Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sermon: 4 Epiphany (1 February 2009)

Sermon: 4 Epiphany (1 February 2009)
(Deuteronomy 18:15-20/Psalm 11/1 Corinthians 8:1-13/Mark 1:21-28)
Demons and Angels

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Despite its apparent flaws, the lectionary does have this in its favor: it protects the congregation from endless sermon series based on the whims and fancies of the minister. Once, at the church where I first heard the gospel and was born to new and eternal life, the new minister – and I recognize now just how young and inexperienced he was – developed a fascination, an obsession really, with demons. Service after service he preached and taught on the subtle ways of these evil beings and upon the danger they present. The congregation was growing restive. With the arrogance of youth – with the arrogance of my youth anyway – I confronted this minister after service one evening.

“Have you ever encountered a demon?” I asked the minister. “Well, no,” he replied. I continued: “Have you any direct experience with demon possession?” He stammered a bit now: “No.” I pressed my advantage. “Do you think this congregation is experiencing a particular problem with demons?” Now he really grew flustered. “Well, not really – no, of course not.” “Then for God’s sake can we please move on and leave the demons behind?” This, my final question, marked his final sermon on demons.

I was wrong in my handling of this episode: may God forgive me my lack of charity and humility and protect me from parishioners like my younger self!

Now, half my life later I am confronted by the lectionary with a gospel passage on demons, demon possession, and exorcism. Now I am the minister and I must either deal with the topic or ignore it. Perhaps it is God’s way of making humble the arrogant.

The gospel is clear; there is no easy and faithful way around it: Jesus was an exorcist, pure and simple, though not the theatrical sort found in grade B horror films. No elaborate rituals, no sprinkling with holy water, no burning application of the cross: Jesus simply spoke the word – a word sometimes preceded by prayer and fasting – simply spoke the word and the demons were banished. And that seems to be the emphasis of the evangelists: Jesus had authority, simply by virtue of his identity and his word, to conquer demons and the strong man (Mt 12:29), Satan, who controls them. Though the religious authorities never got the point, the am ha eretz, the common people of the land, did: “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1:27b, NRSV). They obey him, not willingly, but because they know him to be the Holy One of God, the one before whose authority they must yield. Every gospel exorcism is a preview of that last, great day when every knee will bow – of those in heaven, and of those on the earth, and of those under the earth – and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (cf Phil 2:9-11).

Single demons, sevenfold demons (Luke 8:2), a legion of demons (Mark 5:9): Jesus banished them all with a word. He even shared this power with his disciples.

1After these things the Lord appointed seventy others also, and sent them two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go.

17[Then] the seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your Name.”
18And He said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you. 20Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:17, 18-20, NKJV).

Paul, too, was an exorcist, and his work in Ephesus provides some welcome comic relief to the breakneck pace and intensity of the Acts of the Apostles.

11Now God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, 12so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them. 13Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists took it upon themselves to call the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “We exorcise you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches.” 14Also there were seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, who did so.

15And the evil spirit answered and said, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?”

16Then the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, overpowered them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. 17This became known both to all Jews and Greeks dwelling in Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified (Acts 19:11-17, NKJV).

The emphasis is the same in all these accounts, whether deadly serious or comical: the Lord Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth, authority before which the demons tremble and flee, and he has graced his disciples – and his church – with the same authority exercised in his name.

So here we are, stuck with all this talk of demons. Jesus could exorcise unclean spirits from the lives of oppressed men, women, and children, but we cannot seem to exorcise them from the New Testament text or from our faith; they are present and will not be banished. We can ignore them or dismiss them, but they will not go away.

With demons, as with many issues, there is a continuum of thought, both inside and outside the Christian community: C. S. Lewis rightly defines its extremes.

"There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight" (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters).

I’ve met some – both Christian and non-Christian – with an excessive and unhealthy interest in demons: Christians who see demons lurking in every shadow, underlying every physical illness or mental disturbance; Christians who develop obsessive interest in accounts of possession and exorcism; Christians who fancy themselves alternately either in danger of possession or champion over all the powers of darkness; and non-Christians who are drawn to séances and witchcraft – modern day Druids or Wiccans, dabblers in the occult. It is dangerous business, this.

I’ve met some – both Christian and non-Christian – who dismiss demons as pre-Enlightenment superstition, as a remnant of the dark ages carried forward in outdated religious ritual and doctrine. Demons are inventions of primitive peoples to explain forces and phenomena beyond their understanding and control, say these rationalists. Modern concepts of medicine, psychology, and the natural sciences now provide better explanations – we just know more and better than did the ancients – so that demons can be relegated to the dustbin of the past along with the flat earth and the earth-centered universe. It is dangerous business, this.

A better way than either of these has been charted for us by the faithful and preserved in the thought and practice of the church. It begins, ironically, with the very words of the demons themselves: “We know who you are, the Holy One of God.” If the demons acknowledge the authority, the Lordship, the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, dare we, as his disciples, do less? And if we acknowledge the authority, the Lordship, the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, dare we dismiss his words, his deeds, his description of the reality he created as superstition or primitive mythology – outdated notions which must be reinterpreted in terms of wiser men like Bacon and Freud? No. The church accepts the reality of these spiritual forces because the church’s Lord taught us to, because the one who has the very mind of God taught us to. From his nativity to his resurrection Jesus battled the spiritual forces of evil arrayed against him: forces apparent in Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, in the wilderness temptation, in the life-threatening storms on the Sea of Galilee, in the lives of the possessed, in the betrayal of Judas, in the cowardice of Pilate, in the lash and the thorns and the nails and the cross. Jesus’ life was an epic battle – the epic battle – of spiritual forces, all the powers of Hell arrayed against the power of heaven, the Lamb of God. When Jesus speaks of spiritual reality, he speaks from experience. We do well to listen. The church accepts the reality of evil spirits – demons – because the church knows who Jesus is, the Holy One of God, and because the church knows him as the Truth.

The church accepts the reality of these spiritual forces because the fathers and mothers and saints of the church – across time and space, across culture and geography – consistently attest to their reality. Sainthood, ancient and modern, is achieved, in part, through struggle with evil: not just evil within – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life which afflict us all – but real evil out there, malevolent spiritual beings who intend man’s separation from God and man’s eternal destruction. This is the testimony of those who have followed most closely the way of the Lord, who have verified his words by their lives. When the saints speak of spiritual reality, they speak from experience. We do well to listen. The church accepts the reality of evil spirits – demons – because the church knows the saints, the holy ones of God, and because the church knows their lives and their words to be true.

The church accepts the reality of these spiritual forces because the prayers, the liturgy, the practices of the church are life giving and life sustaining. It is the dark of night on Holy Saturday and the church sits vigil awaiting the death-shattering victory of Christ’s resurrection. Some gather in preparation for their own deaths and resurrections in the water of baptism. The priest stands before them and intones ancient words, words which rest on Jesus’ promise to the seventy and to the twelve and to generation after generation of the faithful. He prays with fear and trembling for each baptismal candidate:

The Lord rebukes you, Satan: the Lord who came into the world and dwelt among us to destroy your tyranny and to deliver humanity; The Lord, who upon the tree triumphed over hostile powers, when the sun was darkened and the earth quaked, when the graves were opened and the bodies of the saints arose; the Lord, who by death destroyed death, and left powerless him who had the power of death, that is you, Satan.

I adjure you by God who has shown us the tree of life and placed the Cherubim and the flaming sword every way to guard it. Be rebuked! I rebuke you by him who walked upon the surface of the sea as on dry land and rebuked the stormy winds, whose frown dries up the sea and whose rebuke melts away the mountains, for He himself now commands you through us!

Be afraid, depart and keep away from this creature and never dare to return or hide yourself within him; lie not in wait for him nor scheme against him neither during the night nor during the day, neither in the morning nor at the noon day, but depart into your own dark abyss until the great day of judgment prepared for you!

Fear God who is seated upon the Cherubim and looks upon the depths, fear him before whom the angels, archangels, thrones, dominations, principalities, powers, virtues, the many-eyed cherubim and the six-winged seraphim tremble, before whom tremble heaven and earth, the sea and all they contain.

Begone and depart from the sealed and newly enlisted warrior of Christ our God; for I rebuke you by Him who walks on the wings of the wind and who makes the winds His messengers and flaming fire His servants. Begone and depart from this creature together with all your power and your angels.

For glorified is the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit now and ever and forever. Amen.

I have said these words and you have heard them and together we have experienced their power. The church accepts the reality of these spiritual forces because the prayers, the liturgy, the practices of the church are life giving and life sustaining.

Yes, the church accepts the reality of the spiritual forces, these beings set in opposition to God and set upon our destruction.

12For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Eph 6:12, NKJV).

We accept the reality of these spiritual forces but we do not fear them, because we are persuaded “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39, NKJV).

We accept the reality of these spiritual forces but we do not fear them, because we have been given the full armor of God if we will but don it.

14Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. 17And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; 18praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints (Eph 6:14-18, NKJV).

We accept the reality of these spiritual forces but we do not fear them, because we are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world (cf 1 John 4:4).

The promise of the Lord Jesus Christ, the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, the full armor of God, the prayers and practices of the church: these are our strength by which we overcome all the spiritual powers arrayed against us.

In the Western church we do not speak of these matters very often; perhaps we are slightly embarrassed by them or simply don’t know quite what to make of them. Are they, after all, even important, even worthy of mention? Yes, most certainly. We live in an impoverished culture with a diminished view of reality, a culture where materialism and rationalism dominate the philosophical landscape: “The universe is all that is or ever was or ever will be," Carl Sagan said in the introduction to the Cosmos series. The only reliable source of knowledge about it is experiment and reason. In this universe of the materialists and rationalists there is no place for demons, no place either for angels and archangels, for cherubim and seraphim, for prophets and apostles and saints and martyrs, for heavenly choirs and all the company of heaven singing, “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might.” There is no place for incarnation and resurrection – for Emmanuel, God with us, and for Christus Victor, Christ victorious. There is no place for sin and fall, for redemption and salvation. This universe is far too small.

The true reality we inhabit – the reality that transcends the merely material and rational – is vast beyond our imagining, vast as the creative power of God. And we are not alone in the vastness. God is there – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – not a being among others located in space and time, but the Being above all others transcending space and time, the source and ground of all being, the One in whom we live and move and have our being (cf Acts 17:28); and angels – ministering spirits guiding men and nations according to the will of God; and demons – malevolent spirits deceiving men and nations according to the will of the evil one, the father of lies, the ancient foe, the serpent, the roaring lion seeking whom he may devour, the accuser – Satan. These are defeated foes – conquered by the life-giving cross of Christ – defeated, yet still present and powerful, still intent upon our destruction. We dismiss these as fantasy, superstition, historic relic at our peril. It is important to know. It is important to be strong in the Lord.

In the end, of course, it is not demons themselves which should be the focus of the church, but our Lord’s authority, our Lord’s power over them – and what that power tells us. Following one exorcism Jesus said to a skeptical crowd, “[But] if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20, NIV). He did and it has. Thanks be to God.


Friday, January 23, 2009

Sermon: 3 Epiphany (25 January 2009)

Sermon: 3 Epiphany (25 January 2009)
(Jonah 3:1-5, 10/Psalm 62:5-12/1 Corinthians 7:29-31/Mark 1:14-20)
The Time Is Short

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is sometime around 55 A.D. – only twenty-five years since Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension – when Paul writes a second letter to a troubled Corinthian church. There is a sense of urgency in the letter: Paul believes the end of all things is near – that the return of Jesus is imminent – and he expresses as much to the saints at Corinth. Paul is wrong.

Some two millennia later we are still waiting, a testimony not so much to Paul’s error as to the patience of God: “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pe 3:9, NKJV). Nevertheless, “the time is short,” Paul believes, and so he writes.

29 But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, 30 those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, 31 and those who use this world as not misusing it. For the form of this world is passing away (1 Cor 7:29-31, NKJV).

The time is short and the form of this world is passing away. If there is an ounce of human error in Paul’s timetable, there is surely also a pound of divine truth. Brothers, sisters, the Spirit speaks now as then: “The time is short,” and I have only begun to take notice.

I do not know the day of our Lord’s return: no man does, neither the angels in heaven, nor even the Son, but only the Father in heaven. By God’s gracious forbearance two more millennia may pass. But this I know: soon I will meet the Lord face to face. Soon I will stand before him. If, by virtue of grace and strength, I have a long life, some thirty or forty years may yet stretch before me. But now from this half-century vantage point, that time seems so short, as the form of this world is passing away. The time is short, and I have only begun to take notice. The time is short, and I am not ready.

Do not misunderstand. I have been washed, and I have been sanctified, and I have been justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor 6:11b). I have put on Jesus in baptism – have died there to sin in water and Spirit and have been raised in new creation to life everlasting. I have become a partaker of the divine nature and have been adopted as a beloved son of God Most High – a son in whom He is well-pleased. I believe that by God’s grace and power – should our Lord tarry – I shall fall asleep in the Lord and shall be raised on that last, great day to be forever with him. And yet – and yet the time is short, and I am not ready.

38 Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”
41 And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. 42 But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42, NKJV).

The time is short and I am not ready in precisely the same way Martha was not ready that evening in Bethany: she was worried and troubled about many things, but the one needed thing – the good part which her sister Mary recognized and grasped – the one needed thing Martha abandoned for pots and pans and bread. Martha loved this world and her place in it, loved her usefulness, loved her reputation as “the responsible one” far too much to abandon it all and simply sit at Jesus’ feet. For Martha the time was short and she was not ready: there was food to prepare and a table to set and a meal to serve. “Martha,” Jesus said, and again to get her attention as she bustled about distracted and angry, “Martha. You are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed.”

Martha loved her world as I love mine. And that love kept her from fully embracing Jesus – kept her from the intimate communion that her sister knew – as does my love for the world. The time is short and I am not ready because I have not chosen the one needed thing, the good part, the union with Jesus that comes from forsaking the world and sitting at his feet. The time is short and I am not ready because I have not learned to love the Lord my God with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind and all my strength. The time is short and I am not ready because I have not fulfilled my purpose and calling as a human being – the purpose lost in the Garden – the union of man and God through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit – through the grace of God at work in the life of man.

I will never fulfill this purpose until I loosen my fierce hold on the world, until I prefer nothing to Christ (Prologue, The Rule of Benedict). This was Paul’s message to the Corinthians.

29 But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, 30 those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, 31 and those who use this world as not misusing it. For the form of this world is passing away (1 Cor 7:29-31, NKJV).

We know our purpose, our calling: union with God through Christ. We know the great challenge, the obstacle: love of the world. It is not Paul only who so encourages us and warns us, but Peter and John also.

15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. 17 And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever (1 John 2:15-17, NKJV).

The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life: these are the marks of one enthralled by the world, and too often the hallmarks of my life.

The lust of the flesh – all the sensual pleasures which so entice us: ease, comfort, distraction, sloth, gluttony, drunkenness, unbridled sexuality – or just the ordinary, run-of-the-mill immoderate pursuit of any of these.

The lust of the eyes – all the material goods which stir up in us a spirit of greed, avarice, and covetousness – or just the ordinary, run-of-the-mill dependence upon our possessions for security and status.

The pride of life – all the awards garnered and accolades won, all the competitors bested and honors bestowed, all that brings glory to self and not to Christ, all that is ego, all that struts about and proclaims, “I am,” – or just the run-of-the-mill desire to get ahead on your own terms and for your own reward.

And the question echoes: What will it profit a man if he gains all these – all sensual pleasures, all material desires, all fame and glory, all the world – and so forfeits his soul? For what will a man exchange his soul? The time is short, the world is passing away, and I am not ready. There is one needful thing and I act as if there are legion.

How different are the brothers in the Gospel: Simon and Andrew, James and John.

14 Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
16 And as He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. 17 Then Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” 18 They immediately left their nets and followed Him. 19 When He had gone a little farther from there, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the boat mending their nets. 20 And immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went after Him (Mark 1:14-20, NKJV).

Jesus called and the brothers left everything: business, family, home, identity, security, comfort. One thing was needed – to be with Jesus – and they chose that good part, forsaking the form of the world which was even then passing away.

The shortness of the time, the need to forsake the world and choose the good part: these have been right there in Scripture all along in stories like Mary and Martha, Simon and Andrew, James and John, and in the words of Jesus; but, perhaps we have not seen them clearly enough, or having seen them, we have ignored them. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus says, “for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8, NKJV). And what is purity of heart if not integrity, single-mindedness, undivided purpose and devotion? How can one who is torn between the things of the world and the things of God be pure of heart? How can one still trying to serve God and Mammon be pure of heart? How can one consumed by the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life be pure of heart? And, if not pure of heart, how shall one see God, how shall one fulfill the human purpose and calling of union with God? How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. How hard it is for a divided man to enter the kingdom of God. How hard it is for one who is worried and troubled about many things to enter the kingdom of God.

So what must we do to be saved – saved from the world and saved for our true calling? We do what the saints before us have done. We do what the church teaches. We listen to and follow Paul who said:

8What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
15All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16Only let us live up to what we have already attained.
17Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. 18For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. 20But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Phil 3:8-21).

Where do we start? We cultivate the habits of heart and mind and spirit that call us to repentance – to a change of mind – habits which tell us that wherever we are in Christ, there is more and better ahead. We count every earthly thing that draws us away from Christ as loss and rubbish. We forget what is behind and strain toward what is ahead – the transformation of our minds and bodies into the glorious likeness of Christ. We embrace the suffering of the cross that we might know the glorious power of the resurrection.

Where do we start? We cultivate the habits of body and mind which conquer the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – habits taught in Scripture, preserved in the practices of the church, and witnessed in the lives of the saints: unceasing prayer; fasting and feasting with the church – especially fasting; meditation in Word and silence; humility, service, suffering. We love when it is difficult. We forgive when it painful. We persevere when it is beyond our ability.

Where do we start? We struggle against the temptations which bind us to the world and distance us from Christ. We cultivate the wheat of righteousness and root out the tares of sin so the harvest might be pure and holy. We confess our sins before God and one another and seek his mercy and our amendment of life.

Hard, hard work: that is the life of faith that leads to union with God through Christ. It is all by grace – God working in us to will and to do his will – but it will not happen apart from our cooperation, our determination, our effort. Is it worth it? The saints tell us so, and they have walked the path before. My heart tells me so. What could be compared to knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, to becoming like him in his death, to attaining to the resurrection from the dead? What is worth more than fulfilling our purpose and calling of union with God?

The time is short and I am not ready, but I have begun to take notice. Now the goal is clearer than ever and the path, though narrow, is well marked. Let us walk it together in the communion of saints.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sermon: 2 Epiphany (18 January 2009)

Sermon: 2 Epiphany (18 January 2009)
(1 Samuel 3:1-20/Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18/1 Corinthians 6:12-20/John 1:43-51)
Sex and Sacrament

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We have just experienced some of the most sublime and moving seasons and events in the cycle of liturgical worship: Advent, Incarnation, Epiphany.

Advent fills us with the longing of the ages, with the aching need of all mankind.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence (Is 64:1-2, NRSV)!

The incarnation is all mystery, all wonder.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth (John 1:1-5, 14, NRSV).

Epiphany pierces us with light and sound as the heavens proclaim the glory of God in the face of Christ and as the voice of God breaks silence to reveal his only begotten Son.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (Mk 1:9-11, NRSV).

Our hearts and spirits soar during these seasons as we see and hear and perceive things beyond our understanding and imagining.

And then, while we are still overwhelmed and dizzy from these spiritual heights Paul plunges us headlong back into the ordinary, daily muck of humanity: fornication and prostitution of all things. The saints in Corinth to whom he writes are confused, as are many saints today. Paul has come to them preaching a message of freedom in and through the cross of Christ: freedom from the ancient curse, freedom from sin, freedom from the Law. But the saints in Corinth have misconstrued freedom as license. You are no longer bound by the Law’s dietary code; kosher has no meaning for you. All foods are clean in Christ, Paul has preached. Then we are free to eat as we please, some of the Corinthians have concluded – even meat offered to idols in pagan temples: “Food for the stomach, and the stomach for food,” they say (1 Cor 6:13). But, no. What has Christ to do with idols? What have we to do with food that scandalizes a brother or sister for whom Christ died? While all foods are lawful, not all foods are beneficial. Our freedom must never become a stumbling block to others; it is needful for us to exercise the freedom of restraint. The body for sex and sex for the body, many saints in Corinth seem to say. If in Christ we are free, then we are free to love as we please and free to love whom we please. But, no. Fornication, sexual relations outside marriage, which was prevalent in Corinth then and pervasive in Western society now – it is not love and it is not the way of Christ or his church. And prostitution – sex as commodity, human flesh as product to be bought and sold? It is not love and it is not the way of Christ or his church. Adultery and incest, which were poisoning the Corinthian church? These should not even be named among God’s people. These are not love and they are not the way of Christ or his church.

Some people – then and now – take a dim view of Paul and the faith, based on these and similar instructions, particularly those instructions that deal with sexuality. Outdated, repressive, pre-scientific, homophobic, misogynistic: this is how many both outside and inside the church characterize Paul, and, by extension, the faith he preached. And Paul certainly did condemn the flesh – sarx he called it in Greek – but not the flesh-and-blood of which man is made and not the physical, material world. Paul was no dualist who considered matter intrinsically inferior and evil and spirit superior and good. No. When Paul condemned the flesh, he meant those uncontrolled passions that manifest in human – or perhaps subhuman – behaviors and which draw us farther from God. Eating is human – not an evil in itself, but gluttony is flesh. And because gluttony can reign in our bodies as an uncontrolled passion, we discipline ourselves through prayer and fasting. Sex is human – not an evil in itself, but lust is flesh. And because lust can reign in our bodies as an uncontrolled passion, we discipline ourselves through abstinence and chastity. Neither Paul nor the church devalues eating. In fact, the church elevates it to the level of sacrament: “Take, eat: This is my body which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me,” our Lord says, and so we say each week at the Great Thanksgiving. Neither Paul nor the church devalues human sexuality. In fact, the church elevates it to the level of sacrament.

So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said,‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh;this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.’ 24Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed (Gen 2:21-25, NRSV).

So our story says, so we believe, and so we remind every couple who comes to the church for the sacrament of holy matrimony. It is only in the church – only in Christ our Lord – that we, in our eating and our sexuality, rise above the level of animals and become truly human. It is only in the church – only in Christ our Lord – that our eating and our sexuality are truly celebrated as divine gifts, as attributes of humankind in union with God.

And here we come to the heart of human sexuality. Here we come again to Advent, Incarnation, and Epiphany. Advent acknowledges the separation of man from God, the isolation of each man and woman, and expresses the great human longing for God to come down, to dwell among us, to be Emmanuel. The Incarnation fulfills that longing as God comes not only to dwell with us, but comes to be us – ending the isolation of man from God by uniting his divinity with our humanity in one person, Jesus Christ. The Epiphany – the Baptism of our Lord – consecrates our own baptisms and completes the symmetry of union by uniting our humanity with Christ’s divinity, making us one with him, one with each other, and sons of daughters of God our Father. Human sexuality prefigures these great spiritual truths on the physical level. Human sexuality serves as sign pointing toward these.

Then God said, “Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of heaven, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that moves on the earth.” So God made man; in the image of God He made him; male and female He made them. Then God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:26-28a, NKJV).

This is the story of man – male and female together in union – uniquely bearing God’s image before all creation. It is the story of God’s intent from the foundations of the world – male and female together in union. But the story turned and sin entered the garden – sin which defaced the image of God in man and defiled the union of male and female; sin which bred shame, accusations, discord, pain, and unfulfilled desire. The union of man – male and female – which shone forth the image of God into all creation was broken and replaced with alienation: alienation of man from God, and alienation of man – male and female – from one another. Human history is a quest for reintegration, a quest for reunification. Human sexuality is a physical expression of man’s deepest need to end man’s deepest isolation. Human sexuality is a physical expression of man’s deepest longing to return to the garden, to once again join male and female and bear the image of God. Human sexuality is a physical expression of man’s ultimate goal of theosis, union with God. Human sexuality is Advent longing for Incarnation and Epiphany.

It is for this reason that Paul condemns fornication, prostitution, adultery, incest, and homosexuality: not because sexuality is debased, but because it is exalted and because none of these expressions of human sexuality reunify male and female in a manner that ends isolation and reveals the image of God. All these expressions of human sexuality leave us in Advent. It is only in marriage – in a man leaving his father and mother to be joined with his wife as one flesh – that human sexuality finds its fulfillment and points toward Incarnation and Epiphany.

Those who doubt Paul’s exalted view of marriage and married sexuality must read again his letter to the Ephesians.

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of his bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church (Eph 5:22-32, NKJV).

“This is a great mystery”, Paul writes, that the intimate, sexual, marital relationship between husband and wife is sign and symbol of the intimate union between Christ and the church. No other human relationship, no other societal structure carries this honor and bears this burden. Marriage has rightly been called the church in the home, the domestic church. So, many Christians become understandably concerned when legislatures and courts attempt to redefine the parameters of marriage: what constitutes a marriage or who can be married. Marriage – and marital sexuality – is a gift of God to reunite male and female as bearers of the divine image and to signify the union of Christ and the church. It is not to be entered into lightly as our wedding service emphasizes, nor is it to be redefined in ways which destroy its God-given purpose. Marriage belongs to God, not to legislatures or courts.

So, too, human sexuality: it belongs to God, who alone gives it meaning and purpose. Humans simply have neither the knowledge nor the capability to rightly manage sexuality without God. God knows our society has tried to manage on its own, with resulting confusion and chaos. Mixed messages and contradictory messages abound. The media glorifies sex even among adolescents: music, magazines, movies, television – they are all sexually charged. And yet our school family life curricula – aimed at those same adolescents – promote abstinence or “safe sex.” Mixed messages: our society is confused because it has wrested sexuality from God’s control. The sexual freedom of the 60s and 70s culminated in the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s and led to the current “hookup” culture – a culture which treats human beings as tools, or worse, and leads to less real intimacy and more real isolation. Mixed messages: our society is confused because it has wrested sexuality from God’s control.

We simply cannot afford to be confused in the church. We cannot afford mixed messages or mixed lives. Our marriages and our sexuality must conform to God’s design and purpose, so that we might bear his image and point the way toward the intimate union of God and man. Paul asked the saints in Corinth a pointed question: “[Or] do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, and that you are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19, NRSV)? And then Paul reminded them and us and all God’s people, “For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:20, NRSV).


Friday, January 9, 2009

Sermon: Baptism of Our Lord (11 January 2009)

Sermon: Baptism of Our Lord (11 January 2009)
(Genesis 1:1-5/Psalm 29/Acts 19:1-7/Mark 1:4-11)
It’s Not The Rotary Club

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A dear friend and brother is a Rotarian – a member of Rotary International, a century old service organization with over 1.2 million members: Service Above Self is the Rotary motto. Among many other service programs, Rotary has dedicated itself to the worldwide eradication of polio; they are almost there and the $100 million matching grant they recently received from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation should enable them to accomplish the goal. My friend’s local Rotary club also boasts many impressive philanthropic, humanitarian, and educational activities, both domestic and international. From everything I can learn, Rotary is an exemplary organization. But, it’s not the church, as Bishop Will Willimon points out.

When one joins the Rotary, or the League of Women Voters, they give you a membership card and lapel pin. When one joins the Body of Christ, we throw you under, half drown you, strip you naked and wash you all over, pull you forth sticky and fresh like a newborn (William Willimon, Christ Means Change).

This is Christian baptism – the Christian rite of initiation – that Willimon is speaking about, of course, and it is strange stuff. If anything, Willimon actually underplays its strangeness.

There’s this really bizarre and totally unbiblical idea running around both outside and inside the church that says the church should be some kind of inclusive, accepting, “big tent” society to which all are welcomed without reservation and without condition. Well, that’s absolute foolishness and baptism puts the lie to it. If you think you can get in the church on your own terms, just as you are, well, as we say in the South, “You’ve got another think comin’.” The church isn’t a come-as-you-are party.

“Young man – yes, you with the three girlfriends that you’re hooking up with – the church has some strange notions about sex. There’s this little thing called chastity that we’re pretty serious about. You’re going to have to change your ways to get in here. And you, too, young lady: put some clothes on and stay out of the bars on Friday night. We think pretty highly of decency. Mr. Businessman, we need to have a serious talk about how you treat your employees, about how you’ve clawed your way to the top and crushed competitors in the process, and about the whole issue of greed. The church has a lot to say about riches – at least our Lord had a lot to say about riches – and you’re not going to like a lot of what you hear. Some things are going to have to change if you want to be part of the family. Mrs. Smith, frankly, Mr. Smith seems to be a pretty lousy excuse for a husband and we know he’s hurt you time and again. But the grudge you’re nursing and the anger you’re holding on to – well, they pretty effectively bar the door of the church to you. They are too big and too wide for you to carry them through the door. You’re going to have to lay them down to come in here.”

Now, lest you think I’m being harsh here, listen to John – the one to whom Jesus, himself, came for baptism:

7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’

10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages’ (Luke 3:7-14, NRSV).

It works this way: all are welcomed to the waters of baptism, but there’s a certain path you have to walk to get there – the path of repentance, the path of change. You have to change your mind about who you are, about what’s important to you, about the way you’ve lived your life up to now, and about how you plan to live it from here on out. You have to acknowledge that you’re sick – terminally ill – and addicted to attitudes and behaviors that are destroying you and over which you have no power. And you have to admit that you are complicit in and responsible for this illness and addiction. The church may not use this language; it may instead ask you to confess that you are a sinner and that you have no power to save yourself – same thing, different words. In this, the church looks a lot more like AA than like the Rotary Club. This isn’t something arbitrary that the church insists on – repentance as a prerequisite for being allowed to come to Jesus. No, repentance is itself the way to Jesus, the only way to Jesus.

When you finally stand before the church and fess up to the fact that you are a whitewashed tomb filled with all manner of rottenness and dead men’s bones, don’t expect to hear, “Oh, no. You’re OK. You’re not really that bad.” No, the church is likely to say, “Yep, you’re a hopeless mess alright, so hopeless that we’re going to have to put you out of your misery. Yep, we’re going to have to kill you. Our preferred method is drowning.” Then the church strips you naked – fully in the early church, just mostly now – and leads you to the water. There they ask for your last words: a renunciation of Satan and all his pomp and an acceptance of Christ. The church is either a bit hard of hearing or else they’re not sure they believe you, so you’ll have to repeat everything three times. Then, like a convicted murderer mounting the gallows you step into the water. The church, in the person of priest or pastor, lays hands on you and forces you under the water in the name of God the Father. He holds you there awhile and only when you’re mostly dead does he raise you up. Then, before you know what’s happening you’re under again, in the name of God the Son as the life in you ebbs further. Up for a quick breath and you are plunged in one final time in the name of God the Holy Spirit and held there until you are completely dead. Then the priest/pastor hauls your lifeless corpse from its watery grave, maybe smears some oil on it and says some words over it – maybe not – and a most remarkable miracle occurs: the Spirit – the Holy Spirit of God – descends upon you and takes residence within you and you are born again as a son or daughter of God, as a partaker in the divine nature. The church won’t let just anyone in; you must be a son or daughter of God to gain admittance.

So there you stand dripping wet, oily, nearly naked. Like on “What Not To Wear” the church takes your old clothes and gives you new ones – in baptism a white robe symbolizing the purity of the saints; and yes, you are one now – a saint – in case you didn’t know. But you are also a baby, an infant. Baptism is new birth, and life and maturity lies ahead; you’ve a long way to go and much to learn and unlearn. It’s not unlike the natural birth process. We used to think that babies arrived as blank slates upon which the parents wrote their hard earned wisdom. Now we know better. Babies come hard-wired in many ways. From birth – long before any learning takes place – some are happy and some are whiney, some gregarious and some timid, some easy to raise and some a constant challenge. So, too, with newborn saints: some are happy and some are whiney, some gregarious and some timid, some easy to raise and some a constant challenge, some in pretty good shape and some an absolute mess. The newborn saints are not blank slates, particularly not those who come to the baptismal waters as adults. They have been formed by years of thought and action. They have ingrained habits and responses: some positive and life-affirming, some negative and destructive, some that may be refined and retained, and some which must be rejected and destroyed. The church has ways of dealing with all this, of course – time-tested and saint-tested ways: prayer, fasting, immersion in Word and Sacrament, worship, service, sacrifice, confession, and more. You can ignore these things and you will be no less a son or daughter of God, but you will remain an infant, which is, of course, not what God has in mind for you at all. Be assured that God does not leave you on your own in the process of growth. In addition to making you part of a family – the communion of saints, the body of Christ, the church – a family that will support you and hold you accountable, God dwells within you in the person of the Holy Spirit who empowers you and directs you – never forces you, but always enables you – to press on toward the high calling of Christ.

All this, and much more, is what happened to you in and through your baptism. And by the way, did I mention the part about eternal life? When our first parents sinned, we – the entire human race – inherited their death sentence: like father, like son, we were bound over to corruption and death. As we remind ourselves on Ash Wednesday, dust you are and to dust you shall return. But no more – not for those baptized into Christ Jesus.

3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him (Rom 6:3-8, NRSV).

Or there’s this similar promise.

3[For] you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your* life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory (Col 3:3-4, NRSV).

So, let’s take just a minute to step back and summarize the results – just some of the results – of this rather strange rite of baptism.

1. You were forgiven of all past sins and reconciled to God. Paul says it this way: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11, NRSV).

2. You were born again, an example of the new creation that God is even now bringing forth into the world. And this new life in Christ is life everlasting; because Jesus defeated death, he has granted you his same victory. The same power of God that broke the chains of the death on Easter will also raise you up on the last, great day, and thus you shall be forever with the Lord.

3. You were adopted as sons and daughters of God and made partakers of the divine nature through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Do you remember the words of God to Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan?

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased’ (Mark 1:9-11, NRSV).

Know this: God spoke these same words over you at your own baptism when the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descended upon you: “You” – and here fill in your own name – “you are my beloved child with whom I am well pleased.”

4. You were empowered by the Spirit to defeat sin – set free from its bondage – to once again bear the image of God given to men and women in creation and marred by them in the fall.

17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit (2 Cor 3:17-18, NRSV).

There is so much more to say, but at some point it seems fitting to fall silent in the presence of this glorious mystery of baptism, to be rendered speechless by the great mercy of God that takes a pool of water and a bit of oil and calls forth from them such a life-giving sacrament of salvation and restoration. But we must say before we fall silent that all this is possible only because of what happened that day when a wild man of a prophet stepped into the water with a carpenter-turned-preacher from Nazareth and, unworthy though he was, plunged the sinless Lamb of God beneath the water. Thanks be to God for the Baptism of our Lord. Thanks be to God for our baptism into our Lord.


Friday, January 2, 2009

Sermon: Sunday of the Epiphany (4 Jan 2009)

Sermon: Sunday of the Epiphany (4 January 2009)
(Isaiah 60:1-6/Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14/Ephesians 3:1-12/Matthew 2:1-12)
I Am Not Optimistic

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

William Sloan Coffin was a Presbyterian minister and noted peace activist. During an interview shortly before his death he was asked to reflect on the current state of the world: “Are you optimistic?” the interviewer asked. Without hesitation Coffin offered a profoundly Christian response: “I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful.” Coffin obviously knew Peter, and knew him well.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. According to His great mercy He has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, uncorrupted, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Pe 1:3-5, HCSB).

New birth, living hope, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ: optimism pales into insignificant foolishness in light of the hope engendered by this single great truth – Christ is risen. Optimism is mere wishful thinking by comparison, positive energy sent forth into the void on the off chance that like attracts like and whatever cosmic powers may be will respond with blessing. The church will have none of that. We are not optimistic, but we are hopeful. Christ is risen.

The hope that we have in Christ Jesus is not fuzzy, wishful thinking. It is hard-edged and rock solid. It is the passion of prophets, the strength of saints, the resolve of martyrs. It is the absolute conviction that God is at work reconciling the world to himself through Christ Jesus, the absolute conviction that nothing – no power in heaven, on earth, or under the earth – will be able to stand in opposition to God’s will to restore his image in mankind and to release all creation from bondage to corruption and futility. It is the certainty that God is even now putting all things to rights through Christ and with Christ and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. We are not optimistic, but we are hopeful. Christ is risen.

One morning this week I passed a street corner in an Atlanta neighborhood where thirty to forty Hispanic men and boys were waiting to be hired for day labor; late that afternoon many were still waiting. Dare we speak to them of hope? Were they hopeful, I wondered, or had their hope died along about 4 o’clock? This week has seen the escalation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, with devastating Israeli air strikes resulting in hundreds of Palestinian fatalities among both civilians and insurgents. Dare we speak to them of hope? Have both peoples lost all vestiges of hope in the prospects for lasting peace, justice, and security? I wonder. Barak Obama was elected on a platform of change and hope. If the recession and the war in Iraq prove intractable – at least in the short term – if little progress is made in health care reform, if oil prices spike again – in short, if there is little substantive change – I wonder if the hope he has awakened in so many, particularly in young Americans, can possibly survive. If not, dare we speak to them of a different hope, a new and living hope? Yes, yes we can speak of such a hope and yes we must speak of such a hope; for our God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is the only hope for this dark world.

There is no better commentary on the current state of our world than the ancient prophetic words of Isaiah to his own people. He not only describes their problems and ours, he also identifies the root cause.

Indeed, the LORD’S hand is not too short to save, and his ear is not too deaf to hear. But your iniquities have built barriers between you and your God, and your sins have made Him hide His face from you so that He does not listen. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, and you mutter injustice. No one makes claims justly; no one pleads honestly. They trust in empty and worthless words; they conceive trouble and give birth to iniquity.

Their feet run after evil, and they rush to shed innocent blood. Their thoughts are sinful thoughts; ruin and wretchedness are in their paths. They have not known the path of peace, and there is no justice in their ways. They have made their roads crooked; no one who walks on them will know peace.

Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We hope for light, but there is darkness; for brightness, but we live in the night (Is 59:1-4, 7-9, HCSB).

In light of these vast problems, problems their and ours, problems of human making and human sin, what has Isaiah to offer to a world filled with false hope or no hope, to the optimists who vainly proclaim, “Don’t worry; be happy!” or to the pessimists who cry, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”? Dare he speak to them, and to us, of a new and living hope?

The LORD saw that there was no justice, and He was offended. He saw that there was no man – He was amazed that there was no one interceding; so His own arm brought salvation, and His own righteousness supported Him. He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on His head; He put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and He wrapped Himself in zeal as in a cloak (Is 59:15b-17, HCSB).

Here is your hope, Isaiah says then and now, that when no man would act or could act the Lord God Almighty by his own arm has brought righteousness and salvation.

Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob;
His hope is in the Lord his God,
Who made heaven and earth,
The sea and everything in them,
Who keeps truth forever,
Who executes justice for the wronged,
Who provides food for the hungry.
The Lord frees those bound.
The Lord restores those broken down.
The Lord gives wisdom to the blind.
The Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord keeps watch over resident aliens.
He shall adopt the orphan and the widow,
But He shall destroy the way of sinners.
The Lord shall reign forever:
Your God, O Zion, to all generations (Ps 145, LXX, SAAS).

And in that day when the Lord acts according to his tender mercy, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, “to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79, NKJV). Through the Spirit Isaiah sees that this hope is far too large for Israel to contain; it will blaze forth like a new star in the heavens, causing Jerusalem to shine with the glory of the Lord and to become a light for the Gentiles.

“Shine, shine, O Jerusalem, for your light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you. Behold, darkness and gloom shall cover the earth upon the nations, but the Lord will shine on you; and His glory shall be seen upon you. Kings shall come to your light, and the Gentiles to your brightness. Lift up your eyes all around, and see your children gathered together. Behold, all your sons come from afar, and your daughters shall be lifted upon their shoulders. Then you will see, fear and be amazed in your heart, because the wealth of the sea and of nations and peoples shall change their course and turn to you. Herds of camels shall come to you, and the camels of Midian and Ephah shall cover you. All those from Sheba shall come bearing gold, and they shall bring frankincense and proclaim the good news of the Lord’s salvation (Is 60:1-6, LXX, SAAS).

This is a revelation, a shining forth, an epiphany of the hope that was theirs and the hope that is ours in and through the mighty acts of God. And this hope was first realized in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, when the uncreated light of eternity shone forth from a manger in Bethlehem – God from God, Light from Light – when a new star blazed in the heavens drawing kings to the light and Gentiles to the brightness, when magi from the East came to a house in Bethlehem, “saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasure, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Mt 2:11b, NKJV) – gold for the King of the ages, frankincense for the God of all, myrrh for the Immortal One, who shall be three days dead (from an Orthodox hymn sung at Compline of the Nativity). This is the Epiphany, the shining forth of Jesus, Son of God and Savior of all, to the Gentiles, to the kings of the nations who bent the knee before him and worshiped. This is the Epiphany, the shining forth of hope to Jew and Gentile alike – to every tribe and tongue and people and nation. This is the Epiphany, the revelation of the great mystery that was not made known to former ages but which has now been revealed through the Holy Spirit “that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of [God’s] promise in Christ through the gospel” (Eph 3:6, NKJV).

The arrival of the magi in Bethlehem is the arrival of hope: hope that God is in the world, reconciling the world – the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike – to himself. The magi are the firstfruits of all Gentiles who will bend the knee before the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the person of his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ – sign and symbol of you and me and of countless multitudes of Gentile faithful. For these Gentiles – for us – Paul was made apostle and minister, steward of the mysteries of God.

I became a minister according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God, the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints. To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col 1:25-27, NKJV).

And here again is the Epiphany: the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles, the revelation of Christ in the Gentiles, the revelation of hope and glory; for, God wills to draw all peoples – Jew and Gentile – together into one holy body in his son Christ Jesus, to fill that one holy body with God’s own Holy Spirit, and through that one holy body to make his image shine forth in his world once again. The Epiphany started in Bethlehem, but it did not end there. Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth have seen the glory of the Lord shining forth as the only holy body – Jew and Gentile – proclaims in word and prophetic action: We are not optimistic, but we are hopeful. Christ is risen.

Two millennia ago a star appeared – a heavenly convergence so spectacular and significant that magi from the east were compelled by the words of ancient prophets and led by the light of that star to Bethlehem, to worship him who was born king of the Jews: the Epiphany – the revelation, the shining forth, of Christ to the Gentiles. Some thirty years later a new “star” appeared, a new light shining in this dark world.

“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify you Father in heaven” (Mt 5:14-16, NKJV).

This, too, is Epiphany – the revelation, the shining forth, of Christ to all creation through his holy people, through those who have received new birth through water and Spirit, through those who are partakers of the divine nature, through those who are being renewed and transformed into the image and likeness of God. It is God’s will that “you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life” (Phil 2:15-16a, NIV).

The Epiphany of Christ to the Gentiles in star, magi, gold, frankincense, myrrh and all that – and the epiphany of Christ to the world in the church: these epiphanies are the birth of hope into a desperate world, a hope that is hard-edged and rock solid, a hope that will not disappoint. This hope is the absolute conviction that God is at work reconciling the world to himself through Christ Jesus, the absolute conviction that nothing – no power in heaven, on earth, or under the earth – will be able to stand in opposition to God’s will to restore his image in mankind and to release all creation from bondage to corruption and futility. It is the certainty that God is even now putting all things to rights through Christ and with Christ and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. We are not optimistic, but we are hopeful. Christ is risen. And that is the greatest epiphany of all.