or most of the time, somewhere in the recesses of our consciousness, we are less apt to heed the deceptive, fallen voices of the World.  When we speaking to God in some way, our souls are listening to Him and not to other things.  Once again, simple, yes but not easy…
The point is, get the conversations started…try to be in touch with God constantly, and allow your soul and your being to be filled with light.

This is where “being ready both in body and soul” comes in.  In other words, timing.  It begins with prayer, namely the prayer for faith and for the indwelling of the Holy Ghost.  It is sustained through constant, daily immersion in the Word of God. It continues as the Spirit brings those things we have read back into our consciousness as we move through our day.  It takes a bit of effort on our part, namely the willingness to sit down with the Word for a few minutes each morning and evening, whenever possible.  In my own case, I’ve been working overnights for the past week, and frankly, my prayer life has suffered.   And yes, I do feel the difference when I fall off my prayer cycle.  The sense of completeness is simply not there. 

Also, this priest finds that timing enters in here as well.  Not only the willingness to make time for personal prayer and devotion, as a simple healthy spiritual exercise, but also the discipline to make it happen.  Our Enemy below is only too delighted to see us slip in our prayer habits.  Once away from the habitual practice of personal, organized prayer, one finds that it is just too easy to keep away. Of course, herein lies the danger for our souls.

So, how can we have “perfect timing” with God?  That is, how do we know that we are doing what God wants for us, and that we have the willingness to do it?  Another great question.  Let us look at our Gospel for an answer.

This is a wonderful, yet disturbing parable.  The King (God) throws a wedding party or feast for His Son.  We may safely presume that this is Christ.  He invites his chosen guests, “them that were bidden” (the Jews), to the wedding.  Recall that the call of God came first to the Jews through Christ, who was sent to the “lost sheep of Israel.”  They, however, spurned the King’s offer, just as the Jews did to Christ.  The King is angry and turns from His chosen guests to the world at large. He tells his servants to go out into the highways and bid whom they find to the feast, the marriage supper. The servants do so, finding both “bad and good”, and the wedding is furnished.  As an aside, remember O Christian, if thou art tempted to vault thyself against the unfaithfulness of the Jews, remember that it was for your salvation.  As St. Paul tells us in Romans, their stumbling was for our exaltation.  We gentiles are those brought in from the highways and byways, which is not the most flattering thought.

Continuing with the parable, the King comes in to survey His feast. He sees a man who has not on a wedding garment, which was customary in those days.  He says, “Friend, how did you come in wihout a wedding garment?”  A simple question, indeed.  The man is “speechless.”  The King commands him bound and cast out in “outer darkness.”

Now, at first glance, this seems heartless, especially when one considers that these people were compelled to come in from the highways and byways.  They were thrust into the wedding, so to speak.  How then, the King’s anger?

Simply this.  In those days, one was required to have a wedding garment, indeed.  Not having one just wasn’t done…What is not told us, however  is that the host provided the wedding garment to his guests,  Oftentimes, these garment were pre-delivered to the guest’s houses.  In this case, the King must have had them at the door for his impromptu guests.  Yet, here is a man without one, and the King is understandably perturbed.  Either this man came in by another door, or he refused to wear what was offered him, or somehow did not enter the wedding properly.  Something is amiss. He does not have on his wedding garment.

Let us draw the analogy to a close. Obviously; the wedding is a betrothal of Creation to her Creator and Husband, Jesus Christ.  Using the reference from Revelations, the whole earth, “the New Jerusalem” someday will be presented to Christ as a spotless bride. Meanwhile, the King has provided a way for mankind to take part in this banquet, by means of a wedding garment.
Those who wear it are invited to the eternal banquet.  Those who don’t wear the garment are excluded from the feast.  The point is that the guest does the choosing.  He or she can wear the wedding garment and be accepted, or can reject it, thus forfeiting fellowship with the King and His party.  What could be simpler?

Thus, when we have on Christ, our timing is always perfect.  If we are wearing Christ every day, we are able to walk right into the wedding feast, or if you will, into the presence of God our King.  In the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews, we may “boldness” to come into the presence of God through Christ.  This is marvelous and truly awesome.

What we should pray for is the willingness, daily, to wear Christ. While we are wearing Christ, we should be speaking to Him and letting Him speak to us constantly. This comes as we pray to be ready to cheerfully accomplish those things that God commands us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.   May it always be so.  AMEN.