Sunday, January 25, 2015

Receiving Vocations

A Sermon Delivered to the Company of Jesus
And Assembled Guests during the Ordination/Profession Service
At Newport News, VA 1/19/2015 

Grace to you and Peace from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ!

We are here today to receive Vocations - to receive those who are answering Jesus' call, "Come follow me...". The word ‘vocation’ actually comes from the Latin, ‘Vocare’, “to call”. When we say that someone has found, or missed his calling, we’re talking about Vocation. Most of the time, we use the word to describe our work, our ‘job’. But properly speaking, Vocation means that Something or Someone outside of me has called to something deep within me. This Call then stirs something in me I cannot ignore and I become driven to fulfill the Call.  

Jesus called the first disciples to follow Him and become fishers of men and shepherds of the flock of God.  They heard the call, left everything and followed Jesus.

 In similar fashion, we receive those today who have heard the Call of Christ and have left the comfort of their former ways to follow Him as fishers and shepherds, clergy and monastics.

The Calling of those we receive today is relatively rare. Not everyone is called to be an ordained Deacon, or a Third Order Franciscan or Benedictine – whatever that is…

But these specific callings are just special cases of God’s first and foremost calling to us all: “Come to me; follow Me

This Call is not "instrumental": 'follow me, so that - you can win people, build a church, change the world - or even be a ‘better person’ - but just to follow Christ.  St. Benedict says in the Prologue to his Rule: “the voice of the Lord invites us, in His loving-kindness, to find the way of life” - which is precisely Christ, “the Way, the Truth and the Life”. (John 14:6).

This is God’s call to every one of us: Come to Me and find Life!

Those we receive today have heard that call and have followed Christ by repenting of their sins and being baptized into the family of God. They have already made what we call “Baptismal Vows” and now come to make specific Vocational Vows.

To make a Vow means to ‘swear an oath’, invoking the Name of God in such a way that God becomes an active party to the Oath. When we testify in court, we solemnly “swear to tell the truth the whole and notion but the truth, so help me God.”

The Ancient Romans used the term “Sacramentum” for the sacred oath sworn by men on entering the Roman military. It was understood that swearing the Sacramentum, changed the status of a man from Civilian to Soldier under absolute obedience to his officers. Without the Sacramentum, one could not become a soldier, and the soldier could only be released from the Sacramentum by death or being demobilized.  

In the Anglican Church, we understand that there are two Sacraments proper: Baptism and The Lord’s Supper. Every Christian is urged and expected to participate in them.

But what we do today is also Sacramental. Ordination and Profession Services are sometimes called “Sacramental Rites” because these Brothers and Sisters will 'swear an oath’.

By swearing this Oath and calling God to witness and participate in it, these Called Ones enter into what the Bible calls a Covenant. A Covenant is not like a Contract, which is an exchange of goods or services. Rather, a Covenant is an exchange of Persons.
Those who enter a Covenant give themselves to one another. Our candidates today give themselves to Christ, and He gives Himself to them, helping them to fulfill the Covenant they have sworn –  all for the purpose of Love.

When Jesus was Baptized by John in the Jordan river, he came up out of the water and God spoke audibly:   “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased!” That’s what we’re about today: affirming our Love Relationship with God by entering into specific Covenants that reflect the Vocation, or calling of these specific individuals.

But one very important thing to note about these Covenants is that the Blessing they confer is not only for the people entering into the Covenant, but for others as well. When God made a Covenant with Abraham, the promise was that Abraham would be the father of many nations and that in him, all the families of the earth would be blessed! (Gen 12:3).

So too, those who enter into the Covenants we witness today are called to take their blessing out into the world. The basic mission of the Company of Jesus is to ‘make Jesus known’. We do this by practicing our spiritual lives in the manner of Francis and Benedict, and by working in various ministries that make Jesus known to others, such as the Five Loaves Food Pantry. Members of the Company of Jesus also serve as pastors, teachers, counselors, health care workers, etc.

In Br. Tim’s case, as an Ordained Permanent Deacon his job will be to serve the poor and needy, and then call the Church’s attention to these needs. In addition, he will serve at the altar, setting up the table and assisting to distribute communion. He is also empowered to preach and to conduct what is called a 'Deacon' Mass" using the consecrated elements. 

 Regarding Ordination itself, we find the pattern for it in the book of Numbers, Chapter 27, where God instructs Moses to appoint Joshua as his successor. Moses was told to “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him. Make him stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation, and you shall commission him in their sight. You shall invest him with some of your authority…” (Num.27:18-20).

Ordination to the Diaconate finds its first New Testament expression in the book of Acts, Chapter 6, where the Disciples appoint seven men to help with the distribution of food to widows so that they themselves could devote their time to prayer.
And just as Moses stood Joshua before the people and ordained him for his ministry, so too did the first disciples stand the first seven deacons before them, and ordain them, or set them aside for ministry, by laying hands on them and commissioning them.

Now an important point to make about the various professions we receive today is that they are all simply intensifications of the basic Baptismal Covenant or Vow that every Christian makes when they profess their faith in Christ and follow Him in Baptism.

That’s why we are so glad that so many of you from so many different expressions of the Body of Christ have joined us here today to witness and affirm these Vows -  and ideally also to reaffirm your own Baptismal Vows.

For those of you who have never made such a Baptismal Vow, this involves re-enacting the pattern of Baptism: going down into the water to die to Sin, to be cleansed and renewed, so that we may walk in newness of life. It also involves affirming our belief in the basic outline of our faith, which you will hear in a few minutes as we ask the Baptized to reaffirm their Vows in the pattern of the Apostles Creed.
Today, we are Ordaining brother Tim to the office of Deacon, based first and foremost on his Baptismal Vow – his Covenant with God to turn from the old life of Sin, to be buried with Christ in Baptism, to be raised, like Christ to walk in newness of life, and to be filled with God’s Holy Spirit and to be acclaimed, just like Christ as God’s Beloved.

As many of you know, Brother Tim’s spiritual journey has been Epic!
His life is a testament to God’s saving and redeeming power – and to his own passion to serve Christ in every person he meets. He has studied the Bible extensively. He has also been prepared and examined minutely through his process of formation towards his Franciscan profession and through preparation for his ordination to the Diaconate. He has been found to be a Character – excuse me -  to be of good character, and to be worthy of this investiture today.

The same is true for the Franciscans and the Benedictine we receive. They have all been put through spiritual formation and will continue to be formed over next five years as they make four annual renewals of their vows, and then finally, at the fifth year, Life Vows in their respective vocations.

In every case, what we do today is not something random, but a ratification of something God has already been doing. As Henry Blackaby has so famously advised, today in this service, we are noticing what God is already doing and joining Him in it!

Now just a note about these ceremonies and the people who perform them:  

Today, Bishop Ames will ordain our brother. As Bishop, this is part of the ministry he is empowered to do. Like Moses with Joshua, Bishop Ames will lay his hand on him Tim before all of us and commission him in our sight with some of his own authority. A Bishop typically ordains Deacons and Priests to serve in local churches. He oversees a grouping of churches called a Diocese. Bishop Ames also serves the Company of Jesus as our Episcopal Visitor and Protector. Our Order resides within his Diocese, but is not a parish or church per se.

In a first for our Order, Brother Tim is being ordained to serve within the Company of Jesus as a Deacon working with the Five Loaves Food Pantry and serving the community in and around this ministry.

After the Ordination, I, as Abbot of the Company of Jesus will receive the Professions of Seven Franciscans and one Benedictine. I am not a Bishop, but I am an ordained priest, and have been consecrated to be the spiritual father of this Order.

Those who make their professions today are basically lay people.
Although Terry Troyer and Mark Scotton are ordained priests, and Nile Gomez and Mark Hanna are Deacons, Corey Chorba, Leslie Hanna, Darby Louis and Robert Rubinow are not. Nor need they be. Monasticsm is essentially a movement of lay people, not ordained clergy.

So there you have it – enough terms and definitions to fill a large glossary. But again, all of this we do today is in the service of Love and of serving and ministering to God’s people, wherever they may be found. 

To those being Ordained and Professing today, I say to you, My brothers and sisters, your vocations are truly a sign of hope and joy to the whole world. I am pleased and privileged to receive your professions and to charge you to Follow HIM as He calls to you through Francis and Benedict.

To those of you who join us to witness these vocations today, I say Thank You for joining us!  And God Bless you in your vocations as Christians, as spouses and single persons, workers, and servants to all in the world!

I’d like to close now with a Collect from the Book of Common Prayer and then ask us to stand and reaffirm our Baptismal Vows together.

  Let us pray:
O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Walking out our Baptismal Vows

A Sermon based on Mark 1:4-11
Delivered to St. Timothy Lutheran Church
January 11, 2015

Last week, my wife Cindy and I endured the vagaries of air travel, took time off and spent a bucket of money visiting a family in the Ft. Worth, TX area.
As you might guess, it wasn't just any family – it was the family of our daughter, Leah, consisting of herself, her husband and their three children.

Now, why did we take all the trouble to do this? There are plenty of fine young families here at St. Timothy, plenty of beautiful children to enjoy right here without inconveniencing ourselves...Why not just be content with seeing them?...

Those of you who are grandparents are surely rolling your eyes about now. Why do you go to visit your family? Because it's YOUR FAMILY.  DUH! Those children are part of you – they carry your bloodline within them. And the husbands and wives who are your in-laws are also part of your family by virtue of  marriage. ( Sometimes that's nice, and sometimes that's a challenge...)

At any rate, your family is part of you and that makes those people extremely special to you. … In a nutshell, that's what we're talking about today: Family.

The Baptism of Jesus publicly and officially recognized Jesus as God's Son, conferred God's special blessing upon Him, and prepared him to begin his  ministry as the Messiah.  In essence, the same is true for us: In Baptism, we are officially and publicly ushered into the Family of God, given God's Blessing and prepared to walk in the ministries God gives us to do.

Now, this could be the end of our message today (and many of you would rejoice at that prospect...) But there's much, much more to understand about this basic truth – much that I think will bless you. In fact I'd like to thank you all for giving me the opportunity to ponder and proclaim this message. I hope that I can convey even some of the blessing I experienced in researching this sermon, which I entitle “Walking Out Our Baptismal Vows”.

Let's begin by examining this notion of a Vow. 
Synonyms for the noun Vow are: Oath, Pledge, promise, bond, covenant, commitment, or profession. As a verb, 'to vow' means to Swear, pledge, promise, undertake, engage – or in archaic English, to plight: as in the old marriage vows: “I plight thee my Troth.”

For our purposes, we are particularly interested in the notion of Vow as an Oath or Covenant. We also want to bring in the word Sacrament because it conveys an important sense of all of these words. We'll start with the word “Covenant”.

 A Covenant binds two parties together as family; it creates a family relationship where none existed previously. A Covenant is different than a contract in that a Contract exchanges goods or services for money or other goods. It says “I will exchange this for that”. In contrast, a Covenant is an Exchange of Persons. A Covenant says, “I am yours and you are mine.”

God's characteristic way of dealing with his people down through the ages has been to make Covenants with them. Beginning in Genesis chapter 6, we read about God's judgment upon mankind and His dealings with Noah:

For behold, [says God] I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons' wives with you. (Gen 6: 17,18)

To ratify the Covenant Noah built an altar to the Lord and  sacrificed animals to Him. God accepted the sacrifice, and promised
that never again would there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11).

In Genesis 15-17, we read how God appeared to Abram and made a Covenant with him, changing his name to Abraham and promising that he would become the father of a multitude of nations.
Like Noah, Abraham prepared a sacrifice, splitting the sacrificial animals in two. God then accepted these sacrifices by burning them with fire.

In both cases the covenant was 'cut' by means of a sacrifice.  And in both cases there was a Sign to accompany the Covenant. To Noah and all humanity, God gave the Rainbow as an everlasting sign never again to destroy the world by water. (Gen. 9:12-17).

To Abraham and Sarah, God gave a son, Isaac, as a child of the Promise, and then established the Sign of Circumcision to indicate that a Covenant had been cut. All of Abraham's male descendants had to be circumcised to participate in this covenant. If not, they would be cut off from his family; the Covenant was considered broken. (Gen. 17:9-14).

So the pattern of Covenant is: Promise, Sacrifice, Sign. And the purpose is to create a special family bond between God and man.
The effect of a Covenant is to Bind the two parties together. God binds himself to us, and we to him through Covenant.

And this is where the ideas of Oath and Sacrament come in. 
An Oath is the invocation of  God's Name as a witness to truth. As we invoke His name, God becomes an active partner in our actions.
When we testify in court, we solemnly “swear to tell the truth the whole and notion but the truth, so help me God.” When we make the sign of the cross on our bodies, we pray, “In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” and we conclude it with the Hebrew word 'Amen', which indicates solemn acceptance of the covenant oath and its terms.

On God's side, since there is no one greater to swear by, He swears by Himself (Heb. 6:17)

The Ancient Romans used the term “Sacramentum” for the sacred oath sworn by men on entering the Roman military. It was understood that swearing the Sacramentum, changed the status of a man from Civilian to Soldier under absolute obedience to his officers. Without the Sacramentum, one could not become a soldier, and the soldier could only be released from the Sacramentum by death or being demobilized. 

In Lutheran theology, a sacrament is "a divine covenant of grace and blessing transmitted in the visible form." It is a combination of the Word of promise with a sign. 

So now we have the links established.  A Covenant establishes a family relationship between God and man. The Covenant is 'cut' or sworn by means of a sacred and binding Oath, which God Himself institutes and activates. The Covenant carries with it a Sign and there are consequences for keeping and breaking the Covenant. In the life of the Church we enter into and renew Covenant with God by means of a 'Sacrament'- an oath we swear that permanently changes our status.  

This notion of Covenant is perhaps the most important in the Bible. We speak of the Old Covenant, or “Testament” in Latin. In the days of the Old Covenant, a New, Everlasting Covenant was promised through Jeremiah (31:31). Jesus later affirmed that this prophecy was being fulfilled: “This is the New Covenant in my blood...” he declares at the Last Supper (Luke 22:20).

This leads us to another feature of Covenant making: eating a meal after the ceremony.

 As part of the Passover and Exodus from Egypt, the people of Israel sacrificed a lamb, put the blood on the door, 

 and then ate the roasted lamb. 

If you didn't eat the lamb, you would not be protected from death. As with circumcision, those who failed to partake were cut off from the family.

 We can see this pattern reflected in the New Covenant. Jesus is the Promised Messiah, the Ultimate Child of Promise. He is the sacrifice Lamb, accepted by God as propitiation for our sins. And we eat the Lamb every time we take communion, thus reaffirming our covenant relationship with God, our Father.

Very interesting, you may say, but what about the Sign of the New Covenant?  …  In a word, it's Baptism.
Whereas in the Old Covenant, the cutting of Circumcision signified membership in the Covenant People of God, in the New Covenant, Baptism now ushers us into the Family of God, signifying washing from sin, death to the old self and rebirth and newness of life.

In his first epistle, Peter indicates that Baptism corresponds to the family of Noah being brought safely through the flood waters. (I Peter, 3: 20,21).

And in Romans 6:4, Paul declares that “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
It’s from this verse we get the imagery of WALKING out our Baptismal Vows.

But wait a minute, you might object, wasn't Jesus already God's Son?
Wasn't he sinless? Why did he have to be Baptized?

And the answer to those questions is Yes, he was sinless – but Jesus made a decision to actively identify with our sins. If you will, he made a faith-based salvation decision for God and was baptized to indicate his acceptance of the mission God had for him. Jesus chose to be baptized by John, but it was God the Father who did something during that Baptism; namely, He approved and publicly accepted Jesus as His Beloved Son. He also equipped and empowered Jesus with the Holy Spirit, who came down upon him as a Dove.
In the Larger Catechism, Martin Luther discusses the interaction of Divine work and human faith:  “Baptism,” says Luther “is nothing else than water and the Word of God in and with each other, that is when the Word is added to the water, Baptism is valid, even though faith be wanting. For my faith does not make Baptism, but receives it. Now, Baptism does not become invalid even though it be wrongly received or employed; since it is not bound ... to our faith, but to the Word.”

This is a rather amazing thought – that an action I participate in – with the wrong motives, or without faith is effective just because it is God doing the work!

This then, becomes part of the rationale for baptizing infants.
 Luther again: “Thus we do also in infant baptism. We bring the child in the conviction and hope that it believes, and we pray that God may grant it faith; but we do not baptize it upon that, but solely upon the command of God.”

So too, if any one comes to Christ as an adult, we follow Christ in Baptism, in obedience to His command and trusting in the power and work of God, not in our own faith, which after all, is itself a gift from God. (Eph. 2:8).

But the really good news is that as we follow Christ in Baptism, we become, like Christ, Beloved of God!

Just as Cindy and I love our grandkids because they are part of us, so too God loves us because we have become His Kids by the Sacrament of Baptism.

In some ways this is almost too good to really comprehend. We have trouble believing that God loves us unconditionally when we are prone to sin and failure. But it’s precisely because of our Baptism that we can rest in this confidence.

 “...what a great, excellent thing Baptism is,” says Luther, “which delivers us from the jaws of the devil and makes us God's own, suppresses and takes away sin, and then daily strengthens the new man, and is and remains ever efficacious until we pass from this estate of misery to eternal glory.”
All of this is God’s own doing.  The old hymn expresses this truth: 

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name. ...

His oath, His covenant, His blood
Support me in the whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.

On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

Nevertheless Doctor Luther insists that “if we would be Christians, we must practice the work whereby we are Christians.” This is what we mean by Walking out our Baptismal Vows. It involves consciously “putting to death the old Adam, and then focusing on 'the resurrection of the new man” … in such a way that 'a truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, once begun and ever to be continued.”

If then, our Christian life is a daily baptism, a daily death to self and daily becoming alive to God, so too God the Father is daily pleased with us, and daily affirms that we are His Beloved children. I encourage you Beloved brothers and sisters to take to contemplate this. Take an hour sometime to just sit still and think about God's blessing in your life. Claim it as your own.

It will be rather difficult at first. There are many voices coming at us daily that accuse and tear us down – and it's very tempting to listen to those voices and internalize them. But always bring to mind the Word of God, “You are my Beloved”. His Word is always True – even when you don't feel it to be so.

As you live into this awareness of His pleasure, that sense of blessing should begin to bubble up and spill out to others – giving them a sample of God's intended blessing for them as well.

This is God's intended Covenantal pattern: He blesses us so that we might be a blessing to others (Gen. 22:18) and that all the ends of the earth may fear him ( Ps. 67:7). 

Do this and you will truly Walk Out your Baptismal Vows!
AMEN and again AMEN.

To listen to this sermon, please follow this link:

Thursday, December 25, 2014

What Can I give Him?

Christmas Eve Homily
Given to St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Charleston, WV 
 on  December 24, 2014, based on  Luke 2:1-14

Grace to you and Peace from God, our Father and from our  Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

The Scriptures tell us that on the night when Jesus was born, there were shepherds keeping watch over their flock, when suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared to them and announced the birth of the Savior, proclaiming good news of great joy which was to be for all People.

A multitude of the heavenly host appeared with the angel and sang “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men, with whom he is pleased.” (Luke 2:14) The shepherds took heed of the message and went to see the baby.

Tonight it is as if we too are shepherds who have heard the message that Jesus is come into the world to save sinners. We have left our homes and traveled through the night, coming as it were, to the cave behind the inn to see the newborn baby and to worship Him.

Our story this night is full of hiddenness: the hiddenness of God partnering with an obscure Jewish teenaged girl to bring His Son into the world ...  the hiddenness of the Christ being formed in Mary's womb ... and protected by a hidden man, Joseph ...
the hiddenness of the Christ child being born into the world in the midst of darkness in a hidden cave, in a hidden town. Later, Christ would go on to live 30 years in obscurity until his ministry began in earnest.

Hidden. Hidden. Hidden…

However, in this story of Jesus’ birth we have a curious paradox. God did not send out an advance team of marketers to advertise that Jesus, the Son of the Living God was being born. He didn't do what someone did back in the early 1980’s, and take out full page ads in world newspapers, saying that the “Lord Maitraya” had arrived. …I never did hear what happened to that guy. Maybe the announcement was premature…Who knows? At any rate:

God did choose to announce the news to the Shepherds, who were the functional equivalent of Internet bloggers of that time. They went and saw the child, and afterward they became the first evangelists. They went out and made known to everyone what had been told to them and what they had seen.

 “And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds.” And you can be sure that this news spread throughout the region.

And yet, it was ultimately a small region, in a small country, midst a small people.

There is the sense that Jesus had been brought into the world in the darkness, in the hidden place, in order to be hidden - in order for God to manifest himself as DEUS ABSCONDITUS, the hidden God. 

It’s amazing beyond comprehension that the Lord of the Universe, the Word, the Logos, by whom and in whom and with whom all things came into being, was born into the world to be our Savior – and yet He was hidden from the World. Why did God do this?

Perhaps because He wants us to look for him…

The shepherds in the fields that night were watching. They were alert for predators, so they were watchful. They were available to hear the angels’ message when everybody else was asleep. Like them, we need to be awake to God and alert to his call. This is what Advent has been all about – encouraging us to be awake and alert, and to listen for His announcement of the birth of Christ.

When the Angel announced, “Today is born to you in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord, the Shepherds’ response was, “Let us go see this thing that God has done.”

 Like Mary, they said, “Yes, Lord”. Not: “No Way!” Not: “That’s nice…” Not: “I’ll think about it.” But, “Let us go see this thing that God has done.”

This is an implicit acknowledgment of God’s existence, recognition of God’s Sovereign action in human affairs, and a response of Faith that puts legs to belief. The Shepherds responded correctly to God’s revelation by going to worship the babe laid in the manger. They looked with the eyes of their heart, with eyes of faith, - not upon the superficial appearance of a baby in a manger, but rather upon the Savior of the World, Emmanuel, God with Us.

In the purity of their hearts, they believed the angel’s message and they saw God - just as Jesus would later proclaim about the Humble in the Sermon on the Mount.

In that same Sermon Jesus also said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

In Jesus’ day, Shepherds were certainly the poorest of the poor. Often they lived in the open with only the clothes on their backs and they were frequently shunned because they smelled bad and were uncouth. They may have taken a lamb to offer the newborn King, but it’s certain they had nothing else of value to take with them.

In this way, they represent our essential position before God: Poverty. We are all poor as we approach our God. We have nothing to bring to him that he could possibly want or need. It’s the old story of trying to find something to buy for your father…What are gonna get for someone who literally has everything?

The song “In the Bleak Midwinter” has a wonderful last verse:
“What can I give him? poor as I am. If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man I would do my part, Yet what I can, I give him, give him my heart.”

Tonight we commemorate the birth of the Savior of the world, come to us hidden in the form of a baby, born to a hidden woman and a hidden man, in a hidden town, in a hidden cave behind a hidden inn. You have come here to worship – to give your time and to praise God for sending Jesus into the world.

Tonight, don’t so much come with your physical gifts, rather be like the person in the hymn saying, "I don’t know what to give, I don’t have anything to give but I’ll give Him myself".

God the Father wants you to come to the manger, to see what He has done in giving us Jesus to be our Savior. But he also wants something from you - yourself. Not Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, but Yourself, the essence of who you are, you - to be available to God for relationship, for friendship. That’s what God wants – You.

Give him yourself. Do it tonight. Do it now.

Make these words your own: 
“What can I give him? poor as I am. If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man I would do my part, Yet what I can, I give him, give him my heart.”

If you do so, it will be the most wonderful Christmas ever. I Promise.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Preparing for Something Good

A Sermon given to St. Timothy Lutheran Church
December 7, 2014, Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85; 2 Peter 3:8-14;  Mark 1:1-8

Something to Sing About
When I was young, my parents would often take us to a performance of the Messiah during Advent. The first recitative is based on Isaiah 40:1-3, “Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People”. Though it starts out calmly, the music soon becomes more dramatic as the tenor
sings:  "The voice of one crying in the wil-der-ness, Pre-pare ye the way of the Lo-rd. Make straight in the desert, a high-way. For our G-od! (And the orchestra goes: “Bum-Bum.”)

As Christians, we know that the 'one crying in the wilderness' was John the Baptist. John is not a real warm-fuzzy kind of guy.
 Although he did wear fuzzy animal pelts for clothing, his demeanor was not exactly meek and mild. It was more like:


And he wasn’t the kind of guy who was real good with church potlucks: …“Hey, John what did you bring?....

Eww…Locusts and honey?! EWWW!

But John was crying in the wilderness.   His was a ministry of calling people to repentance - of asking people to make their hearts straight before God.

And while it’s easy to imagine this rough character in rough clothing preaching a rough message – the amazing thing is that the people were going out to him in droves to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins.

Now just think with me a little about this story and about what is NOT said. Why in the world were the people going out to John in droves to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins?

Was it because John was personally attractive – he had good hair, a good preaching style and was doing amazing miracles of healing?  ….No…just the opposite.

Was it because John preached in an attractive building, that had attractive interior design, good seating and a killer audio-visual system? …No… He didn’t even have a building!

Was it because all the popular and successful people hung out with John and everybody wanted to be associated with the in crowd? …No, in fact it appears that those who went out to him were the poor, common folk…

What, then, was the appeal of John’s message?

Could it be that John hit a nerve with the people of his day? Could it be that there might have been a general awareness that things were bad, things were not as they should be, and that there had to be something better – that surely God wanted more for his people, and that surely it was high time that he spoke to his people?

Remember – there had been no prophetic word since Malachi – some 400 years previous – that’s like from when Pocahontas married John Rolfe in 1614 until now – And NO WORD from the Lord!   It must have been a desperate time!

Could there have been a general sense of longing and hope that God would eventually do something?

Could there have been a general despair that any current political or religious leader or movement could rescue the people out of their misery?

Was it not likely that the people had seen a long parade of charismatic and corrupt priests and politicians who used their offices and influence to enrich themselves, while further oppressing those they promised to help? – And that they knew in the depths of their being that there was no hope of deliverance in the world system they lived under?  

Finally,   could it have been that John actually was a Prophet of the Most High God, who was delivering a genuine message of hope and deliverance from that same God,  to a people in need, who knew they were needy and were just waiting for the right person with the right message to come along?…

Yes, all these things seem likely.

So when John appears preaching his prickly message of repentance in a prickly costume in a prickly place, it’s reasonable that the people go out to hear his message, and respond en masse by repenting and getting baptized for the forgiveness of their sins!

And there wasn’t even any mass media coverage to gin up interest in this movement! It was all totally organic – totally empowered by God’s Spirit and totally revolutionary to the world system of the day.

But let’s press into this a little more and examine a more detailed description of what the People of Israel may have been looking for:

In his book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, Brant Pitre explains that although most of us think that the Jewish people of John’s day were waiting for a political deliverer, ‘… many of the Jews were waiting for much more than just a military Messiah. …many of them were waiting for the restoration of Israel in a new exodus.” (Pg. 23).

The Old Testament, says Pitre, foretold such an exodus and that this exodus …”can be summarized by four key events:  1)the  coming of a new Moses” 2) the making of a new covenant; 3) the building of a new Temple; and 4) the journey to a new promised land.” (Pg. 24). Let’s let that sink in just a moment (If you’ve seen the trailer for the new Exodus movie, you might be able to imagine what they were expecting!)

Regarding the first event,  we read in Deuteronomy 18:15-18 that Moses prophesied to the Israelites: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren …And the LORD said to me [Moses]… I will raise up for them a prophet like you [Moses] from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak all that I command Him.”

In other words, God promised through Moses that He would raise up another Moses to speak to God’s people.

“In later Jewish tradition”, says Pitre,  “these words were interpreted as a prophecy of the Messiah, the anointed one, who would be a new Moses. Like the [first]Moses before him,[ the second Moses,] the Messiah, would one day be sent to Israel, in a time of great need, in order to deliver them from Bondage.” Pitre pg. 27.

The new exodus would also lead God’s people into a time of a new experience of God, one that would recap the experience of the elders who went up with Moses to Mount Sinai and ‘ate and drank in the presence of God himself. “ Ex. 24.11). It would literally be Heaven on Earth!

If the repentance that John was calling for was to prepare the people for the coming of the New Moses, who would lead the people into a time when they would sit down with God himself and eat and drink…that would be something to repent about!   That would be worth putting up with a scruffy old prophet for!

Of course, on this side of the cross, we know that Jesus was – and is – the long awaited Messiah. 
We know that in Him, God made a new Covenant with his people. In Christ, God built a New Temple – Jesus is the Cornerstone of this temple not made with human hands – in which, we as the Body of Christ participate, as Peter says, ( I Peter 2:5) being built up as living stones, into the Temple of God, the Dwelling of the Holy Spirit to be a Holy Priesthood unto God. And finally, we know that the new land is ultimately the new heaven and the new earth mentioned in our reading today. It’s a re-created place where sin and death have been dealt with once for all, and where God dwells with his people and we feast with him face to face - the New Promised Land.  And we participate in this new Land now when we sit down to the table of the Lord at Communion, the Supper of the Lord, the Foretaste of the Feast to Come.

All this is bound up in the unformed longing of the people of Israel. And we get to experience the ‘Beginning’ of the gospel of Jesus Christ, just as Mark says, for although the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated and is here now, it’s only the foretaste of things to come. But because the foretaste is made of the same stuff as the full feast, we know in part what the full meal deal will be like – a time when all things come into harmony in and around Christ, the head and the Bridegroom of the Church, his Body on earth.

Well, this is a glorious Vision – one worth shouting about. But it’s also one that raises a question, one posed to us by Peter today. He tells us that judgment is coming… and in light of the coming judgment and dissolution of all things raises this question (slide)  …”what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God….? (2Pet. 3:11,12)

Fortunately, it’s not just a rhetorical question. Peter answers his own question: We are to be Patient People, (Patience Grow slide) who wait expectantly for the return of the Lord, people who apply themselves to God’s word – and don’t become too flustered by the hard things in Scripture – and People who …”grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2Pet. 3: 18).

To be patient means in part that we are patient with ourselves and each other. We should probably put up a marquee at the bottom of the hill: “St. Timothy Lutheran Church – Saints, Sinners and Hypocrites Welcome!”

Because you see, it’s just like Pastor Luther said, we are both saints and sinners at the same time. There isn’t any other choice, because the Kingdom of God is here, but it’s not fully here. What we shall be has not yet appeared – and so we know with certainty that Things Are Not As They Should Be!
Yes, we sin – unavoidably so. But yes, we should repent, and that Quickly, knowing that the end of all things is upon us.

What kind of people should we be?  People who tackle the ‘hard sayings’ of Scripture, such as: 

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:29-32. ESV

When the world looks at the Church, it should see a little bit of Heaven on earth. Is that what we’re showing the world? 
No, most assuredly not.

The Church, the Body of Christ is so un-unified it’s not even funny.
But while we descry our lack of unity and basic kindness to one another, we can also say that this is completely understandable because Nothing is as it should be.

And strangely, the recognition that Nothing is as it should be reflects an awareness of Heaven – the place where everything IS as it should be! While this doesn’t relieve us of culpability, it does, in an odd way, normalize the present failures of the church.

Winston Churchill’s famous comment about Americans can, with equal accuracy be applied to the Church: “You can always count on the Church to do the right thing – after it has tried everything else!”

And we do – we often choose the wrong thing before the right thing – it’s part of the human condition in this time between Christ’s first and second Advents.

Which of course brings us back to the relevance of John’s exhortation:

Make straight in the desert, a highway for our God! Return to the Lord! Repent of your sins and prepare the way for the King of the Kingdom of Heaven! That’s what this current season is all about – preparing for something ….GOOD.   

The Birth of Jesus into our world was indeed a good thing It’s the BEST thing that could ever happen – that God was in Christ reconciling us to Himself by becoming one of us and by taking upon himself our sin, atoning for it on the cross and then rising again with the promise of ultimate healing in his wings!

It’s Salvation – and Salvation is what God does best – redeeming bad situations.

And because this is so, I feel confident that we as a congregation can expect the same thing in the coming days and months. It seems somehow appropriate that we should find ourselves in the Season of preparation while we prepare to receive an interim pastor – and then at some future point, a permanent pastor.

Just as we expect the celebration of Christ’s birth to be a good thing, so too, I think we have every reasonable expectation that what God has for us up ahead will be Good. It will be in His plan for us. It will be Healing for us. And it will challenge us to grow into the next place God has for us as a congregation.

Brothers and Sisters, Lift up your heads! Prepare the Way. Your King draws near – but humble, lowly and loving, arriving incognito, and bringing Hope and Comfort to us and the Nations.

In the words of Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things shall be well!” AMEN.