Saturday, January 10, 2009

First Sunday after the Epiphany

Making customized use of the same material, this Sunday my sermon will be somewhat of a farewell to St. Andrew's (though probably not a final farewell, since my move should be about a month from now), and also a sermon that speaks to the immediate need of a church that has lost its building and must relocate, beginning a new chapter rather than closing the book. Therefore, for readers of The Continuum, I am offering this re-run.

Romans 12:1-5
Luke 2: 41-52

What brings all of these scriptures together for this day is the collect, asking for perception and knowledge of God’s will, and for the grace and power to be faithful to it. The collect reminds me very much of what St. Paul said was his prayer for the Church of the Colossian Christians:

“For this cause also, since the day we heard of it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that ye might walk worthy of the Lord, unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might according to His glorious power...” (Col. 1: 9-11)

The passages we have heard this day all speak of the mystical charism, the gift, of wisdom by which we know the will of God, and of the grace God gives us to carry it out. The wisdom that we receive is, in a very mysterious way, coming to us from the Person of Christ our Lord, mediated to us by the Holy Ghost. It is the wisdom that the world does not know, for it does not know God. By this wisdom we know God, and we know His will for us.

Now, that sounds pretty heady and possibly not even very sober. Yet it is very practical.

Before talking about the practical side however, let us look very seriously at what we see in the twelve-year old Jesus, as Luke tells the story. To begin with, He knew Who He was, and He knew the Father. For some reason contemporary commentators have imagined, since some time about the middle of the 20th Century, that Jesus suddenly became aware of His identity when He was baptized, and the heavens opened, the Spirit came upon Him, and the Father spoke. How they come up with this I cannot understand, for the manifestation of each Person of the Trinity was a revelation given to John the Baptist, and to all who stood by at the banks of the Jordan. But, nothing new was revealed that day to Jesus.

No indeed, for here we see Him quite aware of Who He is at the tender age of twelve. His wisdom is greater than that of all of the Doctors of the Law, and all they can do is marvel at Him. I have heard preachers get this all wrong too, and think that He was getting ahead of Himself, and needed to be “put in His place” by Mary and Joseph. Again, not so. This is a revelation given to us in scripture of the simple fact that this human child, this boy, was at the same time God, One with the Father. He had taken human nature, alien as every created nature is to His Divine Uncreated Person, so that He could become Man, while yet, as St Athanasius tells us, filling the heavens as the Eternal Son of the Father. He did not “empty Himself” of Divine Nature, as some bad theologians have twisted the marvelous Christological passage from Philippians chapter two to mean, but rather, as it says in Psalm 113:5:

“Who is like unto the LORD our God, that hath His dwelling so high, and yet humbleth Himself to behold the things that are in heaven and earth!”

Yes, He would go back to Nazareth and be obedient to Mary and to Joseph, for He came in the form of a servant, and was obedient, obedient even to the death of the cross. He came in humility, laying aside His glory. The self-emptying spoken of by St. Paul meant just this very thing, that while always equal to the Father, He humbled Himself and did the Father’s will.

To do the Father’s will required knowledge of that will, and it required wisdom that cannot come from human origin, especially not from fallen and sinful men. The phrase “about My Father’s business” is also translated “in My Father’s house.” In other words, “why were you looking anywhere but here? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?” Both being in the temple, and then going back with them to be obedient, were all part of His journey to the cross, as He came to do the Father’s will, not His own.

I want to be very careful at this point not to fall into Palagian heresy, and teach as many moderns do, that Jesus is our example, and that if He could do it so can we; the old “pull yourself up by your bootstrap.” This is not the message. No we cannot do it, we cannot pull ourselves up by our bootstrap, and we cannot even follow His example. If we could, we would not be miserable offenders as the Prayer Book has us confess, and that the Bible certifies us indeed to be. Our first father sinned, and we are born with all three strikes already called. True religion does not teach that life is a test. It teaches that life is a shipwreck. We need a Saviour, and no one less than God will do, while also our Saviour must be a Man like us to pull us out of the curse of sin and death. No. That Jesus did it perfectly does not mean that we can do the same. It means, in fact, that we cannot. For though fully Man from the nature of His Virgin Mother, He never ceased to be God, eternally begotten of the Father. This is the Gospel: That God himself came to save us.

So then, am I saying to give up and live in sin? Admit defeat and then “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die?” As St. Paul answered this question, God forbid. Well, here is the punch line to all that I just said, and it was written by St. Athanasius: “God became man that man might become Divine.” In case that sounds scarey, St Peter said the same in his Second Epistle, by God’s promises “...that ye might be partakers of the Divine Nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust (II Pet. 1: 4).” The doctrine of Deification, which is the Catholic doctrine common to the Church Universal, is not that people can be gods in a any literal sense; but, rather, that because God has become human, He gives grace for us to be adopted as children of God. The destiny of those who know God is to be transformed, and to be glorified, to be given true life and immortality. As C. S. Lewis put it, to be changed into a creature so glorious, that if you were to behold such a one now, you would be tempted to fall down and worship.

But, all of this is grace, that is, a gift. It is given because we are in Christ, and He is the True Son of the Father. “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is (I John 3: 2).” Because He has come into the world, and taken our nature, and taken our death which He did not deserve, and has passed through death into life, we can live. And the life we are given is not of this world, but is the life of Christ Who is One with the Father and the Holy Ghost. This is the change we are given, and our partaking of the Divine Nature.

Now are we the sons of God. So then, how shall we live? We have not the power to live like sons of God within ourselves, or by our own effort. What we have is the Holy Ghost Who is given to us, Who abides in us. Now, what is the practical side which I have promised to speak about? Indeed, I seem to have gotten as far away from practicality as possible- or have I? Is it not practical to learn to depend upon God, upon His Spirit Who abides with us? How? By what steps?

By the steps given to us in the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans just as we have heard it this day. In light of God’s mercies, we must know that we no longer belong to ourselves, but to the One Who paid for us by His very life-blood, the pouring out of His soul upon the cross of death. In light of that unspeakable mercy, we give ourselves as living sacrifices to God. No, we will not be perfect. Anyone who has had a heady conversion experience, no matter how mystical and indeed real, soon learns that he is still a sinner. No, we cannot be perfect, but we can humble ourselves and practice obedience. That is what a living sacrifice does: He carries his own cross daily and follows the Son of Man. Jesus did not carry the cross only on that one Friday, but every day; for He lived always to do the will of the Father Who sent Him. Unlike Him, we will not be perfect, we will not be a sinless sacrifice. All we can do is practice obedience, however imperfectly we practice it. But, the sins of a living sacrifice are those which he discovers within himself; that is, they are not done willfully and deliberately. If we choose to do wrong, we are not living sacrifices- something to consider before saying “amen” to the Eucharistic prayer in which “we offer our selves, our souls and bodies...”

This offering of ourselves to God is our “reasonable service.” In the original Greek it is our logika latre’ia (λογικv λατρεία). Literally, our “logical liturgy.” That is, a liturgy, a service, and one that is logical, reasonable, quite in keeping with wisdom. The Liturgy we offer to God this day must be in the proper sense a very real collect of our lives; for the whole life of each one of us should be itself a liturgy, with every part having its place as an offering of worship to God. Is all that we do done to the glory of God? In the last chapter of Zechariah, we see that even the washing bowls will be inscribed with the words “Holiness unto the LORD.”

Lastly, this means that our minds must be renewed, so that we are not conformed to this world. “He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not.” Remember this definition of how the expression “the world” is often used in the New Testament. It does not know Christ, and so to it we must not conform. Christians are supposed to be non-conformists. The renewing of our minds transforms us so that we are able to do His will. This is practical. If we are too lazy to employ our minds, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the scriptures in light of the teaching of the Church, we will not be thinking of doing God’s will.

And, I would suggest that God’s will, for most of us, is not a mystery veiled in thick darkness. Rather, faced with the realities of life, if we are thinking about what it means to live a life that is offered to God, and are thus renewing our minds by His word, the way to do His will should be clear to us. Sometimes it will require effort to recognize that each moment of life has its own calling and purpose; other times a path opens before us that we must choose, not because it is easy, or because it is a way to find what we imagine to be happiness. No. It will be because it is the way that we know, in light of our Christian minds and our consciences, to be the way that is right.

It is not for us to choose the times in which we live, but, as Gandalf said to Frodo: “All we can do is decide what to do with the time that is given to us.” It may be quite hard for us to see the time and place in which we find ourselves as the place of God’s call upon us; and yet, often it is that when life is most ordinary and even mundane, we are faced with those choices, opportunities and even inconveniences that are, in fact, the time and place to know and do the will of the Father.

What we can do is possible not because of our cleverness in knowing His will, but because we are in Christ, and given His wisdom: The same wisdom of the twelve-year old Boy Who knew Who He was, where He belonged, and what was the will of His Father.

Now unto God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost be ascribed, as is most justly due, all might, majesty, dominion, power and glory, now and forever. Amen.


Anonymous said...

Dearest Fr. Hart,

I know not every sermon requires a comment -- they speak for themselves quite plainly, but I am simply astounded how succinct and effective these sermons are.

Years ago I worked for a "Christian" book store, and recall looking through published pre-fabricated sermons for pastors who can't get off their lazy arses (sorry, sounds harsh, but so true), and remember just cringing at each sermonette. Books not fit for burning.

Conversely, I'm sorry to say your sermons would never be fit for popular publication -- but they will certainly endure amid people who are hungry to hear the Word of God in this desert. They simply confirm the great Anglican preaching tradition because of our patrimony's high view of God's Holy Word.

Again, Father, thank you!

St. Worm

Anonymous said...

St. Worm: I share your appreciation of Fr Hart's splendid homilies. (For me the terms sermon and homily are interchangeable.) But, even if they will not compete with the kind of junk you allude to, they are worthy of publication. Think of the sermons of Helmut Thielicke, Karl Barth, T.F.Torrance, or the less known Howard Hageman.

There is a special place in hell for those who plagiarize sermons, or who who used "canned" sermons--the internet, I hear, is full of this kind rubbish. But a large part of my homiletical training was reading and critiquing
published sermons.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Wells,

Yes, my comment was a bit tongue-in-cheek, as what's "fit" for popular consumption is usually determined by that fashionable witchcraft called church-growth "principles". It is true, however, that Fr. Hart's material is exceedingly fit for publication -- may not sell like "40 Days of Purpose" or "Purpose Driven Life" or some such muck, but I'd pay good money for such an anthology.

My own dear Father Brookshire's homilies are extremely print-worthy (and he freely quotes the likes of Thielicke! among many of the eminent Christian saints and doctors of whom this world is unworthy) -- but he just can't compete with our ADD/ADHD culture's penchant for polish, bright colors, and no edges.

I agree with you about the plagiarizing. What *do* they teach in homiletics nowadays?

Just a side note: I've had it up to here with the 30/40-something "hip" pastor preaching style you see nauseatingly reproduced in the "Calvary Chapel" mega-church auditoriums. No matter the tradition (Pentecostal, Reformed, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Catholic), you'll find such a style overriding any real preaching skill. You feel like you just sat through a self-help seminar instead of hearing something prophetic.

My dear wife, who is a Jewess recently converted to the faith (scheduled to be admitted to the sacrament of holy baptism this Easter), simply responded with an "Are you kidding me?" after listening for the first time to one of these mega-church sermons. Here is a woman who knew relatively little of church life until these past 3 years, that could spot phony/shallow preaching from a mile away. That spoke volumes to me. "From the mouth of babes." :)

In Pax Christi,
St. Worm

poetreader said...

O'm in almost total agreement with everything above, but would like to supplement it with an oibservation.

Sometimes one finds that someone has said just what one wants to vonvey, openly better than one would have. Perhaps in some of those situations real preaching might involve using such a previously written, or "canned" sermon, properly attributed, of course. Plagiarism is plagiarism only when another's work is passed off as one's own.

Then there is the special case of those (principally lay readers) who are not entitled actually to preach, but are allowed to transmit prevously approved preaching. I have a special interest in this as I've been preparing homilies for this kind of use.

Aside from these little points, everything said above is right and valuable.


Anonymous said...

Br. Ed,

Indeed, I agree it's perfectly acceptable to preach a previously written sermon, whether your own or another's, so long as it is understood by all this is the case.

I was more pointing out how it's usually the lazy approach to what is supposed to be a pastoral AND prophetic enterprise. Truth and grace need to flow from the mountain top of the pulpit -- and oftentimes the pulpit is just a platform for personality cults and accolades. People will FLOCK to any man whose message is either essentially Pelagian or Antinomian, so long as it's entertaining and warming. Or, even if the theology is thoroughly orthodox on paper, it's drowned out by the inane pop-cultural trappings and ambience.

St. Worm

poetreader said...

Just what I thought you would say. I just felt it needed to be said aloud.