The First Sunday After Christmas
Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 145, Luke 2:1-20
I went to the Ferghana Valley to learn what God was doing there. The first lesson I learned was that I must first learn what man was doing there.
We fail, I think, to comprehend the light until we have seen the darkness . . . until we venture out into the Ferghana Valley, or some such hell.
In a place called Andijon, on the old Silk Road in the east of what is now Uzbekistan, I watched the nightly news. Some Westerners resident there translated for me.
First, let me tell you what I had seen that needed no translation. When the Soviet Union crumbled, the subjugated peoples of Central Asia had thronged the streets in celebration, toppling statues of those ogres of old.
And then, in no time at all, other old ogres resumed their places. Lenin and Stalin had finally, mercifully been exorcised, but the apparatchiks who had represented their ghosts so ably hardly hiccupped. They resurfaced in the new national bureaucracies, with conveniently rearranged initials.
Who needs the KGB? The GKB or BGK will do just as well. In those giddy days just after the Iron Curtain melted, the same old thugs replaced themselves in the places of privilege, answering no longer to Moscow but only to themselves.
Everywhere I turned, I saw a billboard featuring the forbidding face of the local strongman, known as “president.”
He had statues of his own and motorcades that held up traffic for an eternity. And so it was that I was hardly unbelieving, if still amazed, at what I heard on the TV news. Andijon occupies the center, there in the Ferghana Valley, of one of the most fertile cotton-producing regions on the planet.
You’ve heard of banana republics? This is a cotton republic. In October, all the schools, including the universities, shut down so all the students can bend their backs to the harvest.
And because Uzbekistan possesses precious little other than cotton to sell outside its borders, for a month each year the harvest is the lead story on the nightly newscast of the state-controlled television network night after night after night. All cotton, all the time.
In a good year, the stolid anchorman reports in an approving tone the progress of the harvest. In a bad year, he proceeds in a scolding tone to lament the failures of the farm managers to achieve the president’s lofty goals.
But of course, there’s always a story behind the story. The Westerners filled me in. Each year, before the harvest, the president establishes a quota for that year’s crop. He bases it on his reckoning of what the nation’s coffers must reap from the fields to sustain his agenda for the year.
Considerations such as weather are irrelevant. The dictator’s need is paramount. And so it is that in a bad year the BGK or GKB or whatever it is now called rounds up farm managers and throws them into the slammer to let the nation know what happens to those who disappoint its revered leader.
Of course, such is the way of tyrants in all places in all times. Here there is a flip side, and this is the image that sticks in my head almost two decades later.
Occasionally, in a very good year, when the rains are plentiful and growing conditions ideal, the harvesters meet the quota early. And when they do, the students return to school and the farm managers pick up a bonus.
And the crop that remains rots in the field. The quota has been met. Picking more cotton would be to no purpose. The dictator’s appetite has been sated; like Raggedy Andy, he is stuffed with cotton.
To the west of Uzbekistan, in Turkmenistan, the president anointed himself “Turkmenbashi” – Father of All Turkmen. He renamed the days of the week after his nearest and dearest, beginning with Mom.
But before we dismiss him as a cartoon character . . . He had a passion for chess, and spent millions on a glistening chess palace to attract the world’s grand masters to his tournaments – while his people went hungry.
To the south, in Afghanistan, the ancient ethnic strife went on in one bloodbath after another. One tribe gained the upper hand and herded scores of people from the rival group into a railway boxcar in the sizzling summer, locked them inside and cooked them to death.
I multiply examples to make the point that in America our prosperity creates a veneer of civilization that masks our depravity. If not for the grace of God we, like them, would be destitute of both money and morals.
But God, but God, but God – praise His holy name! – is full of grace. And as long as the people of Central Asia draw breath they, like us, may turn unto Him, beg His forgiveness and receive His pardon. He is the hope of the world, every sin-soaked square inch of it.
Just before our passage for today from Isaiah 9, the prophet tells of those in Israel who will respond to the coming Assyrian invasion by seeking God through mediums and wizards rather than in His law that reveals His character. These will “see trouble and darkness, gloom of anguish; and they will be driven into darkness.”
Those who sow darkness reap an even blacker gloom which has no end. This was Israel in Isaiah’s day. Just before him, his prophetic colleague Amos denounced God’s people because, “They sell the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals” (2:6).
But God . . . As long as a faithful remnant remains, as long as two or three wretched sinners hold out hope for illumination that will overcome the black anguish of their transgressions, our longsuffering and merciful Father will send light into His world.
We come in chapter 9 to His promise that one day, in His time, that light will saturate His kingdom, never to contend again with darkness. Satan is vanquished, his minions annihilated . . . the creation radiates a golden glow of holiness.
Beloved, as we continue to celebrate the coming of our Savior, we look ahead through the prophet’s eyes to His second coming, to that glorious day when our victory is finally and fully realized. Both comings loom in our passage and Isaiah describes the two future events in the past tense, for God has willed them to be:
“The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.”
This is now, for despite the darkness that tries to suffocate us, the light has entered the world, and the light will prevail. And this is the end of days, the Sabbath that will never cease, the final day of everlasting rest and peace, of unbroken communion with our God.
All who dwell there with Him will know the joy of justice: an end of tyrants, of poverty, of oppression, of sin.
Who will accomplish these things? President John F. Kennedy said in his Inaugural Address: “Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty.”
He gave us, in a sentence, the grand delusion. By his might, man will make all things new. Not so long ago, a more humble world knew better. Samuel Johnson wrote, “How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure.”
Our Lord put it this way, “The poor you have with you always” (St. John 12:8). Until that glorious day of His return. And then, “Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.”
He is the Ruler – the only Ruler – whose justice does not poison His mercy, whose mercy does not curdle His justice. In Him there is no conflict and in His kingdom there will be no contention, only peace.
The prophet pronounces, “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given.” The Child can be born; the Son can only be given. The Son is eternal, begotten, not born.
“And the government will be upon His shoulder.” Many among the church fathers found in this phrase a reference to the cross our Lord bore on the way to Calvary. “By it,” wrote Caesarius, “the devil is conquered.”
The One the prophet foretells will bear the weight of worldwide government as a trifle, for His yoke is easy and His burden light (St. Matthew 11:30). With the government upon His shoulder, the yoke on His subjects will be as light as love.
What shall His name be called? His names shall be many.
“Wonderful.” In Hebrew, this word is a noun. When used of God, it refers to One who does supernatural things . . . sometimes called miracles. It evokes an image of God’s wondrous acts in delivering His people from slavery in Egypt, and now in deliverance from bondage in sin.
“Counselor.” He is the repository of all true wisdom – in contrast to the wisdom of man. The wisest man, Solomon, in the end acted so foolishly that the nation was torn asunder upon his death. This One is so wise as to turn humiliation into exaltation, surrender into victory, death into life.
“Mighty God.” Israel once had God as their Ruler. A rebellious people demanded a human king. Be careful what you ask for. Both North and South endured a succession of tyrants as wicked as those who rule many nations today.
But God’s chosen people will see their King restored to His throne, and He will be so mighty as to absorb all evil in Himself.
Wearing a crown of thorns on the cross He will cry out, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Taking our sin upon Himself He will make us holy as He is holy, and finally fit to be governed by Him. God is showing us sovereignty deified and humanity purified. No human ruler can summon the power to bring about a government that establishes everlasting peace grounded in perfect justice.
“Everlasting Father.” An eternal kingdom requires an everlasting King, and this One will rule not as a despot who oppresses His subjects but as a Father who sacrifices for His children. Our heavenly Father, who delights to perfect strength in weakness, has sent a Child, meek and mild, into the world over which He will reign.
This name refers not to Yahweh but to Christ, who as our forever Sovereign will be the Father of the coming age.
“Prince of Peace.” The final name comprises all the others. Peace – shalom – in the Bible is not what breaks out when everyone stops to reload but the consummation of all of God’s promises to His people. In this context it is the eternal Sabbath – Shabbat – in which lion and lamb trill in sweet harmony.
How man has strained to bring about this renovation of God’s creation – and not only presidents whose bloated egos tell them they can stamp out poverty or control the rising of the seas.
God gave Israel the human king she wanted. David subdued her enemies and established peace, and God decreed that a descendant of David would occupy his throne forever. The warrior David, however, would not erect the temple in which God would dwell among His people. Hands stained with blood would not build the earthly home of the God of peace.
After his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, David made his peace with God. And when God gave him another son by Bathsheba after her first died at birth, David named him “Solomon” – in Hebrew “Shlomo” from shalom. This royal heir was named “Man of Peace.”
Solomon built the temple and God moved in. The Shekinah glory took up residence in the midst of His chosen people on the holy mountain Zion. The kingdom expanded to its greatest expanse ever before or since.
Israel stood poised to claim all of the territory God had promised to Abraham, that vast land that stretches from the Nile to the great river, the Euphrates.
Peace spread like the Nile overflowing its banks in springtime. Royalty traveled from far countries to pay homage to King Solomon, the man of peace, and to drink of his great wisdom. The king’s coffers bulged with gold. The God of Israel must indeed be the one Mighty God.
But Solomon would be not only the first son to sit on David’s throne but also the last – among mortal men. Waging his campaign of peace, he conquered not on the battlefield but in the wedding chapel. He formed political alliances through marriages with foreign women.
They toted their gods along and worshiped them and, ere long, others in Israel joined in. Now they exalted Yahweh as one god among many. The kingdom split in two like a rotten log at Solomon’s death, never to be reunited.
But what does Isaiah say? Isaiah declares that a son of David will reign on that throne over a kingdom that is one. He will “order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever.”
Man has had his day. God allowed him to play king, and we can survey the wreckage that is the history of the kingdom of man. Man will not bring about this enthronement the prophet promises and the ordered world that will be its fruit. “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.”
The word underlying “zeal” sounds a throbbing chord of jealousy. The Lord your God is a jealous God. He says, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Solomon, he of the 700 wives and 300 concubines, chose God’s very first commandment to trample. Of course, fatigue can fray a man’s faculties.
The Prince of Peace will remain ever faithful. Royalty will make the arduous journey to bow before Him as well, even when a wee King, but His head will not be turned. David’s incorruptible Son will not falter in His zeal for His mission. He will suffer no idol worship in the temple of His kingdom. He is the temple, for the glory of God dwells in Him.
He will populate His realm with those who have made their bodies temples of His Holy Spirit. And this kingdom will span all the territory from the Nile to the Euphrates and far beyond until His glory penetrates and hallows every crevice of His creation.
He came as a Child.
He came to conquer the world.
He came armed with the invincible gospel of peace.
He came to teach us to perfect our strength in weakness.
He came to establish an everlasting domain He will rule as King of kings.
He came to impose a government that allows us to find ourselves in Him, a government that will endure for ever and ever, world without end. Amen.
The Fourth Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 80, Philippians 4:4-7, St. John 1:19-28
Up the Revolution!
One of the most interesting seminarians I’ve met was a fellow named Butch. Butch was not a seminarian in the usual sense of the word; he never took a course for credit as far as I know but he certainly audited a long catalogue of them. But then, there was nothing usual about Butch.
He had a fine grasp of history and a keen interest in the Scriptures. Butch was a white-haired retired Army officer, but I figured he landed in the wrong branch because he swore like a sailor . . . as to both quantity and quality.
I assure you this was not the norm in the hushed corridors of Cranmer Theological House. The rest of us weren’t monks, but sometimes we seemed to be trying to be.
But Butch didn’t care. The last time I saw him was a few years ago, at synod in Dallas. We greeted each other in a hallway at the hotel and Butch launched – in his customarily animated way — into an oration about counseling a fellow cancer patient:
“Here’s what you do. You stand in front of the mirror and you say to that cancer inside of you, ‘Listen, you . . .’”
I’ll stop here because if I continued I’d have to bleep out more than Rosemary Woods deleted. The presence of bishops and other august personages had no effect whatsoever on Butch. He was who he was. I loved the guy. And I was grateful I was not his priest.
I bring him up today because of a talk he and I had one day. We were speaking of issues of the day in the tones of the political conservatives we were when, somehow, we discovered we had both begun as liberals. And what’s more, neither of us was about to apologize.
We came of age, Butch and I, in the 1960s. Thinking back over that time, we agreed that institutionalized racism – in a significant part of this nation, legally codified racism – was wrong, and we were right to denounce it.
That the Vietnam War – perhaps in conception and without a doubt in execution – was wrong, and we were right to denounce it. That many among our leaders were corrupt, and we were right to denounce them.
Sometimes, those out of power hold the moral high ground. So say Butch and I. So says John the Baptist. And – here’s the crucial thing — so says Jesus Christ.
Our Lord Jesus is a God of order, but He will not sacrifice biblical principle for the sake of order. So doing, we would enshrine a lie, cast deceit in concrete. That is the way of “the Jews,” as they are called for the first of many times in John’s gospel in the first verse of our text for today.
The term refers to the leaders of Israel and, most likely in this case, to the Sanhedrin, the ruling council. They have sent a delegation – priests and Levites – to brace the Baptist on the banks of the River Jordan. Who do you imagine you are? What do you think you’re doing?
One of the Sanhedrin’s important functions is the tagging and removal of false prophets. Indeed, some have risen and fomented rebellion, and have been dealt with.
But this Baptist is a special case. His father Zechariah ministered in the temple. John, descended from the priestly caste, could take up the role of priest . . . but he operates more like a monk. He did not rise through the ranks of the religious establishment; he presents no credentials.
And there’s more. Any insurrectionist worth his copy of the Saul Alinsky bible knows one stirs insurrection in the cities. But this one called John pursues his work out yonder in the wilderness, at various locales on the Jordan’s banks.
What is his mission? He baptizes. What manner of ritual is this? Israel knows of proselyte baptism, but John is baptizing the circumcised, Jews – members in good standing of the synagogues and the temple, even Jerusalemites, those purest of practitioners.
Those who come from beyond the pale need cleansing to engage with the covenant people of God, but those born into Israel are by their very nature clean. Are they not?
John’s baptism is an affront to the religious authorities. What do those who bear the mark of the covenant need with the empty symbolism of a rite nowhere prescribed in Jewish practice?
Make no mistake, the priests and Levites who have confronted him on the Jordan’s bank can hear the muted message beneath his words. He has invoked Isaiah, who prophesied of one crying out in the wilderness who would prepare the way of the Lord.
But that prophet of old did not stop there. He went on to interpret the coming of the kingdom of God to earth in the language of a second exodus. But what does Israel need of escape? She needs to remain in place, right where God planted her, and throw off the yoke of Rome.
Exodus talk reeks of danger for the authorities’ home-brewed religion. Orthodoxy is their prized possession. And orthodoxy is what those in power say it is. This orthodoxy is perverse, decaying . . . and proper, because they proclaim it so. Who is John the Baptist to say them nay?
No one, really.
And because he is, he is God’s man for a time such as this. For who is the One for whom John prepares the way? The greatest revolutionary the world would ever know. One who would foment an insurrection that would explode the world religious order and then reshape it in His image. He will be the Head of His body the church.
The Sanhedrin suspect sedition . . . and their concern is well-placed. Jesus is coming to free His people from bondage to sin and death. He will overthrow an order that values privilege over righteousness, wealth over compassion, prestige over holiness. He will cast down the powerful and exalt the humble . . . and usher them into His banquet that has no end.
One who comes to make all things new will win no favor from those who have a vested interest in preserving the old. The rulers of Israel would tamp down this revolution; the Baptist would fan its flames.
John anticipates his Lord ideally in another way as well. Look at how the fourth gospel presents the Baptist: no mention of his lineage, arrest or death. Matthew, Mark and Luke can fill in those blanks. John the Evangelist relates that God sent this man and that his ministry is baptism, full stop. His relationship to the One who comes after him is what matters here.
The evangelist trills of Jesus with a poetic lilt . . . but prose will suffice for the Baptist. How is he defined? In the negative. Who is he? He is not the Christ. Not Elijah. Not the prophet, the “one like me” of whom Moses spoke.
Well, who then? “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Merely a voice. This is that second way in which the Baptist anticipates so beautifully the Christ. He wears camel’s hair and lives off the land, a lowly figure . . . out there in the wilderness.
Who better to make straight the way of One lowly born in a manger to parents of mean estate, One who will humble Himself unto death, even death on a cross?
He who comes after him, the Baptist explains, is the One “whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.”
A disciple must serve his master in every way, just as does a slave . . . save for one thing only. He is not bound to remove shoes and wash feet. That is work so menial that only the slave is required to do it. But, says John the Baptist, not only am I willing to serve my Lord in so humble a way, I am too lowly to merit even that service to Him.
He is no more than a voice. The voice is the medium, the Word is the message. I am come, John would have us know, as the vessel that proclaims the Truth that is to follow. Pay heed, repent, believe . . . for the kingdom of God is at hand.
Way back when, St. Augustine wrote, “John is the voice, but the Lord is the Word who was in the beginning. John is the voice that lasts for a time; from the beginning Christ is the Word who lives forever.
“Take away the word, the meaning, and what is the voice? Where there is no understanding, there is only a meaningless sound. The voice without the word strikes the ear but does not build up the heart . . .
“When the word has been conveyed to you,” Augustin continues, “does not the sound seem to say: The word ought to grow, and I should diminish? The sound of the voice has made itself heard in the service of the word, and has gone away, as though it were saying: My joy is complete. Let us hold on to the word; we must not lose the word conceived inwardly in our hearts . . .”
So wrote Augustine.
Indeed, the Lord Himself says of John, “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11).
The kingdom of heaven is here. It arrived when the Lord ascended and His Holy Spirit alit upon the earth.
And we have beheld wondrous things the Baptist did not see: the Lord upon the cross, crucifying sin and death; arisen from the tomb, upon the Emmaus Road, on the seashore with His disciples, ascending into heaven. We are greater than John. If we are greater than John, we should be more humble than he.
The world is lying to you, o man . . . again. It tells you to trust in yourself. It tells you you are trust-worthy. Are you?
Trust the One who made you. You could not make yourself. Can you remake yourself? Trust the One who knew you before you were. Now that you are, will He not love what He has made you to be? Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord. He will lift you up.
He is coming now. He is almost here. In Advent, we await the arrival of Truth in the world. He is coming . . . coming to die for you . . . but first to live for you . . . to show you the way.
What is the way? Humility is the way upward to God who is above all things; it raises you up to Him. Pride, the elevation of the self, sends you spinning away from God on high and so casts you down.
Was it not ever thus? In the beginning, God placed man in the garden and forbade him one thing . . . a good thing, for the fruit of that one tree was pleasing to the eye and sweet to the tongue. God denied man one thing, a good thing, to point him to a greater good . . . obedience.
The humility of obedience is the elixir for your sin-sick soul.
The Baptist and the Christ stepped into a world bathed in the pax Romana – the peace of Rome – but still an agitated age in that little backwater called Palestine. Among the Jews, expectations of the Messiah varied.
The Greek Christos comes from the verb chrio – I anoint — and translates the Hebrew mashia – Messiah. The Christ was the One anointed by God . . . but anointed to do exactly what? Opinions covered a spectrum stretching from Dan to Beersheba, but all agreed that in some way He would enhance the worldly position of Israel.
The idea that He would come as the fulfillment of Israel, the true Israel – making God known among all the nations – disturbed the thoughts of a paltry few in the nation. Like countless generations of Jews and Christians who would succeed them, they put their own stature first and God’s glory second.
They rejected Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ not because He defied God – how could He? – but because He, like His forerunner – defied the leaders of Israel. What God desired was exactly what the Baptist had launched and the Christ would perfect – an uprising of humility.
John the Evangelist gives us a gospel laden with the vocabulary of jurisprudence – “testimony” and “witness” and “trial” – and he offers John the Baptist as his star witness to the authenticity of Jesus as the Word made flesh. The voice proclaims the Word.
This John, after all, had stood in the Jordan and, after he baptized Jesus, had watched the Spirit of God descend dove-like upon Him . . . but more than that. The Spirit had alit on others in Old Testament times, but now comes something new: He abides with Jesus, who is the Christ, the Anointed One.
Yet as we have seen even the Baptist would harbor doubt . . . and see it resolved . . . and pay with his life for his witness of the Truth. His testimony is as vital in our day as in his own for the opposition’s argument never changes:
Jesus is a man of high principle and a great teacher . . . but not the Son of God. Oh, He might instruct you . . . but He cannot save you.
For to hail Him as the promised Messiah is to humble ourselves and submit to Him. The human heart, unfettered by Spirit and Truth, knows no end of self-seeking. It aches to aim its worship not upward but inward.
So harken to the voice that you might come to the Word that dwells in the heart. John is the revolutionary, o Christian, you are called to be. Yet you are greater than he. Fall to your knees and, looking upward, hail Jesus as divine Savior, Lord and King.
God loves you, o sinner. He wants to lift you up. What greater honor could He bestow on you than to make you a forerunner of the One who comes to save the world? Who am I? My name is Not-the-Christ. Amen.
The Third Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 35, Psalms 22:23-31 and 99, 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, St. Matthew 11:2-10
At Christmastime our thoughts turn to home. Family, friends, firesides . . . the smell of gingerbread and the taste of eggnog . . . laughing children and grinning grandpas . . . pretty packages, maybe even a pony.
But where is home? Home, some old sage once said, is where the heart is. That’s not a bad definition. It’s better than definition No. 1 in my online dictionary: “a house, apartment, or other shelter that is the usual residence of a person, family, or household.”
Could be a prison cell.
Let’s try definition No. 2: “the place in which one’s domestic affections are centered.”
Could be a dog house.
Words fray at the edges – especially when marketers or people with an ideological agenda grab hold of them. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. An illegal alien in a red state is an undocumented worker in a blue state.
The National Football League would never dream of charging admission for an “exhibition game,” which doesn’t count in the standings, but will charge the regular-season tariff for a “preseason game,” which also doesn’t count in the standings.
And a builder or real estate agent would not consider selling you a “house,” which is but a building, but would love to sell you a “home,” which is a state of mind. Or once was. My online dictionary gives me a synonym study for “house” and “home”:
House “always had reference to the structure to be lived in. Home has recently taken on this meaning and become practically equivalent to house, the new meaning tending to crowd out the older connotations of family ties and domestic comfort.”
If “house” and “home” are equivalent, can we now say “house is where the heart is”? Not exactly poetry, is it?
For the Christian, those “older connotations of family ties and domestic comfort” are more than a little hard to turn loose of, especially when we speak of our eternal home. Our Father tells us we will dwell there forever with our family – all those united to one another through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
And it will be a place of surpassing comfort, of perfect peace: shalom. Home is where our peace is.
In his gospel of peace, the prophet Isaiah gives us a glimpse of home today. “And the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice, even with joy and singing.”
He is projecting an image of Mount Zion, but not that lump in the earth’s crust on which the city of Jerusalem hunkers. No, this is the same Zion we find in the Book of Revelation, God’s new creation, that glorious state in which He has made all things new:
“Then I looked, and behold, a Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His Father’s name written on their foreheads.
“And I heard a voice from heaven, like the voice of many waters, and like the voice of loud thunder. And I heard the sound of harpists playing their harps.
“They sang . . . a new song before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders; and no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth” (14:1-3).
Isaiah has been pronouncing God’s judgment on all the unrighteous nations, notably including Israel, but in chapter 35 he takes a breath and reveals what the future holds for those who love God and live according to His law.
Now, don’t try this at home – however you think of home – but Isaiah, being a prophet, stands on the timeline of history and looks in both directions at once. He looks to his left 750 years and to his right 750 years . . . and on both ends of this spectrum he spies someone named “Jesus.”
To his left he sees one we call “Joshua,” from the Hebrew Yeshua. The Greek version of this name is Iessous, or, in English, “Jesus.” If you look up the Greek translation of the Old Testament you will find Joshua called Iessous.
And by the way, the name means “Jehovah is salvation.”
The great prophet Moses is dead. His successor Joshua stands on the east bank of the River Jordan and gazes across into the land God has promised to His people Israel, a land flowing with milk and honey.
At long last Israel will complete her exodus and find her rest. God’s chosen will take possession of this good land and then they will study war no more. They will be home.
They will enter God’s peace, and their reward will be their Lord’s bountiful provision for them . . . but that will not be their great reward. He will dwell there among them on Mount Zion, and they will have uninterrupted communion with Him. God’s very presence is their great reward.
Joshua – “Jehovah is salvation” – has been accorded the great honor of leading God’s people into their promised rest and peace. When he entered the land 40 years before with nine other spies and found giants lurking there, he was one of only two who trusted in God to deliver victory to His people.
Now that generation of doubters has died off and Joshua peers into the land their children will inherit. The milk and honey remain . . . and so do the giants. God speaks to Joshua.
“I will not leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5). “Be strong and of good courage” (v. 6) . . . “Only be strong and very courageous” (v. 7) . . . “Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (v. 9).
Consider Joshua’s position. If his knees were not knocking already, I suspect that after hearing God’s command, “buck up, old boy” three times in four verses those knees are clanging like tin pots. But maybe I’m projecting myself onto him. He has God’s assurance that He will be always with him.
Isaiah takes up exodus language and invokes God’s encouragement to Joshua as, centuries later, the prophet addresses the descendants of those who crossed the Jordan. “They shall see the glory of the Lord.”
The Hebrew word for “glory” here speaks of a manifestation of God, as when He led the children of Israel through the wilderness in the form of a cloud, called the “glory cloud.” This glory would fill the tabernacle and then the temple and Moses and the Psalmist and the prophets would speak of the glory of God filling the earth – of making the creation His sanctuary.
And then comes the exhortation, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are faint-hearted, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’”
For the people of God – in Joshua’s day, Isaiah’s day, Christ’s day on earth, our own day – all of life is an exodus, for while we are in this life we are never at home. St. Paul tells us we are “members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19) and our “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20).
Home is indeed where the heart is . . . but our wayward hearts sometimes lose the signal in the homing device. I heard a story of a missionary who spent more than 50 years in Africa. He buried his wife long before his return to America and never came back on a furlough.
Finally too frail to continue God’s work, he returned. On the steamship as he journeyed back he spent long hours and days thinking of how alone he was. He had outlived all of his family members and his childhood friends as well.
When the ship docked in New York harbor he found a hotel in which to spend his first night back on his native soil in more than half a century. He went to his knees and cried out to God, “At long last I have come home and I have no one. Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am so alone.”
And then he heard a voice: “You’re not home yet.”
Isaiah looks to his right as well, and there he sees another Jesus, the Christ. Of Him the prophet says, “He will come and save you.”
And so indeed, one greater than Joshua has come. St. John tells us God has made Himself manifest among us, putting on flesh so that we might behold the very glory of God (St. John 1:14). And just as the God in the cloud led his people on an exodus, the God in the flesh does as well.
This time, He leads His chosen people not out of captivity in Egypt but out of bondage in sin. This time, He dispatches them not onto a patch of ground tucked away by the Mediterranean Sea but onto the entire globe. Yet this time as last time, He sends them out among hostiles, commanding them to trust in Him:
“Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God.”
Those without trust are without hope, and hope is the elixir of the children of God. We must have hope, for this world teems with enemies, this world is not our home. Yet Christ sends us out to overcome it, to overpower the giants, to annex all the nations to the kingdom of God. And He fills our quivers with words to assault wickedness with His all-conquering gospel of peace.
And what did our Lord say to His first disciples as He sent them out to conquer? “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
He who has hope will persevere to the end, and in the end he will reap his eternal reward. But as the great reward for Israel was not the abundant fruit of the land, the ultimate reward for the Lord’s disciples is not streets of gold or walls adorned with sapphires and emeralds.
As in Joshua’s day, the ultimate reward is God Himself, and life in His glory.
How we grunt and grasp for what is already ours, great glory. If we have placed our hope in Christ we are fellow heirs with Him and the inheritance He shares with us is the glory the Father shares with Him.
We who carry the taint of sin within us can generate no glory of our own, yet how we strive when all we need do is bask in the reflected radiance of our King. In the cross of Christ is our glory.
Of this God who will save us, Isaiah says, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing.”
The prophet gives us a glimpse of the resurrection body, the one we will put on when our Lord makes all things new. But Jesus will not wait for His second coming to begin His ministry of healing.
As we heard from St. Matthew’s gospel this morning, when John the Baptist sends disciples to ask Jesus if He is the promised one, the Lord cities these words of Isaiah as evidence that He is indeed Messiah.
But Isaiah does not stop there, nor does Christ. “For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. The parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water.”
God created through our Lord Christ and He re-creates through Him as well. This is the picture of newness of life, sin-rent bodies made whole and barren land healed by the caress of cool waters.
Life begets life and the creation sings the praises of the Creator who redeems, restores and re-creates, bathing all He has made in His grace. Our home is Eden restored, washed clean of sin by the blood of the Lamb.
“A highway shall be there, and a road, and it shall be called the Highway of Holiness.”
Here is the way into the very presence of God, but who may travel it? “The unclean shall not pass over it.”
These “unclean” are the ones in Israel who did not use the sacrifices, the means of grace God provided. They are the ones today who do not avail themselves of the final Sacrifice.
“Whoever walks the road, although a fool, shall not go astray.” God does not deny passage to the untutored or even the feckless, if only they will hope in Christ and seek His way.
Whose road is it? “The redeemed shall walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord shall return.”
This road is the route of the redeemed, those Christ has ransomed with His blood.
They shall “come to Zion with singing, with everlasting joy on their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
This is Mount Zion where the Lamb stands, and with Him those on whose foreheads the Father’s name has been written. They are singing a new song before the throne.
In the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw the Lord in a vision. Around His throne seraphim cried, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of His glory.”
Overcome by the sense of his own sin and uncleanness and that of his people, Isaiah despaired . . . until one of the seraphim took a burning coal from the altar with tongs and flew to him and touched the coal to his lips, purging his sin.
From that moment forward, God used Isaiah to proclaim the holiness of the Lord and to reveal the Highway of Holiness, which is the route of the Lord’s redeemed. And the Highway of Holiness, beloved, is our way home.
As long as we follow it we will not go astray. The way of holiness is the way of salvation God provides. The pursuit of holiness is the pursuit of God, the only Holy One.
The end of holiness is the glory of God, who has shared Himself with His creation so that His glory is seen in all the things His hands have made. The fruit of holiness is the peace of God which surpasses our understanding.
At Christmas, we think of home. Let us think of the One who came to lead us there through the exodus each one of us must make, the One who has gone on before us to prepare a place for us, the One of whom the prophet said, “He will come and save you.” Amen.
The Second Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 55, Psalm 25, Romans 15:4-13, St. Luke 21:25-33
Peace for the Asking
Delwyn was a short, skinny convict in his 30s, pale as paste, who hailed from South Dakota but had run afoul of the law in Texas. I met him in a prison I visited on a weekly basis for many years.
Each time I entered, Delwyn would greet me with a smile and each time I asked him how he was he would beam even brighter and say, “I am blessed!” He was one of those folks in whom the Holy Spirit appears to have taken up residence and then turned on all the lights and left every one of them burning.
And I encountered Delwyn many times. Long after he had completed the 18-month pre-release program Prison Fellowship operates in this particular prison, there he sat. Completing the program places no obligation whatsoever on the parole board to grant a man’s release.
Year after year, some prisoners receive a set-off, as it’s called, and after they have done everything required of them they remain on the unit for an eternity. Delwyn was one of these. I don’t know the number of years he languished in that prison but I do recall somebody telling me, “Delwyn’s got the record.”
He had served more time since entering the program than any other inmate before him. He may still hold that record.
My role as a volunteer at that time was to teach a journalism class and to oversee the prison’s monthly newsletter. When I taught my guys how to conduct an interview, I wanted to add practical experience to the instruction. I told them to bring a volunteer to class, an inmate who would sit for a mock interview.
One week, I walked in and there sat Delwyn, smiling. I asked how he was and he said, “I am blessed!” I assigned one of our class members to do the interview.
Now, asking a prisoner about his crime can be a delicate business and I coached my guys to probe gently and, if they met resistance, to move on. A mock interview wasn’t worth creating bad blood. These guys live in confining quarters.
The interviewer went to work and Delwyn did not balk in the least. In fact, his story gushed out like water from a fire hydrant. Still a teenager, he lived with a female relative and her two sons. The woman told Delwyn and her younger son that the older son, a grown man, was demon-possessed. She said there was only one way to eliminate the demon.
One night, she led Delwyn and her younger son to the man’s room and while he slept they fell upon him with hammers and murdered him.
As Delwyn spilled out the story, he might have been describing a day’s work in the prison laundry. Not a sniffle. He said he had confessed and repented and made peace with God; he could do no more.
I found myself wondering often afterward if it were truly possible to put away an act so heinous and find peace. Can it be? How can it be?
The answer comes thundering down upon us today from the eighth century before Christ in the voice of the prophet Isaiah: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord. How much higher are His thoughts and His ways than ours? “As the heavens are higher than the earth.”
Man’s shriveled understanding does not bind God. God knows a mercy beyond our imaginings, a grace above our dreams. With God, all things are possible . . . and Delwyn’s salvation is one of those things.
In this season of Advent, we celebrate the arrival in the world of the Prince of Peace. Peace pours off of Him in a torrent and falls like a spring shower on those He has made in His image. We bathe in His peace. It washes away the grime of our sin and leaves us blushing like babes in the pink of new life.
Those many centuries before the Prince of Peace came into His world, our Father told of this advent by the word of His prophet Isaiah. Isaiah publishes the gospel of peace in his time and place to disobedient Israel, which is under threat from a foreign power, urging trust in God for protection.
But his words reverberate through the corridors of time, down to the tribe of Judah in captivity in Babylon two centuries later and to those who return from exile. And, finally, to us as well, universalizing a message addressed first to those threatened with bondage to a human enemy and last to those under the yoke of sin.
Isaiah’s gospel unfolds the coming of Immanuel, God With Us (7:14) – not a disembodied principle or an unknowable being that hovers out there somewhere but a loving God who becomes one of us that He might know our temptations and trials as we know them.
The prophet declares Him the Prince of Peace and the author of an everlasting peace (9:6-7) He will establish at the end of history. This is shalom, the full measure of everything God has promised His people by His covenants. This shalom is the great blessing the priests of God in ancient Israel poured out on His people.
Is it not still so today? “The peace of God which passeth all understanding . . .” It is the peace God provides that establishes us and preserves us in the knowledge and love of God. How do we attain it?
“Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
Can it be? God’s richest blessings on offer at no cost? Is God running a soup kitchen? Indeed He is not. The price of peace is staggering . . . but because God has declared it so His prophet can pronounce our bill paid. Immanuel of chapter 7 is the Prince of Peace of chapter 9 who is the Suffering Servant of chapters 52 and 53. He pays the price in blood.
And so, peace for all! But no. In chapter 48 we read, “’There is no peace,’” says the Lord, “’for the wicked’” (v. 22).
Are not all wicked, damned by their sin? Oh, yes, if not for what God has done. In chapters 54 and 55 the prophet celebrates the saving work of the Servant. We see first the effects of that work, the healing of estrangement and despair.
Servanthood is much on the prophet’s mind, for it is both the way of salvation and the fruit of it. The heritage of God’s people is righteousness. “And their righteousness is from Me,” says the Lord. Now comes the exhortation to receive this righteousness from God that will bring with it restoration and peace.
How can it be? Despite their sins, the people of God can look heavenward now and see not the contorted face of the wrathful God who punished their disobedience with deportation and exile but the serene countenance of a loving Father who will welcome them into the very city of God.
This is a radical idea but it is not beyond the grasp of mortal men. Larry King got it – at least at the head level. The former CNN host is not a Christian but he considered prominent pastors good programming. He was fond of posing two questions to them.
First, is Jesus the one and only way to God? This was his test to determine whether the pastor would look through the camera into the eyes of a post-Christian culture and insist on the gospel truth that we can find salvation in Christ alone.
Question No. 2: Is it possible for a pedophile to find God’s forgiveness and go to heaven? A rapist . . . serial killer . . . war criminal?
Here was a test of the pastor’s trust in God’s grace. The world wants justice. You gonna buy into that jailhouse religion? Does this God of yours who will send a gentle soul of the Buddhist persuasion to hell let a mass murderer off the hook?
So Larry King may not be a Christian but he gets it. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . . but any who turn to this God called Jesus Christ can be redeemed no matter how heinous their crimes against God and man.
Even a Delwyn can attain God’s peace. The Servant has purchased their peace. Those who accept this free gift can enter into the inestimable privilege of servanthood.
“Incline your ear, and come to Me. Hear, and your soul shall live.” Come to God in obedience. Your obligation and your reward are the same, faithful service to your Master. Claim the Servant’s sacrifice as your own and become His fellow heir. Carry that sacrifice to the Father and present it to Him as payment for your sins.
“And I will make an everlasting covenant with you – the sure mercies of David.”
That covenant God made with David contained irrevocable promises of eternal mercy and peace that would be fulfilled through a Messiah who would come from the line of David. This Davidic King, we now see, is the suffering Servant. Is the eternal kingdom to be ruled by a Servant?
David the king was a witness to the power and glory of God. But now we see that he did not build a nation for himself but a platform to declare the glory of God as King of all nations. David’s royal heir will take His place upon that throne and rule over every nation. But He will not conquer with spear and bow as His illustrious father did.
He will overcome the nations with His incomprehensible, sacrificial love. Those “sure mercies of David” will spill out upon God’s people and overflow onto all nations. The Prince of Peace is David’s Son, the Servant who conquers to pardon and whose pardon imposes peace upon His creation.
Go to Him! Go to Him! His pardon is yours for the asking. Ask and ye shall receive.
“Seek the Lord while He may be found . . . Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Let him return to the Lord . . . and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.”
Who may gain this pardon? He who humbles himself and makes petition for the pardon that proffers peace. Is Delwyn forever beyond the pale of God’s peace? Was King David, adulterer and murderer, too depraved to enter into it? Who are you, o man, to decide? Are God’s thoughts your thoughts? Are your ways God’s ways?
“My word . . . shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please.” God’s infallible word reveals His purpose and His plan, but it does more. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (St. John 1:1).
God’s Word puts on flesh and dwells among men. God’s Word acts in history, bending history to His will. God’s Word puts God’s plan in motion and achieves His purpose, and that purpose is pardon.
With pardon comes peace, the great blessing. Peace upon the entire creation, peace that knows no end. This is the peace He has left with us, not peace as man gives – no parole board, willing or not, can dispense it — but as only the Prince of Peace can give (St. John 14:27).
“For you shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands . . . And it shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
Giving glory to God is our very purpose in creation. When we live according to our purpose we align ourselves with our Creator and we reflect His glory as the moon gathers light from the sun and distributes it on the planet.
The great banquet God spreads before us, saying, “Let your soul delight itself in abundance,” is the peace that comes from the pardon that is ours because our Lord has paid the price in full. His great heart yearns to pardon abundantly all who will forsake their wicked ways and return to Him.
All He asks is that we ask. And that is all He asks of any of us and all of us.
These days, Delwyn lives in a town not far from Fort Worth and drives a delivery truck. I had not thought of him for some time until on Thanksgiving Day a couple of years ago I happened upon a letter he posted on Facebook:
Dear Family, Today, I’m spending the day with Mother and my brother’s wife and son; Carrie & Caleb. What a blessing! And I’m thankful for who I belong to; To Jesus; to my family; to my friends. You may know the Lord has left me one dozen chickens to care for, and how one of the hens got her leg broken when I was tossing logs off the wood pile, last year.
So, `MaryLu` was in the basement (hospital) for a couple months. I prayed for her, and anointed her leg with oil. The wound stayed clean, and healed amazingly. Anyway, it’s been cold this week; and the chickens cuddle up together, in the hen house, each night. Before dusk, is feeding time and the other day one of the hens came running up to me! All the others were busy eating (I mean, getting after it!), and here comes MaryLu. Bending over, I said; “Well now MaryLu all the food’s over there, Girl”.
She came right up, reaching to climb in my lap. So I picked her up and brought her inside, feeding her at the place her food and water was kept last year. Twenty minutes later, I came back downstairs and she was looking around for a place to fly up and roost for the night. Picking her up, I sat her in the little bed of hay & towel. Guess what she did; She layed right down and began pecking the hay up close to her. Before I went to bed, I went down to talk to her and pet her a minute. And ya know what? None of the other hens got treated like that, but I would have picked any of them up if they had come to me. You ever wonder why The Lord our God treats some people so up close and personal? Why does He take some in His very hand, and gently place them into His favorite place for them; into the very dwelling place He stays? And so many others just stay on the ground fending for themselves? Tell me if you know. And tell me if ya love me too, like I do you. Take care now, and have a very Happy Thanksgiving! Yours Truly, Delwyn.
So wrote Delwyn the murderer. So wrote Delwyn, a man who did forsake his wicked ways and run to God and ask for His eternal pardon. So wrote Delwyn, a man at peace. Amen.
The First Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 28:14-22, Psalm 50, Romans 13:8-14, St. Matthew 21:1-13
Who Is This?
Who is this? “And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, ‘Who is this?’”
As the Feast of Passover draws nigh, thousands of pilgrims from Galilee throng the highway bound for Jerusalem, intent on offering their sacrifices to Yahweh in His temple on this high holy day and celebrating Israel’s exodus from Egypt with their countrymen.
The road the Roman army built to connect Jericho to Jerusalem winds upwards 3,000 feet over the course of its 17 miles. It passes through Bethany and Bethphage, villages on the southeast slope of the Mount of Olives.
After crossing the mount it traverses the steep Kidron Valley and drops into Jerusalem. But before he descends every traveler must pull up atop the mount, which stands 300 feet higher than the temple hill and 100 feet above the pinnacle of Mount Zion. He pauses to marvel at the panorama of the holy city before and below him.
This tableau re-forms itself each year as the Passover approaches in springtime. But this time something more is afoot. An undercurrent roils the surface.
Yonder now, behold! There in the crowd is one from Nazareth of Galilee, called Jesus. By no means is He entering Jerusalem for the first time . . . but it will be His last. For three years He has stirred the masses like a bubbling cauldron.
Some have sat at His feet gazing up in adoration. Others have branded Him an agitator and an enemy of the nation . . . and pledged to kill Him.
Give Him His due. He is a prophet; on that point all agree. But along these dusty roads prophets come and prophets go. True prophets . . . false prophets . . . Are there mixed prophets? Oy vay! Who can say? But this one is certainly a prophet.
On many other points both His fellow travelers from Galilee and the residents of Jerusalem alike find His biography jumbled, His purpose a mystery. A carpenter’s son; that much is known. As common as an olive tree.
But clearly He has an agenda. He’s up to something, make no mistake. He makes outrageous claims. Some say He thinks He’s the Son of God! We’ve seen His kind before.
Look at Him. He seems a man like any other. He has neither height nor bulk. He couldn’t swagger if His life depended on it. He strikes no commanding pose that makes of Him a magnet.
But the stories! He has done wondrous works . . . turning water into wine . . . even raising the dead! What mere man can perform miracles such as these? Are they not signs of . . .? Who is this?
As He makes His way through the villages and between the farmsteads the clamor rises. Jesus seems unperturbed. Up til now He has shunned crowds as others dodge lepers . . . and plunged into the midst of lepers, bringing His mystical healing touch.
When He has healed the sick and even the blind, He has admonished those He has blessed not to proclaim Him. But now He seems to invite a public spectacle.
On His frequent journeys over the span of those three years He has always walked. What else for one of His station? Do carpenters travel in chariots? But now He sits astride a donkey.
Now, about this donkey and her colt. He has sent two of His disciples into a village to fetch them. If any villager should challenge them they are to say, “The Lord has need of them.” Not “our Lord” or “your Lord” but the Lord. A curious locution. Does He suppose He is Lord of all?
Look! The multitude are spreading their clothes on the road and bringing palm fronds to lay in His path.
This is a reception fit for a conquering general or a returning king. But . . . a donkey? If He is such an exalted personage, should He not straddle a warhorse, a formidable beast, snorting and stamping?
Israel’s prophets of yore promised a Messiah, One who would liberate the people living in bondage as Moses had done, yet One greater than Moses. Could this be He? Who is this?
Listen! The people are invoking the prophecy of Zechariah:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9).
Can this be He? Listen again; pay heed to what they add:
“Hosanna to the Son of David! `Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’ Hosanna in the highest!”
“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!” is from their Passover song, Psalm 118, which tells, “The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” One prophetic voice after another sings out in fulfillment.
And Hosanna? In the prophet’s day it meant, “Save us”; a plea for rescue. In these times it is an effusion of praise: Hail Him! Are they praying to Him for salvation or celebrating Him as their king?
What else do they add? “Son of David.” For their promised Deliverer will be of the line of their forefather, the all-conquering King David who routed the Philistines and saved his people, who lifted Israel to her greatest glory.
As Jesus enters Jerusalem the ground seems to shake. The Judeans, bedazzled, cry out, “Who is this?” The Galileans reply with one voice, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee.”
Yes, but . . . A prophet? The prophet? The final prophet? Might He be One yet greater still?
Look again at the solitary figure mounted on the donkey. Look closely and you may make out up ahead the shadow of the cross. Encompassed by a multitude, He is utterly alone. He speaks not a word. Like those prophets of old, He makes His statement by symbolic works, a parable enacted.
Humble, lowly, He arrives upon a borrowed donkey. Or is it His? Has He claimed this brute creature as Creator of all and so Owner of all? Who is this?
Is He human or is He divine?
Come to conquer or to scatter peace?
Royal or common?
Humble or exalted?
Bound for crucifixion or for resurrection?
Who is this?
Upon His donkey, He enters Jerusalem, the royal city of His father David; Jerusalem, the holy city; Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets.
But did not Isaiah tell us the One who comes to save would come to suffer?
A triumphal entry for a Suffering Servant? Amen. For only from suffering arises the humility to conquer the arrogance of sin, the sin of arrogance.
But enough! you protest. Enough of a picture that defies focus. Who is this? Say it plainly, is he man or is He God?
Aye, there’s the question. For if He is not fully man, able to take the sins of all mankind upon Himself, He cannot save us. He cannot redeem what He does not assume. And if He is not fully God, who alone can forgive sin, He cannot save us.
For we are they who thronged the highway to Jerusalem. Jew, Gentile, it matters not. Babylon or Rome or Mecca. The enemy from whom He came to save us is called by the name Sin.
Then must not our Deliverer be both God and man?
So He must be. This is His Advent, His Coming. Not to judge – the judgment awaits His second coming. But to save.
Today, beloved, we may give thanks that our fathers in the earliest days of the church took the question head-on: Who is this? They struggled with it mightily, sometimes bitterly. They knew they must, for they must produce a creed – not to define Christ but to describe Him in terms to which all the faithful must agree.
Cast an eye abroad today and you will see many trying to make God understandable. The Creator penetrated by the mind of the creature? Preposterous. Our fathers in the church would have none of it. We are eternally in their debt.
For this question, “Who is this?” is the very fulcrum of our being. Every one of us must face up to it. Is He the political Messiah for whom so many in Israel yearned, come to free us from the struggles of this vain life? Or is He the Holy One of whom the prophets spoke, born to suffer to take away our sin?
Do you find it surpassing strange that the lectionary elves place this episode before us today? As we embark on the path that leads to the manger they bend our thoughts to the road that leads to the cross.
Perhaps not so strange. He came, He died. He came to die. The 12th-century monk Hugh of St. Victor considered the matter:
“I think of God, born of a woman, a wordless baby, swaddled, crying in a cradle, sucking at the breast. I see Him later, seized and bound, wounded with scourges, crowned with thorns, spattered with spittle, pierced, nailed, and given gall and vinegar to drink. First, He bore indignities, and later outrages; and yet, if we look for the reason why He condescended to the one and bore the other, we find not any except (love) alone.”
Love alone. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Will you receive God’s love? Will you receive God’s Son? For these arrayed along the highway shouting “Hosanna!” today are those who will return on Friday to bellow, “Crucify!”
Heart of stone or heart of flesh? Crucify Him and remain rooted in your sinful pride. Hail Him as your Savior and allow God to wrap you in His love.
So begins Advent. Jesus Christ is coming. Prepare to meet Him again. And rejoice, Christian; sing out “Hosanna!”: Save us! “Hosanna!”: We praise You! Amen.
The Sunday Next Before Advent
Jeremiah 3:14-18, Psalm 39, Jeremiah 23:5-8, St. John 6:5-14
One Bread, One Way
If you’ve hung out much in church – and don’t try to deny it; I know a couple of you have – you’ve heard the story of the feeding of the 5,000 preached about 5,000 times. And if I were a gamblin’ man I’d wager you feel as though you’ve heard 5,000 preachers say that number refers only to the men arrayed on that hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.
Toss in the women and children, the preacher always says, and the total could be 20,000 or 25,000.
That information is accurate, but is it relevant? Would it matter if there had been 50,000 hungry souls sitting with hands outstretched?
The limit on God’s provision is never His power, always human need. And even that is an elastic boundary, for He always supplies far more than His people require. This is the God who offers life more abundantly, and we never see that truth illustrated more vividly than in this passage.
When those countless thousands have eaten their fill – not merely enough to sustain them but to satisfy them – the Lord sends His disciples to gather the leftovers. And they collect an excess far greater than the morsels He began with. Would it have mattered if there had been 500,000 men, women and children to feed? Indeed, it would not.
So we have many and we have one and we have two: many hungry souls, one Provider and two menu items, bread and fish. Forget the second for now. Fish figure into the gospel story elsewhere; in this episode they are merely a bit of added flavor. It is the bread that gives life.
St. John is pointing us to something, and we shouldn’t need a Geiger counter to locate it. A few verses later he will report our Lord’s staggering declaration: “I am the Bread of Life.”
John develops the bread metaphor through the remainder of this sixth chapter. Jesus rebukes His followers for gawking at Him as the wizard who performed the feeding miracle without looking past it and grasping that He is the life of the world.
“Do not labor for the food which perishes,” He tells them, “but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.”
What do they know of bread? Their fathers feared they were perishing in the wilderness but their leader Moses called down manna – bread – from heaven, and it sustained them. Didn’t he?
“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’”
And, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”
Finally, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.”
It is Jesus and no other who is the bread of life. One Lord, one bread. When we gather we receive Him in the bread, His flesh. But we receive Him by faith, and if our faith is to be rightly placed we must know the One in whom we invest it. How do we know Him? We know Him by His word.
And the Lord had scarcely returned to His Father on high when men began distorting that word. False teachers began to insinuate themselves into the churches and to lead the sheep astray.
So it is that St. Paul testifies in the first chapter of his letter to the Galatians: “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.”
In the Greek, let him be “anathema.” It is no mean thing to be anathema.
Beloved, we must be united in the gospel of Christ. Instructed by His word, we must be of one will when we approach His table to receive the one bread. For that is our Lord’s desire for us. John goes, in chapter 17, to relate these words of Jesus as He prays to His Father and ours:
“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.”
A church is a community of believers and a community must have a common core. Let me put the matter more plainly: We must be on the same page. Those who have been in the Front Porch Ministry sessions have heard it from Bp. Sutton: A church cannot hope to grow unless and until it is truly united.
And in some important ways we at St. Michael’s are not on the same page. We do not come forward each Lord’s day to receive Christ with a common understanding of who Christ is, of how we are saved, of what mission He has given His church.
I’m shooting straight with you now. I will be your priest for only a few more weeks. I’m running out of time and there are some things that need to be said as you prepare to confront another change. I say these things out of a sense of duty and a spirit of love: I want nothing more than for you to come together in truly biblical fellowship.
Change is often difficult for a church. I recall the teaching of Archdeacon Payne in a class at Cranmer Theological House. He said a new rector should make no changes in the first year of his incumbency and no major changes in the first three years.
Those words hit home with me. To begin knocking over apple carts would be to say, in effect, that the man he replaced had gotten things wrong – and that would be most unwise. Then I arrived in Durango, Colo., to take my first cure and in my first month there more than half of the people in that small congregation asked me, “When are you going to start changing things?”
I thought perhaps they didn’t truly want change but were humoring me. But a month later they were asking me again, “When are you going to start changing things?” Their church had been shrinking and turning grayer. They were willing – nay, eager — to adapt – to change – to survive.
In time I came to Broken Arrow and to another small church in decline. Naively, I suppose, I expected the same practical attitude. I got a surprise. The predominant opinion appeared to be that, declining or not, everything should remain the same. The archdeacon’s instruction that had not fit the situation I inherited in Durango appeared entirely applicable here.
A priest walks a fine line. For a new priest, the more so. If he tries to nudge parishioners onto a different course they may flee, or remain and tune him out. If he finds them in error and does nothing by way of remedy he will fail in his duty as a shepherd of the sheep. The patient approach is undoubtedly the best.
But due to circumstances I could not foresee I have run out of time. You will soon have a new rector, I trust, and it will be his brief to mold you into one – united in your understanding of who the Lord is when you receive him each Sunday.
I will have failed utterly if I do not ask you to consider how you will relate to this man. To begin with, you must relate to him as Anglicans.
This is a hierarchical church. Our democratic and egalitarian culture has all but obliterated hierarchy in the church but the Scriptures haven’t changed. Recall that when Bp. Banek visited us a few months ago he told you that our word “rector” comes from the Latin for “ruler.” The rector is put in place to rule the parish.
Will your new priest be your servant? Of course he will. He stands in the place of Christ, who is both your Servant and your King.
That is the structure the Bible gives us. In Acts, we see the disciples devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching. The bishops are the successors to the apostles. In Ephesus alone by the time the last apostle died there were dozens of churches. Bishops – episkopoi – designated elders – presbuteroi – to oversee the individual churches. “Priest” is merely a shortened form of “presbyter.”
We find Paul serving as archbishop, instructing Timothy and Titus in the role of bishops as they supervise the presbyters, or priests, in the various churches, which they rule. This is the order of the ancient church, of which we are heirs.
And yet I hear, “Well, you’ve got your opinion and I’ve got mine.” That is the church following in the way of the world, not the way of the word. It is certainly not the Anglican way and it is not the way of unity.
You have chosen to be Reformed Episcopalians. Subject yourselves to the Reformed Episcopal Church. Be faithful Reformed Episcopalians.
That means accepting the instruction of your rector, whom you will call but whom your bishop must certify and institute. If you would be devoted to your bishop’s teaching you will devoted to the teaching of the man he approves to represent him at St. Michael’s.
His authority is not absolute. Should you hear from him anything contrary to the gospel of our Lord or to the canons and constitution of the Reformed Episcopal Church you have ways of redress available to you. But if your rector is presenting a faithful witness he is the authority in the parish. His is not one opinion among many.
You will not become one as our Lord Jesus wishes you to be one by chasing diverse doctrines. It grieves my heart to say this as I prepare to leave you but there are souls hanging in the balance here. I have become aware over the last few months that some among us believe their works can save them.
Some say Jesus is not the only way to God the Father. These are salvation issues. Your eternal destiny is at stake. Repent!
Others cling to views at odds with the doctrine of the Reformed Episcopal Church. These are not matters of mere taste without consequence for the oneness of the body of Christ. I want to show you why they are not.
If you are awaiting the Rapture you will be disappointed. There is no Rapture. That is part of a view held by a small, very vocal minority of the world’s Christians known as dispensationalists. Neither Anglicans nor Roman Catholics nor Eastern Orthodox nor Lutherans nor Presbyterians subscribe to it. Dispensationalists hold a premillennial eschatology. The Jerusalem that will be restored is the heavenly Jerusalem which God will occupy when He transfers His throne from heaven to earth.
We are not dispensationalists and we hold a postmillennial view. For our purpose today, the difference it makes is that your eschatology – your view of the end times – affects your ecclesiology – your view of the church.
Those who hold the premillennial view are waiting to be taken out of this world. Those who hold the postmillennial view are committed to renovating this world in preparation for Christ’s return to transfer His eternal throne to it. Eschatology controls in large measure what we believe God has commissioned His church to do.
Some embrace the prosperity gospel. It relies on a method of interpreting Scripture that leaves out important chunks. Its preachers may quote the Bible and they may deliver sermons containing nothing objectionable. Heretics, including Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, do the same.
Those who advance the prosperity gospel will not preach the sacrifice our Lord has demanded of His followers in emulation of Him because they cannot square it with their claims that He wants health and wealth for those of true faith.
They obscure the treasures of the eternal kingdom by their incessant promotion of the things of this realm which is passing away. This is, to use St. Paul’s term, a perverted gospel and it has no place in this church.
Finally, some among you hold fast to a way of Anglicanism you learned in days gone by. Let me tell you a brief story.
When I arrived here Fr. Robert explained to me that my way of celebrating the Eucharist was not the right way – which is to say the way he had learned it going back to his days as an acolyte in the Episcopal Church in Oklahoma.
And I thought back to my time in Durango, when a retired priest who attended our church there informed me my way of celebrating was not the right way because it was not the way he had learned it going back to his days as an acolyte in the Episcopal Church in North Carolina. And Fr. Randolph’s way and Fr. Robert’s way do not line up on every point.
If you were watching when Bp. Sutton celebrated here this summer, his method matched neither mine nor Fr. Robert’s in some particulars. I do not know how the man you call to replace me will celebrate Holy Communion.
I do know that he will be your rector and you will owe him the honor he is due in that capacity. His calling and his training have equipped him in a way you are not equipped. His opinion is not one among many.
I do know that if you would approach the Lord’s table and take into yourselves the body of Christ as the one body of Christ you must put away diverse doctrines and unite under the apostles’ teaching as delivered by your bishop through your priest. You must make the Anglican way – our Anglican way – your way. And at last you will be one, according to the desire of our Lord.
We embark next on the season of Advent, a time of reflection and renewal for all Christians. I pray you will use it, each and every one, to contemplate how you can make St. Michael’s more united and more powerful in the service of our Lord. Amen.
The Twenty-Third Sunday After Trinity
Isaiah 64, Psalm 33, Philippians 3:17-21, St. Matthew 22:15-22
Where We Stand
For a time in the 12th century, Thomas Becket wore two rings. King Henry II made his closest chum and long-time partner in drinking, hunting and other manly pursuits Chancellor of England.
Henry was merely formalizing a relationship already in place. The chancellor was the king’s top counselor, and Thomas already filled that role. Henry valued his shrewdness, a quality he needed especially in his jousting with the church.
The king wanted to fill the royal coffers so he could prosecute a war in France to take back territories the English crown had once held. He derived all of his revenues from taxes on landowners. The church held vast expanses of land but the bishops refused to pay taxes. Church property, they said, was exempt.
Henry tapped Thomas to advise him in his wrangling with the obstinate bishops. And then, from the royal perspective, a most propitious thing happened: The Archbishop of Canterbury died. In a flash of inspiration, the king determined to see his crony Thomas installed in the top church post in the realm.
Thomas got his second ring and the king got his man at the head of the church in England. No one could thwart Henry’s desires now.
A conflict of interest? Exponentially. Thomas was now the highest-ranking servant in the realms of both God and king, church and state. And ere long, all hell broke loose o’er England.
When it did, the strangest thing happened. The archbishop got religion. He fell to his knees and prayed . . . and he saw his duty clearly. His first loyalty must be to God. He soon collided with the king, and Henry trumped up a charge of embezzlement against Thomas, who in his role of chancellor had been overseer of the royal treasury.
In the end, the king grumbled loudly, and perhaps drunkenly, in the presence of four of his barons that he would be better off with Thomas dead. They fulfilled that royal wish . . . and Henry closed this sad chapter by stripping them of their estates. Each of them died in a monastery, impoverished.
This nasty business in medieval England differs only in the particulars from other dalliances involving civil and ecclesiastical authorities. The state always wins. It wins because sinful men love the things of the kingdom of man more than those of the kingdom of God.
We heard of such as these in our reading this morning from Philippians, the ones “whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is their shame – who set their mind on earthly things” (3:19).
St. Paul contrasts these enemies of the cross of Christ with Christians: “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ . . .” (3:20).
Yet still today, some insist that the cure for our ills is a merger of church and state. God is not numbered among them.
As far back as Mt. Sinai He weighed in on the matter. Even in a nation that bowed to Him as their King, God instituted a divided hierarchy. He installed His prophet Moses at the head of the civil administration and Moses’ brother Aaron as high priest over the religious authority.
In that theocracy, the division was far less crisp than in 21st-century America, but it was real and it was God-ordained.
In our gospel lesson for today, we hear our Lord Jesus enunciating this principle in response to another of the Pharisees’ tedious attempts to trip him up. This time, they go in cahoots with the Herodians, who represent the civil government, and pose the question about paying taxes to Caesar.
Zealous Jews maintained that using Roman coins, which bore the image of Caesar, who claimed to be a god, amounted to idolatry. Will Jesus denounce Caesar to uphold Jewish law, inflaming the Herodians and inviting a charge of treason? Or will He deny that law to appease the Herodians and their Roman masters and arouse pious Jews to assail Him?
Either way, He indicts Himself. At last they have set the perfect trap. He will not wriggle free this time.
“And He said to them, ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’”
Oh. He has confounded them again.
When our Lord returns, we will have a pure theocracy without tension between loving God and loving our neighbor. Our perfected faith in our Creator will inform all decisions regarding life in community. We will not even conceive of treating our fellow subjects in a way that does not honor our King.
Until that glorious day, we must have a secular government alongside the church to co-exist in the kingdom of man. We live cheek-by-jowl with non-Christians who do not subscribe to our code. The body politic must have a structure to administer and adjudicate our civil affairs. And so, “Render to Caesar . . . render to God . . .”
In our present circumstances, of course, keeping our balance with one foot in each realm grows more difficult by the day. The kingdom of man appears to be bulldozing the kingdom of God off of our shores. The moral decay we see around us causes us to weep.
And we have an enemy and this enemy does not rest. He plays dirty, you say? No news there. He plays dirty to tempt us to adopt his rules, to set our minds on earthly things and take our eye off of the realm of our eternal citizenship. The temptation to engage with him on his ground tugs at us relentlessly.
I confess I found myself succumbing to it. I was parsing out every item in the news and fretting over each new sign of rot. I had allowed the enemy to make me a captive of my grievances and the stimulation I received from entertaining them. Had I replaced the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with those of Greta, Bill, Megyn and Sean?
So I turned off the news and turned to the Scriptures to understand the temper of the times. And I saw anew : God is sovereign over time and tide, history and philosophy, men and governments. As the psalmist sang, better is one day in His courts than a thousand elsewhere (84:10).
Because He is above all things, God is worthy of worship. And because He is our King, His courts are our battleground. We must take our stand in the precincts of our all-powerful Sovereign, under His protection, and not on the foreign soil of the secularists.
We have tried the latter strategy. We need not look back so far as the 12th century to see the error of trying to merge church and state. Late in the 20th century we saw the Moral Majority and likeminded groups bid to make a political party their vehicle for instilling a renewed biblical ethic in the nation.
They leapt into the arms of secular conservatives – many of whom can be found in church – and congregations marched in lockstep to the polls in return for a pile of promises — such as an end to abortion. Well . . . it has been 44 years since the Supreme Court’s monstrous Roe v. Wade decision. Do you see an end in sight?
Politics is the art of compromise. The secularists – those rooted in the shifting values of this age – tack more nimbly on the sea of politics than do Christians whose consciences are bound by the cords of God’s everlasting, unalterable truth.
Our national moral malaise is a matter not of bad politics but of bad faith. Our materialism – the word describes setting our minds on earthly things – has left us prey to the predations of our enemy. A government that opposes God’s law is not the root of a godless culture but the fruit of it.
Our enemy the devil knows that the kingdom of man is passing away and on this shifting sand he is making his last stand. Desperate, he fights ferociously. And he makes pawns of non-Christian rulers, who inhabit the delusion that their pathetic victories are durable when in fact they are constructed of wisps of smoke.
Can he prevail? In the end, no, but look at the short-term damage he has wrought. He has induced a nation built on a foundation of Christian ideals to re-interpret or even abandon our fundamental religious text, the Bible. And if we have no recourse to divine truth, we can hardly stand on a man-made foundation constructed upon it called the Constitution.
The truth of both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man is now an open question, subject to debate at every turn and to revision at the whim of the majority in the heat of the moment. We answer to no authority outside of us, greater than ourselves, established in either an eternal divine perfection or an original national ethos.
In neither realm do we as a nation look to the ideals that saved us and sustained us. In their place we allow our ever-evolving appetites and ambitions to govern us. We are “children, tossed to and fro and carried about on every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). In more prosaic language, “We are the change we seek.”
When the enemy has corroded our trust in our holy writ and the law contained within it, he has in the same flick of his wrist crushed the national law code that was built upon it. The Ten Commandments still hang in the chamber of the Supreme Court . . . but only until someone figures out what to replace them with to cover up that faded spot on the wall.
The enemy is “more cunning than any beast of the field” (Genesis 3:1) and he does not abandon a strategy that has served him well from his beginning. When he undercuts a citizen’s commitment to transcendence — to locating his significance and purpose in something outside himself, more powerful than himself, more worthy than himself — he empties him as well of devotion to a shared community ethos.
One who has lost his faith in God will soon find himself incapable of allegiance to the once-Christian state.
We are becoming what C. S. Lewis called “men without chests.” The chest is the place where the thoughts that descend from the mind and the yearnings that well up from the gut find synthesis in things like love for God and love for country.
Men without chests look up worshipfully to their speculations they think so high and noble and simultaneously bow down to their base cravings which they contend make them “only human” . . . and seem to have no conception of how twisted and absurd they look.
The enemy knows the creature’s need for order and structure. He tempted Adam and Eve and got them evicted from the garden God gave them. Outside it, they and their offspring to this day have wandered, trying to set our own boundaries and impose our own order.
Israel would pay no heed to God’s prophets and God used their enemies to afflict them, to herd them into bondage outside the land He gave them, under the rule of godless men. Today, our enemy pushes the lie that we do not need the church God mandated in any institutional sense. Each is free to speak to God according to his own understanding without human oversight and correction.
The God-ordained structure called the church crumbles and the enemy roams at will among those who amble hither and yon without the discipline that gives cohesion. And those who find no need for the walls of the church have determined that the state can draw the lines of our morality according to our national consensus. By the time they awaken to the grim reality that the consensus does not exist, we will have anarchy.
The Christian citizen sees both church and state tumbling down and he wants to seize the weapon nearest at hand and engage the enemy on the spot. The enemy sees our distress and urges us to take up his carnal weapons and to engage on his soil. He knows that a Christian is a citizen and a Christian citizen is subject to the governing authorities.
If the enemy can make us hate the ones we must obey, he can undermine our citizenship both on earth and in heaven . . . for in loathing our national leaders rather than praying for them we rebel against our rulers in both kingdoms.
Our enemy would have us forget that we contend not against flesh and blood but “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). And from the prince of the power of the air a smug smile descends to blanket our land.
He has no power in the kingdom of God on high, the church triumphant, but he roams to and fro upon the earth, kicking over garbage bins on his playground, the secular sphere. The contested territory is the church militant, where God has given His people for a brief season the privilege of contesting for our faith, of winning more souls to His cause.
Where then do we take our stand? In the kingdom of heaven on this earth. On the victory that the One who ushered in that kingdom has already won. On the promise of His return in glory to make all things new. This is our turf.
Our weapon is not politics but evangelism and discipleship. We fight with the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (6:17). This is how the kingdom of God advances.
How is He with us? In the word He has given and the sacraments He has commanded – in baptism for the remission of sins; in Holy Communion, where we partake of the consecrated bread and wine according to His promise that He will be in us and we in Him.
He has equipped us with all the spiritual gifts needed to form ourselves into His church. But we must be careful to define our mission in His terms and not our own. Our weapon is not politics but evangelism and discipleship — but those are only weapons.
The main thing is worship.
And worship is where we make our stand. If we do not worship in spirit and in truth – meaning in the power of the Holy Spirit and the truth of the Living Word – we will have nothing of value to say to the pagans we evangelize or to the immature Christians we disciple.
In worship we receive God’s grace by God’s appointed means; in worship we renew our covenant commitment to our Lord and Savior; in worship we ascend into the heavenly places to join our voices to those of angels and departed saints in choruses of praise to God; in worship we find our foretaste of glory divine.
In worship, we celebrate not what we will do . . . but what God has done.
This is where the war to end all wars will be won. We will prevail with Him by standing our ground with Him where we meet with Him – at His table in His church. When the people of God render to God the worship due God, He will claim His victory and we will have our reward, the glory of His eternal presence. Amen.
The 21st Sunday After Trinity
Isaiah 59:15b-21, Psalm 76, Ephesians 6:10-20, St. John 4:46-54
His Mercy Endures
Back in Colorado, we were living temporarily above 8,000 feet on a mountain about 30 minutes west of town. In the fall, we could watch the elk gnaw on the trees near the house. An eagle kept watch from his perch 50 yards away. It was all awfully rustic.
One day I learned in the daily report that a varmint had penetrated our perimeter.
Now, you must understand that my wife grew up on a farm. The appearance of a mouse does not excite in her hysteria of the stand-on-a-chair-and-shriek kind.
But in the washing machine?
In the way of his kind, little Tom or Jerry – we can’t be sure – proved elusive. Even in that restricted space, she could not catch him barehanded. She hatched a plan.
She returned with a piece of cheese and a plastic container. That morsel of Muenster proved a fateful temptation. When he pounced on the cheese she pounced on him. Voila! She held him captive.
She headed for the door, intending to release him into the wild where he could roam the Rockies, for all she cared, in search of more agreeable accommodation. On the way, alas, he escaped his plastic prison and scurried off in the garage.
Oh, well. She had flushed him from her washer. So far so good.
But it was – I’d swear it on the Bible – the very next washday when she reported, “He’s back in the washer . . . the same mouse.”
The same mouse?
“I recognized him.”
I of all people do testify to her patient and forgiving nature; still . . . she has her limits. This time, no more Mrs. Nice Gal. This time, that mouse underwent an Egyptian baptism in churning waters that do not part . . . followed by the spin cycle.
Then she cast the furry remains into that dusky netherworld where unrepentant rodents go to ponder the price of their transgressions. That mouse could have accepted her grace with thanksgiving. Instead, he vexed her once too often.
Many people are like that mouse.
St. John takes us to a fork in the road today. At the end of the fourth chapter of his gospel, we find our Lord Jesus back in Cana, the scene of the first of His seven signs. This time, He will perform a miracle more stunning by gallons than turning water into wine.
Of that first miracle, the evangelist has reported, “This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him” (2:11). The Lord went next to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of the Passover, and there He performed more miracles. These are not specified but because of them many more “believed in His name” (2:23).
Follow closely now the progression of events that ensues. In Jerusalem, a Pharisee called “a ruler of the Jews,” Nicodemus by name, approaches Jesus under cover of darkness. Nicodemus confesses that those miracles have proved to him that Jesus had “come from God” (3:2).
Flattery will get him nowhere. Jesus stuns him with the announcement that to enter the kingdom of God one must be born again (3:3). Huh? Nicodemus is bewildered, and his confusion earns him scorn.
Jesus says, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” (3:10). And, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (3:12).
Poor ol’ Nicodemus . . . you just want to hug him. He has taken the unthinkable step of paying homage to this radical rabbi from the hills who has just now thrown the money-changers out of the temple and claimed He could rebuild that temple in three days. For his devotion he gets a tongue-lashing.
But Jesus does nothing without a purpose. While Jews of no reputation, rustics in Galilee and commoners in the capital, believe in His name, the elite of Israel cannot conceive that Messiah has appeared.
Even those such as Nicodemus who do not oppose Jesus, who regard Him as one sent by God, do not grasp the nature of His Person and His mission. This Jesus is the Light of the World. His disciples come to Him in broad daylight, not when darkness blankets the Holy Land. The wealthy and privileged know their Scriptures and the promise of a Savior they hold out; are they blind?
Yet how many today grow up in Christian homes, regular in worship and study, only to wander away and never return. In my own family we have a young man, now in his middle 30s, who fled the faith in his late teens and appears bent on pushing back the frontier of immorality. Will he ever come back? God knows.
Nothing less than the kingdom of God has arrived in the Person of Jesus Christ. He has come to the Jew first and then to the Greek (Romans 1:16, 2:10). But the leaders of Israel, as represented by Nicodemus, the best of them, have inherited and perpetuated a legacy of calcification.
Over generations, over centuries, they have so corrupted the revelation God has given through the law and the prophets that when Messiah appears the best they can do is gawk at His mighty works with no understanding of the “why” of them. They are like children entranced by a magician.
The worst they can do is seek to destroy this God who has challenged the kingdom of man they have constructed so painstakingly on a foundation of sand.
Jesus moves on. We follow Him next, in chapter 4, moving northward through Samaria, where He encounters the woman at the well. We see Him proceeding from a distinguished Jewish teacher to a most common creature.
She is not a Jew and, even worse, she is a member of that despised race of half-breeds descended from the Assyrian conquerors of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the least of the Jews whom they left in the land. She is not a male but a female, and as such her status is little higher than that of a bondservant.
She has a tarnished past and is today a fornicator. Surely, Messiah would not waste a single moment, expend a single breath, on one such as her.
Oh, but He will. God is unfurling His kingdom on the earth and if those to whom the great feast is offered will not enter, the King will call others. Did He not say by His prophet Isaiah, “The Lord has made bare His holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (52:10)?
Jesus says to this woman, “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). The Hebrew Scriptures taught throughout that salvation, in the Person of the Messiah, would enter the world through the Jewish nation. Now He has, and His own do not know Him, but . . .
The Samaritan woman believes, and testifies to others in her city. Many believe her, but then they believe in the One of whom she bears witness: “’Now we believe, not because of what you said, for we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world’” (4:42).
Not Jews but Samaritans echo the confession of John the Baptist, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29).
Stay with me in the flow, now, because our understanding of our text for today rises when we see in it the climax of the events that precede it. St. John relates in the next two verses that after spending two days in that city of Samaria the Lord proceeds farther north into Galilee. Why?
“For Jesus Himself testified that a prophet has no honor in his own country” (4:44).
He is going home to those who hold Him familiar. He’s the carpenter’s kid, not a rock-star rabbi from the capital. Who there will recognize Him for who He is?
His fellow Galilean Jews “receive” Him. They welcome Him, treat Him with deference. Why? They have “seen all the things He did in Jerusalem at the feast; for they also had gone to the feast” (4:45). They accord Him the drooling adulation of teen-aged girls at a concert, not the honor due a Prophet of God.
And now we arrive at the episode of the nobleman whose son is dying. This man is probably a Roman official working in the administration of Herod Antipas, governor of Galilee. The gentile government in the region is headquartered at Sepphoris, three-and-a-half miles from Nazareth, where Jesus grew up.
This nobleman lives in Capernaum, at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. Having heard of Jesus and His mighty works, he treks westward through the mountains to Cana, 20 miles distant, to plead for his son’s life.
And he, like Nicodemus, earns a rebuke. “Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus says to him, “you will by no means believe.”
Jesus is not addressing this gentile official alone but the Galileans who have thronged to this wonder-working rabbi. St. John, who makes so much of the seven signs he shows us the Lord performing, is not condemning the signs themselves but those who will not regard them as manifestations of One endued with divine power and authority.
For the nobleman, the Lord’s words are a test of faith. Will he skulk away, humiliated by the accusation that he is imploring help from a wizard rather than the Creator of heaven and earth?
“Sir,” he says urgently, “come down before my child dies!” (4:49). He did not come looking for a theology lecture; he’s trying to save his son. He knows in the depths of his soul that Jesus has the power of life and death. He is the life of the world. Is that not the faith to which you and I are called?
But Jesus does not budge a single step. “Go your way; your son lives,” He says (4:50). And the man’s faith is sufficient. He simply turns and goes, trusting. And then he confirms, perhaps for the benefit of his servants he meets on the way home, that the boy’s fever broke at the time Jesus pronounced him healed.
“And he himself believed, and his whole household” (4:53).
The rulers of the Jews will not believe, but many Samaritans and now an official of the occupying force and his family and servants do. From what does this love of God spring? From need, need for a God who first loved us.
But one born into sin must put away pride. He must first humble himself to admit his need for the saving power of One greater than he.
A nobleman of the ruling Romans pours out his need to a low-born carpenter of the subservient people. You and I have the great privilege of approaching our Lord on His throne to beg, “Lord, have mercy upon us.”
First, the Jews of Jerusalem; next the Samaritans; then the gentile nobleman in Galilee. The evangelist is showing us our Lord foreshadowing the mission of His church revealed in the Book of Acts. In chapter 1, the resurrected Jesus says:
“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (v. 8).
In chapter 2, St. Peter tells the Jews gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost to repent and be baptized (v. 38), adding, “For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off (the gentiles), as many as the Lord our God will call” (v. 39).
In chapter 10 we encounter the Roman centurion Cornelius who feared God “with all his household.” In chapter 16, first Lydia and then the Philippian jailer come to faith and they and their entire households are baptized. The kingdom is billowing out to blanket the known world.
In the fourth chapter of his gospel, meanwhile, St. John shows us his Lord and ours at that fork in the road. He will take the path that leads to the cross, where He will make the final sacrifice – not for one tribe or nation but for those from all tribes and nations.
Opposition in Israel will mount even as Jesus’ fame grows among those enchanted by His signs and wonders until, in chapter 6, He tells the adoring masses, “. . . unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (v. 53).
And His popularity plummets. A gentile nobleman trusted in Him as the life of the world but Jesus’ fellow Jews will not make that radical confession. Salvation is “of the Jews” but masses of the Jews will join their leaders in rejecting their promised Messiah.
For us gentiles, I suppose, there would be no end of comfort in leaving the story there. Alas, we know too many people like the mouse who would not accept grace.
When I was attending another school before I moved over to our Reformed Episcopal seminary, Cranmer Theological House, I had a professor in a preaching class who told of his own father.
This man had heard the gospel of God’s salvation from his son, who was eminently qualified to present it, and he refused it. “I want to go to hell,” he told his son, and no argument, no plea, could dissuade him. “For the life I’ve lived, hell is where I deserve to be, and hell is where I want to go.”
Few are quite so candid, but many share the sentiment.
Rejection of the gospel burbles up from a pit of perverse pride that makes one’s own acts the measure of his worth before God and not faith in the consummate act of the Lord Jesus on the cross. If only those who lived a meritorious life entered the kingdom of heaven, its population would never exceed Three.
But God’s mercy endures . . . and it extends to all who draw breath, to both Jew and gentile. The way of salvation is open today to any Jew who will name Jesus as the promised Messiah.
Indeed, the New Testament shows Samaritans and gentiles embracing God’s grace in no small measure to fill the first covenant people with envy. St. Paul writes in Romans 11 that he takes the gospel to the gentiles to “provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them.”
The way is open to that young man in my family. His Christian parents named him Paul and his namesake was once a sworn enemy of the Lord Christ. The way is open, if he is still alive, to that seminary professor’s father.
Salvation dangles like low-hanging fruit before anyone who will join the gentile nobleman who humbled himself before a Jewish carpenter’s son, placing his trust in Jesus Christ as the life of the world. His kingdom has come. He abides with us today in His Holy Spirit. He is our Redeemer, our Head, our joy . . . and the hope of the world. Amen.
The 20th Sunday After Trinity
Psalm 11, Ecclesiastes 9:4-10, Ephesians 5:15-21, St. Matthew 22:1-14
The Reformation Proceeds
And so we come, beloved, to a milestone in the long march of Christ’s church. Two days hence, on October 31, the eve of the Feast of All Saints, we will mark the 500th anniversary of that momentous day when – according to the lore – a monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg.
So began the Reformation, at the outset an effort to call the church back to the Bible. The result, alas, was a splintering of that church into thousands of pieces, some larger and some smaller, and the chaos that prevails today, half a millennium later.
Protestants fired the pope . . . and made every man his own pope. We have divisions and divisions within divisions. Nowhere are the fractures more evident than in our own Anglican Communion.
Its primates met earlier this month in Canterbury. I would like to say “our” primates, but in truth they are not “ours” and we are not “theirs.” Lest there be any confusion, they made this condition abundantly plain in the statement they issued to sum things up.
To those of us in the Anglican Church in North America they said, “you are not Anglican, but we love you as Christian brothers anyway.”
We are members in good standing of the Anglican Church in North America yet they tell us we are not Anglican. It’s enough to give a guy an identity crisis. I’m reminded of the fellow who wrote a book on the Indiana University basketball program that outraged its coach, Bobby Knight.
Knight – always a model of restraint – called this fellow a “pimp” and a “whore.” The author responded, “I wish he’d make up his mind so I’d know how to dress.”
This analogy is perhaps not far off the mark because the wedge issue, as you know all too well, is human sexuality. It carries us back 500 years to the question the German monk Luther raised: Will the Bible be our guide?
Because if it is, we must follow God’s instruction on what is and what is not an acceptable expression of the sexual nature He gave us. We might reply to those primates who assembled in Canterbury: We know it is not necessary to be an Anglican to be a Christian, but is it necessary to be a Christian to be an Anglican?
Some of us remain stuck in the stodgy old notion that it is, and that to be a Christian is to follow God’s will revealed in His word.
One such is Nicholas Okoh. He is archbishop and primate of Nigeria, and one of those who declined the invitation to the meeting in Canterbury. Others may trifle with Nigeria but if you’re in the oil business or the Anglican business you take it very seriously.
Of 80 million Anglicans in the world, 60 million live in Africa and 24 million of those in Nigeria. Archbishop Okoh speaks for well over a quarter of the Anglicans on this planet – and for even more.
He also serves as chairman of GAFCON, the Global Anglican Future Conference, which was established a decade ago to represent those of us committed to an orthodox expression of the faith once delivered to the saints. Our Anglican Church in North America is a member of GAFCON.
He and other primates refused to participate in the conference this month because Canterbury previously issued sanctions against The Episcopal Church, which it recognizes as the Anglican province in the United States, for blessing same-sex unions and then reneged on its sanctions.
Canterbury’s trajectory could not be clearer. The primates’ statement said: “We welcomed the news that the Church of England has embarked on a major study of human sexuality in its cultural, scientific, scriptural and theological aspects and anticipated considering the results of this work at a future meeting.”
Rest assured that the “cultural and scientific” aspects will trump the “scriptural and theological” ones, which will be mangled beyond recognition, anyway, and that at the next Lambeth Conference in 2020 the official Anglican Communion will embrace same-sex marriage as the doctrine of the church.
Answering for those of us Canterbury has declared non-Anglicans, Archbishop Okoh wrote:
“My dear people of God,
“On the 31st October, it will be 500 years since Martin Luther’s 95 Theses triggered the Reformation. He was fired by holy indignation because of the way ordinary Christians were being abused by a church which was turning the need for divine forgiveness into a money making machine through the sale of indulgences, but that led him on to see the root of the problem.
“The message of God’s free grace in the gospel had been buried under layers of superstition and human tradition, which Luther and the Reformers then exposed to the light of God’s Word. The recovery of the Bible as the first and foremost source of authority in the Church was the basic principle of the Reformation. Everything else depended on this and still does.”
And still does. So here we are, these 500 years later, alienated from Rome and apart from one another. Yet we are not adrift. As long as we hold fast to that basic principle of the Reformation, as long as we embrace the Bible as the first and foremost source of authority in the church, we are not adrift.
This very issue that divides us, the matter of how we in Christ’s church are to relate to those who engage in deviant sexual practices, is often framed as one of inclusion. It’s a red herring. For the bottom-line issue is not who is welcome in this congregation but who is welcome in God’s kingdom.
And we find it addressed, of all places, in the Bible, and nowhere in sharper relief than in our gospel lesson for today, our Lord’s parable of the wedding feast of the king’s son. This, says Jesus, is what the kingdom of heaven is like. The son is about to wed and his father has planned a huge banquet in celebration.
The Lord’s first-century audience would have pictured with no difficulty the scene He was sketching. In the Old Testament, God is married to His people; thus sin, and especially idolatry, is spiritual adultery. We find the same analogy applied to the Son and His covenant people, the church, in the New Testament.
The kingdom of heaven has arrived on the earth in the Person of Jesus Christ, God the Son. He has come to claim His bride, His church, and His Father wants to mark the glorious event with a feast. He invites those with whom He made covenant centuries before, the Jews.
This would not be the initial invitation. The invited guests would have accepted some time earlier, or made a pretense of it. The king’s servants deliver the word that the feast is prepared. The invitation is a summons as well. This is their king who bids them appear, not the president of the local Kiwanis Club.
But they will not come. The king sends out other servants and even sweetens the invitation by delivering the menu for the savory meal He has prepared.
Still, they will not come. Some cite the press of business; these have chosen mammon over God. Others let their hostility for their Lord gush out, seizing and killing the king’s messengers. The king destroys them. They were welcome here, in the kingdom. They chose estrangement from the king, which is death.
Again, the king dispatches servants, this time to invite others. These are the ones who have not known the Lord because they have been outside the community of His covenant people. Now the servants bring them in to the marriage supper. They throng the wedding hall.
Let us not glide over the description of the mixed crowd. These guests are “both bad and good,” our text tells us. This Lord who had suffered so patiently with rebellious Israel for centuries now invites not only virtuous gentiles but the vile as well – both bad and good. And one of them, a representative of all who will not turn away from wickedness, attracts the King’s notice.
He has not put on a wedding garment, which represents that attitude of the heart that conforms the subject to the will and the way of his King. And this King who would not tolerate in His realm the unrepentant and insubordinate among Israel will no more accept a gentile who refuses to mend his ways and respond in love to the law of a loving King.
But the King is just. He does not dispatch the man without a chance to explain himself. “Friend,” he says, “how did you come in here without a wedding garment?” Allow me a paraphrase: “Are you welcome here?”
“And he was speechless.”
The King would have undressed a lie, so the undressed man spoke not at all. Who was it, then, who consigned him to the outer darkness, the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth? He made himself unwelcome here, in the kingdom of heaven. The passage concludes:
“For many are called, but few are chosen.”
The many, both bad and good, receive the invitation to the feast, but the few who are chosen – the new chosen people of God – are not unlike the old chosen people in the most vital way.
“For they are not all Israel who are of Israel,” St. Paul declares in Romans 9. The bad and the good were gathered together in the camp of Israel, but not every Jew was among the chosen. For us today as for the Jews of old, it is the response of faith that marks one as among the chosen.
He who does not come in faith will not put on the garment of righteousness – the righteousness that is ours in Christ — and will find no place in the kingdom of God. Only the poor in spirit will enter the abode of eternal glory.
And so, I ask again, are all welcome here? And I say again, the question is a red herring. In the end, it is not this congregation or any other, this priest or any other, but the Lord who extends the invitation.
He is the Head of His body the church and He knows how each heart comes dressed. He will divide bad from good, tares from wheat, goats from sheep.
All may tarry at this church or at another and we must make those who come to us feel welcome among us, as we do. Still, hugs are nice, but we cannot hug even our husbands and wives, sons and daughters, into the kingdom of heaven.
At the last, each one will arrive at a narrow gate and there the Son to whom the Father has given all power in heaven and on earth will stand as Judge. Beyond that gate, His Father has laid a feast that will never end. In his vision of heaven, St. John hears the voice of a multitude crying out:
“Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns! Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready. And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.”
The evangelist goes on, “Then (the angel) said to me, ‘Write: “Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!'” And he said to me, ‘These are the true sayings of God.’” (Revelation 19:6b-9).
At the gate, the Judge will inspect the dress of each, and to those who wear no wedding garment, I suspect He will say, “Are you welcome here?” And these will be speechless, for they have passed sentence on themselves.
Those who wear the fine linen that is the righteous acts of the saints have made themselves welcome in that place where the Lord God Omnipotent reigns. And at His table here.
Beloved, we are indeed divided but we are not adrift . . . not as long as we remain faithful to that basic principle of the Reformation, the Bible as the first and foremost source of authority in the church.
As always, that’s the crux of the matter. Pick any of the dust-ups within Christendom that pollute our worship and dilute our evangelism and it will reduce to this: Will we accept God’s word as definitive or will we substitute an understanding of our own devising?
From time to time, I see some long faces around here. My own might even droop a bit once in a while. Let us remind ourselves occasionally that God’s realm takes in a bit more than Tulsa. If we will lift our gaze to the horizon we will see there are many more arrayed there who are for us than those who are against us.
Archbishop Okoh did not go to Canterbury. He wrote:
“Anglicanism claims to be an expression of Reformed Catholic Christianity, but the Canterbury Primates Meeting held earlier this month shows once again that the Anglican Communion is in urgent need of a new reformation. I and a number of brother Primates (representing between us over half of practising Anglicans worldwide) did not attend as a matter of conscience.
“We cannot ‘walk together’ with those who have abandoned the teaching of the Bible, but that is what the Communiqué issued from the meeting encourages us to do. The painful truth is that the authority of Scripture is being replaced by the authority of Canterbury . . .
“So how should we move forward? The process of reformation is never smooth sailing, but we can be sure that as we remain faithful to our vision of restoring the Bible to the heart of the Anglican Communion, we shall have success in God’s good time. Already, Gafcon is enabling training, building global mission relationships, gathering the marginalised and resourcing Anglicans worldwide.
“Our next conference in Jerusalem in June 2018 will mark a further step in the great project of reformation begun ten years previously and by the grace of God will enable Anglicans around the world to walk together in the true communion of gospel partnership.”
The Most Rev’d Nicholas D. Okoh
Archbishop, Metropolitan and Primate of All Nigeria and Chairman, the GAFCON Primates Council
We are not adrift. Luther’s spirit may be sputtering in Germany and flickering in the United States but it burns brightly in Nigeria and elsewhere. God’s reformation of His church on earth will proceed until His work is done. Amen.
The 19th Sunday After Trinity
Job 24:1-17, Psalm 72, Ephesians 4:17-32, St. Matthew 9:1-8
God’s Grace by God’s Means
Richard Sharpe is a fictional soldier in the English army who goes to the Continent to wage war against Napoleon. In camp one day, his commanding general goes for a ride, unaware that an enemy patrol is close by. The enemy descends at the gallop.
If not for the alert and courageous intervention of Sgt. Sharpe, the general would be done for. The grateful general commissions him. And now for the low-born Sharpe, no end of trouble commences.
Lt. Sharpe’s immediate superior suffers a grievous wound in battle. As he lies dying, the captain gives his sword to Sharpe, knowing the difficulty he will face commanding men with whom he once stood shoulder-to-shoulder. Soldiers, the captain says, don’t see an officer up from the ranks as “touched by grace, set apart.”
They see him as they see themselves, as one of “the damned.”
Put another way, common soldiers want a man with uncommon blessing as their leader. They cannot save themselves, and if their officer cannot save them he can at least train them and stand up for them. He is their conduit, the one who receives orders from the high command and implements them at the level of “You take the left flank and you watch the rear.”
He must serve them as he commands them; he must monitor their condition and make it known to those above him if his men are too bloodied or too fatigued to fight. He is their mediator . . . and, thus, their priest, for mediation is the priestly role.
Or once was.
St. Matthew shows us a healing today, and we have seen no shortage of our Lord’s healings as we have traipsed through the gospels this Trinity season. In this instance, Jesus returns to Nazareth and some of the townsfolk bring to Him a paralytic.
The Lord responds to the faith of the man’s friends and provides the cure they seek, but this time He does something startling. “Son, be of good cheer,” He says, “your sins are forgiven you.”
The scribes are scandalized. “This Man blasphemes!” Did not God say through His prophet Isaiah, “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake”?
Who then is this Jesus of Nazareth who claims to scrub sin? Does He suppose He is God?
Now again we find the poor in spirit trusting implicitly in this One who does things only God can do. And again we find the proud and self-important, so keen on demanding proof, clamping shut their eyes to avoid the proof before them.
Jesus has read their thoughts. Who can do such a thing? Might He not be the long-awaited Messiah God would send, the One who would fulfill the law and, so doing, make Himself the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world?
No, oh no. For if He is, these scribes must look to Him for forgiveness of their own sins, a task they are managing smartly for themselves. They are fulfilling the law by living perfectly according to its statutes. They have no need of Another to lift that burden off of them.
Arise and walk, Jesus says to the paralytic, and the man arises and walks. The multitudes marvel, but the hard of heart begin to scheme a way to trip Him up. Jesus has cleansed a leper, healed many, rebuked the wind and waves. No one complained.
But here, as He claims authority to forgive sins, comes the first sign of opposition to Him: He has taken for Himself the prerogative of God; He has gone too far. “This Man blasphemes!”
The scribes and Pharisees launch their campaign to expose Him for a fraud. It will soon morph into a crusade to eliminate Him that will end at the cross. Or will it end there?
The grave cannot contain our Lord Jesus . . . but He will depart of His own volition. He will ascend to His Father on high and He will remain absent from the creation until He returns at a time of His Father’s choosing.
But His work will continue for He will establish on earth His church to carry on what He has begun. He will send His Holy Spirit to empower and equip this body of which He is the head and He will pour out His grace on the world through this church.
And so we must not miss the puzzling plural with which St. Matthew concludes this passage.
The multitudes “marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men.” Not to a Man but to men. Did not Jesus alone heal the paralytic? What can the evangelist mean when he refers to such power given to men?
Good Protestants shudder. They come close to crossing themselves. St. Matthew might be referring to a priesthood. He might be pointing ahead to those troublesome passages in chapters 16 and 18 in which Jesus tells His disciples that whatever they bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
It sounds disturbingly like He is ordaining certain men with extraordinary authority to carry on His work. Reformed theologians, intent on stamping out any vestiges of the Roman Catholic priesthood with its sacrificial function, arrive at this verse and they harrumph mightily.
One of the best of them, D. A. Carson, has written a splendid commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew. But this passage concerns Christ, he says, and not the church. He dismisses as “unlikely” any notion that the church and its hierarchy are in view. He neglects to tell us, however, what is “likely.”
God the Father is the God of grace and He has sent a Priest named Jesus to mediate grace to His people. This One is the great High Priest, a Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. But the evangelist tells us the people of Nazareth glorified this God who had given such power to men.
Can there be other, lesser priests, mere mortals whom God will use as ministers of His grace? If so, might they be “touched by grace, set apart” as officers for God’s special purpose?
Two thousand years later, the questions echo – much louder, I suspect, than when St. Matthew penned his gospel. In that day, this now-puzzling plural must have seemed plain enough. The first Christians were all Jews and for them nothing was as unremarkable as a priesthood within the priesthood that was Israel.
“A kingdom of priests, a holy nation,” God had called them when He made covenant with them at Mount Sinai. And in His next breath He set apart the tribe of Levi as the priestly clan who would be His agents to represent Him to His people and His people to Him.
So who would find it in the least odd that “a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” as the Jew St. Peter calls the church in the New Testament, would have within it a caste of priests, taken not from any clan but called by God from every people, nation, tongue and tribe to minister to His people and mediate between Him and them?
The mediator matters – not because I say so but because God says so. When our Lord cleansed 10 lepers, He dispatched them to the priests to have their healing certified. The law of Israel required that they receive that affirmation before they could return to the community.
The priests could not heal. God had already done what only God can do. But He sent them to the priests.
Oh, but that was on the other side of the cross . . . Since our Lord offered the final sacrifice we have no need of a priest. Well, on this side of the cross, this same Lord met a certain Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road and commissioned him to ordain presbyters – priests – for all the churches.
Why? To referee fights over the color of the carpet? No, to minister God’s grace to God’s people by God’s means.
The early church understood. It instituted the two sacraments the Lord had commanded, baptism for entry into the covenant community and Holy Communion for frequent renewal of the covenant commitment.
It ministered the evangel – the gospel – to the people not merely to equip them for evangelism but to grow them in grace.
The apostles Christ had summoned ordained men called priests to follow in this work. The church searched the Scriptures and found other means of grace God had given. It incorporated these into worship for the people’s sanctification – advancement in Christlikeness.
These were confirmation, ordination, the reconciliation of a penitent, marriage and anointing of the sick with oil.
A Christian marriage mirrors the covenant relationship between Christ and His church. It affords a godly man and wife the great privilege of raising covenant children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, of sending them out into the world as witnesses of their Lord’s mercy and love. It is holy matrimony, a means of grace, to be solemnized by a priest.
The reconciliation of a penitent sinner comes through confession of sins to a priest. Would you not unburden yourselves of the curse of leprosy? Go, show yourselves to the priests. Would you not unburden yourselves of the curse of sin? Go, confess your sins to the priests.
A priest of the new covenant can no more forgive sins than one of the old could cure leprosy, but he has authority to declare what God has done.
Sin, alas, infects those in the pulpits as well as those in the pews. In the middle ages, those leaders elevated these “lesser” sacraments to the stature of the two the Lord commanded and used all the sacraments as means not of God’s grace but of man’s manipulation and control – and a revenue stream.
Finally, a monk named Luther cried out, “How can man barter what only God can provide? How can man turn a profit on what God bestows for free on those He loves?” The wonder is that there were not a million priests of God joining in chorus with Luther.
He gave the pendulum a shove in the opposite direction – but then others would not let it rest at the bottom of its arc. They set out not to reform what Rome had corrupted – it was called the Reformation, was it not? – but to abolish. Protestants threw the baby out with the holy water.
Out go robes and in come Hawaiian shirts. Out go priests and in come buddies. Out go the means of grace and in comes “I’m okay, you’re okay.”
The church of God looks moribund today, you say? How could it not? It must receive God’s grace before it can disseminate it in the world. Confirmation, confession, anointing of the sick, even communion . . . many have tossed them out like a broken rosary and others have stopped little short.
Again, the leadership bears most of the blame – but now Protestants must share it with Rome. A few years ago, I met a black man from a Caribbean island. Andres is a physician by training, a missionary by calling and a high-ranking leader in a mission agency by gifting.
He grew up in the palace of his father, an Episcopal bishop among whose perks of office was . . . a mistress. By God’s grace, Andres did not flee the faith so sadly modeled for him, but he did flee the historic church and go searching for pure and undefiled religion in other precincts. Little wonder.
We – you and I — have the privilege of remaining in the church the apostles set in motion in the power of the Spirit on orders from the Lord. The means of grace are lying in the open if we will only pick them up.
Tools once employed for a wrong purpose need not be cast away. In the hands of those who would use them as the early churchmen did they will serve just as well now as then. God’s people will receive blessing and He will receive glory.
Jesus healed a paralytic, showing compassion for one created in His image and demonstrating His power over disease. He forgave the man’s sins, putting before all His authority to cleanse the spirit as well as the body. He is the God of grace.
And through His priests today He heals by His means of grace. Those disgruntled soldiers Lt. Sharpe commanded saw themselves as the damned. You are not the damned but the redeemed.
Yet your redemption is not complete until you join that blessed company who dwell in the Lord’s presence, when you have no sickness to heal, no sin to absolve.
Until that glorious day, disease and sin will recur like a fungus. So it is that God has made provision for ongoing treatment. He offers the healing of disease by anointing with oil and the absolution of sins through confession.
He wants His sheep tended. He wants His healing, forgiving grace dispensed. Christians once put a price on what God gives away for free. Will we now throw away that grace as though it were void of value?
Each time we gather for Holy Communion, we petition God to “assist us with thy grace.” In both of our daily offices, Morning and Evening Prayer, we offer thanks for God’s means of grace. Will we thank Him for them and not use them?
When King David saw his sins against Bathsheba and Uriah in the enormity of their horror, he said to Nathan the priest, “I have sinned against the Lord.” The priest replied, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.”
In his first epistle, St. John assures his charges that if they confess their sins, a faithful and just God will forgive them of their sins. He urges them to keep the Lord’s commandments and adds, “I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake.”
The church fathers in their wisdom saw that God’s absolution is not to be assumed but declared – by a priest. The same mediator who ministers baptism for the remission of sins hears the sinner’s confession and pronounces forgiveness of sins.
The church of old erred in making confession to a priest mandatory, not in making it available. Do it under duress and you will take a beating; do it from devotion and you will bathe in a blessing.
The redeemed should not live like the damned. Absolution allows you to arise and walk. It lifts your burden from you. It grants you peace and frees you for your Lord’s service. “. . . they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men.” Amen.