Friday, November 30, 2018

First Sunday in Advent 2018

Bible illustration by Gustave Dore
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 to see Him 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. The problem is, the ultimate "fire and brimstone" preacher in the Bible is Jesus Christ himself. 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 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. It became known as a place associated with the odor of death, always attracting worms. And so, 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
No one need be thrown away, because 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, a thou shalt be loosed from all."8 This alone gives hope. A false gospel of acceptance and inclusion, instead of repentance and forgiveness, cannot comfort anyone's conscience. Nor can it revive a slumbering 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’s triumphal entry into the holy city as the Son of David, the king? and then of his entrance into the temple to cast 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 answer 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 the Lord suddenly comes to his temple and cleanses it. We see the Lord cast out from the holy presence, the Shekinah, those who have been living in unrepentant willful 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 picture of the same One who also forgave and healed with compassion is set before our eyes. 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.

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 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.
What are we planning to do here today? What follows every sermon in a Mass? Before I supply the answer, let us recall that other name, that specifically Anglican name that we give to this service: "The Holy Communion." Other names are good too, such as The Divine Liturgy (the Orthodox name), 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 for salvation, Baptism and the Lord's Supper. The purpose of coming here 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 bread 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 cleanse and purify 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
14. Matthew. 3:12
15. Psalm 32:1
16. I Corinthians 10:16

Saturday, November 17, 2018

25th Sunday after Trinity 2018

(Written and preached on Epiphany V in Arizona back in 2006)

Matt. 13:24-30
Any sermon on today’s Gospel really ought to include the Lord’s interpretation of His own parable:

“Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field. He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear (vs. 36-43).”

The plants that are called tares are very much like wheat in appearance, but they lack the nutritional properties of wheat. You can’t eat from these weeds. However, it is very difficult to distinguish with the eye between the tares and true wheat.

When the oldest of my sons was only about six or seven years old, he created his own superhero, one who fought against crime. He told me that his superhero would see the bad guys and kill them. I decided that I ought to teach him principles of law and justice, so I asked a hypothetical question: “Tell me, David. How does he know who is a bad guy just by looking at him?” I saw that he was thinking very hard, as his forehead became wrinkled and his eyes half closed in a squint. Finally, he answered: “He has really good eyesight.” I saw that my attempt to teach a lesson about "the presumption of innocence" until proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, was possibly not getting through

And, as we know, the destruction of the ungodly was not the reason why Christ came; He came to call sinners to repentance, as a physician comes to heal the sick. He came not to judge the world, but to save it. He would, as the Lamb of God, take away the sins of the world by going to His cross to pour out His one oblation of Himself once offered; the full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. Before that time, He would go about “doing good and healing all who were oppressed of the Devil.” He did not call down fire from heaven upon the Samaritan village that refused Him, as the sons of thunder bade Him to do; He told them they knew not what spirit they were of, for the Son of Man had come to save men’s lives not to destroy them.

In the Old Testament, the worst of the kings of Judah was Manasseh. He practiced idolatry, even the offering of children to Baal, filling Jerusalem with innocent blood, which the Lord would not pardon two generations later. Now, here was a tare that deserved to be uprooted. It is safe to judge, even within the limits of our own human understanding, we can be certain that he was beyond all hope of redemption-can't we?

He was captured and taken into captivity. But, while being held captive, he humbled himself and repented of his sins, and besought God. The Bible says that God forgave him, and restored him to his throne in Jerusalem. Here we read it, in II Chronicles 33:12, 13.

“And when he was in affliction, he besought the LORD his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, And prayed unto him: and he was intreated of him, and heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD he was God.”

No, the Lord does not uproot the wheat in order to destroy the tares. Consider what it would mean if He did. Look at Saint Paul. If ever there was a tare that deserved uprooting, it was the persecutor of the Church, Saul of Tarsus. He had been confident in his own righteousness as a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee who was, as touching the Law of Moses, blameless. And, the crowning virtue of his righteousness was his zeal that he demonstrated by persecuting the Church. When the Lord Jesus appeared to him, as he approached the Damascus Gate, and was knocked to the ground, Saul learned that his crowning achievement of righteousness was actually the great sin of persecuting none other than Messiah Himself by persecuting His people. What had been in Saul’s mind the seal and mark of his own righteousness, was in reality a filthy rag, a grievous sin. And, at the same moment that he was being made aware of the enormity of his guilt, he was being shown mercy, called from the darkness of ignorance and sin into the light of Christ, and to the righteousness that comes by faith in Him. It is no wonder that this whole theme would dominate the message of what, today, we call Pauline theology. And so it is, this one-time enemy of the Church became Saint Paul the Apostle.

Ah, but if the tares were to be so soon uprooted, then we would have had no Saint Paul.

In the 1960s an obstetrician named Bernard Nathanson performed thousands of abortions. Furthermore, he was one of the people who started the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). But, his mind began to resist his own propaganda as his conscience caught up with him. Later he would write, “I came to realize that what I had presided over was thousands of deaths.” Eventually, he wrote Aborting America, and became one of the greatest advocates for the pro-life cause, a defender of the rights of unborn children to be spared, to be allowed to live. Bernard Nathanson was an Atheist, and a mass murderer of unborn children, all in the name of “safe and legal” abortion, a hired assassin under the guise of medicine. If ever there was a tare that deserved to be uprooted, this was the man. We would be safe to judge him so, would we not?

But Christ does not deal with us as our sins deserve. Today Bernard Nathanson is a believing and devout Catholic, and he has saved countless lives by speaking out against abortion, adding a voice that contains thorough authoritative scientific knowledge.

You see, we cannot tell the tares from the wheat, because every saint is a redeemed sinner. If the tares were to be uprooted, none of us would live to repent; the Great Physician would have no sinners to call to repentance. God’s world would be clean and neat and orderly again, and His righteousness vindicated. But, His love did not allow that. Instead He did the very messy thing of coming into the world in the Person of His Son. The Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, took our created nature into His uncreated Person, our temporal nature into His eternity. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” “going about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the Devil,” using His power on earth to forgive sins and giving this power unto men, not dealing with us as our sins deserve, not breaking a bruised reed or quenching a smoking flax. He removed our guilt by removing our sins, and that by bearing them in His own body on the tree of the cross, the Lamb of God slaughtered as our Passover. And, having released us from sin, He freed us from death by rising on the Third day and making Himself seen by witnesses, his chosen martyrs – witnesses - of the resurrection. They, in turn, yielded up their lives to give us the assurance of hope, that we might know of their certainty that they saw Him alive again after His resurrection.

He does not root up the tares lest he root up the wheat with them; for we must come to the knowledge of Christ in order to be freed from sin and death.

Those who believe are “the elect of God, holy and beloved” (as Saint Paul wrote in the Epistle for today). Is there - if I may dare use the word - discrimination to be made between wheat and tares? Yes. We should have a holy fear of God, for on the Last Day at the final judgment, the wheat will be divided from the tares, and the judgment will be rendered. Those who have refused to believe and have clung to their sins will be sent away.

But for now, thank God for His wisdom. For only with His foreknowledge could we know the wheat from the tares; and that foreknowledge is His alone; we cannot share it. He knows a repentant Manasseh, a Saint Paul the Apostle, a Bernard Nathanson champion of the unborn. He alone knows the wheat from the tares. This is something that perhaps even the eyes of angels may not see.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Advent Advice

Every year I urge you to resist the pressures of secular Christmas. I do not mean to say that you should make friends or family feel neglected, but that this is a time of year to remember the two sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary. Let us revisit that episode from the Gospel of Luke (10:38-42).

Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

          Amid the busy-ness of Christmas, do not neglect your soul, neither the meaning of the season in which “the babe, the world’s Redeemer, first revealed His sacred face.” Do not let cares for many things prevent you from sitting at the feet of Jesus, both at home each day, and in His Church where His people are assembled. We celebrate in this season the love of God manifested. We see the Word made flesh, at once God and man, to save us from sin and death.
          I know that the ancient tradition of Christmas as part of the Church Calendar is not understood even by many modern Christians, especially here in the U.S. The word we use in English speaking countries, “Christmas,” comes from the words the Christ Mass. This draws attention directly to the Holy Communion and the celebration of it together in church. This year, like Mary, remember to choose that good part.