Saturday, December 26, 2009

Silent Years

Sermon: 1 Christmas (27 December 2009)
(1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26/Psalm 148/Colossians 3:12-17/Luke 2:41-52)
Silent Years

Christ is born; give him the glory!
Christ has come down from heaven; receive him!
Christ is now on earth; exalt him!

The Gospel lesson seems to me a strange choice for the first Sunday of Christmas. I expect “wise men and shepherds and angels and all,[1]” and instead we’ve skipped twelve years into the future – so much for the twelve days of Christmas – we’ve skipped twelve years into the future to join the adolescent Jesus at the temple for the Passover celebration. It’s a good story and a good introduction to the story that follows, even if it’s not very “Christmassy.” It’s full of “incidents and accidents, hints and allegations;[2]” there are poignant moments and moments filled with irony. There is human interest and deep theology.

We learn that Mary and Joseph are observant Jews – no surprise, that – who fulfill their obligations to celebrate the Passover at the temple each year. That’s no small thing. It is some 60 miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem as the crow flies, maybe an 8-day roundtrip plus time spent in Jerusalem – significant in terms of time and effort and cost. But this surely impresses on young Jesus the centrality of the Passover in Jewish faith and life; God delivers through sacrifice. Does Luke intend us to look ahead to Jesus’ last meal with his disciples – a Passover meal in which Jesus truly becomes the Passover lamb who takes away the sin of the world? “Alleluia. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us,” we say in the liturgy. “Therefore, let us keep the feast. Alleluia.”

We see Jesus in the temple surrounded by teachers – rabbis, scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees? – holding his own in the theological give-and-take, astonishing his elders with the depth of his knowledge and with the perceptive nature of his questions. “If only this boy weren’t from Nazareth – Can anything good come from Nazareth? – if only he could get some real training, he might be a great rabbi one day,” they may have thought. Does Luke want us to see Jesus in some of these rabbis’ synagogues some twenty years hence confounding them still with his wisdom while he infuriates them with his generous and compassionate interpretation of the Law: healing on the Sabbath, feasting with tax collectors and sinners?

We hear Jesus acknowledge his true paternity when he speaks of his Father’s house or his Father’s business. Does Luke want us to remember this moment as we later hear Jesus’ last words from the cross? “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

And, finally, we see Jesus return home to Nazareth, where he remains subject to his parents, where he grows in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men. It is a good story and a good introduction to the story that follows, even if it’s not very “Christmassy.”

This good story reminds us that most of Jesus’ life is shrouded in silence. We know a good deal about his nativity, but the next 30 years or so are blank except for two incidents: the flight to Egypt and this episode in the temple. Obviously, we don’t need to know about these years, but I certainly would like to. By the time we see Jesus again, he’s turning water into wine, casting out demons, healing the sick and raising the dead, calming storms and walking on water, cleansing the temple and forgiving sins – all “God stuff.” I would like to see the “human stuff” of those silent years: Jesus at home, Jesus at school, Jesus at synagogue, Jesus at work – Jesus where I live my life.

We know Joseph and Mary made some dumb mistakes as parents. I wonder if Jesus rolled his eyes in exasperation. We know there must have been bullies in Nazareth – they’re everywhere – and that, with some scandal surrounding his birth anyway, Jesus was a likely target for their taunts. Did he always turn the cheek – even as a child – or did he once or twice bloody a nose? And girls – surely there were young village girls whose fathers were looking for prospective husbands. Did Jesus ever have his eye on anyone special? Jesus learned a trade – work with wood and stone. He must have rammed a splinter deep in his hand or pounded his thumb with a hammer a few times. I know how I react to such things, but how did he? And as a craftsman, he dealt with the public, with customers. Surely some of them complained about his work: quality or cost or schedule. I imagine that, from time to time, a customer refused to pay. Did Jesus re-do work or forgive debt, even when it meant loss of income for his family? His family was probably poor. Did Jesus ever worry about finances, about dowries for his sisters or about what would happen to the family when he left to begin his public ministry? We don’t need to know any of this, but I would like to know precisely because this is where I live. I don’t turn water into wine or raise the dead, but I do turn time and effort into money and I do raise a daughter. These silent years are precisely the years of my life. We do know, of course, that during these years Jesus was tempted in all points like we are, yet was without sin. What we don’t know is exactly what that looked like.

But I am convinced of this: Jesus’ silent years were not different in character or substance from his years of public ministry. Signs – what we call “miracles” – may have begun with his baptism. Crowds may have grown, popularity may have increased – along with opposition – but Jesus himself and the essence of his life among us remained constant throughout. What he was during his public ministry is exactly what he was in his private life – in all his life, which was a seamless whole and not divided into secular and religious. All of life is ministry and all of ministry is life.

So, while we may not know the detailed events of the silent years, we do know their character – Jesus’ character – a character summarized in this day’s epistle lesson.

12 Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. 14 But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. 15 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. 17 And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him (Col 3:12-17, NKJV).

Hear this text first as a description of the character of Jesus – the Elect (the anointed) of God, the Holy One, the Beloved One – the character of the Jesus of the silent years. This Jesus lived in a family with struggling parents, with sibling rivalry, with all the good and bad of all families. How often he must have shown tender mercies, how often kindness. This Jesus was mocked and taunted by his brothers – James and Jude included? – before his resurrection (cf John 7:1-5). How often he must have borne with them and forgiven them. “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Peter once asked Jesus. Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (cf Matt 18:21-22, NKJV). How often he must have done this during the silent years. This Jesus was a member of a community[3]. This Jesus worked for a living. This Jesus had a life, which means he had ample opportunity to practice love, the bond of perfection. This Jesus knew what lay ahead – not least through singing the Psalms and reading the Prophets.

From the Psalms:
1 My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, And from the words of My groaning? 2 O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear; And in the night season, and am not silent.
14 I am poured out like water, And all My bones are out of joint; My heart is like wax; It has melted within Me. 15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd, And My tongue clings to My jaws; You have brought Me to the dust of death. 16 For dogs have surrounded Me; The congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me. They pierced My hands and My feet; 17 I can count all My bones. They look and stare at Me. 18 They divide My garments among them, And for My clothing they cast lots (Ps 22, NKJV).

And from the Prophets:
3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. 6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Is 53, NKJV).

How often Jesus must have sought and practiced the peace of God in his heart when confronted with these hard truths. And this Jesus, throughout the silent years, gave thanks to God his Father in all things. This is the character of the Jesus of the silent years.

But this Epistle text really was not written to describe Jesus – though it does so beautifully. It was written to instruct and encourage the disciples of Jesus, those of us who live each day like Jesus lived in his silent years: in a family, in a community, in school and work, in the church and in the world, in joy and sorrow, in victory and defeat – in all the details of a life.

So, now hear the text as written to us. It starts by calling us the elect of God, holy and beloved. And this is essential; only if we are convinced of this – convinced that we are chosen, holy, and loved by God – can we dare live as Jesus lived: because we are called to put on tender mercies, to show kindness, to practice meekness and patience, to bear with one another, to forgive one another – and we know that when Jesus did this he wound up on a cross. We fear we will, too. This is an intrusive word from God, made palatable and possible only when we are convinced that God has chosen us to make us holy, only when we are convinced beyond all doubt that God loves us beyond all measure.

All that’s the Sunday news. One of the reasons we meet together as the church is to hear that news: read and sung and prayed and eaten. We need that because Monday comes all too soon. The alarm rings too early. There’s too much to do. We hit the ground running and we’re already behind. We get to work and our boss is…well, our boss is our boss, right or wrong, reasonable or unreasonable. Or maybe it’s school and a teacher is frustrated and prickly and is short with the class. You can imagine your own scenario because you experience it day after day.

You have to stop by the store on the way home from work and a surly teenager with hands on hips and obvious eye roll grudgingly mans the register. And after that, on the way home, you get cut off in traffic with blaring horns. When you finally make it home – that warm, safe haven in the storm of life – no one seems to notice that you’re there; they’ve each had their own Monday and they’re nursing their own wounds: parents, children, spouses, in-laws – blessing and non-blessing one another. And then God says to us: “12 Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. 14 But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.” Not what we want to hear, but what we need to hear, because this was the character of Jesus of the silent years and of the ministry years and of all years unto the ages of ages. And this is the character that God wants to birth and grow in us.

And Monday is not the only problem we face; even Sunday has its share of challenges. As the body of Christ, we so often fail to be the body of Christ to one another. We disappoint and hurt our brothers and sisters; we questions motives and we nurse grudges. We turn inward when we should be expansive in our self-giving. We speak the truth in love, when really it’s our agenda we speak with self-interest. Is there a Christian around who hasn’t been both deeply healed and deeply wounded by the church? And then God says to us: “15 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. 17 And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” Let peace rule. Be thankful for one another. Worship the Lord together. If you can’t do it in the name of the Lord, don’t do it. And if it needs to be done in the name of the Lord, do it. Not what we want to hear, but what we need to hear, because this was the character of Jesus of the silent years and of the ministry years and of all years unto the ages of ages. And this is the character that God wants to birth and grow in us.

These are the lessons of the silent years – maybe not very “Christmassy,” but good lessons.

[1] I Wonder As I Wander, traditional.
[2] You Can Call Me Al, Paul Simon.
[3] Recent archaeological discoveries indicate that Nazareth consisted of about 50 family dwellings on 4 acres of land.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Homily: Eve of the Nativity (24 December 2009)

Diamonds and the Incarnation

If we had a diamond with us this night, no words of mine could add to its luster. It would be enough to set it in our midst and to shine the light upon it; then its brilliance and beauty would be revealed for all to see. The incarnation is such a gem; no words of mine can possibly increase its worth. It is enough to set it in our midst and shine the light upon it. This we have done by listening to the ancient words of the prophets, by singing the angelic Gloria with all the company of heaven, by bending the adoring knee with shepherds and magi, and soon by breaking the bread and lifting the cup with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

A beautiful diamond should not be admired for only a moment and then returned to a vault, unseen until its next, brief showing. It should be mounted in a ring and placed on a finger to adorn a hand with beauty. It should be worn with great joy every moment throughout a lifetime. And the incarnation should not be brought out and admired once every 25th of December and then returned to the vault of theology, unseen until next year. It should adorn the faithful with beauty and be worn with great joy every moment throughout a lifetime and beyond. Jesus did not become incarnate simply to show his luster and beauty, but to make us shine with his brilliance. Jesus put on our humanity that we might put on his divinity – ours by grace what is his by nature.

We must take the incarnation outward from this holy place into the dark recesses of this present age, take it and shine the light upon it so all may see its beauty. No words of ours are sufficient for the task, though they may sometimes be necessary. Instead, our lives are the gems we must lay before the world, lives illuminated by the reality of the incarnation we celebrate this night, lives made brilliant by the indwelling presence of the One who came among us. This night, this pure night, may Christ be incarnate once again: in you, in me, in all the faithful – on this pure night, as Saint Ephraim (Ephrem) the Syrian wrote in his nativity sermon.

Pure is the present night, in which the Pure One appeared, Who came to purify us! Let our hearing be pure, and the sight of our eyes chaste, and the feeling of the heart holy, and the speech of the mouth sincere!

The present night is the night of reconciliation; therefore, let no one be wroth against his brother and offend him!

This night gave peace to the whole world, and so, let no one threaten. This is the night of the Most Meek One; let no one be cruel!

This is the night of the Humble One; let no one be proud!

Now is the day of joy; let us not take revenge for offences! Now is the day of good will; let us not be harsh. On this day of tranquility, let us not become agitated by anger!

Today God came unto sinners; let not the righteous exalt himself over sinners!

Today the Most Rich One became poor for our sake; let the rich man invite the poor to his table!

Today we received a gift which we did not ask for; let us bestow alms to those who cry out to us and beg!

The present day has opened the door of heaven to our prayers; let us also open our door to those who ask of us forgiveness!

Today the Godhead placed upon Himself the seal of humanity, and humanity has been adorned with the seal of the Godhead!

Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace to men of goodwill! May your celebration of the nativity be truly blessed with the presence of the Incarnate One. Amen.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Details: 4 Advent 2009

Sermon: 4 Advent (20 December 2009)
(Micah 5:2-5a/Luke 1:46b-55/Hebrews 10:5-10/Luke 1:39-45)

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

Little details of the big story of Advent: that’s our focus today. Advent is such an epic tale, spanning centuries and nations, spanning eternity and heaven and earth, that little – yet rich and meaningful – details easily might go unnoticed or unmentioned unless we keep our eyes focused and our ears attuned to the small scale as well as to the large. So, today we look at the story writ small. It is sometimes said that the devil is in the details. But I think God is there.

In the Second Song of Isaiah we read these true words:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, *
nor your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, *
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts (BCP 14).

If there is a unifying theme to these little details of Advent it is precisely this: that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor God’s ways our ways.

St. Luke has been and is our guide for this Advent, which is a good thing since he is a keen observer of detail. He prides himself on it, as he make clear in the prologue to his two-volume history, the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed (Luke 1:1-5, NRSV).

We saw Luke’s attention to detail in the Gospel reading last Sunday when he introduced the ministry of St. John the Forerunner.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness (Luke 3:1-2, NRSV).

Luke gives us a detailed accounting of time, after the fashion of his day; this is Luke the historian at work. A new ruler comes to power and the calendar resets and future events are measured from the beginning of his reign. Luke is thorough here; he mentions the powers-that-be at almost every level: Tiberius, ruler of the world; Pontius Pilate, his governor over Judea; Herod, the Idumean puppet-king of Galilee, and his co-regents Philip and Lysanias; Annas and Caiphas, the religious authorities in Jerusalem. Time and power are inseparable in this accounting. Time is a measure of power.

Now, let’s go back in the story of Advent some three decades to watch Luke address another measure of time. This time it’s not Luke the historian, but Luke the theologian.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary (Luke 1:26-27, NRSV).

In the sixth month: that’s all Luke writes to specify time – nothing about Caesar, nothing about Herod, nothing at all about any of the powers-that-were at the time. In the sixth month. What does this mean: in the sixth month of what, or in the sixth month since what? Since you know the big story, you know this detail: in the sixth month since the angel Gabriel announced to Zechariah that his barren, old wife would conceive and bear a son and that her son would be the forerunner, the herald, of God’s messiah. Now this is a different way to measure time: not from the ascension of a new world power like Caesar, but from the exaltation of a faithful old couple and from the in-breaking of God into human history.

God’s sense of time is not like ours. We operate in chronos time – the ordinary sequence of events that marks the passing of our seconds and minutes and hours and days until our time runs out. God operates on kairos time – the right season, the fullness of the times, the sudden interruption of chronos with an advent, a coming, of God into our midst. Luke the historian marks time from the beginning of Caesar’s rule – the fifteenth year of Tiberius – marks time based on human power. Luke the theologian marks time from the appearance of an angel, from the answer of prayer – the sixth month – marks time based on human weakness and God’s power.

This detail of Advent – this difference in God’s way of marking time – is a challenge to us: find God’s time – kairos – in the midst of the pressing rush of world time – chronos. Do you sometimes feel powerless, sometimes old and barren? That’s just chronos ticking away, of no consequence whatsoever. Look for God’s moment, God’s season – look for in-breaking kairos – in the midst of this. Look for Advent. God still answers prayer. God still sends angels – of all sorts – with his good news. God still prepares the way for his coming – and he is always on the move, always coming to us. Tell time not as a historian, but as a theologian. Look for God in your seconds and minutes and hours and days and lives.

A demon disguised as an angel of light came to one of the desert monks. “I am Gabriel,” the demon greeted him, “and I have been sent to you by God.” The old monk scarcely interrupted his prayers as he replied, “You must have the wrong person. I’ve done nothing to deserve a visit from an angel.” Immediately the demon disappeared.

Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”

But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was (Luke 1:26-26, NRSV).

These two stories aren’t so different, are they – except, of course, that it really was Gabriel who appeared to Mary? She is troubled by the angel’s greeting: highly favored one, blessed among women. Mary knows that, in the society of her day, she is ordinary, at best; she even describes her state as lowly, describes herself as a maidservant. And it would be difficult to imagine anyone apparently more powerless than Mary. But, a detail in the story changes all that. Unlike the desert monk Mary doesn’t say to Gabriel, “You must have the wrong person.” She says instead, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” Then Gabriel departs, having received the assent, the faithful yes, of this ordinary woman who has become the most blessed among women. “Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord,” Elizabeth tells her just a bit later.

This is the detail in the story, this one phrase: “Let it be to me according to your word.” When in God’s time – in kairos – it was time to step into history in the person of his only begotten son, when it was time to redeem the world, when it was time to put all things to rights again, God didn’t seek the help of the high and mighty or the rich and powerful. God sought only the “yes,” the faithfulness of one powerless young woman, the complete surrender of herself to the will of God. And that simple “yes” changed the world.

God’s sense of power is not like ours. I recently heard Barak Obama described as the most powerful man in the world. Really? By whose estimation and by what token? Was Caesar really the most powerful man in the world the day Gabriel appeared to Mary? Did he really hold in his hands the future of the world? Or was this lowly maidservant, this peasant woman more powerful in that moment than all the emperors Rome would ever know? The essence of human power lies in the simple, faithful yes to the will of God spoken by a lowly servant of God.

This detail of Advent – this difference in God’s sense of power – is a challenge to us: say yes to the will God. Though it may disrupt your plans, though a sword may pierce your heart, say yes to the will of God and release his incarnate power in your life and in the life of the world. True power lies in this small detail: in saying yes to God.

After she says yes, after she gives flesh to God, after she is hailed by Elizabeth as the mother of the Lord, Mary sings.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever (BCP 19-20).

I’m neither an English teacher nor a Greek scholar – barely competent in only one of those languages, really – but I do find a striking detail of language in Mary’s Magnificat. It’s all there in the verb tense. Consider first the context of Mary’s song. Gabriel has spoken the word of God to Mary and Mary has conceived the Word of God in her womb. She hurries to see her kinswoman, Elizabeth, to make certainly all this is real; she needs to see the swelled belly of this old, barren woman. Upon her arrival Elizabeth greets her much as Gabriel had earlier: 42 Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. 45 Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord” (Luke 1:42-45). Then Mary is sure. Then Mary sings.

He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy.

All these verbs show past action. Mary is singing about what God has already accomplished through the proclamation and fulfillment of the incarnation. Outwardly, nothing in Mary’s life has changed. The proud still disregard her lowly estate. The mighty – Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Annas and Caiaphas – still wield power. Dives still feasts while Lazarus begs. Israel is still in exile under Roman occupation. Or so it seems to everyone but Mary, for she has been shown the new reality that God has spoken into being – which brings us round again to the final words of Isaiah’s Second Song:

For as rain and snow fall from the heavens *
and return not again, but water the earth,
Bringing forth life and giving growth, *
seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is my word that goes forth from my mouth; *
it will not return to me empty;
But it will accomplish that which I have purposed, *
and prosper in that for which I sent it (BCP 15).

The proud, the mighty, the rich, the oppressors: these do not create reality; God speaks reality into being. From the moment the words go forth from God’s mouth they are a fait accompli – a thing accomplished and irreversible. So what if our eyes do not yet see God’s reality; that is what faith is for. So what if our ears do not hear God’s new reality; that is what singing is for. So what if pride and might and wealth still seem to matter; that is what the incarnation is for. It’s all there in the details of the language – a new reality, a new creation, already spoken into existence by God Almighty, already “fleshed-out” in the incarnation.

This detail of Advent – this subtle use of language and the light it sheds upon reality – is a challenge to us: live by faith and not by sight. Confront every oppressive power in your life and in the life of the world with the good news that God has spoken a new reality into being, a new reality in which Jesus – the Word incarnate – is Lord, a new reality in which the Kingdom of God is among us even now and will one day be apparent to all.

These are just details of course, but what details.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Coming and Going

Sermon: 3 Advent (13 December 2009)
(Zeph 3:14-20/Is 12:2-6/Phil 4:4-7/Luke 3:7-18)
Coming and Going

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

Following are the sermon notes for 3 Advent and not the full text. I hope
they are sufficient to point you in the same direction we will travel that day,
and I pray that the direction is a fruitful one for us all. May God grant
you a blessed Advent as you prepare the way for his coming.

Advent God and Advent Faith
Advent is a good name for the first season in the church year; it is a good description of our God and of our faith: Advent – coming. Our God is always on the move, always coming to us where we are. The notion that our God is distant and remote, that God is uninvolved and “stand-offish,” is strictly a non-Christian notion; that is neither our God nor our faith. Our God is always on the move, always coming to us where we are. Our God steps into history. Our God steps into creation as both Creator and – through the incarnation – part of creation. Our God is not afraid to get his hands dirty in the muck and mire of messy humanity. Our God is always on the move, always coming to us where we are – more often than not coming to us to rescue us from the mess we have made of things. We stand on the brink of the abyss of nonbeing (Athanasius, On the Incarnation), and our God comes to us there, comes to us to rescue us.

When our God comes to us, he comes to take us somewhere with him. Advent is both “coming and going.” God comes to us; we go with God. That is the consistent story that Scripture tells.

Abram in Ur of the Chaldees
Jacob in Haran;
Joseph in Egypt
Moses in Midian
Israel in Egypt
Israel in Assyria
Judah in Babylon

Our God is always on the move, coming to us where we are and taking us somewhere with him.

Where does God take us? God comes to us in our exile to lead us back to our true home; he comes to lead us back to himself. See Zephaniah 3:14-20 and Isaiah 12:2-6. Both are return-from-exile prophecies; God comes to us to take us home, to claim us again as his own. Advent is salvation: God on the move, God coming to us where we are in our exile and taking us with him to be with him.

All this coming and going is God’s initiative and not our own. But, we do have our own role to play in Advent. Coming and going requires having a road to travel. It is our Advent role to prepare the road. See Luke 3:1-6. The road by which God travels to come to us is filled with deep valleys, high mountains, crooked stretches, and rough ways. It is the path to our heart and we have failed to maintain it; so, there is much work to be done. This is where the Advent story becomes our story; we have a road to prepare into our hearts and lives, so that God might come to us where we are and take us to be with him.

What must we do to prepare the way for the Lord? What work is required?

Repentance (metanoia) – not just sorrow and not guilt, but a work that transforms our perception, a fundamental realignment to God’s truth and presence. Metanoia is work – hard work; it is the product of prayer, fasting, and obedience. It is a lifelong commitment.

Humility –“ God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pe 5:5). The falls of both Satan and man were caused by pride. Of all Advent virtues, the desert fathers valued humility most highly. See “It All Boils Down To This.” What is humility? See “Humility.” Pride is making yourself the subject of every thought sentence: “I want,” “I plan,” “I think,” “I will.” Humility is making yourself the object: “God wants for me,” “God’s plan for me,” “God reveals to me,” “God’s will for me.” Humility clears the biggest obstacle from the road: ourselves.

Joy – “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I will say rejoice” (Phil 4:4). Rejoicing is the proclamation that God is good, that we wish him to come to us, that we wish to go with him. See Ps 126. This is a perfect Advent psalm: God coming to us in our exile to take us home to be with him, along the way we have prepared through repentance, humility, and joy.

Let us pray.

Lord God Almighty, you come to us in grace, with power and great glory: Grant us true repentance, genuine humility, and abundant joy that we might make straight and level the path of you coming in the time of your advent; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Temple Tales: Sermon (2 Advent 2009)

Sermon: 2 Advent (6 December 2009)
(Malachi 3:1-4/Luke 1:68-79/Philippians 1:3-11/Luke 3:1-6)
Temple Tales

Let us give thanks to the Lord.
For he is good, and his mercy endures forever. Amen

Advent is the time for stories. I come today to offer three – temple tales, all.

First things first: the first temple tale of Solomon’s temple. Israel assembles in holy convocation before the Lord and before the newly completed temple in Jerusalem. In their hearing Solomon concludes his magnificent dedicatory prayer (2 Chr 6) with an invocation of God’s presence.

41 “Now therefore, arise, O LORD God, to Your resting place, You and the ark of Your strength. Let Your priests, O LORD God, be clothed with salvation, and let Your saints rejoice in goodness.
42 “O LORD God, do not turn away the face of Your Anointed; Remember the mercies of Your servant David” (2 Chr 6:41-42, NKJV).

And then God acts; God appears with power and great glory.

1 When Solomon had finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the LORD filled the temple.2 And the priests could not enter the house of the LORD, because the glory of the LORD had filled the LORD’s house. 3 When all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the LORD on the temple, they bowed their faces to the ground on the pavement, and worshiped and praised the LORD, saying: “For He is good, for His mercy endures forever.”4 Then the king and all the people offered sacrifices before the LORD (2 Chr 7:1-4).

The Shekinah Glory, later Jewish writers call it: the glory of God’s presence dwelling among his people in his temple, in the Holy of Holies, between the outstretched wings of the cherubim, over the ark of the covenant. And there it remains through the reign of Solomon, through the division of the kingdom in his son Rehoboam’s day, through the moral and social decay of successive generations in Judah until, as Ezekiel witnesses in a vision, the glory of the Lord departs from the threshold of the temple (Eze 10).

And then come the destroyers, the Babylonians. Someone who saw, or someone who heard, laments the destruction of the temple following the withdrawal of the Shekinah Glory (Ps 74).

O God, why have you utterly cast us off? *
why is your wrath so hot against the sheep of your pasture?

Remember your congregation that you purchased long ago, *
the tribe you redeemed to be your inheritance,
and Mount Zion where you dwell.

Turn your steps toward the endless ruins; *
the enemy has laid waste everything in your sanctuary.

Your adversaries roared in your holy place; *
they set up their banners as tokens of victory.

They were like men coming up with axes to a grove of trees; *
they broke down all your carved work with hatchets
and hammers.

They set fire to your holy place; *
they defiled the dwelling‑place of your Name
and razed it to the ground.

They said to themselves, “Let us destroy them altogether.” *
They burned down all the meeting‑places of God
in the land.

There are no signs for us to see;
there is no prophet left; *
there is not one among us who knows how long.

How long, O God, will the adversary scoff? *
will the enemy blaspheme your Name for ever
(Ps 74, BCP)?

It will be some forty years before the exiles return to worship God again on the temple mount – until a second temple tale can be told. Under the leadership of Zerubbabel the repatriated exiles lay the foundations for a second temple – lay the foundations and weep.

10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. 11 And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD: “For He is good, for His mercy endures forever toward Israel.”
Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off (Ezra 3:10-13, NKJV).

The old men who had seen the former glory of Solomon’s temple weep with sorrow and shame for their loss. Much is missing, as the tale of the temple’s completion makes clear by omission.

15 Now the temple was finished on the third day of the month of Adar, which was in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius. 16 Then the children of Israel, the priests and the Levites and the rest of the descendants of the captivity, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy. 17 And they offered sacrifices at the dedication of this house of God, one hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred lambs, and as a sin offering for all Israel twelve male goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel. 18 They assigned the priests to their divisions and the Levites to their divisions, over the service of God in Jerusalem, as it is written in the Book of Moses (Ezra 6:15-18, NKJV).

Where is the fire from heaven? Where is the Shekinah Glory? Neither is to be found. God does not come to dwell in his temple as he did of old; so our tradition teaches us.

A century later and the people are still waiting, still longing for the glory of God to come to his temple. The land is devastated with famine and drought; crops and flocks fail. Israel is under constant military threat from surrounding enemies. Survival is precarious. If only God would come to his temple, come to vindicate his people. And there arises in answer to the people’s longing a prophet – the last prophet – with a burden of the word of the Lord to Israel. “You want the Lord to return to his temple? You do not know what you ask. For when he returns, it will not be to vindicate Israel, but to judge Israel for its polluted offerings, its corrupt priests, its marital unfaithfulness, its perversion of justice (Mal 1-4). Yes, God will return as you wish:

But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like launderers’ soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer to the LORD an offering in righteousness” (Mal 3:2-3, NKJV).

The Shekinah Glory will return to the temple, but in judgment; God will come, but he will come to cleanse and to purify. And, before he comes, to warn and to prepare the people, he will send a messenger.

“Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts.

5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. 6 And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse” (Mal 3:1; 4:5-6, NKJV).

And thus we come to the third of our temple tales, to an old, childless priest offering incense before the Lord in Herod’s Temple. An angel of the Lord appears to him – Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God – and assures priest Zacharias that his prayers – his secret prayers for a son – have been heard and will be honored. And in the answer to this prayer lies the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy; the messenger of the Lord is coming, as Gabriel says:

“Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:13b-17, NKJV).

Some thirty years later this messenger, this Elijah, bursts on the scene calling Israel to repentance – calling Israel to be cleansed and purified – before the Lord returns to his temple.

And so the Lord comes to his temple once again – the Shekinah in flesh and blood.

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 John bore witness of Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before me.’” 16 And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace (John 1:14-16, NKJV).

The glory of God in the face of Christ comes to his temple: as a baby received by righteous Anna and holy Simeon, as a teacher rejected by Pharisee and Sadducee, as a savior crucified by all men. He comes just as Malachi foretold – to cleanse and to purify, with fuller’s soap and refiner’s fire: to cleanse and to purify not by judging sinners such as we, but by judging sin itself, in his own body, by embracing sin to the death and by rising again victorious. Such is the third temple tale.

And though I promised only three tales, there is a fourth which must be told. For there is yet another temple.

Throughout Advent we say or sing in one form or another, “Come, Lord Jesus,” or “Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Come, return to your temple; shine the light of your glory upon us. As we speak or sing these words we look to the past, to the first Advent: to dreams and prophecies, to angels and promises, to stable and manger, to a child in Bethlehem, to hidden glory in flesh and blood. As we speak or sing these words we look to the future, to the final Advent: to white horses and white thrones, to books and scrolls, to the Lamb who was slain coming in power and great glory to judge and to vindicate. But, surely, as we speak or sing these words we look also to the present; we look for a present Advent: “Come, Lord Jesus, to the temple of our hearts and lives. Come to cleanse us. Come to purify us. Come to make us fit dwellings for your presence.” Surely, as we speak or sing these words, we hear the voice of Malachi’s messenger Elijah – John, son of Zacharias and Elizabeth – call to us all, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand,” and the glory of the Lord is even now returning to his temple. And remembering these temple tales, we offer a most fitting Advent prayer:

O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth,
Who art everywhere present and fillest all things,
Treasury of good things and Giver of life:
Come and dwell in us, and cleanse us of all impurity,
and save our souls, O Good One.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Stories and Hope: Sermon 1 Advent (29 Nov 2009)

Sermon: 1 Advent (29 November 2009)
(Jeremiah 33:14-16/Psalm 25:1-10/1 Thessalonians 3:9-13/Luke 21:25-36)
Stories and Hope

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit:
As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

I believe that story has power to form people – more power than reason or will or fear or shame. It is not incidental that Scripture is, first and foremost, story. Yes, there is law and prophecy and theology, but these are always embedded in story and are always at the service of story. When the gospel is proclaimed it is not with the wisdom of philosophers or the logic of mathematicians, it is not with the arguments of lawyers or the methods of scientists; it is with the poetry and plot and character of story: the story of creation, fall, and redemption – of God our creator, Jesus our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, our Sanctifier. The story we hear, the story we believe, the story we live: this story makes all the difference in this world and in the world to come.

I think a lot about the stories we tell today, about the stories that form us as a people. These stories are not always explicit – rarely does anyone say, “Let me tell you a story.” – but they are always there and may be inferred from the behaviors and lifestyles they form. Does anyone else find it ironic that the day following Thanksgiving – a holyday set aside to reflect on our multitude of blessings – is Black Friday, the day which encourages and celebrates conspicuous consumption, as if the blessings for which we gave thanks some 12 hours earlier were not nearly sufficient? There is a story there that underlies that bizarre behavior – a story that tells us that we are primarily consumers, that our worth is measured by our buying power. We have been told that story in thousands of subtle and not so subtle ways until we accept is as true and act on it unthinkingly. I watched a bit of the American Music Association (AMA) Awards recently and took it as a commentary on modern youth culture. The blatant and often aberrant sexuality of the performances obscured any musical quality and told another story, that we are primarily sexual beings and that music and art have nothing to do with truth and beauty but are mere aphrodisiacs. Our country is at war on multiple fronts, and whatever you think about those engagements, there is a story that justifies them, a story that says our security depends on power and violence. I think a lot about the stories we tell today, about the stories that form us as a people, and I wonder.

I wonder what stories Israel told in Egypt: slave stories or covenant stories, bondage stories or deliverance stories? Did they tell of Noah, who alone was righteous in his generation, and who was delivered by God from the destruction of the world – delivered to bless all mankind with life and knowledge of God? Did they tell of Abram, elect of God: called to leave his father’s house, called into covenant with God Almighty, promised children as the stars of the heavens, given a land, and delivered time and again – from pharaoh, from Abimelech, from Chederlaomer? Did they tell of Abram’s line, of Isaac and Jacob, each of whom received the covenant in his turn and each of whom was delivered by God? Did they tell of Joseph: of his fall from beloved son to foreign slave, of his rise from powerless prisoner to the right hand of pharaoh – yet another tale of God’s covenant faithfulness and the deliverance of his elect? Did Israel in Egypt feed its children on the bread of slave stories or on the manna – though it lay in the future – of these stories of hope and deliverance, stories of their God who always comes in deliverance of his chosen? I wonder what stories Israel told in Egypt.

There will be other stories for Israel, told not in words but in deed of power, acts of deliverance: water turned to blood, frogs, gnats, boils, darkness, hail, and the terrible death of Egypt’s firstborn sons. There will be stories told not in words but in sacred symbol: blood on the doorposts and lintels, a lamb roasted whole and eaten while standing, unleavened bread. There will be stories told not in words but in awe and wonder: a pillar of cloud and fire, a sea parting for one people and closing in over another, a mountain quaking with the presence of God – with thunder and smoke and darkness, a tablet of stone become Law. There will be stories told not with pride, but with shame: a golden calf, fear of giants, wilderness wandering, disobedience and death. There will be stories told not in whispers, but with shouts of victory: Jericho, Ai (the second time), and city after city given into Israel’s hand by their God Almighty. There will be stories of priests and prophets: Eli and Samuel. There will be stories of the kingdom – At last! – and its great kings Saul, David, and Solomon. And there will be stories of civil war and secession: rival kings Rehoboam and Jereboam – and rival kingdoms Judah and Israel, and the nation rent asunder. There will be stories of idolatry in Israel and social decay in Judah. There will be stories of Assyria and Babylon and destruction and captivity and exile until Israel is no more and Judah is a memory.

I wonder what stories the Jews told in exile, what stories they told by the river Kebar in Babylon: exile stories or covenant stories, captivity stories or deliverance stories? Did they tell the story of Jeremiah the prophet, the story of his oracles?

14 ‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the LORD, ‘that I will perform that good thing which I have promised to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah: 15 ‘ In those days and at that time I will cause to grow up to David A Branch of righteousness; He shall execute judgment and righteousness in the earth. 16 In those days Judah will be saved, And Jerusalem will dwell safely. And this is the name by which she will be called:

This is a story worth telling, a story of hope for captives and exiles. It is a story of the once and future king. Long ago God had made covenant with his servant David, king of Israel.

‘Thus says the LORD of hosts: “I took you from the sheepfold, from following the sheep, to be ruler over My people, over Israel. 9 And I have been with you wherever you have gone, and have cut off all your enemies from before you, and have made you a great name, like the name of the great men who are on the earth. 10 Moreover I will appoint a place for My people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own and move no more; nor shall the sons of wickedness oppress them anymore, as previously, 11 since the time that I commanded judges to be over My people Israel, and have caused you to rest from all your enemies. Also the LORD tells you that He will make you a house.12 “When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be his Father, and he shall be My son. If he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men and with the blows of the sons of men. 15 But My mercy shall not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I removed from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever”’” (2 Sam 7:8b-16, NKJV).

Israel’s hope in exile is this: that the story told by Jeremiah is true, that God will fulfill his covenant to David, that God will raise up a king – a Righteous Branch – from the lineage of David, that this king will judge the enemies of God’s people and vindicate the elect in righteousness, that Judah will be saved and Jerusalem restored, and that God – in the person of the righteous king – will reign over his people forever. This is Jeremiah’s story. This is the exiles’ story. And, this is our story.

We gather today to tell the story once again as we have year after year for two millennia. God fulfilled his covenant with David and his promise to Israel – and through Israel to the world. God raised up a Branch of Righteousness from the house of David and gave to him an everlasting kingdom over all the earth. And when this branch, Jesus of Nazareth, was cut down, God raised him up again and exalted him to God’s own right hand and gave him a name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow – whether in heaven, or on earth, or under the earth – and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (cf Phil 2:9-11, NKJV). And this same Jesus who now reigns in heaven will one day bring his kingdom fully to earth – the holy city, New Jerusalem, descending from heaven to earth, adorned and gleaming like a bride prepared for her husband. And thus we shall be forever with the Lord.

Advent, we call this story: coming. It is a story that stands in the middle of time and looks in both directions: past to angel and maiden, to shepherds and magi, to stable and manger, and future to clouds and power, to great glory and redemption.

25 “And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; 26 men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near” (Lk 21:25-28, NKJV).

To those of us who live as exiles, as resident aliens in a land not our own, this story is good news; this is a story of hope. And so we watch and wait and pray to keep the hope alive. We watch and wait and pray that we may be found worthy to stand before our coming king (cf Lk 21:36, NKJV). We watch and wait and pray that the Lord may establish our hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints (cf 1 Thess 3:13, NKJV). We fast in hope of the feast to come. We light candles in hope that we will see the light of Christ and that the light will shine forth through us into this dark world. We sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” in hope that our longing will soon be fulfilled. We tell the story in word and symbol and sacred action, in hope.

The world has its stories: money, sex, and power. It shouts them in every venue. But the stories are lies; the stories are without hope. Thanks be to God we have a different story: creation, fall, redemption. This story is true; this story is hope incarnate. This story is advent past and advent yet to come. And so we say in the cry of the early church: Marana tha! Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

Let us pray.

Stir up thy power, O Lord, and come, that by thy protection we may be rescued from the dangers that beset us through our sins; and be a Redeemer to deliver us; Who livest and reignest with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thanksgiving Reflection: Elder Paisios and Prayer

Thanksgiving Homily: 25 November 2009

I start with a reflection by Elder Paisios (1924-1994) of the Holy Mountain, Athos.

I have realized that the destruction of man lies in the abundance of material goods, because it prevents him from experiencing the presence of God and appreciating His benevolence. If you want to take someone away from God, give him plenty of material goods. He will instantly forget Him forever.

I realized this when I was younger. When I was on Mount Sinai [at St. Catherine's Monastery], I lived in a place that had no water. I had to walk for two hours to get to a rock where water was leaking from its side. I placed the jug underneath and waited about an hour until it was filled up. The limited amount of water created in my soul various feelings:

Every day I was in agony: “I wonder, will the water be dripping from the rock?” I prayed to God to continue to make it drip. As I was walking towards the rock, I was anxious to see whether I would find some water and I prayed. When I could detect from far away the water glittering as the sun beams were falling on the rock, I glorified God. On my way back, I constantly thanked and glorified Him for the water He gave me. So, the small amount of water impelled me first, to constantly pray to God to make the rock drip and secondly, to thank and glorify Him, as He is the giver of all good things.

When I left Sinai, I went to the Scete of Iviron [on Mt. Athos], where there was no shortage of water. We had plenty of water, which was sometimes wasted, as it was left running for no reason. At some point, I felt that I had developed a different attitude inside my soul. I realized that during my stay at the Scete, I hadn’t said, not even once, “Glory to God.”

While the small amount of water became a reason for me to pray and glorify God, its abundance made me forget that water is indeed a gift from God and I should be grateful to Him. The same thing applies to material goods…

The same thing applies to everything. If we are found in a difficult situation, we must not be upset; instead we should realize this is God’s way to make us feel closer to Him and become aware that He is the grantor of everything in our lives.

This reflection by Elder Paisios pointedly captures the challenge facing many Western Christians this Thanksgiving holiday, and indeed, every day: How do we cultivate and maintain a thankful spirit in the midst of such prosperity? It is ironic, but it is generally true, I think: the more abundant the blessings, the less thankful the heart. I certainly stand convicted. Perhaps this is why neither our Lord nor his Apostles nor the saints nor the fathers have a positive word to say about the accumulation of wealth. It breeds arrogance and self-sufficiency and kills the spirit of humility and thankfulness. The rich young man who chose his wealth over his relationship with Jesus of Nazareth and the rich fool who tore down barns and built larger ones until the very day his soul was required of him are but two examples of souls wrecked by wealth. How have the modern purveyors of the prosperity gospel missed these stark warnings? How have I?

Listen again to Elder Paisios as he identifies three dangers of abundance.

I have realized that the destruction of man lies in the abundance of material goods, because it prevents him from experiencing the presence of God and appreciating His benevolence. If you want to take someone away from God, give him plenty of material goods. He will instantly forget Him forever.

In our abundance we forget God, we fail to appreciate his benevolence, and we grow oblivious to his presence. These are illnesses of the heart and soul. As safeguard against them, I offer – not I, but the church – three prayers this Thanksgiving Eve, prayers from the East and the West: A Collect for Grace[2], The General Thanksgiving[3], and a prayer to the Holy Spirit from the Trisagion Prayers[4].

The church bids us rise each dawn with A Collect for Grace, a prayer which calls us to remembrance of God.

A Collect for Grace

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have
brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your
mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome
by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of
your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This day, this dawn: it is a gift from God, yours only because God in his infinite mercy has said once again, “Let there be light.” And this breath that fills your lungs: it is a gift from God, yours only because God has once again bent low over you and breathed into you the breath of the Spirit. Surely, the everyday wonder of new creation calls you to remembrance of God. If you make it through the day – neither falling into sin nor being overcome by adversity, that, too, is a gift from God who once again shields you as a rock and fortress. Remember God as you rise, this prayer calls. Remember that, just as surely as life and breath come from God, so, too, does your purpose, your reason for being at all. And your purpose is to fulfill God’s purpose: to love him with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Your purpose is to become a partaker of the divine nature: union with God, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit. Your purpose this day and unto the ages of ages is to remember God. So says this prayer.

To remember – to truly remember and to remember truly – leads to thankfulness. And so the church offers us daily The General Thanksgiving.

The General Thanksgiving

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving‑kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

This prayer, offered morning and evening, moves through and beyond the “ordinary” blessings of this life – creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life (health, food, shelter, family, friends – all the blessing of our Thanksgiving celebrations) – to the blessing above all others: God’s immeasurable love for us in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, which is both God’s grace and our hope – our only hope – for glory. And, tellingly, the prayer recognizes our inability to be fully and properly thankful for that grace and hope, and asks God, himself, to make us aware of the depth of his blessings to us, to enable us to be truly thankful in heart and lips and lives and service. We are dependent upon God, it seems, not only for our lives, but for the ability to recognize that fact and to thank him for it. We are, after all, unworthy servants, as the prayer reminds us – but unworthy servants who are loved immeasurably.

Having been called by these prayers to remembrance and thanksgiving, the Trisagion Prayer calls us to dwell in God’s presence.

Trisagion Prayers (Prayer to the Holy Spirit)

O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come and dwell in us, and cleanse us of all impurity, and save, our souls, O Good One.

Fr. Stephen Freeman[5] attributes much of our failure to live as Christians to our construction of a two-storey universe in which God is in heaven – the upper storey – doing God-knows-what while we are on earth – the lower storey – busy managing our lives: providing food, clothing, and shelter for our families, getting ahead in business, worrying about our kids, and on and on. In his model, these two storeys meet – if at all – only when we leave this world (death) at which time we hope to make the transition to the upper storey. (Let us hope there is no basement.) Until that time, we live as functional atheists, largely ignoring God except for perfunctory religious observance or panicked prayer in time of personal tragedy or great need. We have created a worldview in which God is an unnecessary fixture.

And herein lies the importance and beauty of the Trisagion Prayer: it shatters our illusion that God is over there somewhere, distant and uninvolved. No: God is everywhere present, filling all things. “Where can I go from your presence?” the psalmist asks rhetorically. Nowhere, this prayer replies. Bidden or unbidden God is present and we live moment-by-moment in his presence. There is no second storey in the universe. This prayer is a practice of the presence of God, as Brother Lawrence might say, an invocation of the Holy Spirit that we might know the nearness of our God who is the Treasury of good things and the Giver of life.

Elder Paisios was right: abundance of material goods can take someone away from God. But these prayers – these prayers can draw us back again.


[1] Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain. Copyright 1998 (1st English Edition). Holy Mountain, Greece. Quoted by Fr. Stephen Freeman at .
[2] The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the ChurchTogether with The Psalter or Psalms of David According to the use of The Episcopal Church (BCP 1979). Oxford University Press. New York.
[3] BCP
[4] Prayer Book. Holy Trinity Monastery. Jordanville, New York.
[5] Fr. Stephen is priest at St. Anne’s Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN, and author of the Glory To God for All Things blogsite,

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Grace To You And Peace: 25 Pentecost (22 Nov 2009)

Sermon: 25 Pentecost (22 November 2009)
(2 Samuel 23:1-7/Psalm 132:1-12/Revelation 1:4b-8/John 18:33-37)
Grace To You And Peace

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be His kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

Charis humin kai eirēnē apo ho ōn kai ho ēn kai ho erchomenos: Grace to you and peace, from the one who is and the one who was and the one who is to come.

I write many letters of recommendation: admission to college, application for scholarships, acceptance to special academic programs. Rarely do I know who receives or reads or evaluates these letters. So, their salutations are necessarily vague and generic: “Dear Sir or Madam,” “To Whom It May Concern,” or “Members of the Selection Committee.” If not for sake of form, these salutations could be omitted entirely. There is no information, no content; they are merely formal devices to introduce to the body of the letter.

It is inconceivable then, should the Lord tarry and future generations of historians stumble across these letters, that they would spend even one moment on the salutations. To analyze them, to write doctoral theses on them, to invest with great meaning “Dear Sir or Madam,” is absurd. Fluff, filler, and form: that is what they are – no more, no less.

But leave it to our Lord to fill the empty, to sanctify the mundane: a manger, a jar of water, a cup of wine, a loaf of bread, a cross, a tomb. Leave it to his disciples to follow in this way. Charis humin kai eirēnē apo ho ōn kai ho ēn kai ho erchomenos: Grace to you and peace, from the one who is and the one who was and the one who is to come. This is the salutation of the Apocalypse; this is salutation as theology, form filled with meaning almost beyond human comprehension. Of all words penned by men – inspired by the Holy Spirit – these are among the most beautiful and most holy.

I have spoken the salutation to you in the original language, simply to emphasize that there is an original language other than English, and that we read a translation. Translation is a difficult job – to capture the nuances present in one language and to re-express them in another. And yet the Spirit works; God’s truth will out in any and all languages. It will be spoken by every tribe, in every language, with every tongue. Of course, not all translations are created equal. One modern paraphrase, which is often quite good and beautiful, falls far short in its opening of the Apocalypse salutation: “All the best to you” (MSG) it reads, a far cry from “Grace to you and peace,” more akin to “Howdy!” than to rich theology. Yes, “Grace to you and peace,” is far better, but better only if we grasp the depths of those words.

Charis: grace. We have all known gracious people. We have all been the recipients of grace: a kind word spoken when rebuke was warranted, forgiveness offered when retaliation was expected, love extended again and again to the prodigal. We have come to think of grace as unexpected, unmerited good favor, a sort of 11th hour, death row pardon. And it certainly is that. In fact, this understanding of grace has come to dominate Western Christianity, which views God as a righteous judge who graciously pardons condemned sinners for the sake of Christ who loves us and gave himself for us. But there is more to grace – much more – than this.

Grace lies at the very heart of salvation.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10, NKJV).

Grace is not primarily God’s favorable attitude toward us; grace is God’s transforming, recreating presence with us. It is by grace that we are made partakers of the divine nature as Peter makes clear in his salutation:

Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust (2 Pe 1:2-4, NKJV).

The one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church of our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us that salvation is more than forgiveness, more than a declaration of “not guilty.” Salvation is union with God through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit[1]. For that, for the fullness of salvation, grace is required – not merely the good favor of God, but God himself present and active in our lives, his divine power giving us all things that pertain to life and godliness, making us partakers of the divine nature. Charis humin: grace to you.

This grace is received into our lives, is made effective in our lives, through life in the church; there is no grace and no salvation apart from the church. In the church we are plunged into grace in the waters of baptism; anointed with grace in the oil of chrismation; fed by grace in the Holy Mysteries of bread and wine, body and blood; called back to grace again and again in confession. In the church we are taught and we practice the ascetic life which energizes grace: prayer, fasting, charity, obedience, worship. In each of these sacraments, in each of these disciplines, we encounter more than God’s good favor; we encounter God himself: God with us, God in us. We become the sons and daughters of God and join in the life of the Trinity. This is grace, and I say with St. John the Theologian, Charis humin: grace to you.

But not grace only; peace, John quickly adds. Charis humin kai eirēnē: grace to you and peace. If grace is a mystery – and it is – so, too, is peace. We know so little of it: in the world, in our interpersonal relationships, in ourselves. And what we see of peace is so often counterfeit or, at best, a diminished form of peace that barely deserves the name. Two warring countries cease armed hostilities and we call that peace, though hatred smolders and poisons the next generation until war or terrorism erupts again. Tribes or clans – ethnic or social groups – live together in apparent harmony and we call that peace, though prejudice and resentment and violence lie just beneath the surface. A man leads a quiet and productive life and we call that peace, until, driven by the anxiety, turmoil, and rage inside, he opens fire on his colleagues. We know little of real peace, it seems.

He had spoken peace to them that night just three days ago, though they were not ready to receive it or even to understand his words.

“Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27, NKJV).

But how can they possibly know peace? It’s three days later and Jesus is dead, executed by Rome at the instigation of the Jewish authorities. It’s three days later and they sit behind locked doors in fear that crosses await them. It’s three days later, now the first day of the week…three days which have made a mockery of peace.

Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, [Eirēnē humin] “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20 20:19-22, NKJV).

Everything about this passage, everything about Jesus’ salutation of peace, speaks of resurrection and new creation. It is the first day of the week; the six days of old creation are over and Jesus’ Sabbath rest in the tomb is finished. It is time to rise, time to make all things new. Jesus breathes again: resurrection. Jesus breathes on his disciples – new creation – and how can we miss the Genesis allusion and the creation significance?

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being (Gen 2:7, NKJV).

What has all this to do with peace? Simply this: peace is the result of death and resurrection; peace is the result of new creation and the breath of the Spirit. To have peace we must die to the flesh and be born anew of the Spirit. To know peace we must die in the world and rise in the Kingdom of God. Jesus made all this clear in the Sermon on the Mount – too clear for comfort, really.

25 “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? 28 “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble (Mt 6:25-34, NKJV).

When we put the Kingdom of God before food and drink, before clothing and shelter, before power and fame, before security and comfort, before our very lives, then and only then will we know peace. Make no mistake; this is death – a daily, hidden martyrdom of taking up the cross and following Jesus by denying the flesh and its passions and by walking in the Spirit. But what follows this death is resurrection, and new creation, and the breath of the Spirit, and Jesus saying, Eirēnē humin: Peace be with you. And this peace – this peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding – has power to renew the world. “Acquire the spirit of peace, and a thousand souls around you shall be saved,” said St. Seraphim of Sarov (18th century).

“Grace to you and peace,” John writes, and I say, “Amen. May it be so.”

This salutation is not greeting only, but blessing also – blessing from ho ōn kai ho ēn kai ho erchomenos, from the one who is and the one who was and the one who is to come. All tenses of being – past, present, and future – are mentioned here, for our God, who is beyond time, is the source and ground of all being, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, the one in whom all things consist, the one without whom nothing has come into being that has come into being. This is the one who identified himself to Moses as the one who is, as “I AM.” This is the one who said to the Jewish authorities, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58, NKJV). This is the one promised to come as Advocate and Comforter, to make his dwelling in us and to make us partakers of the divine nature. This is blessing from our triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Grace to you and peace, from the one who is and the one who was and the one who is to come.

Receiving this salutation and blessing we are rightly moved with John to fall on our knees in doxology:

To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (Rev 1:5b-6, NKJV).

And so, beloved, let us receive God’s grace – the very presence of God with us – through the Holy Mysteries, through the ascetic life of the church, through obedience. Let us pursue Gods’ peace through the death of daily, hidden martyrdom, through taking up the cross of Christ, and through seeking first the Kingdom of God. Let us glory in our triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is and the one who was and the one who is to come. Amen.

[1] Fr. Stephen Freeman,

Friday, November 13, 2009

Sermon: 24 Pentecost (16 November 2009)

Sermon: 24 Pentecost (16 November 2009)
(1 Samuel 1:4-20/1Samuel 2:1-10/Hebrews 10:11-25/Mark 13:1-8)
Pandemics and Cures

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be His kingdom, now and forever. Amen.

We haven’t heard much about AIDS lately, despite the sobering statistics: 33 million people infected worldwide, 2.3 million new cases each year, 2 million deaths annually – all this at the end of 2007.[1] Yet, AIDS was the “disease of the decade” in the 1980s; in the U. S. we lived with the fear of contracting the fatal disease through casual contact and with the specter of an AIDS pandemic. The media reported daily on new developments and new anxieties – but not so much anymore. What has changed? We learned that AIDS is not nearly as contagious as we feared. Normal behaviors are not particularly risky; for the most part, “old fashioned” morality is an adequate safeguard, though I understand the use of “morality” is subject to debate. We also grew tired of fear – at least of that particular fear. Long-term anxiety eventually numbs us and we need new fears to stir us – fears like mad cow disease, bird flu, West Nile virus, SARS, and now H1N1. When the latest threat of annihilation fails to terrorize us any longer, there will be a new one in the wings – until 2012, of course, when the world comes to an end, sort of the ultimate threat. And then there’s this: AIDS has become the scourge of the third world – Haiti, Sub-Saharan Africa – not of the first world. Cynically, it’s out of sight, out of mind.

But mainly, I suspect, AIDS is no longer forefront in the news and in our fears because it has become a disease you can live with – literally. With advances in treatment, with improved medication, AIDS is no longer unavoidably terminal in the short term. If you take the proper medication, if you alter your behavior, if you take good care of yourself, you can manage the disease and manage to live with it a good, long time. Of course, you still have the disease; there is treatment, but there is no cure. And cure is the ultimate goal – with AIDS and with all diseases. We want to go to the doctor and be given a pill or an injection – we’d even be willing to submit to surgery – and be cured, be disease-free. Imagine an AIDS patient being told by his doctor, “I have a new drug that won’t just treat you; it will cure you. It works from the inside out; it destroys the virus and creates within you a new immune system. Take this pill one time and you can stop all other treatment. The cure isn’t instantaneous, though; it takes time to achieve its full effect. And it takes your cooperation: get plenty of rest, eat right, exercise regularly, change any high-risk behaviors. Take the medicine, do these things, and you never need see me again. You will be cured completely.”

That is what an AIDS patient longs to hear. But the reality of taking scores of pills each day – day after day for as long as he lives – is a constant reminder that the medication is not a cure, but a treatment. It allows him to lead a relatively normal life – to be a member of a family and a community – yet being all the while infected with a life-threatening disease. The treatment is the reminder of his plight.

Fortunately, AIDS just didn’t materialize as a global pandemic, though it has devastated certain countries and regions. Frankly, I don’t fret over each new pandemic prophesy of doom any more. I’ve seen them come and go – sensationalized by the media – and the species is still here, while the one real pandemic – the terminal disease that affects all mankind, that makes all other threats pale by comparison – is largely ignored. We don’t like to mention it; the word spoken in public seems somehow out of place, somehow inappropriate: the real, global pandemic that threatens the entire species of man is sin.

Some today – perhaps many – deny the existence of sin in the biblical sense. I tend to agree with British author G. K. Chesterton, though, who maintained that original sin is the only objectively verifiable Christian doctrine. He wrote of trends in early 20th-century thought:

Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers of the Rev. R. J. Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and Man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.[2]

But we cannot deny the cat; we cannot deny sin, because we recognize the symptoms of the infection within ourselves. We somehow know – and that is another important discussion for another time – we somehow know that human life is meant to be expansive, outwardly-directed, lived in relationship with God and man and all of creation. And yet we also know ourselves alienated, cut off from these life-giving relationships, curved inward on ourselves: such selfishness, pride, arrogance – And who is immune? – are symptoms of sin. We want what we cannot, and should not, have: things, people, power. And we plot and strive to make them our own: greed, lust, and dominance as symptoms of sin. We judge harshly those with faults no greater than our own: hypocrisy. We plot revenge for minor insults and take pleasure in retaliation: violence. We shade the truth in our favor: lying. And on and on the symptoms mount – and we recognize them in ourselves – until the diagnosis is unavoidable: the entire human species is terminally infected with sin, the only truly global pandemic.

There are treatments for sin of course – each culture develops its own – treatments to manage the sin and to allow the individual and the culture to manage to live with the sin. Our modern Western culture is enlightened and rational, so our treatments cluster around the physical and social sciences: biology and psychology. We have managed to convince ourselves that sin can be medicated or analyzed out of existence with drugs and psychotherapy. I don’t want to be dismissive of these tools; they frequently do manage sin and allow the sinner to remain part of a family and a community, to function within “normal” boundaries of behavior. But the fact that we continue to take medication and continue to schedule follow-up appointments with the therapist testifies that sin has only been treated, not cured. These are constant reminders of our condition. If even these treatments prove ineffective, or if they are unavailable, there is always quarantine. Our prisons – we’ve emptied out most of the mental institutions, it seems – are full to overflowing with those who received no treatment or who were resistant to it.

Ancient Israel had its own treatment for sin – the Law and the sacrificial system – and its own spiritual physicians – the priests. These were not a cure. The sacrifices merely allowed the transgressor to re-establish a relationship with the community and with God, to be purified with respect to the law, and to avoid – at least temporarily – the more serious consequences of sin. But, the sacrifices could never cure the disease; they were not intended to. Rather, they were intended to point beyond themselves to something better yet to come. St. Paul writes:

1 For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. 2 For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. 3 But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 4 For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins. 11 And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins (Heb 10:1-4, 11, NKJV).

The Old Covenant, with its Law and sacrifices, is a shadow, a hint of better things to come; it is a treatment which looks forward to a cure, a cure which works from the inside out. Jeremiah prophesied of the cure to come, and St. Paul makes much of this prophesy in Hebrews.

31 “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— 32 not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jer 31:31-34, NKJV).

Through Christ – through his ministry as both sacrifice (the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world) and high priest (after the order of Melchizedek) – Jeremiah’s new covenant has been instituted and the cure – not the treatment, but the cure – for sin has come. What was needed all along was not the blood of bulls and goats but a perfectly obedient, perfectly righteous man who would fulfill God’s purpose and become the representative for all men – the perfectly righteous man and only-begotten Son of God, Jesus.

5 Therefore, when He came into the world, He said:
“ Sacrifice and offering You did not desire,

But a body You have prepared for Me.

6 In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin

You had no pleasure.

7 Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come—

In the volume of the book it is written of Me—

To do Your will, O God.’”

8 Previously saying, “Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them ” (which are offered according to the law), 9 then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.” He takes away the first that He may establish the second. 10 By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
11 And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, 13 from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. 14 For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified. 15 But the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us; for after He had said before, 16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them,” 17 then He adds, “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” 18 Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin
(Heb 10:5-18, NKJV).

To the Jewish Christians tempted to return to Judaism, this is the radical good news of faith in Jesus: all the limitations of Law and sacrifice are overcome through Christ and in Christ. The repetitive sacrifices of the Old Covenant only reminded the sinner of his condition. The once-for-all sacrifice of the New Covenant changes that condition and cures the root problem of sin. The priests of the Old Covenant stood and continually performed rites that could never take away sin. The priest of the New Covenant completed his work of forgiveness and sat down at the right hand of God. And, most remarkable of all, people who were banned from the Holy of Holies by the Old Covenant are now welcomed to come boldly into the very presence of God.

19 Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and having a High Priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25 not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching (Heb 10:19-25, NKJV).

The Old Covenant holds nothing like this: nothing like access to God the Father, nothing like full reconciliation and restoration, nothing like a cure for sin.

This is good news – really the best news, because if sin is cured then so, too, is death – good news not only for 1st century Jewish Christians but for 21st century Christians of all backgrounds, indeed for all Christians of all times and places. It is good news for the entire human species, good news of hope and life. But, the skeptic in me hedges a bit. If the sacrifice of Christ is a once-for-all offering that cures us of sin, then why do I still struggle so much with sin? Worse still, why do I struggle so little with sin but rather give in without putting up much of a fight? If I’m cured, why do I still seem so sick, so often?

The fault lies not with the cure, but with my lack of cooperation with the curative process. The full cure takes time, and it takes effort on my part. The redemptive sacrifice of Jesus is the heart of the cure – without it no cure is possible – but I must cooperate with the Great Physician for the cure to become effective and manifest in my life.

22 [L]et us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25 not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching (Heb 10:22-25, NKJV).

I must struggle to make my heart true, my conscience clean, and my body pure; only then can I draw near God in full assurance of faith. I must hold fast the faith, rejecting all lies and half-truths. I must embrace love and good works. And I must do so in the community of the faithful, around the Table of the Lord. This is the ascetical teaching of the church – the church’s therapeutic program – the discipline of healing that makes the cure effective and manifest. Jesus offers the cure, a cure that only he can provide. We can settle for mere treatment or even death, a decision only we can make. The consequences of that decision are vast.

26 For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. And again, “The LORD will judge His people.” 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10:26-31, NKJV).

This is a dire warning, and I take no pleasure in it. But I dare not speak less than the truth. If we reject the sacrifice of Christ after we have come to a knowledge of the truth, there is no cure for us. The disease is terminal and we will die.

But I am convinced of better things for you. I share the same confidence in you that Paul expressed to the Hebrew Christians: “But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul” (Heb 10:39, NKJV). And so, I say:

Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.

[1] World Health Organization report summarized at, accessed 11/9/09.
[2] G. K. Chesterton, quoted on, accessed 11/10/09.