Balm for the Soul

Let us sing alleluia here on earth, while we still live in anxiety, so that we may sing it one day in heaven in full security. Why do we now live in anxiety? Can you expect me not to feel anxious when I read: “Is not life on earth a time of trial?” Can you expect me not to feel anxious when the words still ring in my ears: “Watch and pray that you will not be put to the test”? Can you expect me not to feel anxious when there are so many temptations here below that prayer itself reminds us of them, when we say: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”? Every day we make our petitions, every day we sin. Do you want me to feel secure when I am daily asking pardon for my sins, and requesting help in time of trial? Because of my past sins I pray: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and then, because of the perils still before me, I immediately go on to add: “Lead us not into temptation.” How can all be well with people who are crying out with me: “Deliver us from evil”? And yet, while we are still in the midst of this evil, let us sing alleluia to the good God who delivers us from evil.

Even here amidst trials and temptations let us, let all, sing alleluia. “God is faithful,” says Holy Scripture, “and he will not allow you to be tried beyond your strength.” So let us sing alleluia, even here on earth. Humanity is still a debtor, but God is faithful. Scripture does not say that he will not allow you to be tried, but that “he will not allow you to be tried beyond your strength.” Whatever the trial, he will see you through it safely and so enable you to endure. You have entered upon a time of trial but you will come to no harm—God’s help will bring you through it safely. You are like a piece of pottery, shaped by instruction, fired by tribulation. When you are put into the oven therefore, keep your thoughts on the time when you will be taken out again; for God is faithful and “he will guard both your going in and your coming out.”

But in the next life, when this body of ours has become immortal and incorruptible, then all trials will be over. “Your body is indeed dead, and why? Because of sin.” Nevertheless, “your spirit lives, because you have been justified.” Are we to leave our dead bodies behind then? By no means. Listen to the words of Holy Scripture: “If the Spirit of him who raised Christ from the dead dwells within you, then he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your own mortal bodies.” At present your body receives its life from the soul, but then it will receive it from the Spirit.

O the happiness of the heavenly alleluia, sung in security, in fear of no adversity! We shall have no enemies in heaven, we shall never lose a friend. God’s praises are sung both there and here, but here they are sung in anxiety, there, in security; here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live for ever; here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s futfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country.

So then, let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do—sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going. What do I mean by keep going? Keep on making progress. This progress, however, must be in virtue; for there are some, the Apostle warns, whose only progress is in vice. If you make progress, you will be continuing your journey, but be sure that your progress is in virtue, true faith and right living. Sing then, but keep going.

—From Augustine’s “Sermon 256,” quoted from Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church, J. Robert Wright, Ed.

The above passage from St. Augustine is one of the reasons I love the man. He is so real, so authentic, so faithful. He never sugarcoats the difficulty of trying to live faithfully in a broken and fallen world marred by sin. But did you catch the bright and confident faith that shines through? Wow. Just wow.

This past weekend I learned that a beloved old professor and mentor has a serious form of cancer. This news hit me like a ton of bricks, coming on the heels of watching my father-in-law struggle with illness and infirmity, and the toll it is taking on his family and him. It took the stuffing right out of me.

Then this morning, the Lord led me to this reading. It was not the appointed reading for the day. But for some reason, I started flipping through Wright’s book after I had read the appointed reading and just happened to find it. I do not believe for one minute that I found this by coincidence because it was balm for my soul, just what I needed at the moment, and that is the way the Lord works—he gives us what is sufficient for the moment.

I pray Augustine may be balm for your soul too, especially if you are in the midst of one of life’s many struggles.

And yes. Prayers ascending for you, Mean Lester.

An Amazing Faith

Norman Harrison in His in a Life of Prayer tells how Charles Inglis, while making the voyage to America a number of years ago, learned from the devout and godly captain of an experience which he had had but recently with George Muller of Bristol. It seems that they had encountered a very dense fog. Because of it the captain had remained on the bridge continuously for twenty four hours, when Mr. Muller came to him and said, “Captain, I have come to tell you that I must be in Quebec on Saturday afternoon.” When informed that it was impossible, he replied: “Very well. If the ship cannot take me, God will find some other way. I have never broken an engagement for fifty seven years. Let us go down into the chart room and pray.”

The captain continues the story thus: “I looked at that man of God and thought to myself, What lunatic asylum could that man have come from. I never heard such a thing as this. ‘Mr. Muller,’ I said, ‘do you know how dense this fog is?’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘my eye is not on the density of the fog, but on the living God, who controls every circumstance of my life.’ He knelt down and prayed one of those simple prayers, and when he had finished I was going to pray; but he put his hand on my shoulder and told me not to pray. ‘Firstly,’ he said, ‘because you do not believe God will, and secondly, I believe God has, and there is no need whatever for you to pray about it.’ I looked at him, and George Muller said, ‘Captain, I have known my Lord for fifty seven years, and there has never been a single day that I have failed to get an audience with the King. Get up and open the door, and you will find that the fog has gone.’ I got up and the fog was indeed gone. George Muller was in Quebec Saturday afternoon for his engagement.”

—From I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes by Glenn Clark

In this wonderful story, we see all the ingredients of effective prayer: the cultivation of faith over a lifetime based on a belief that God is actively involved in our daily lives so that Muller’s prayer request could be offered simply and with the expectation it would be answered. We miss the point if we focus too much on the miraculous outcome of the prayer, but I have no doubt that it occurred and was simply icing on the cake.

Muller had obviously spent a lifetime keeping his eye on God and believing in God’s power to intervene in his daily life, and for his betterment. That cultivation allowed him to pray as he did and to stop the captain from praying. Did you notice that the story describes the captain as “devout and godly”? But apparently not devout enough or godly enough to pray boldly to God in faith because he evidently did not expect God to intervene so dramatically in his daily life. Perhaps he did not have that experience because he did not have that expectation.

Muller, on the other hand, had come to expect God’s help in allowing him keep his appointments, presumably from prior experience, and so he  believed that this was one aspect of God’s will for him in his life. He thus prayed as he did and expected his prayer to be answered. God did so, and in spades.

How are you working on your faith as you live out your days?

When Radical Surgery is Required, Make Sure to Choose the Right Surgeon

Sermon delivered Sunday, September 27, 2009 at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH. If you would like to listen to the audio version of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50.

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

What is the Human Condition?

Good morning, St. Andrew’s! Today we continue our series of sermons on discipleship. You recall that we define discipleship as following Jesus and becoming more like him through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us. This, of course, requires us to know Jesus and his will for our lives. The goal of discipleship is to become just like Jesus.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus continues to tell us what it means for us to be his disciples. We have already seen that he has identified the intractable problem of sin that bedevils the human race, reminding us that sin comes from within us (Mark 7:20-23). He then tells us what we must do to be his followers (Mark 8:34). We must deny ourselves (i.e., stop our idolatrous behavior of worshiping ourselves instead of the One True God), and take up our cross (i.e., engage in the difficult process of transferring our ultimate allegiance from ourselves to God). Taking up our cross is an apt figure of speech because people condemned to crucifixion were forced to carry their cross, signifying their forced obedience to Rome. Likewise, when we take up our cross and learn to submit to God’s authority instead of our own, we acknowledge that this is not our first choice, that we would much rather follow the natural desires of our sinful and fallen nature than to submit ourselves to God’s will for us.

We have also seen that denying ourselves and taking up our cross is not a one time event but rather a process we call sanctification. It takes a lifetime and involves a fair share of setbacks along with the progress we make. Yet we can engage in this process of denying ourselves and taking up our cross with confidence because we are not doing this on our own. We are doing this with the help of the Holy Spirit, who our Lord himself promised to send us to help us in our weakness and infirmities (John 14:16ff). And finally, we have also seen that like Jesus, when we suffer for his sake, it is our path to glory (see, e.g., Philippians 2:5-11).

Back to today’s Gospel lesson, then, Jesus tells us in vivid hyperbolic language what sanctification in believers, in part, looks like. He reminds us that we are thoroughly infected with sin and there are dire and eternal consequences if we don’t do our part to eradicate it. Sin is like cancer and we must be ruthless in cutting it out. And so Jesus tells us that we must be self-aware, that we must do whatever it takes to eliminate that which causes us to sin, and we must be ruthless in doing so because sin separates us from God and leads to death.

For example, gluttony is something I struggle with constantly. It is a serious sin because it betrays a sinful selfishness in me. Eating is not bad in itself but gluttony demands more than its fair share. Since this is something I struggle with, it does not make sense to keep a bunch of snacks around the house because I will inevitably start eating them despite my best intentions. And so we don’t keep those kinds of food around that would encourage me to be a glutton.

Moreover, when I start thinking about food at inappropriate times, I consciously try to think about something else. This has taken great conscious effort on my part, and I am not always successful in thinking about other things. But the point is that in doing so I am attempting to cut out those things in me (and my environment) that would cause me to indulge my gluttony. Likewise, it would not be a good idea for an alcoholic to keep liquor around to test his resolve. If a person struggled with lust, browsing pornography sites would be an invitation to sin. Jesus tells us that we must cut out anything within us and outside us that would cause us to sin.

But this can be a problem because often times we find ourselves defeated and we get quickly discouraged. Has that ever happened to you? When it does, this is where our faith and prayer life must kick in because God has promised never to leave us alone or abandon us (Hebrews 13:5).

Where is God’s Grace?

James must have been aware that becoming discouraged in our discipleship is a common occurrence because in today’s Epistle lesson he has a remedy for us. The use of the word “sick” in most English translations is unfortunate, I think, because it gives us the mistaken impression that James is talking about physical healing. But the original text and context in which the Greek verbs are used does not necessarily suggest this. Moreover, I confess that there has been more than one time I have prayed for healing for someone and that person did not get better. This caused me to wonder about my own faith and tended to exacerbate the problem. Shall I give up praying because unanswered prayer becomes a stumbling block? God forbid!

The two verbs James uses for “sick” in this passage literally mean “weak” and “to grow weary” respectively. While it is true that these verbs are used in the Gospels to refer to physical healing, they are also used elsewhere in the NT to refer to people who are weak in faith or who have a weak conscience (see, e.g., 1 Corinthians 8:9-12). So James seems to be referring here to those who have grown weary or who have become weak, either spiritually or morally, in the midst of suffering. Such persons should ask the elders of the church to pray for them. James assures us that when we pray for those who have become weary and discouraged in their faith walk, that God will heal those afflicted. In other words, God will restore them from discouragement and spiritual defeat.

That James is referring to spiritual refreshment rather than physical healing is further clarified when he immediately tells us that anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven, essential to spiritual refreshment and healing. James is reminding us of an important truth and resource as we struggle in our efforts to become more like Jesus: We are not alone in our struggles. We have God’s very presence living in us, and through prayer, he is helping us to root out all sin and evil. But this requires faith on our part. We must believe he really is living in us and that he will grant anything we ask if he knows it will help us put to death our sinful nature.

This is the kind of faith to which today’s OT lesson alludes. Esther is a fascinating book because God and his Name are never explicitly mentioned in it. Yet did you notice the great faith that shines through in this story? If you read all 10 chapters of Esther, you will see God’s hand in the events and circumstances narrated. In today’s lesson, Esther literally risks her life in asking her husband, King Xerxes, to spare her life and the lives of her people. She had no guarantee that he would do so, especially when we keep in mind how Esther became his queen (another example of God’s providence). Yet she risks her life for the sake of her people precisely because she has faith that God is involved in their daily lives and she trusts him to uphold the promises he has made to his people Israel, even in the midst of their exile. It is a remarkable story of faith and it is that faith we must embrace.

Yet faith is not something static that we either have or do not have. As the eminent Anglican evangelical, Dr. John Stott, reminds us in his commentary on 2 Thessalonians, “faith is a relationship of trust in God, and like all relationships is a living, dynamic, growing thing.” The more we are convinced that God loves us and does work on your behalf, the more we are able to offer prayers in faith. How is the state of your own faith? Do you rely on God’s power rather than your own to help you overcome your sin? We must make the conscious effort to put to death our sinful nature but we are promised that we do not have to do it by ourselves. God is with us through the Power and Presence of his Holy Spirit.

Where is the Application?

So what lessons can we draw from all this? How can today’s texts help us as we seek to rid ourselves of anything that causes us to continue to sin? I would offer the following observations. First, we must do those things that remind us of God’s presence in our lives and the lives of his people. I am convinced that the Evil One uses our lack of remembering to help cultivate unbelief in God’s people. We need to remember God’s Power and Presence in our lives. We do this by sharing “God moments” with each other, and by reading about God’s mighty acts in the history of his people. If you do not know where to start with the latter, begin by reading Exodus in the OT or the Gospels or Acts in the NT. Do this frequently and consistently.

Second, James reminds us that every one of us, no matter how mature our faith, eventually grows weary in the process of our sanctification. When that happens we need to be connected to other faithful souls who will pray for God to refresh and restore us and then we must believe that he will. This means that we must put our sinful pride aside, stop attempting to be rugged individualists, and trust God to work in and through our fellow Christians and our prayers offered to him rightly and in faith [personal testimony].

Last, we must remember that our faith is dynamic, not static, and continually remind ourselves that God’s Holy Spirit is actively living and working in us, helping us become the beings he created us to be. Yes, we will have our setbacks, but we will also have our successes, and we forget the latter at our own peril. When we fail to put to death our sinful nature, we must ask God for forgiveness and seek the encouragement of other faithful Christians. But in faith we must keep reminding ourselves that despite setbacks from time to time, God’s Spirit is moving us to where he wants us to be. Like John Wesley, we must acknowledge that although sin remains, it does not reign. That is a prayer offered in faith. And when things are going well for us, we must not hesitate to thank God that they are so that we give him the glory instead of ourselves.


The process of sanctification has bad news and good news to it. The bad news is that sin has thoroughly infected us, and left to our own devices, we will surely fail in eradicating it. But the good news is that we are not left on our own. We have a God who loves us passionately and took care of the problem for us by taking on our flesh, dying on the cross for us, and giving us his Holy Spirit to help us to become just like him. In return he asks us to have faith in his great love for us and in his ability to work on our behalf until he returns again to finally put things aright. As we await his return, he has blessed us with grace, faith, prayer, and fellowship to help us do the very difficult work of putting our sinful nature to death. But the rewards are far greater than the suffering this causes. We get to live with the Source and Author of all life in this temporary world and then forever. That’s good news, folks, now and for all eternity.

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

Servanthood—Choosing the Wise Path

Sermon delivered Sunday, Sept. 20, 2009 at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH. If you would like to listen to the audio version of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37.

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

What is the Human Condition?

Good morning, St. Andrew’s! Today we continue our series of sermons on discipleship. You recall that we define discipleship as following Jesus and becoming more like him through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us. This, of course, requires us to know Jesus and his will for our lives. The goal of discipleship is to become just like Jesus.

In today’s Gospel lesson we see another classic example of human wisdom and folly at work. Jesus has again told his disciples that he must be betrayed into human hands and be killed. In reporting this, Mark is reminding us of Jesus’ mission to be God’s humble servant who will suffer and die for the redemption of the world. We saw in last week’s Gospel lesson that this notion had so violated Peter’s expectations for Messiah that he rebuked Jesus for saying this. This, in turn, led to Jesus rebuking Peter severely and calling him “Satan,” who focused more on human ways than God’s (Mark 8:33).

The verb Mark uses for betray in today’s passage (paradidomi) is interesting because it means to deliver up or hand over. It was used to refer to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and of God’s delivering up Jesus to death for the redemption of the world (see, e.g., Acts 2:23). There are some commentators who believe the latter meaning is intended here, which suggests that Mark is telling us that the implied agent of Jesus’ being delivered is God, not Judas. The very language Mark uses therefore reinforces Jesus’ observation about Peter looking to human wisdom rather than God’s when it came to seeing real purpose of his Messiahship.

Mark then tells us that Jesus’ disciples again did not understand what he was trying to tell them about being Messiah and this made them afraid to ask him for clarification, presumably because Jesus’ rebuke of Peter was fresh in their minds or perhaps because Jesus’ pronouncement was such a severe violation of their Messianic expectations (or both). Matthew reports the same story and tells us that Jesus’ disciples were “deeply grieved” on hearing this (Matthew 17:23).

Whether they were afraid to ask Jesus for clarification or grieved by what he told him, this didn’t stop them from putting aside this strange new teaching about Messiah and moving on to the more important things of life, like who was the greatest among them (apparently Jesus wasn’t an option). I can hear them now. “Jesus likes me better than you. He took me up to the mountain with him.” “I do more good deeds than all of you put together.” “No, I’m Jesus’ favorite disciple because he called me first.” As a result of all this “wise” talk, which was born out of pride and worldly ambition, an argument erupted between them.

Sound familiar? Apparently it did to James too because in today’s Epistle lesson he reminds us how we as Christ’s Body, the Church, must behave. He reminds us that when we allow our own envy and selfish ambition to reign, the result is disorder and wickedness of every kind. James calls this kind of wisdom “earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” It doesn’t take much of an imagination for us to believe this is what Mark had in mind when he reports that the disciples were arguing among themselves about who was the greatest.

In response, Jesus asked them what they were arguing about. His question was greeted with silence, the kind that is produced when we get caught with our hand in the proverbial cookie jar. If it weren’t so tragic, it would almost be comical because we persist in behaving the same way today in a thousand different contexts.

Where is God’s Grace?

But Jesus reminded his disciples (and us) that this is not the way it is to be if we are to be his followers and become like him. He tells us that if we want to be first in God’s kingdom, we need to become a servant to all. This does not mean we let other people abuse us or run over us. Rather, at the heart of this statement, Jesus is reminding us about who we were created to be and how we are to act as a result. The beginning of wisdom is to have a reverential fear of God. It is the realization that we are utterly powerless to fix our own brokenness, let alone that of others. It is the realization that God does indeed know better than we do and has acted decisively on our behalf to fix the problem of sin and the separation it causes.

When we really believe that God took on our flesh, suffered and died for us, and gave us his Holy Spirit to help us become more like him, it produces a profound sense of thanksgiving in us and a desire to do and be all that God wants us to do and be. But because of our sinful nature, this is a terribly difficult process and takes a lifetime to accomplish. Nor is it possible without the Power and Presence of the Holy Spirit working in us.

This difficult and sometimes painful process of transferring our ultimate allegiance from ourselves to Christ is what Jesus was talking about when he told us that if we are to follow him we must deny ourselves and take up our cross. Doing so will inevitably begin to create a servant’s heart in us because we are willing to set aside our own selfish desires and seek to be the creatures God created us to be. As each of us knows, this is a terribly difficult thing to do, but the reward is even greater because in Christ’s own example of suffering, God promises us that suffering for his sake is our path to glory, biblical language that refers to the day when the New Creation is brought about at Christ’s Second Coming and we receive our new resurrection bodies and live directly in the presence of the Lord we love forever. What a magnificent hope!

We also see this notion about the beginning of wisdom leading to servanthood reflected in James’ Epistle today. He contrasts human wisdom with God’s wisdom, noting that the former produces disorder and wickedness of every kind while the latter is full of mercy and produces good fruits. He reminds us that wise people understand that human wisdom (different from knowledge) is foolish and so they earnestly seek God’s wisdom so that they can behave in ways that are pleasing to God. Implied in this statement is the promise that God, through the gift of his Holy Spirit, will be pleased to help us become the creatures he wants us to be. We see this reflected clearly when James reminds us that we do not receive because we do not know how to ask. In other words, when we ask for things that we want that are contrary to what God wants for us, we should not be surprised when God does not grant our request. But when we seek what God wants for us, the result will always be to have a servant’s heart because we know that is God’s desire for us and we are confident that he gives us that ability through his Holy Spirit.

Where is the Application?

We see this idea that accepting God’s wisdom will produce a servant’s heart in us reflected in all of today’s texts. In the reading from Proverbs, we read about the “capable wife.” When I read this, of course, the first person who came to mind is my beloved bride. She has given herself the nickname, “Sal, the Pack Mule,” and as I read all the things this wife does, my wife immediately came to mind. Now I really don’t understand why my beloved has given herself this nickname because I am the one who does all the work around the house. But I digress. Seriously, we should not get too hung up over the specific duties this “capable wife” performs because God is a God of history and his Word consequently must contain examples from particular historical and cultural contexts. Instead, we should read this passage through the lens of reading about a person with a servant’s heart and see how the wife’s behaviors reflect that notion. That is really why I thought immediately of my wife when I read this text because this “capable wife” has the heart of a servant and so does my beloved wife.

The capable wife does things to support both her husband and her household. She has a kind, gentle, and generous spirit. She not only looks out for the welfare of her family but also for the community in which she lives. She does these things because she fears the Lord and as Proverbs 1:7 reminds us, fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. As a result, God blesses her with praise from her family and community, and gives her a happy and secure household. We moderns tend to get a bit jaded about this promise but it is clear that the Bible does promise it. Dare we fail to believe or accept God’s promises to us?

We see the notion of accepting God’s wisdom also reflected in today’s Psalm. In it the psalmist paints a stark contrast between wise and the wicked. The former eagerly seek God’s counsel and want to obey his precepts (like loving him by serving others) because they take delight in doing his will and bearing his fruit. This does not mean the wise are immune to the hurts and heartaches that inevitably come our way because we live in a sinful and broken world. What it means is that the wise understand that it is a good thing to attach themselves to the Source and Author of all life, and seek to become just like him with his abiding help.

The wicked, on the other hand, don’t get it. They think they know better and seek to pursue their own selfish desires. They prefer to be their own god rather than to let God be God, and this will result in their ultimate death and destruction. It is a fearful picture the Psalmist paints for the wicked.

But we see the ultimate example of God’s wisdom producing a servant’s heart in the person of Jesus. In that magnificent early Christian hymn contained in Philippians 2:5-11, Paul reminds us that Jesus willingly gave up being God completely so that he could suffer and die for us, and give us our one and only chance to live with God forever. John reminds us that God took on our flesh because he passionately loves his world and wants each and everyone to live, and not die (John 3:16). And we have already seen that Mark may have been referring to God’s plan for salvation by his use of the passive verb paradidomi in today’s Gospel lesson.

None of us knows how costly this must have been to Jesus. To give up omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence to become a finite and limited mortal must have been unbelievably costly. The closest analogy I can offer is our lifelong development and maturation. Who among us would really desire to have to suffer through our adolescence again, knowing what we do now? It’s not a perfect example but it helps us wrap our minds around what Jesus gave up for us when he took on our flesh and allowed himself to be tortured and killed for our sake.

But Paul also reminds us that because Jesus was willing to become our servant and do this for us, God exalted him and gave him the highest place, where every tongue will confess him to be Lord and every knee will bow to his Name. This is what it means to be a disciple of Christ. It means to humble ourselves and acknowledge that God is God, not us. In the process of doing so, it means we gladly and willingly develop a servant’s heart, just like our Lord did, because we know that like Jesus, this pleases God and is our only path to glory. It is God’s path and wisdom for us.

How is the Lord calling you to serve? What is standing in your way in becoming more like Jesus? If you are not sure what the biblical notion of servanthood is, resolve to begin reading your Bible systematically and daily so that you can better learn what that means. Resolve to ask the Lord to show you what is standing in your way. Ask him to help you become more like him and for strength to fight the good fight, because we are in it for the long haul. Join a small group of other faithful people whom you can trust to love you enough to help you develop a servant’s heart, and help them do likewise. Do those things which help your affection for Jesus grow and avoid doing those things which decrease your affection for him. Ask Jesus to show you these things clearly and expect him to answer you in his good time and way. You will not be disappointed.


The beginning of wisdom is a fear of the Lord that produces in us a real desire to serve and please him rather than ourselves. This will naturally produce in us a servant’s heart that desires to please the Lord. Having ambition is not evil in itself. God calls some of us to powerful positions but in doing so expects us to serve others, not our own selfish desires. Given the human condition, this is never an easy thing to do. It takes a lifetime to accomplish and is often painful. But we are not left to our own devices. We have God’s very Spirit living in us, helping us in our weaknesses, and creating in us a desire to love and please him all our days. And even though this is a painful process, he promises us that wisdom’s reward will be great because we will get to live with him forever. That’s good news, folks, now and for all eternity.

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

A Keen Insight Into Forgiveness

Here we have come back to the compassion that must be formed in one’s heart, a compassion that comes out of a deep experience of solidarity, in which one recognizes that the evil, sin and violence which one sees in the world and in the other, are deeply rooted in one’s own heart [emphasis mine]. Only when you want to confess this and want to rely on the merciful God who can bring good out of evil are you in a position to receive forgiveness and also to give it to other men and women who threaten you with violence

—From Thomas Merton: Contemplative Critic by Henri Nouwen

I ran across this piece from Nouwen this morning and it spoke to me. Here we see the key to being able to pray for our enemies and people who are clearly evil as Jesus commanded us (see, e.g., Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:28). Nouwen is not telling us that we should suspend moral judgment on people’s behavior (neither does the Bible, BTW). Rather he is pointing us to this fact: We must first acknowledge that we have the capacity in ourselves to commit any evil we see others committing, and that takes a healthy dose of humility.

Only when we realize this truth, and acknowledge that we are in the same desperate need of God’s forgiveness as others around us, are we able to pray that God forgive those who do us wrong. Only then can we really ask for our own forgiveness and mean it.

Realizing that we have the same capacity in us to commit the evil we see others committing is a most effective antidote against spiritual pride forming in us. There is only one place for humanity, and that is at the foot of the cross.

What about you? How are you getting along in praying for and forgiving your enemies?

Are You Wise or Just Fooling Yourself?

Sermon delivered Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009, at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH. If you would like to listen to an audio version of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Proverbs 1:20-30; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38.

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

What is the Human Condition?

Good morning, St. Andrew’s! Today we continue our series of sermons on discipleship. You recall that we define discipleship as following Jesus and becoming more like him through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us. This, of course, requires us to know Jesus and his will for our lives. The goal of discipleship is to become just like Jesus.

So, are you wise or foolish? In today’s OT lesson, we hear Wisdom’s urgent exhortations to the “simple ones,” “scoffers,” and “fools.” Some of the early Church Fathers saw Wisdom as being Christ himself (see, e.g., Athanasius’ Second Discourse Against the Arians) and so it is not inappropriate for us to read this passage with the view that Christ is personally exhorting us. Wisdom literature, of course, was written in part to show the close relationship between religion and everyday life. The writers of Proverbs did not envision religion as some esoteric, navel-gazing activity, but rather as being fully integrated into the secular world. When the whole of life is brought under God’s control and we seek to fully integrate God-given wisdom into our daily lives—and you recall that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7)—Proverbs tells us that the result is noble character and harmonious, happy homes.

We see this integrative nature of religion reflected in today’s passage because Wisdom cries out in the streets and the public squares for all to hear, not just “religious” folks. Christ as Wisdom urges us to repent of our human folly and to submit to God’s will. Our folly leads us to rebel against God and set ourselves in his place. We want to be our own boss instead of allowing God to be. Today’s passage reminds us that we have this nasty tendency to get fat and sassy when things are going well in our lives. When that happens, we quickly delude ourselves into believing that we are responsible for our happiness and prosperity, not God.

But Christ as Wisdom warns us that things will not always go well in our lives and when trouble comes, as it inevitably will, we will be left to our own devices, and the results will be disastrous. We do not have to look very far to see how true this all is: whether it is remembering the monstrous evil that happened on 9/11 or sickness, death, infirmity, divorce, addiction, or unemployment to name just a few. The language in this passage may sound harsh to our 21st century ears but it really reflects a deep and abiding love God has for his creatures as he tries to warn us what is coming if we choose to make ourselves gods instead of him. Who among us would not hesitate to warn our loved ones if we see them making disastrous decisions? If we cracked mortals are capable of demonstrating this kind of love, how much more so is God?

No, Christ as Wisdom knows a better way for us because as the psalmist reminds us in today’s Psalm, following God’s will and way for us revives our soul, rejoices our heart, and gives us light and understanding to guide us in the living of our days. Christ as Wisdom knows that when we delight ourselves in the Lord, he will give us the desires of our heart (Psalm 37:4).

Yet we humans don’t seem to get it. Each one of us at one time or another are the three groups of people to whom Christ as Wisdom speaks. We can be the naive simpleton who refuses to see life as it is, broken, finite, and temporary. We can also be the defiant and freethinking scoffer who hears God’s word and dismisses it because we think we know better or because our experience leads us to one course of action or another. For example, we hear Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:25 that, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom,” but we don’t really believe it because we still see sin and suffering in this world. And we can be the morally insensitive fool who deliberately or inadvertently makes poor decisions about doing right and wrong in the living of our days because we are relying on our own devices, not God’s.

We see this folly of the human condition reflected in our other readings for this morning as well. The psalmist wonders about his secret faults and unknown sins, and how to prevent them from occurring. James tells us that even though the tongue is small, we humans cannot seem to control it so that much evil is caused by our intemperate and uncontrolled speech.

Then, of course, there is good old Peter in today’s Gospel lesson. He goes from hero to goat in under 60 seconds. First, he is given grace and insight by God to recognize Jesus as Messiah, God’s Anointed One, who was expected to be Israel’s deliverer. Then when Jesus tells his disciples that as Messiah he must suffer and die, thereby violating their human expectations of what Messiah should be, Peter rebukes his Lord (Hey Jesus! Knock off that suffering and dying stuff. What’s the matter with you? Everybody knows that Messiah will be a conquering hero and not some dead guy. Get with the program, dude, and start living up to our expectations! I mean, really. Why are you talking crazy all of a sudden?). For you see, at that moment, out of his great love for Jesus, Peter was also playing the part of the scoffer. At that point in his life he couldn’t believe that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. Thankfully by God’s grace, that changed for Peter and it can for us as well.

In response, Jesus looked at his disciples, and apparently seeing that they agreed with Peter, turned and rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8:33). Can you imagine Jesus looking you straight in the eyes and calling you Satan? It makes the blood run cold, doesn’t it? But in rebuking Peter for putting human things before divine things, i.e., for being a scoffer, Jesus is also reminding us what it takes to be his disciples. We must be wise enough to see that God’s foolishness, the foolishness of the cross, is wiser than our human understanding of how things work. When we begin to really understand this, then taking up our cross, denying ourselves, and following Jesus begins to make some sense because it is the beginning of wisdom to have reverence for the Lord for all he has done for us in Christ. We will gladly suffer for the Name as Jesus’ apostles did (Acts 5:41). Makes you want to sign right up to be a disciple of Jesus’ doesn’t it? It will if you have God’s wisdom.

Where is God’s Grace?

For you see, from all eternity, God has passionately loved his creatures. Given the state of his creatures, one might question God’s sanity, but I digress. No, God loves us passionately and wants us to live with him forever. He understands that our time here on earth is but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of eternity, but he also knows that how we live our lives here is important, albeit ever so briefly. That is why he took on our flesh, died for us, and bore the punishment we rightly deserved, making it possible for us to live with him forever.

What must we do in response? Well, first we must have faith that God has really taken care of the problem of sin and the separation it has caused. When we have that saving faith, we gladly and humbly submit our lives to him and seek to obey him in all things. This is what Jesus meant when he told us that we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him (Mark 8:34). Denying self is not the same as self-denial and all sorts of dreadful practices have developed because of this misunderstanding. When we deny ourselves, we are not denying our personality or “things” or saying that we intend to die as a martyr. Instead, we are making a conscious effort to turn away from our idolatrous self-centeredness and every attempt to rule our lives by self-interest. When that begins to happen, and this is a lifelong process that is only made possible by the Living Presence of the Holy Spirit within us, we are ready to take up our cross.

Taking up one’s cross was not an established Jewish metaphor in Jesus’ day, but it was an appropriate figure of speech in Roman-occupied territory. It brought to mind the sight of a condemned man who was forced to demonstrate his submission to Rome by carrying part of his cross through the city to his place of execution. Thus “to take up one’s cross” was to demonstrate publicly one’s submission and obedience to the authority against which he had previously rebelled. To deny ourselves perforce leads to taking up our cross, because we now give Jesus, the one against whom we previously rebelled, our ultimate loyalty and obedience. In other words, cross bearing symbolizes the fact that we are transferring ultimate authority from ourselves to Jesus. When we do that, we are ready to follow Jesus.

Taking up our cross and following Jesus does not mean stoically bearing life’s troubles but accepting the consequences of our decision to learn and obey his will for us in our lives. The writers of the NT make it quite clear that suffering will often be an expected consequence of following Jesus. For example, in Acts 9:16 Jesus tells Ananias that he has shown Paul how much he must suffer for him. In Romans 8:17 Paul talks about sharing in Christ’s suffering and glory. In Philippians 1:29 Paul infers that we are granted the privilege—yes, that’s right, the privilege—of being able to suffer for Christ. Later in chapter 3, Paul talks about sharing in the suffering and death of Jesus so that he can also share in the Lord’s power and resurrection.

At this point, some of you are probably saying, “Gee, Fr. Kevin. Such a deal, being a disciple of Jesus. You are telling us we must do all these fun things if we want to be his disciple? Sounds perfectly dreadful. But let’s do lunch sometime.” Ah, but you are seeing God’s foolishness and human wisdom playing themselves out! For you see, did you catch the connection the NT writers make between suffering and glory? Human wisdom tells us to avoid suffering at all costs. You know. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and all that. God, however, in his “foolishness” has shown us through Christ that suffering for obeying him and giving him our ultimate loyalty is the path to glory, a biblical term that means living with God forever with our new resurrected bodies. It doesn’t make sense using human wisdom, but this is God’s wisdom, not ours. Let me give you a quick example from my own life that reflects this idea. It is imperfect, but I hope it will help you see that suffering for Christ is a joy, not a burden [personal testimony about my ordination process]. I suspect if I were to ask you to share your “God moments” with me, we would hear many other stories that point us to the truth that suffering for Christ will lead to our glory. What about you? Do you desire God’s wisdom, which the world counts as foolishness, or are you content to rest on human wisdom, which is folly in God’s sight?

Where is the Application?

How you answer that question and the following questions will help you gain insight into the state of your discipleship. I do not ask these questions to make you feel guilty; instead, I ask them to help you assess where you are in your walk with the Lord and to ascertain just how “wise” or “foolish” you are.

If we are to appropriate God’s wisdom and submit to his will, we must engage in the proven spiritual disciplines. So, are you reading your Bible everyday and systematically to better learn God’s general will for his creatures? Are you praying regularly to learn God’s particular will for your lives? Are you in small group fellowship to help hold you accountable so you can be a better disciple of Christ? Are you worshiping God each week to give him thanks for all he is doing in your life and his world, and feeding on his Body and Blood to help nourish and sustain you? Are you being a good steward of God’s gifts to you by giving the first portion of them back to him? Are you sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with others as opportunity presents itself?

I cannot, nor can anyone else, tell you what God’s particular will for you is, only God can do that. He has given you his Holy Spirit to help you realize the desires of your heart and these means of grace have been proven over time and culture to be effective in helping us become like him. Engaging in them (or not) indicates how willing you are to deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow him. If you are engaging in these means of grace, you can expect him to revive your soul, make your heart rejoice in obeying him, and give you clear light and guidance to live your lives. It is a wondrous and inexpressible gift and I pray we all will embrace God’s wisdom, not our own. This is a difficult thing to do and it takes a lifetime. But in doing so, we are promised that our suffering for Christ will be the means to our glory.


As St. Augustine put it, we are “cracked pots” who revel in our sin and are consequently separated from God. God, in his infinite wisdom and love for us, has taken care of that problem by taking on our flesh and dying for us. He calls us to love him and give him our ultimate obedience and loyalty, which will be costly for us as we learn to deny ourselves and transfer our ultimate loyalty to him. But he promises us that in doing so, our suffering for him will be the means to our glory, and he has given us demonstrable and historical proof in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. When we learn the Wisdom of God, we realize that that’s good news, now and for all eternity.

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