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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Grace and peace from God

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
Sunday Next before Advent, 2015

Philippians 1:1   Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:  Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

In this statement, St. Paul bids peace and grace to the congregation at Philippi, both in his own name and that of his traveling companion, Timotheus.  This is, of course, the same Timothy to whom Paul would write two epistles, called “the Pastorals”, which are still used in diaconal exams to this day. Later in history, this same Timothy would become the first bishop of Crete and would help spread the Gospel for years after Paul’s martyrdom in Rome.

Of interest also is mention of two of the Church’s historic orders, as St. Paul mentions the bishops and deacons in the church at Philippi. This is interesting, and instructive as well, for it shows clearly that these orders existed in the earliest days of the Church.

Why is the office of the priesthood, not mentioned?  Simply because that at that time it did not exist. The priesthood did not exist until later, when the Church had grown so much that bishops simply could not handle the ministry work load.  At the same time, it was not thought prudent to consecrate many more bishops just to baptize, celebrate the Eucharist, and to perform other duties considered beyond the diaconate, but not necessarily rising to the level of bishop. The office of priest was to do this work of the Church. Thus, the office was created.

The reason we mention this is twofold. First, we want to reinforce the validity of clerical orders in the Church, and by so doing, show that we orthodox Christians seek to preserve the Church according to its earliest model.

Secondly, we want to emphasize the orderly nature of God.  As most of us have heard many times, we worship a God of order.  He is not a God of confusion or chaos.  He is never hurried, hasty, or uncertain.  He simply IS.  God, in His complete serenity, sees eternity at a glance. Better said, He IS eternity.
From the burning bush, Moses heard (Exodus 3:14): " And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.

With that thought in mind, let us briefly consider the perfect plan God prepared for the salvation of mankind. In our epistle selection, God speaks through the suffering prophet, Jeremiah. We hear a statement very fitting for this Sunday Next before Advent: (Jeremiah 23:5-6): “Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth.  6 In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS” 

In other words, God the Father didn’t suddenly decide one day that Jesus Christ should leave His glory, take the form of a man, and come save mankind from his sins.  Rev. 13:8 speaks of the “…lamb slain from the foundation of the world." In other words, the advent of Christ was conceived from the beginning of the world.  Seeing eternity in one view, God knows all things, sees all things, and in a strange and mysterious way, directs all things.

In our limited reality, we are experiencing the Sunday Next before Advent.  In the church year, we re-live the spectacle of salvation from its prophetic beginning to its dramatic conclusion on Easter morning.  Consider these words from Jeremiah 23:7-8: “Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that they shall no more say, The LORD liveth, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; 8 But, The LORD liveth, which brought up and which led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries whither I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land.”

At first glance, these words may hold little significance for us.  A closer examination shows they have monumental significance. The first part of the statement says that the people, both the Jews and the redeemed in Christ, will not just say that their God lives who brought them out of Egypt. In other words, God is not just the Lord of the Old Testament - the witness of the deliverance from Egypt.  In the more perfect revelation of God received by the people, they will now affirm that their God will restore them to their own land, from which He had driven them because of their sin. 

While the deliverance from our original state of bondage was wonderful, symbolized by the Jew’s deliverance from Egypt, their salvation was not complete. Later in the Bible, we see the complete fall into sin by both Israel and Judah. The Law was not enough, nor was the witness of all the prophets who were sent to warn them from their sin. Something else was needed. 
This complete salvation is symbolized by the people’s worship of God as He restores them to their original land.  This “land” is, of course, more than the restoration of the Jews to Palestine. It is our eternal home with God.  It is that perfect country which we seek, brought about by the Gospel message of the New Testament.  Thus, while the first statement glorifies God in the Old Testament’s witness of deliverance from bondage, the second statement glorifies Him in the New Testament’s witness of restoration and homecoming.

How will this restoration and homecoming be accomplished?  In God’s perfect Mind, it has already been accomplished through the King about whom Jeremiah prophesied. This Messiah will deliver Israel from her sins and lead her to righteousness.  We Gentiles, who have been “graffed into” the Tree of Life, are included in the family of God by Jesus Christ. [i]

This is what we are preparing for this Advent Season.  Not for the family gatherings, the presents, and the decorations of the Christmas Season.  All of these things occur because we are celebrating the fulfillment of prophecy. It is a prophecy that came true in the Person of Jesus Christ and one that can come true in our hearts today, as we prepare for the Advent season.

Thus, grasp this Advent Season with all of your spiritual strength and hold it close to you.  Take from it all of the meaningful inklings of the coming Christmas Season. Discard from it all distracting and ultimately meaningless celebrations that do not honor Christ.

Let this Advent be a time of preparation and anticipation for the fulfilling of Jeremiah’s prophecy.  

Jeremiah 23:6 “In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.”

[i] Rom. 11:17