The glorious end of the story

Sermon  May 19, 2019  Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C

Revelation 21:1-8

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

The final two chapters in John’s Revelation are among my favorites in the Bible.  They lay out a wonderful picture of the blessed eternity that God promises us.  They are very appropriate as the concluding chapters of God’s word to us in the Bible.

My initial reaction to reading today’s passage from Revelation was that it serves as a wonderful description of our eternal dwelling place with God.  That is well and good, but as I read more about our passage, I realized that there was much greater depth in this passage than I had first thought.  I also learned that while our lectionary only includes verses 1 through 6, the full passage should also include verses 7 and 8.  Leaving out verses 7 and 8 would be like me leaving out the raisins in a cookie recipe – I might like cookies without raisins better, but they wouldn’t be the cookies that the recipe writer intended.

There are a few really important points in our passage, but what I would like to do first is read through the whole passage, including verses 7 and 8, and pause after every verse to briefly explain what’s going on. 

Let’s begin with verse 1: “Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.”  In this first verse, John is setting the stage, making a clear connection to a passage in the Old Testament book of Isaiah.  We’ll learn more about that later.

Verse 2: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”  Here John makes reference to the New Jerusalem which is a recurring theme in the Old Testament to refer to the final redemption and eternal dwelling place for God’s people.

Verse 3: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”  In the Old Testament, we read that God dwelt with his people in the tabernacle and temple.  When the Israelites desecrated the temple, God’s presence departed leading to the temple’s destruction and the Israelites’ exile at the hands of the Babylonians.  There could be no restoration of God’s people without God’s return to dwell in their midst.

Verse 4 and part of verse 5: “‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!””  These verses tell us that God will renew all things.  Death came with the fall at the very beginning, and the defeat of death speaks of God’s final triumph.

Second part of verse 5: “Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  This statement assures us that God’s word, as revealed in the Scriptures, is trustworthy for us and true.

First part of verse 6: “He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.”  “This statement tells us that with God coming to dwell with his people in the new heaven and new earth, history has ended and God’s redemptive work is complete.

Second part of verse 6 and verse 7: “To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.  Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”  These verses reflect God’s final blessing.  If one reads the several covenants in the Old Testament, one will see that each covenant includes blessings for those within the covenant and curses for those who are outside it.  And so, here God is promising all of these blessings to his children.

Verse 8: “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”  This verse is God’s final curse on those who are outside the covenant.  It reflects the other side of the coin from the previous verses speaking of Gods’ final blessing.

Let’s take a look at a few things.  We’ll start with the verses that our lectionary left out that speak of God’s final blessing and curse.  I am guessing that the lectionary leaves these verses out because they kind of ruin an otherwise sweet and uplifting passage.  We read about all these wonderful things, only to learn that they are only for those within God’s covenant.  Things sound pretty grim and horrible for those outside the covenant.  We need to think about the implications of this teaching.

The first question you might have is what covenant is being referred to by John?  That would be the final covenant that God made with us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In Luke chapter 22, when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he said “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”  Jesus died for each one of us.  He gave his life to atone for all of our sins.  And so, should this not mean that everyone is within God’s covenant?

This is a very complex issue, and not one I can adequately answer in one sermon.  In fact, I am sure that there are more theological dissertations on this subject than I can read.  But let me leave you with two thoughts.  In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis wrote “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.”

Another image is this.  In the Democrat presidential primary race, a hot topic is their Medicare for all policy proposal.  Never mind your opinion on this proposal, but imagine if it was actually possible – free medical care that you could make use of just for the asking.  Imagine that you broke your arm.  You could go and receive medical treatment and be healed.  However, you could also choose to reject the free medical care and live a miserable and painful life.  God will never force you to become his child, but he is always ready to welcome you home.

The key takeaway from the verses about God’s blessing and curse, is that the people with whom God dwells will be his people, people who love God and who have submitted to him.  This brings us to John’s two references to the book of Isaiah.  The early church would have immediately recognized the references,

John makes reference to Isaiah chapter 25 where the prophet writes that the “Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces.”  Just before that, Isaiah writes “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.  On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.”  Isaiah makes it clear that God’s promises are meant for all peoples – not just the Israelites.  We see this fulfilled in the Book of Acts when the apostles preach the Gospel to all nations.

In verse 1 of our lectionary passage, John spoke of the new heaven and new earth and in verse 2, he spoke of the new Jerusalem.  This is a very clear reference to Isaiah chapter 65.  Isaiah was writing after Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians and the Jewish people had been exiled to Babylon and Assyria.  Beloved Jerusalem, the royal city and earthly center for God’s people, had fallen, and they had been scattered to the wind.  For the Jews, redemption would require the restoration of Jerusalem.

In chapter 65, Isaiah writes “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.  I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.  For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands.  They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them.  Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.  The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food.  They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.”

This is the passage that John alludes to as he writes about the new heavens and new earth.  God is gathering his people to himself and will protect them from all harm.  But it will be God himself who will protect us.  God isn’t contracting out the protection either.  No, John tells us that God will be dwelling with us.

This is the last, and perhaps most important point I want to talk about today.  In verse 3, John writes “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”  Later in this chapter, John writes “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.  The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.”  This has some very important implications.

In the Old Testament, God dwelt first in the tabernacle as the Israelites left Egypt and arrived in the Promised Land, and later in the temple that Solomon built.  In 2 Chronicles chapter 7, after Solomon had built and dedicated the temple, we read that “fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.  The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it.”  God dwelt in the innermost room in the temple, known as the Holy of Holies, separated from the people by a great curtain, and only the High Priest could enter.  Anyone else who would enter into God’s presence would die.

When Jesus Christ died on the cross, Matthew describes what happened.  He wrote “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.  At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”  The curtain of the temple was the curtain that separated the people from the Holy of Holies where God dwelt.  When Jesus died, his blood brought us into the new covenant, and allowed us to stand in God’s presence.

And so, when John writes about God dwelling with his people in the new heaven and new earth, he is making two important points.  First, that God is returning to dwell with his people, just as he had dwelt with Israel in the temple in the past.  But second, that God would no longer be separated from his people in the Holy of Holies, but that his presence would fill the whole city.

We often confuse the terms “heaven” and “earth”.  We think that earth is where we live before we die, and heaven is where we go after we die.  But this is not what the Bible teaches.  Rather the Bible tells us that heaven is God’s dwelling place and earth is our dwelling place.  When John speaks of the new heaven and new earth, and God dwelling amongst his people, he is telling us that heaven and earth will be united into one – where we will dwell with God, and God will dwell with us.

Our passage today from Revelation contains a rich message for us today.  Like Isaiah, who experienced the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the exile and scattering of his people, and John, who experienced the second destruction of the temple by the Romans, the growing persecution of the church, and his own personal exile, we too experience death and disheartening events.  And yet God showed Isaiah and John that death is not the end.  God has not forgotten or abandoned us.  In the end, he will draw his people to himself and dwell with us.  Whatever happens to us in this life, we can be assured that God will redeem us in the end and dwell among us.

This is new worth celebrating and sharing.

Let us pray,

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant that we may embrace the hope that John has set before us in Revelation, and look forward to that day when the new heaven and the new earth are revealed and when you will dwell with us.  Give us a spirit of rejoicing and boldness to share this news with others.  We ask this in your name.  Amen.

Loving real people like Jesus did

Sermon,  April 18, 2019 – Maundy Thursday, Year C

Exodus 12:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17; 31b-35

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday when the Church commemorates three things: Christ’s command to love one another; the institution of the Lord’s Supper, and the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus.  In today’s Gospel passage, we hear Jesus tell his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  The word command in Latin is :mandatum”, which became “Maundy”.  Maundy Thursday is named for this command of Jesus.  Jesus command to love on another like he loved us, is underlined by his washing of the disciples’ feet followed by his institution of the Lord’s Supper.  These three things are all intertwined.

Let’s think about that for a moment.  The evening before his crucifixion, Jesus gathered with his disciples for a meal together.  It was at this gathering that Jesus did two things.  First, he washed the feet of his disciples.  In the ancient near east, when someone would go to an important event, they would wash at home, put on their best clothes and then walk to where they were going via the dusty streets in their sandals.  When they arrived at their destination, the last thing they did before joining the party would be to have the household slaves wash their dirty feet.  Washing their feet would make them clean and presentable for the important meal.  And so by washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus symbolically took on the role of the lowest of servants to make the disciples presentable for communion with God.  This is the very purpose that Jesus’ death and resurrection plays for each one of us.  We need to be made clean so that we can enter into God’s eternal presence – not caked in the dirt and filth of life, but made clean and presentable.  Just as Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet made them clean and presentable for their meal, so his death on the cross cleansed us from our sins and makes us clean and presentable to God.

The institution of the Lord’s Supper continues this theme.  During the meal together with his disciples, Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper and commanded his followers to celebrate this sacrament in his memory until he comes again.  Jesus is telling us that the Eucharist should act as a perpetual sacrament, telling us over and over again how Jesus’ body and blood was sacrificed for us on the altar of God, to be the “full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”  Jesus took bread and wine, and told his disciples that these ordinary elements would become his body and blood, given up for them and sealing the new covenant he was about to give his life to inaugurate.  It was, of course, only after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus that the Church truly understood what Christ instituted on Maundy Thursday in the Lord’s Supper.

By both washing the feet of the disciples and by instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus was showing us how great his love is for us.  In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote about Jesus “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

Jesus gave up his all to save us because of his great love for us.  And he tells us “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  We love one another not to gain favor with God, but because God first loved us, and gave his only Son to die for us.  We love each other because that is the only possible response to God’s love for us.

In our disembodied world today, where we can have so many friends on Facebook that we have never actually met, and where much of American Christianity tells us that faith is only spiritual without having much to do with our physical world, we can often forget that God created us to be in a real, living, breathing, human community with one another.  It is only in the context of such a community that real love can exist in any sort of sustainable and life-giving way.

We were created to be in relationship with others face to face.  Jesus got down on the ground and washed his disciples’ feet.  He washed off the dirt and the sweat.  He did things that only slaves do.  When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we take the bread into our hands and put it in our mouths.  We take the cup to our mouths and drink the wine.  We don’t just read about it or partake alone sitting in front of our computers or mobile devices.  Real relationships can only exist and real love is shown by being present with others.

And so, what I want you to think about is how you can show love to others within your communities; in tangible and immediate ways.  In being physically present for those who need our love.  As you move through your lives, think about what Jesus has done for you, and how you, in turn, can touch the lives of others with that love.

Let us pray.

God our Father, you have invited us to share in the supper which your Son gave to his Church to proclaim his death until he comes: may he nourish us by his presence, and unite us in his love; that we can show forth that love to others.  Amen.

Reasonable obedience or unmerited grace?

Sermon,  March 17, 2019 – Second Sunday in Lent, Year C

Genesis 15:1-12,17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Before I begin my sermon, let me admit to you that when I first read through the passage today from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I completely misunderstood his point.  You see, my first thought was that Paul was laying a great smack down on hedonists and libertines.  Paul wrote “Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.”  I’ll bet when you heard this today, your first impression was the same as mine – Paul is directing his criticism towards the party crowd.  But I was wrong.

With today’s passage, as is so often the case, it is vital to understand the context before getting too carried away with its interpretation.  If we read earlier in the letter to the Philippians, we would learn that Paul is addressing a group in the church that was teaching that strict adherence to Jewish law was necessary for Christians in order to be saved.  They said that the death of Jesus Christ was not sufficient.  This group would have taught that you needed to follow Jewish dietary law and become circumcised.  So when Paul wrote that “their god is their stomach”, he was making the point that, for them, their salvation was achieved via their diet.  And when he wrote “their glory is in their shame”, he was commenting at how they believed that becoming circumcised won them glory with God.

So Paul isn’t going after the party goers here, but actually the goody two-shoes.  While I had first thought that setting our mind on earthly things must mean embracing hedonism, Paul is also telling us that focusing on earthly things can mean a belief that our own earthly behaviors can win us salvation.  This is works based religion, and this was what many Jewish religious leaders at the time taught.

In fact, before his conversion to Christ, Paul was just such a Pharisee, who was very skilled at following the Jewish religious law.  And so when Paul encountered this same attitude amongst some of the Christians in Philippi, he called them out.  Paul knew that throughout the whole of the Old Testament, God’s people repeatedly failed to follow God’s laws and commandments.  This is because all people, including us, are sinful and unable to follow God’s laws.  And so a religion that teaches salvation is dependent on our obedience is one that condemns us.

But Jesus doesn’t condemn us, and the gospel of Jesus Christ is about freeing us from the bondage of sin.  This is why Paul declares in our passage that “many live as enemies of the cross of Christ” and that “their destiny is destruction.”  He says this because he knows that it is true.  The gospel of Christ is not about placing more rules on us to follow.  It is about putting our trust in the saving power and grace of Jesus Christ.

Paul says “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”  Our hope is not in our own obedience, following a dietary law or becoming circumcised.  No, our hope is in Jesus Christ, by whose power we are saved.  Not by our own power or obedience, but by Jesus.

This is very important for us to understand.  We human beings always imagine that we are the center of everything.  We like to keep control of everything in our own hands.  It allows us to take pride in our own accomplishments and look askance at the failure of others.  I read a news story this past week about the results of a national poll in which people were questioned about their feelings towards members of the opposing political party.  About 20% of each party’s supporters stated that they thought that the country would be better off if most of their partisan opponents would die.  That’s a pretty shocking result.  And yet it reveals that we each have the tendency to think only the best things about ourselves, while reading wickedness and ill will into the motivations of others.

The gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t let us indulge in the fantasy that we are better than others or that we can merit our own salvation.  Instead, it requires that we acknowledge our own sinfulness, and that we must put our trust in the grace of Jesus Christ.  During Lent, we often say together the prayer of humble access prior to receiving communion.  This prayer dates back to the earliest Anglican Book of Common Prayer and is based on two passages from Scripture.  In Matthew 8, a centurion replies to Jesus ““Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.”  And in Mark a woman replies to Jesus confessing her unworthiness to him by saying “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

The prayer of humble access reads as follows

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

I know of Christians who won’t recite this prayer because they think it is too depressing.  They think that it sounds like God does not accept or love us.  But I think quite the opposite.  We are confessing our unworthiness and our sin, but despite that, claiming the love of God and his great mercy towards us.  We are admitting that we’re not in control.  We’re admitting that we’re not any better than our brother or our sister, or our partisan opponent.  We have no claim to salvation on our own merits.  But despite this, Jesus still loves us and gave his life for us.  That is real love.

In our passage from Philippians, Paul was responding to a group in the church who were arguing that Christians had to fully adhere to the Jewish ritual law in order to be fully accepted by God.  We learned that Paul had himself been a Pharisee before he became a Christian.  But here’s the secret.  Our passage from Genesis today shows that God knew from the very beginning that we would never be able to live up to our own side of the bargain.  The Jewish religious teachers were wrong about God.

Let’s look at this passage from Genesis.  I am sure you all find it to be a rather bizarre and somewhat grisly account, with animal carcasses split in two, and a mysterious smoking firepot passing between the halves.  This sounds more like a gruesome psychedelic dream of a drug-addled hippie, than a Bible story.  Or, to make a pun, maybe a different kind of story featuring smoking pot.  So what’s really going on here?

This is actually an incredible story of God’s promise to Abraham.  You see, in the first part of our passage, God promises Abraham that he will be his defender and that Abraham will become a great nation.  Abraham believes God but asked God for a sign of this promise.  And God responded by making a covenant with Abraham.

Covenants were a very important aspect of life in the ancient near east, and the most solemn and important covenants included very graphic rituals that signified the terrible consequences if either side failed to live up to the covenant.  In this case, God had Abraham sacrifice a number of animals, cut them in two and lay each half opposite the other.  With covenants like this, what would happen next is that both parties to the covenant would walk between the carcasses signifying that if they broke the covenant, their fate would be like the sacrificed animals.  In other words, they were declaring that they would forfeit their lives if they did not uphold their end of the covenant.  This was a very serious covenant.

But listen to the rest of the story.  Abraham falls into a deep sleep and he has a vision of a smoking firepot with a blazing torch passing between the carcasses.  The firepot with the torch was God.  Only God walked between the carcasses.  Only God took on himself the potential curse for breaking the covenant.  Abraham did not.  And this was God’s sign to Abraham.

God is telling both Abraham and us today, that he knows that we are unable to keep our side of the covenant.  If God had let Abraham walk with him through the middle of the carcasses, he would be condemning Abraham to certain death.  This is precisely the message that Paul has for the church in Philippi.  If anyone tells them that their salvation depends on how well they keep the Jewish law, than they are condemning themselves to death.  Paul says “their destiny is destruction.”

I want to finish my sermon by reading an excerpt from an excellent and timely article that I read this week that echoes what we heard in today’s readings.  The author wrote “The union between God and his children is not, as so many believe, a covenant built on mutual promises of reasonableness. It’s not a covenant where we promise to make ourselves holy by obeying God’s commands and he promises to make the highway to heaven relatively easy. Rather, it’s a covenant of grace—one where God the Son earns eternal life for us sinners who could not earn it and where God the Father gives that salvation as a free gift to all who believe.”

There is no law that we can follow, or things that we can do that will make us worthy of God’s redemption.  But the good news of Jesus Christ is that God walked through the carcasses.  Not us.  Jesus Christ gave his life for our sins.  He gives us salvation as a free gift.  The Gospel of John tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.“  This is the gospel.

Let us pray, in the words of the prayer of humble access as we look forward to sharing the Lord’s Supper,

We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies.  We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy.  Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Are we but dust?

Sermon,  March 6, 2019 –  Ash Wednesday, Year C

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today begins the season of Lent, which culminates in Holy Week and our remembrance of the crucifixion of Jesus, and then the joyful celebration of his resurrection on Easter, the high point of the church year.  I am firmly of the belief that just as we cannot possible fully celebrate Christmas without experiencing Advent, so we cannot fully celebrate Easter without passing through the penitential season of Lent.

Ash Wednesday sets the tone for Lent.  One of the things that used to puzzle me about Ash Wednesday were the words that went with the imposition of ashes “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  That sounds rather bleak and without hope.  In fact, it sounds like what a Christian might say to an atheist in a debate – “if there is no god, then we are just dust and when we die we will return to dust.  But if you are a Christian, your body will be resurrected.”  So, why is the Church telling us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return?

In order to understand this, we need to go all the way back to the beginning to the first part of Genesis.  As you might remember, God created the earth and all that is in it, including human beings.  But Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and their disobedience had grave consequences.  When Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, the consequence of their choice was physical death.  In Genesis 3, God says to Adam “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.  It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

These words that the Church speaks to us as we are marked with ashes is a stark reminder that we are all under the curse of death for our sins.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote “for the wages of sin is death.”  This is not a thing that we like to hear, but it is important to understand as we begin our Lenten journey.  Left to ourselves and our own devices, we will all die, and we will return to the dust of the earth from which we were created.  There is nothing that we can do to change this fact.

Our culture today hates to hear this message.  We want to think that we are the kings and queens of our own destinies and identities, that we are owed passage into heaven and acceptance by God on our own terms.  We think we are basically good and decent people who will all get to live eternally with God simply because we are who we are.  But this is not the message of the Gospel.  The Bible tells us that if we ignore God and live for ourselves, we will have no hope, and all that we can expect is to return to the dust of the earth.

But stewing in bad news is not what Lent is about, and it is not what Ash Wednesday is about.  Ash Wednesday is quite literally a “come to Jesus” moment for us.  We are confronted with a very difficult truth that if we don’t turn to God, we don’t have anything to look forward to.

But if we do turn to God, then there is good news.  The collect for Ash Wednesday speaks this truth clearly.  “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness.”

God loves us and his desire for each one of us is that we turn to him.  The season of Lent concludes with Good Friday when Jesus Christ was crucified on a cross for our sins.  By his death he atoned for our sins.  On Easter, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, demonstrating to us that death is not the end.  Resurrection is the defining event of God’s new creation, and the resurrection of Jesus is the first step in this new creation.  We believe that God will someday do for us and for all creation what he has already done for Jesus Christ.

Listen to Paul writing in his first letter to the Corinthians: “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.  For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him…The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  And listen again to Paul from his letter to the Romans “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  One of the great values of the Church year is that we take our time to fully experience all the emotions and truths of the Christian journey.  It is not all about joy and thanksgiving that we have been saved from certain death.  We also need to experience the sadness that comes with acknowledging our sins, the grief for our part in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ our Lord, and the repentance and gratitude that this should instill in us.

In ancient times, people wore sackcloth and ashes to publicly express or show their sorrow or regret for having done something wrong.  It was an act of humility.  And so the ashes we are about to receive should be the same for us.  As we will hear momentarily these ashes will be for us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by God’s gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior.

And so let us begin our Lenten observance, recalling the words we heard earlier in the service, and which you can find on page 265 of the Book of Common Prayer: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

Let us pray,

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: create and make in us new and contrite hearts that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may receive from you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,, Amen.

How about a little humility?

Sermon,  February 10, 2019 –  Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Last week, Barbara, Holly and I attended a retreat at a nearby Presbyterian church in Sacramento.  The speaker mentioned two different ways that people typically approach Christianity.  The first way is the way of merit.  With this way, the Christian thinks “If I follow Jesus, then God will accept me.”  We love God because we want God to love us.  We think that God loves us when we live well, believe the right doctrine, follow the right rules, and practice the right spiritual disciplines.  We figure that if we do these things, then we aren’t as bad as other people.  If we’re better people, then surely we’ll merit God’s love.

If we approach the Christian faith with this way of merit, we might feel better about ourselves if we focus on how much worse other people are than ourselves.  We are tempted to look for the faults in others because that helps us convince ourselves that we are better than them.  They aren’t as orthodox as we are, they aren’t as committed to social justice or equality as we are, and they don’t pray or attend church as often as we do.  This often leads to pride within ourselves and a graceless attitude towards others.

The second way one can approach Christianity is the way of grace.  Following the way of grace, we obey God because God has already accepted us through Jesus Christ.  We know that we are all broken and sinful and in need of forgiveness and that Jesus gave his life to save us from our sins.  We are so full of gratitude for what Jesus did for us that we follow and obey him.  What’s more, we know that Jesus has reconciled the world to God, and we’d like to share God’s love with others.

Under the way of grace, we acknowledge that we are in need to God’s grace and forgiveness.  We realize that we don’t win God’s love because of how special we are, but instead we know God loves us because of how gracious he is.  We acknowledge that we are no better than anyone else in the world.  We look at others who are experiencing difficulties or struggling with more public sins, and think “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

This past week, I reflected more deeply on what I heard on the retreat as I read a very interesting blog post that was reflecting on a controversial interview with the actor Liam Neeson.  Neeson had recounted a story of when he was younger and experienced a dark time of great rage after learning about the rape of a close friend.  He admitted that in this dark time, he harbored violent, racist fantasies of killing someone who looked like the person accused of raping his friend.  In his confession, he condemned the racist and violent thoughts that he had, and warned how dangerous mindless rage was and how it could poison our hearts. His interview was a confession of sin and a public repentance.  Undoubtedly, Neeson thought that people would respond with grace and forgiveness.  But he was wrong.

In response to his confession, many commentators denounced Neeson, and the studio that produced his film cancelled its planned red-carpet premiere.  Those who initially reached out to Neeson with grace and understanding were subsequently attacked for doing so.  Now, I am no great fan of Liam Neeson, but this is just one example of a disturbing trend on social media in which online mobs seek to signal their own virtue by gracelessly condemning others.  Apologies, repentance or long lives of service don’t matter.  All that matters is the public shaming and condemnation of the transgressor.  The author of the blog post commented that typically, the condemnation remains even after the person confesses their wrongs and repents.  He wrote “we have created a culture that despises repentance and condemns grace.”

In this blog post, there is a quote from Alan Jacobs, a Christian commentator.  Jacobs wrote a couple of years ago that “When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains a [vague] sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors.”

Our readings today speak very powerfully to these themes of condemnation, forgiveness, grace, redemption, and self-righteousness.  It’s a message that our culture badly needs to hear.  In fact, I think one of the big reasons why Christianity has lost its influence is that the Church has too often embraced the way of merit and moralism instead of the way of grace.  We are always tempted towards the way of merit, because it puts us in the driver’s seat. It allows us to call the shots, condemn others and feel good about ourselves.  And so, it is no surprise that as our culture drifts from its Christian roots, it is the way of merit that it clings too, while forgetting about grace.

So let’s take a look at our readings.  In our passage from First Corinthians, Paul makes a very powerful statement about the way of grace, offering us a short summary of what our faith is all about.  Paul writes “By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.  For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”  Paul tells us that Christ died for our sins, and this is of first importance.  Indeed, Paul tells us that it is by this gospel we are saved, and that if Christ didn’t die for our sins, our belief is in vain.

Jesus Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.  He was buried but was raised on the third day.  As the Book of Common Prayer tells us, God, our heavenly Father, by his tender mercy gave his only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption.  And Jesus made there by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.  Christ paid the penalty for our sins.  In Isaiah 53, the prophet tells us “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

The Scriptures make it very clear that Jesus Christ had to die for our sins, because we aren’t really the wonderful people we so often like to think we are.  We have no cause whatsoever to boast or to think we are better than anyone else.  None at all.  And Paul makes it really clear that he understands this.  Paul places himself dead last in his listing of the apostles and says “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.  But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”

Paul is admitting to the early Christians that he was one of the most ardent persecutors of the Church.  He was a bad guy.   He encouraged killings and the destruction of lives.  He acknowledges that it is only by the grace of God that he is what he is.  Not because he was clever, or high born, or more virtuous.  He was none of those things.  God saved Paul out of sheer grace.  And so Paul preached forgiveness, grace and redemption and he was the perfect illustration of it all.

The gospel of Jesus Christ, and the gospel we should preach, is a gospel of forgiveness, grace and redemption.  This is the message that our world shuts out, but one that so many need to hear.  And yet, so many in our world today have a negative view of evangelism, with a negative stereotype of Christians.  They see us as being hypocritical moralists intent on condemning them.  I think that this stereotype has arisen because the Church all too often falls into preaching the way of merit instead of the way of grace.  And, as we know, if we follow the way of merit, we can become prideful and condemning of others.

We need to preach the way of grace.  And our readings from the Old Testament and the Gospel show us the way.  In our passage from the Old Testament, we hear about Isaiah’s initial call to be a prophet.  Isaiah was one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets writing incredible prophecies looking forward to the coming of the Messiah.  But Isaiah realized he was a man not worthy to be in God’s presence.  In his vision, an angel touches a hot cleansing coal to his lips and declares “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”  Before he could be a great prophet, Isaiah had to embrace humility.  He accepted that he was a man unworthy to speak for God, and it was only through the power of God that he had anything at all to say.

But once Isaiah acknowledged his own sinfulness and the incredible mercy and grace of God, his attitude transformed.  No longer did he shrink away from God in fear, but instead, he embraced God’s call on his life.  Isaiah writes that he then “heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”  And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”  We can only communicate to others about grace if we have first accepted God’s grace in our own lives.  We first, like Isaiah must acknowledge our own brokenness and unworthiness before God, and then embrace the joy and grace of God as he raises us up, not by our own merit, but because of God’s goodness towards us.

Our Gospel reading is one of the most famous stories in the Gospels concerning evangelism.  In our reading, Jesus tells Peter and his fishing companions to fish in a certain place after having a bad night and not catching a thing.  Peter’s first response to Jesus was that they had already tried but came up empty.  But Jesus persisted and so they did what he told them.  And this time they drew up so much fish that their boats almost sank.  Peter was astonished, but note what his first response was.  He didn’t congratulate himself on his fine fishing skills.  No, instead he recognized that this was God at work and he fell before Jesus and declared that he was not worthy to be in the presence of Jesus.  Peter confessed his unworthiness.  But Jesus told him not to be afraid and declared that just as he brought in so much fish that day, in the days to come Peter would become a fisher of people.

Let’s look at bit more closely at this fishing story.  Peter and his companions were working hard, fishing all night.  But they weren’t catching anything.  The church today seems to be having similar luck with its evangelism efforts.  It was only when the disciples had to trust Jesus and his instructions that they had success.  It was only when the disciples humbled themselves before God and acknowledged their sinfulness that they were able to fill their nets with fish.  I think that there is a lesson in this for us.

Our world is starved for a message of forgiveness, grace and repentance.  We long for someone to come alongside us, and tell us that God forgives us and that he loves us.  This is the gospel.  It is the way of grace.  Evangelism isn’t telling people that they need to be better so that they can be loved by God.  Preaching that will lead to empty nets.  Rather, evangelism is telling people that no matter how unworthy they might be, God loves them so much that he gave his only son to die for them and cleanse them from their sins.

When we do evangelism, we should not look down on others, but rather look on them as our sisters and brothers, no worse nor better than we are, but who are equally in need of God’s forgiveness.  A deep personal humility is a pre-requisite for evangelism, and that starts with the attitude of Paul, Isaiah and Peter.  Lord, I am a sinner not worthy to be in your presence, yet by your grace I have been made worthy to be the son or daughter of God.

But this message is not for you alone.  It’s not for St. Luke’s alone.  It is not for the church alone.  It is a message of grace and redemption for the whole world.  Who does the Lord send to tell the world?  Remember Isaiah?  And, then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord asking “whom shall I send to tell the world?

Let us join now with Isaiah when he replied “Here am I. Send me!”

Let us pray,

Almighty God, by whose grace alone we are accepted and called to your service: strengthen us by your Holy Spirit and make us worthy of our calling.  We ask this in Jesus name, Amen.

The revelation and proclamation of Jesus

Sermon,  January 20, 2019 –  Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

Isaiah 62:1-5; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today is the second Sunday after the Epiphany.  On Epiphany, January 6, we remembered the Magi who came to worship Jesus.  The Magi were not Jewish, but rather Persian wise men.  And so, the coming of the Magi to worship Jesus demonstrated that Jesus’ divinity and lordship had been revealed to the Gentiles.  Last week, the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we focused on the Baptism of Jesus, when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove and God the Father declared “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The season of Epiphany is about the revelation of Jesus Christ, as our lord, as our Messiah and as the son of God.  It is about the revelation of Jesus Christ to those who do not yet know him.  I looked up “epiphany” in the dictionary, and noted that the first definition is that it is a religious holiday, which isn’t that helpful, but then I read the following three definitions for an epiphany:

a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something; an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking; or an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.

Now this is a really useful definition, and gets to the heart of what the Epiphany season is all about.

Our collect for today builds on this theme.  “Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.”  We are praying that we will have Jesus Christ revealed to us as we study Scripture and partake of the sacraments, and so proclaim Jesus to the rest of the world.

As I looked at our readings for today, I realized that what unites them all is a theme of revealing and proclaiming Jesus Christ.  What’s more, I think that each of our three readings covers this theme in a specific way.  We can look at the Isaiah reading as covering the promise of God that foretold the coming of Jesus; the Gospel reading as covering the fulfillment of the promise in Jesus; and the Epistle reading as covering how the Holy Spirit will empower us to proclaim Jesus.  Let’s look at each reading – the promise, the fulfillment and the empowering – through the lenses of revelation and proclamation.

In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah writes about the future vindication of God’s people.  When Isaiah wrote this, the kingdom of Israel had been defeated by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires and the Israelites had been exiled from the Promised Land.  In order to fully understand Isaiah’s message, we need to understand the context of Israel’s defeat and exile.  The basic structure of the Old Testament is that humanity fell into sin, and, in response, God called the people of Israel to be his chosen people through whom salvation would be brought to the whole world.

God called Israel to be his chosen people, and he established several covenants with them.  They were to obey God and be faithful to him, and, in return, God would bless them.  But the Israelites were not faithful.  They disobeyed God’s commandments and even turned away from God to follow idols and the gods of other nations.  In the Eucharist Prayer for Rite II, Prayer B, we pray “We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son.”  God called Israel to be his people out of love, but they rejected him.

In the Old Testament, the relationship between God and Israel is sometimes depicted as a marriage.  God is the ever faithful and patient husband, while Israel is the unfaithful and adulterous wife.  In fact, if you read the book of the prophet Hosea, you will see that God called Hosea to marry an unfaithful wife, to be a stark reminder to the Israelites of the time of how Israel was being unfaithful to him.

Now, this symbolism probably seems a bit awkward to us, but it is really important to fully grasp what it conveys.  In the ancient Middle East, women who did not have a husband were liable to live lives in extreme poverty.  Widows were typically destitute.  And so for a wife to be flagrantly unfaithful to a loving husband was to toy with disaster for her.

In this passage, Isaiah is suggesting that the defeated and exiled Israel is like an unfaithful and adulterous wife who finally met up with the disaster and desolation that was inevitably the consequence for her behavior.  That is the starting point for Isaiah, because he declares that God will return like a blazing torch to vindicate his people Israel.  Isaiah is declaring that God loves Israel despite her unfaithfulness and that he will come to redeem her.  Isaiah declares that Israel will no longer experience the desolation of an unfaithful wife cast aside by her husband but will instead be the delight of her husband.  God will no longer pay Israel back with what she deserves for her unfaithfulness but will shower her with grace and declare his redeemed people to be his delight.  This is an incredible message of God’s grace.

In the New Testament, Paul uses a similar illustration when he makes reference to the Church as being the bride of Christ.  Paul writes “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”

The message of our passage from Isaiah is that Jesus Christ came for our salvation, even though we have been unfaithful and have turned away from God.  Just like the ancient Israelites, we have turned away from God and follow the desires of our hearts.  Yet, despite this, Jesus came for us, giving up himself to die on the cross, in order that we might be washed clean of our sins and be made children of God.  This is an incredible message of love.  God does not pay us back for what we deserve, but instead God loved us so much that Jesus gave his very life so that we might be redeemed.  This is something that we really do need to share with the world.

Let’s turn now to our Gospel reading.  In this reading, we hear about the first miracle of Jesus.  He was at a wedding when the host ran out of wine.  At the urging of his mother, Jesus saved the day by turning several large jars of water into wine.  What is the point of this passage you might ask?  That Jesus is the guy that overly frugal wedding planners should always be sure to invite?  No, the point of this passage can be found near the end.  John writes “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

This story is about Jesus making his first public declaration that he was the Messiah.  Jesus Christ came to fulfill God’s promise of salvation that were made in the Old Testament.   Listen again to the words of Prayer B “We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son.”  Our Gospel reading is the first sign that Jesus did in which he claimed the mantle of being the Messiah promised in the Old Testament.  Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise.

Finally, let’s turn to the Epistle reading from Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth.  Paul is writing the Corinthians about the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Scholars believe that pagans who lived in the ancient world would have been very familiar with ecstatic spiritual experiences.  In many pagan religious rites, worshippers would engage in ecstatic spiritual utterances.  And so Paul is explaining to Christians that the mere existence of such spiritual activities is not a sign of God’s presence. 

Paul brings back all spiritual activity to the person of Jesus Christ.  If a person is declaring that Jesus is Lord, than the Holy Spirit is present, and if they deny the lordship of Jesus, than it is not of the Holy Spirit.  Paul continues by declaring that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are all given by the one God, for the common good, at the discretion of God himself.  The point of the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not for ourselves, or to puff ourselves up to appear extra spiritual.  The gifts of the Holy Spirit are for the common good, to accomplish the purposes of God in our world.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit are to enable us to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.  That is God’s purpose.  This can be done through preaching, ministering, healing, and prophesying.  The Holy Spirit will be with us as we do all of these things.  We still live in a world of sin that is opposed to God and the message of Jesus and sometimes the Holy Spirit will guide us to discern spirits or exercise spiritual wisdom.  The point is that the Holy Spirit will help us proclaim Jesus Christ to the world.  We are not in this all by ourselves.  Jesus promised that he would send us the Holy Spirit, and he has.

To sum up, our readings today tell us about the great promise of salvation that God fulfilled for us in Jesus Christ.  Despite our sinfulness, Jesus Christ came to earth and die for us to redeem us and make it possible for us to become sons and daughters of God.  This is a message of hope and salvation that we are called to proclaim throughout the world.  But we are not alone in accomplishing this task.  God has sent us the Holy Spirit to guide us and empower us. 

And so, let us pray once again the collect for today, which summarizes it for us so well,

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.  Amen.