Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas

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Friday, December 22, 2017

Fourth Sunday in Advent



Isaiah 40:1-11 * Psalm 80 * Phil. 4:4-7 * John 1:19-28 

Again we see that mysterious image of John the Baptist, the burning and shining light who bore witness by his life and death to Jesus Christ. “He must increase, and I must decrease,” said this prophet, this man whose unique vocation was that he bridged the Old Testament and the New. Two weeks ago we saw that all of the scriptures bore witness to Jesus Christ; and now, this last prophet of the Old Covenant bears direct witness to Christ, baptizing Him, and seeing the Spirit of God come upon Him as a dove out of Heaven. This last prophet of the Old Covenant is the first prophet of the New Covenant. The Lord said through the prophet Isaiah, “Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert (Isa. 43: 19).” God called this prophet, this unique prophet, to show that the new thing, the New Covenant spoken of by Jeremiah the prophet (Jer. 31:31f) was upon them. John’s father was a priest under the Law of Moses, a descendent of Aaron. Therefore, John was also, by that Law, a priest. Yet, John the son of Zechariah, went into the desert to be the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord.”


Advent is about the last things, and especially meant to remind us that Christ will come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead, to make the heavens and the earth new, and to rule forever on His throne, surrounded by saints whom He has redeemed from sin and death to rule forever with Him. But, as we have seen, instead of having us read the many passages of scripture that deal very directly with eschatology- the study of the end- the Gospel readings appointed by the Church give us a glimpse of Christ’s second coming by reminding us of events that happened when He came at first. The first week we saw that His kingdom brings judgment on the very House of God in the midst of the holy city, and cleanses it by driving out those who defiled it by their practice of unrepented sin. The picture ought to inspire the healthy fear of God, and to make us repentant and resolute to live in such a way that we will be among those who remain in His house forever, instead of being driven out into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.


And now, thanks to the wisdom of the Church, we are reminded of the Baptist who prepared the way of the Lord by preaching repentance and cleansing. John the Baptist bridged the Testaments and prepared the way for Christ by offering hope, by giving sinful people a chance to start over again. The sinners who came to him were given a new beginning, hope and cleansing- themselves cleansed rather than tossed out as the Lord tossed out the money changers when it was the temple that was cleansed of evil presences and practices. In other words, the vocation of John the Baptist was to prepare people to see Jesus as the Messiah, and the preparation was repentance, the only way to be prepared to meet the Lord. The Advent message of repentance is necessary. Modern popular religion tells everyone that they need not repent of their sins, but rather that everyone is accepted with all of their ungodly baggage. The truth is, some churches are simply helping people go into the outer darkness. After all, St. Paul warned of people he called Satan’s ministers (II Cor. 11:13-15). The real ministry of the Church is the most important and serious thing in the world. Here we deal with things more important than mere life and death. We speak and administer the word and sacraments that have to do with the eternal kingdom to come. We give out both a warning and hope: "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."

Now, about the comings of Jesus Christ, and the life of this mysterious John the Baptist, we should dig a little deeper. The word “Christ” is from the Greek for the Hebrew word Meshiach, or as we pronounce it in English, Messiah. We have come to call the Lord by two names more than all others, Jesus and Christ. The one means Salvation- Y’shua. The other means “the anointed” – Meshiach. The implication is the Old Testament expression, “the Lord’s Anointed.” This comes with two pictures, as the word "messiah" is sprinkled generously throughout the pages of the Old Testament (generally translated "anointed"). The word speaks of priests and kings, and the anointing comes by the hand of a prophet.

The first men to be called meshiach were the brother of Moses, Aaron the High Priest, and his sons the priests. The King James Bible uses the phrase “the priest that is anointed.” The original Hebrew is h’ kohan h’ meshiach- “the priest the messiah.” The second class of men to be called messiah (meshiach) are the kings. David would not stretch forth his hand against Saul, because he was “the Lord’s anointed.” That is, the Lord’s messiah. Every priest was a messiah, and every king was a messiah. And, yet, the scriptures clearly speak of the one Man who would be both priest and king, and who would be the only hope of the whole world, being the one Jews call H’ MeshiachThe Messiah. So, first Messiah is the priest, and then after that He is the King.

His two comings are foreshadowed in these pictures. First he came as priest. The Epistle to the Hebrews is the most explicit New Testament book that tells of Christ’s priestly ministry when he came the first time, and does so in light of the hope of those who look for His second appearing. As the priest He offered Himself as the sacrifice. The Book of Leviticus tells us clearly how a priest made kippur, that is atonement, for a repentant sinner who confessed his sin to the priest and brought a sacrifice. The real meaning is that the priest himself is the atonement, and offers the animal because he cannot sacrifice himself. This is a type and shadow of Jesus, who did offer Himself as priest and sacrifice when He came the first time. The importance of the Suffering Servant passage to the clear New Testament proclamation of atonement cannot be overstated. You will find it in the 53rd chapter of the Book of Isaiah. “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

This Suffering servant, after His death in their place, rises and takes up a ministry of intercession for sinners. “When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.” A dead man cannot prolong his days unless he rises again. In this passage, His death and resurrection are priestly, because he dies as the one true sacrifice, the atonement, and after rising “he ever lives to make intercession for them,” that is, for those who come to God through Him (Hebrews 7:25). The Old Testament sacrifices on those altars foreshadowed His true sacrifice, just as our sacrifice on this altar, in which nothing is killed, proclaims it. In fact, there is only one Mass (Eucharist or Holy Communion), and always when it is offered anywhere in the world by the Church, it is joined to the one true sacrifice on Calvary.

When he comes again, the image of Messiah as King will be fulfilled in all of its glory. This is the terror of all that is evil, and it is the hope of the Church. It is a certainty that he will come on the Last Day to judge the living and the dead, to establish Heaven on Earth, to rule and so grant peace forever. Both testaments speak of His coming as the King Messiah. Daniel saw one coming in the clouds of Heaven as the Son of man to rule with the Ancient of Days; Moses saw that “the Earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Our eternal hope is not based upon imagination and conjecture, but upon the sure promise given in and by Christ’s resurrection from the dead. We are given the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection on the Last Day.” It is the only such hope, and it is impossible to separate that hope from Jesus Christ, because immortality, the hope of eternal life, is granted through His resurrection. So writes Saint John about those who, due to this hope, purify themselves: “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).”

John the Baptist prepared the way of the Lord by his message of repentance. Pondering these pictures of the Messiah as priest and King we are both warned and encouraged with both fear and hope. This is the meaning of Advent. It is of eternal consequence that we give heed.
 

Friday, December 08, 2017

Second Sunday in Advent (Bible Sunday)

Romans 15:4-13 * Luke 21:25-33

The opening of today’s Epistle and the last line from today’s Gospel are the seeds of today’s Collect.  Together, they explain why this Sunday has come to be called “Bible Sunday”.

That Collect speaks of the obligation we each have concerning the Holy Scriptures:  we are to “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them….”  Then, the Collect suggests, comes the work of the Holy Spirit as He uses those Scriptures within us to plant and grow the patience and comfort that keep us upon, and help us along, the path to eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord. 
Also, in the Epistle and Gospel for this day we find that hope to be what our Prayer Book calls “the sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life.”  This “hope” is not a mere wish for something that may never happen.  When we examine the meaning of “hope” as it relates to “faith”, we see that the Scriptures clarify their meaning by adding the words “sure and certain.”  This important qualifying phrase comes from the Epistle to the Hebrews:

"Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath:  That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us:  Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil.”[1]

Thus we see that the Bible does not separate “hope” from “faith” and never separated either of these two from “charity”.  These three virtues grow together and hope depends on faith.  Hope believes, faith works, and charity labors.
We find our sure and certain hope in the word of God.  Faith grows within us when we hear that particular voice, the voice of God that we discern so clearly as he speaks to us now within the Scriptures.  Written so long ago, when they are spoken or read God Himself speaks to us in the present.  Never are they worn out or obsolete or irrelevant.
A common misconception is that the Bishops of the Christian Church assembled in the city of Nicea under the direction of the Emperor Constantine and there, at his behest, began cutting books out of the Bible.  In fact, when the Council met and the all-powerful Emperor presumed to address the Bishops of the Church, they told him that he, not being a bishop, could not address their assembly.
Something similar is true of the notion that those same Bishops set out to prune the Bible of important books they did not wish the Christian people to know about.  The truth is that the Bishops at Nicea did not decide which books then in circulation were actually Scripture and which were not. All those Bishops did was to affirm in unity of mind – and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit -- that the books the Church already perceived as the word of God were, indeed, just that.
The process of recognizing the books of the Old Testament and the New was what we might call the vox populi, the “voice of the people”, that is, the common consensus of the household of the faith.  The ancient Jewish people had discovered, over time, which books spoke to them in what they recognized as the distinctive voice of God; these books became the Jewish Bible which is now our Old Testament.
St. Paul tells us in what high regard we must hold the Old Testament in today’s Epistle: “Whatsoever things were written afore time were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.”
In the earliest days of the Church this Old Testament formed the only Canon of scripture.  But, by the early years of the Second Century, additional books had already been received into Christian congregations and there quoted as the word of God.  These twenty seven books eventually formed additional and final portion of the Canon of Scripture, that we know as the New Testament. 
In some places a few questions were raised about II Peter, Jude and Revelation.  But over time skepticism about them disappeared.  In a few places some people thought that a work called The Shepherd of Hermas might be part of the Canon of the Church’s Scriptures but it failed the prime test for acceptance.
That question was, as it had been for the ancient Jews before, did or did not the people of God recognize the voice of God in this book? In this book, as in the other books that ultimately were not recognized as part of the Canon, the early Christians simply did not hear the clear and familiar voice of God in the same way as they heard God’s voice in the books they recognized, and that we accept, as Canonical Scriptures.
Thus, long before the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., the Church had defined its Canon. This was the same as the one we have now, adding to the Jewish Scriptures the Church had inherited the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.3
Thus, too, there were no books for the Bishops at Nicea to delete, but, instead, only a Canon that had already been established before any of them had been born.
In Advent, the Church traditionally reads Isaiah’s passages about the Suffering Servant, the one by whose stripes we are healed and who prolonged his days after dying, that he would live forever as the agent of God's will.  The Lord Himself assures us that His coming again will be our redemption and that the fears and darkness of this age will disappear in the light of His glory.
His coming to rule over heaven and earth, cleansing this world from all evil, from death and suffering, and all such things, is sure and certain.  If instead of comfort, this fills your heart with fear, then that means that you must repent from all your sins.  Turn, then, to the Lord, that you may enter that blessed state of sure and certain hope, and be strengthened by the Holy Spirit. 
Today’s Epistle speaks of Christ’s ministry, first to His own people of Israel, and then of the way that ministry extends to all nations through those people of Israel who believed in Him and became His disciples. This recalls the words of Simeon, when he held the infant Jesus in the Temple: “A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”[2]
This light shines into the darkest places where we try to hide from God because we are conscious of our own sins. If we respond to His mercy, that same light of revelation brings comfort and hope, the sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life.
The invitation is extended by His words:  come, eat and be filled with the food and drink of eternal life. Come feed on the Living Bread that has come down from heaven, and with hearty repentance and true faith receive Christ through these humble means unto everlasting life with him in glory.

“Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.”


[1] Hebrews 6:17-19 (KJV).
[2] Luke 2:32 (KJV).
3 For purposes of this sermon and its basic message, I have not brought up the Apocrypha. Suffice it to say, it is covered in Article VI.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT

Painting by El Greco
Romans13:8-13 * Matthew 21:1-13
What a confusing choice for today's Gospel, the same reading we have in the Blessing of the Palms on Palm Sunday, before the first Eucharist. What does this have to do with the main theme of Advent, that we must be prepared for the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in glory to judge both the quick and the dead? After all, as everyone should know, it is about our own real preparation to come face to face with God. The season is about the Four Last Things, Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Among these, Heaven and Hell take on powerful significance as the Resurrection to immortality, to live and reign with Christ forever, and the resurrection of those who will go into the lake of fire. As the Lord said: "Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation."1 In light of these themes, it is not enough to be aware of the joy that awaits those who will enter the blessed state of glorification as the sons of God. We must also be aware of the terror of the Lord so as to persuade men,2 including ourselves, to be ready for the Lord at all times.

Several religious leaders from various churches must have voted, about a century or more ago, to close Hell. Like some prisons, it has perhaps become overcrowded, and so nobody else can go there, even though some people are dying to get in. Why else would it sound so strange to hear it mentioned in a sermon-in church of all places? Maybe Hell has become the sort of topic, like for example, sin; something that fashionable people just do not discuss in church. It's not nice, it's not warm and fuzzy, and it contributes, no doubt, to global warming. The problem is, the ultimate "fire and brimstone" preacher in the Bible is Jesus Christ-no more Mr. Nice Guy to anyone shocked to learn it. Yes, St. John the Baptist has a few words to say about it. St. Paul never mentions it directly, though clearly warning about it indirectly. Some theologians want to blunt the effect of every passage that does mention it. If we are to be serious about the words of the Lord Jesus Christ, we must face this subject, namely, the danger of going into the outer darkness "where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched."3 The worms and fire invoke an image of a dump, but it was a reference to where bodies are left unburied after a great slaughter.

The Greek word for that ultimate Hell is Ge'enna (γε’εννα). It refers to a terrible place mentioned in the Old Testament as a site where children were murdered in sacrifice to Molech, the Valley of Ben-Hinnom. Our Lord spoke of it in terms of that final and dreadful verse in the Book of Isaiah: "And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh."4

God "commandeth all men everywhere to repent."
5 The Gospel command to repent is also a word of hope. It is centered on the grace of God, and the love of God demonstrated and revealed in the cross of Christ. 6 How simple and yet powerful are those words of St. Paul, "Christ died for our sins."7 In that light, we obey the command to repent, and therefore are filled with joy because he gives us the certain hope of eternal life. "Repent, confess, thou shalt be loosed from all."8 This alone gives hope. A false gospel of acceptance and inclusion cannot revive and comfort anyone's conscience. The words of today's Epistle tell us how to live our lives in this world in the fear of God, and also in the grace of God. "The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. "

Why are we given this selection from the Gospels?
Why this picture of Christ being welcomed as the Son of David, the king, and then getting off the donkey, going into the temple, and casting out the money changers? We understand why this leads to the Passion, and is read at the start of Holy Week when we bless the palms. We understand that other judgment, that in the cross of Christ it was the Prince of this world who was judged and cast out. 9 When we begin Holy Week it makes sense. What, however, does this have to do with the coming again in glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, to judge the quick and the dead? As an event in history, how do we place some meaning of it in the future? as a recorded past event, how does it find its way into eschatology (the study of the End)?

The simple answer (so obvious once we realize it) is that, in her wisdom, the Church puts before our eyes this picture of our Lord Jesus Christ, from his first coming, that most closely resembles his second coming. Here is the Lord who suddenly comes to his temple and cleanses it. We see the Lord who casts out from the place of that holy presence of the Shekinah, those who have been living unrepentant in sin. The authority of the Lord, to mete out judgment, to evict sinners from his presence, to cleanse, to purge, and to purify, is seen in this Gospel passage. That harder side of the One who was able to forgive and heal with compassion is here made visible. This picture shows the judgment of the Lord; it shows his unique authority as the Word and Son of the Everlasting Father, that power that comes so genuinely from within Himself that all of these men felt compelled to obey His voice, and had no power in themselves to resist His words of eviction from the Holy Place. He had no visible army to carry out His commands, no soldiers to enforce His decree; and yet His power was such that no one could resist, and no one could refuse. Just as He had power to cast out demons so that people would not be tormented any longer, so His word with power casts out willful sinners so that they can no longer defile. Yes, this is the best picture we have of the Lord who comes again as Judge.

                    Bible illustration by Gustave Dore

St. Peter wrote: "For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?"10 If we submit to the work of the Holy Spirit among us, we will experience that gentle judgment that saves us here and now. After all, even though St. Peter makes direct reference to the End, that is the Last Day when Christ comes again, and does so with words to place the fear of God in our hearts, he begins with "the time is come." If the message is about "the end" of those who are removed, thrown into Ge'enna with its hungry worms and perpetual burnings, what judgment is there that begins now in the house of God? Jesus cast out the works of darkness from the house of God, the temple in Jerusalem, casting out those who had worked that darkness openly and unashamed, and who insulted the holy place no less than the sons of Eli had done long before.11 But, St. Peter urges us with a present hope: "For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God." What is this judgment that must begin now? Pray God, let it be for each one of us the very self-examination that aids those who repent to make a good confession of their sins with all of the sincerity of a heart moved by the Holy Spirit.

Let us recall that other name, that specifically Anglican name that we give to the main service each and every Sunday: "The Holy Communion." Other names are good too, such as The Divine Liturgy (the Orthodox name), the Mass, and the Holy Eucharist. But, I like the Anglican name, The Holy Communion. It was first used to make something very clear to the people of the Church of England, which is that the purpose of the Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood, is that it be taken and received. The Catechism tells us that two of the sacraments are generally necessary to salvation, Baptism and the Lord's Supper. The purpose of coming and receiving this Blessed Sacrament is to feed on the Living Bread that comes down from heaven, which if a man eat, he may live forever. Jesus told us that He is the food and drink of eternal life, and to eat His flesh and drink His blood.
12 First we make confession of sin based on the self-examination we should make every time; as St.Paul wrote: "But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup."13 It is in that self-examination and the resulting sincere confession, that we prepare for the coming of the Lord right now, that is, his coming to our altar, and then into our very bodies as we eat the food and drink the cup of eternal life-His flesh and blood. If we live always ready for this Sacrament, we will live always ready to meet the Lord face to face.

In today's Gospel passage, we see important elements of His Second Coming, elements that are true to the Person of the Son of God, the everlasting Son of the everlasting Father. He is the only king and savior. He is the judge “Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 14 Judgment will begin at the House of God, until His whole creation is cleansed and purified, made ready for a habitation of His righteousness, a dwelling place of His glory among men. The purpose of a Penitential season is to learn to sharpen and focus our self-examination, the same self-examination that we should do every time we draw near to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. I know that a “feel good” religion is the popular model for success in today’s “spiritual” market; but the only good feeling we should ever trust is that spoken of by the Psalmist: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”15
To be ready for the last Judgment, we must be willing to let the Holy Ghost shake up our world, we must allow Him to shake up our very selves. Indeed, to prepare for the coming again of Jesus Christ, we must draw near "with hearty repentance and true faith" in order to make a good confession, sincere and resolute of purpose to "walk in newness of life." Indeed, to prepare for the coming again of Jesus Christ, we need do no more, and no less, than we do when we prepare to receive the Communion of His Body and Blood.16


1. John 5:28, 29
2. II Corinthians 5:11
3. Mark 9:42-50
4. Isaiah 66:24
5. Acts 17:30
6. Romans 5:8
7. I Corinthians 15:3
8 From Weary of Earth and laden with my sin, Hymn 58 in The Hymnal 1940.
9. John 12:31, 32
10. I Peter 4:17, 18
11. I Samuel 2:12f
12. John 6:26-59
13. I Corinthians 11: 29
1
4. Matthew. 3:12
15. Psalm 32:1

16. I Corinthians 10:16