Saturday, December 06, 2008

Second Sunday in Advent

Written and preached in Fountain Hills, Arizona, 2005

Isaiah 55, Psalm 119:1-16, Rom. 15:4f, Luke 21:25f,

“Heaven and earth shall pass away; but my words shall not pass away.”

Several years ago I met a man who decided to impress me with his knowledge. He took one look at my collar, and began to tell me about a book he was writing, based on his idea that the Old Testament has a very different message, and a very different image of God, from the New Testament. He seemed to take this notion of his for granted as a self-evident bit of common knowledge, and he expected me to agree with conclusions he was drawing from this idea. He was shocked when I told him that he was completely wrong.

As you can tell, the Collect has drawn from the Epistle for today. The clear message is that God caused the Holy Scriptures to be written for our comfort. And, we need to know what is meant by comfort. We think of the word “comfort” in a very different way than this older English usage. We think of an easy chair, or lounging on a sofa, or roomy clothes. We think of this Arizona Winter weather as opposed to the weather here in July. Well, the definition of the word has shifted, or, rather, its primary usage has changed. In the word “comfort” we find the word “fort.” And “fort” is a form of another word for strengthening, namely to fortify. Fortitude is courage, a fortification is a strong wall of defense, and comfort is to be “strengthened in the inner man,” to borrow a phrase from Saint Paul.

Another point, stated already in the words that the Collect has drawn from the Epistle, is the simple fact that the Holy Scriptures were written because God caused them to be written. In his second Epistle to his son in the faith, Saint Timothy, the Apostle Paul also wrote that the scriptures were, all of them, inspired by God. And, the word “inspired” means that God breathed them into existence, or that the scriptures were created by His Holy Spirit. Saint Peter made it clear that the scriptures were written because holy men were moved by the Holy Ghost. The scriptures are not merely human thought, and not merely enlightened thought. They are the word of God. The scriptures deal with something even more important than life and death; they speak directly to eternal destiny.

We need to know what this means. When the new Testament was being written, the scriptures were the Old Testament, since that was what had been written and recieved. It is a completely false idea that the Old Testament is inferior, or less the Word of God than the New Testament. When our Lord Jesus Christ spoke of the writings of Moses and the prophets, He demanded respect for those scriptures. He said: “the scripture cannot be broken.” He made it clear that the scriptures spoke of Him, that every one of His public actions was a fulfillment of what God had caused aforetime to be written for our comfort. He identified the subject and the theme of the Old Testament scriptures as Himself.

“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”

-Matt. 5:17, 18

Consider these words from the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Saint John, vs. 37-39:

“And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me. Ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his shape. And ye have not his word abiding in you: for whom he hath sent, him ye believe not. Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.”

Listen to what Saint Luke writes about Jesus after His resurrection:

“Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.”
– Luke 24: 25-27

Notice, “not all the scriptures concerning Himself” but, “the things in all the scriptures concerning Himself.”

Luke goes on a few verses later:

“And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things.”

-vs. 44-48

While walking the earth, the Son of God proclaimed that the Old Testament scriptures were, in fact, actually testifying about Him. After His resurrection He expounded on the meaning of all the scriptures as the things concerning Himself, and opened the minds of His disciples to understand them.

As Saint Augustine put it, “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.” The Old Testament, you see, is all about Jesus Christ. The absurd caricature of an angry god of the volcano at Sinai, full of nothing but wrath, wrath and more wrath, being replaced by the good God and Father of Jesus Christ, is simply the anti-Semitic non-sense of the ancient heretic Marcion, the worst of the early Gnostics. The God of Moses is our God; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; and Christ is One with Him, as is the Holy Ghost. In fact, we can say that Christ gave the Law to Moses, in the words of the great Advent hymn, O’ Come O’ Come Emmanuel:

O’ Come, O’ Come Thou Lord of might

Who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height

In ancient times didst give the Law

In cloud and majesty and awe.

So, too, the New Testament is rich with the reports of Christ’s actions, His words, His life, His death and His resurrection. They tell us, also, who He is: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God… And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (John 1:1,2, 14).” It goes on to tell us how His Incarnation is extended in this world through time and space by His Church, founded by Him and indwelt by His Spirit. The doctrines of that Church are forever enshrined in the Epistles, and our hope made firm by the last prophetic Revelation.

I remind you of the Old Testament lesson appointed for Morning Prayer on this Second Sunday of Advent. Let’s take another look at part of that lesson from the 55th chapter of the book of Isaiah, vs. 6-11:

“Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”

This passage often is quoted as an excuse for ignorance. The implication is, we simply cannot know God’s ways, so let’s not form strong convictions about anything; let’s not be dogmatic.

Of course, a careful reading shows the opposite. Wicked and unrighteous ways and thoughts must be replaced by God’s ways and thoughts through serious repentance. The ways and thoughts of God are made known to us, because like the rain and snow, they come down from heaven. His Word goes forth from His mouth. The key words are “ways and thoughts.” Let the wicked man forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts…for My ways are not your ways, neither my thoughts your thoughts…” Like the earth drinking up the rain and snow, we must drink up His word that comes down from heaven and that goes forth from His mouth. Our wicked ways and unrighteous thoughts must be replaced by God’s very own revealed ways and thoughts ("The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law." -Deut. 29:29). That will, indeed, comfort us, as in fortify.

The Church has a very strong message. We have the scriptures in which we hear the voice of God Himself speaking to man. We can teach their meaning correctly, and no one else can even understand it. Only by the Tradition of the Church can we know how to understand the book of the Church. The scriptures did not simply appear out of nowhere. The Old Testament came through the first Church, which was Israel, the Jewish people. The New Testament has come to us through the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church under the guidance of the Apostles and their Successors, guided, as Christ promised, by the Spirit of Truth. The Holy Spirit spoke through holy men of the household of God, and so any claim that the Bible can be rightly interpreted without the Church by which it came, is silly. We know what our book means. It has belonged to us, as God’s gift and deposit, from its inception.

And, on every page of it, whether in words written by Moses, or the Passion narratives written by the four Evangelists; whether the heart felt cries of David in the Psalms, or the patient and passionate teaching of Saint Paul; it is all speaking to us about Jesus Christ, the Living Word and fullest revelation of God.

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