A New Year’s Resolution Worth Our Time and Effort

Sermon delivered on Epiphany 2A, Sunday, January 15, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 49.1-7; Psalm 40.1-11; 1 Corinthians 1.1-9; John 1.29-42.

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

Who is the Servant in our OT lesson today? Is he Israel? The prophet? Someone else? Why should we care? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

In our lesson from Isaiah, we read the second of the so-called “Servant Songs” that describe the person and character of the “Servant of the Lord” (see also Isaiah 42.1-4, 50.4-9, and 52.13-53.12). But who is this person? The prophet at first identifies him as Israel (v.3), but later in our passage the servant is to rescue Israel (v.5). How can God call Israel to rescue itself? Is the prophet just really confused here? Maybe had some bad coffee or something?

Whoever Isaiah had in mind, Christians of course believe that Jesus is the Servant, in part, because we believe Jesus is the light of the world before whom one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess as Lord (Phil. 2.9-11). And as we saw in our gospel lesson this morning, John the Baptist certainly saw Jesus fulfilling the role of the Servant (and more). After seeing the Spirit descend from heaven and stay on Jesus, the baptizer declared Jesus to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This, of course, alluded to God’s call to Israel to be God’s light to the world. God had called his people Israel through the patriarch Abraham to bring God’s healing love to a sin-sick and evil-infested world, but Israel had proven itself to be every bit as sin-sick and evil-infected as the world to which God had called his people to heal. But now at Jesus’ baptism, we see the confirmation of our Lord’s vocation to be for Israel and the world what Israel could not be for itself—God’s faithful one who would bring God’s healing love to the nations, to folks like you and me. While John doesn’t tell us here, Jesus would take away the sin of the world by bearing its collective weight himself on the cross. In Jesus we see God in person coming to his world to free us from our sin sickness and to defeat the dark powers that had thoroughly corrupted God’s world and God’s image-bearing creatures. We know this because the baptizer used Passover language in describing Jesus as being the Lamb of God. Just as God’s ancient people had been commanded to smear on the posts of their doors some of the blood of the lamb slaughtered so that the Destroyer would pass over their homes and spare their lives as God began to rescue them from their bondage to slavery in Egypt, so we who put our whole hope and trust in Jesus’ blood shed for us will be rescued from a far darker bondage to sin and be spared from the ultimate evil of death, thanks be to God!

At this point, we tell ourselves it’s all good. God is doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves—freeing us from our slavery to sin and death. Time to kick back, pour ourselves a drink, and relax, basking in the glory of God and the knowledge that we are God’s special people. After all, as we have just seen, Jesus is the true Servant celebrated in the Servant Songs, the one who will bring God’s light to the nations and rescue the world from all that ails it. Not so fast, say the NT writers! Don’t get too comfy, dudes. While it is true that Jesus is the light of the world, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and rescues us from our slavery to the dark powers and death, this doesn’t give us license to be passive observers. No, worryingly enough we are also called to be servants in the manner of our Lord Jesus himself.

Why is that you ask? Because as the whole of Scripture attests, God in his strange and astonishing wisdom has always called human beings to run his world in wise and just ways on God’s behalf. That’s why God created us in his image in the first place. But almost right from the start, we didn’t get that memo and decided to run the world on our own authority, not God’s, and we all know how well that’s turned out. So God in his wisdom and mercy ultimately became human to defeat the dark powers who used our sin and rebellion to usurp God’s rule over his world and to free us from their grasp. We’ve just talked about all that. But as Paul tells us in our epistle lesson, until Jesus returns to complete the redemptive work he started at his first coming, we as his rescued people are called to carry on his healing and saving work on his behalf.

But, but, we want to protest and whine. We are not equipped to do that work. We’re not perfect like Jesus. We’re a bunch of sad-sack ragamuffins and losers, some more than other. We can’t possibly be Jesus’ light to the world on his behalf. Sure you can, comes our Lord’s reply. Of course you are ragamuffins and losers and can’t possibly do what I ask on your own power. But here’s the thing. You are not operating on your own power! I have poured out my Spirit on you to heal and transform you so that you can bring my mercy, love, and justice to each other and the world.

Paul tells us the same thing. We are God’s Church, he reminds us, the very body of Christ. We are called to do the healing work of Christ together as the Church and only secondarily as individuals. In other words, God has called those of us who believe in the saving and healing work of Christ to shed his light on others like us who desperately need that light. Before we can do that, we must first and foremost remember Whose we are because we are not our own. Paul tells us we are God’s saints, God’s called-out people, who are to be Christ’s light-bearers. This too makes us really nervous because when we think of saints, we think of goody-two shoes who never do anything wrong and who have very little fun in the process. But this is a lie and a delusion. We must remember that Paul wrote these words to a church that was plagued by internal divisions, sexual immorality, discrimination, divorce, and other sins. In other words, the church at Corinth consisted of a bunch of ragamuffins and losers just like us! Never mind that, Paul exhorts! Put all that behind you! God has called you to be his people in Jesus. Despite your faults and foibles, you are God’s called-out, Spirit-filled people, and you are given the power, however imperfectly you display it, to love each other, to forgive each other, and to bring God’s love to the world on behalf of your Lord who loves you and gave himself for you.

How do we do this? Like the baptizer and his disciples, we first and foremost proclaim to the world that Jesus is Lord and therefore we have chosen to follow him and his ways, not the world and its evil ways. We call on his name to help us look out for each other as much as we look out for ourselves. We laugh with each other, cry with each other, support each other, and build up each other, even (or perhaps especially) when we don’t necessarily like each other! We choose to forgive each other when we are wronged and we ask others to forgive us when we wrong them. We don’t make us and our desires God, worshiping ourselves and doing whatever it takes to fulfill our needs. We look to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God, taking care of those who are the least and the lost, the poorest and the weakest. We don’t do this perfectly and like the prophet in our OT lesson, we sometimes wonder if the good we do in Jesus’ name makes any difference. Of course it does, our Lord reassures us. Is using you as my light to the world too difficult for me? I created this vast cosmos! I conquered death! So have a little humility, consider my mighty acts, and have faith in my ability to be good to my word and use your work to help bring about my kingdom, even if it remains obscure to you..

None of this happens automatically, of course. We have to do our part. We have to put in our sweat equity so that we can be reminded of God’s truth and saving action in the world. This means we have to learn the story of Scripture and where and how we fit into it all. It means we come to worship God each week and be changed and refreshed. It means we partake in the eucharist each week to literally consume Jesus to be changed and strengthened by him to do his work.. It means we take an active role in our fellowship with one another so that we can support each other and build each other up. It means we are people who pray regularly that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven and are willing to let God use us to help carry out his will. Sacred privileges, those. And participating actively in those privileges are the ordinary means of grace God uses to equip us to do the work he calls us to do as his people.

As we begin 2017, let us rededicate ourselves to be Jesus’ people, new creations in Christ’s love for us (2 Corinthians 5.17), who gladly and joyfully proclaim our Lord Jesus’ name to the world as we are transformed little by little into his perfect image and equipped to work alongside him as his servants. The work won’t always be easy. But what a sacred privilege! The world will hate us. But we are called to take heart because Jesus has overcome the world in his death, resurrection, and ascension. This the Good News we are to live and proclaim in 2017 and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

A Prayer for the Church from William Barclay

O God, you are the fountain of all truth; we ask you to protect your church from all false teaching.

Protect the Church

From all teaching and preaching which would destroy men’s faith;
From all that removes the old foundations without putting anything in their place;
From all that confuses the simple, that perplexes the seeker, that bewilders the way-faring man.

And yet at the same time protect the Church from the failure to face new truth;

From devotion to words and ideas which the passing of the years has rendered unintelligible;
From all intellectual cowardice and from all mental lethargy and sloth.

O God, send to your Church teachers,

Whose minds are wise with wisdom;
Whose hearts are warm with love;
Whose lips are eloquent with truth.

Send to your Church teachers

Whose desire is to build and not to destroy;
Who are adventurous with the wise, and yet gentle with the simple;
Who strenuously exercise the intellect, and who yet remember that the heart has reasons of its own.

Give to your Church preachers and teachers who can make known the Lord Christ to others because they know him themselves;
and give to your Church hearers, who, being freed from prejudice, will follow truth as blind men long for light.

This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

—From Prayers for the Christian Year

Deacon Terry Gatwood: Eureka! I Have Found It!

Sermon preached on the feast of the Epiphany (transferred), Sunday, January 8, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72.1-15; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12.

“Eureka!” The lightbulb has gone off over the head. Aha! Of course! How could I have been so blind? Duh! Eureka! I have found it!

Sometimes we don’t even know what we have gone looking for before we find the exact thing we truly needed all along. Like the man who goes fishing for the sweet meat of a few bluegills just to feed himself one meal, and then he hooks into the monster fish large enough to feed everyone in his home, sometimes we get more than we might have set off looking for.

These are some of the thoughts I have when I read Matthew chapter 2, verses 8-10. Several wise and learned men from the east have journeyed a long way because of a prophecy. There is something happening at the end of the journey in the direction of the star that illumines the dark night skies. What is this something? What will we find when we finally reach our journey’s end?  Whatever this is at the end of our road, it is something that we must find. It is surely a treasure of great value. Their full attention has been seized by this beautiful light that has appeared before the eyes of all.

In Jerusalem these wise and scholarly men encounter Herod the Great, a real scoundrel of a man. He is a non-Jewish King in this region, and he has a laundry list of horrible things he has done in the past. Recently, he ordered the deaths of all the male children being born in the area so as to maintain his throne as illegitimate king over this place. Upon meeting Herod, the wise men tell him what they are looking for according to prophecy. They are looking for the one about whom it has been foretold that he would be a ruler and shepherd of Gods people in the Davidic spiritual and familial line. Herod has already gone on about the infanticide he used to protect his throne, and he’s also killed of scores of his own family to prevent them from ascending to the throne. There’s no doubt that when he asked to know where this child is to so that he may go and worship him, he’s really planning on snuffing out whatever he finds in that place so that he can continue on in power, unbothered by others’ claims, ruling as the tyrant he is.

So the Magi press on down the road, still following after that bright and beautiful star, their time spent in the darkness being shined upon by whatever this star means, by whatever the greater thing beneath it is. These men are tired, they are worn, they have been walking and riding for miles upon miles, and much of it at night when it isn’t particularly safe to go around. Getting to this place of the star is surely taking its toll on their bodies. Their feet are sore, covered with blisters. They don’t often have opportunity to stop and bathe when they find themselves in the midst of the dark and lonely parts of the journey where no one else is around, except maybe for those who would rob and maybe kill them for the things they have.

Yet, they are driven on further by the curiosity that has been building up within them throughout the whole trek. We must find this king and bow before him, and present him with our gifts. This is our mission, a mission we have been lead to follow after and accomplish, and we shall not relent.

Upon reaching their destination they saw that the star had stopped. This was the moment of discovery for these wearied travellers from the east. Their eyes would now behold him for whom they had come to see. And their hearts were overjoyed. The men rejoiced that they have now finally reached the end of the long and treacherous road journey that they have paid for in their bodies. And there he was, right inside the quaint little home, sitting with his mother, Mary. With Mary holding her son Jesus, and with Jesus clinging to his momma, the Magi bow down in humble submission and out of due reverence for the one of whom the prophecy foretold: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Before their very eyes, within the same room, the promised one enrobed in human flesh, sits gently upon his mothers lap. He is so young, and so precious to his mother. The flesh of her own flesh, her little baby boy. His name is “he will deliver,” “he will save,” “he will rescue,” Yeshua, Joshua, Jesus. He will save his people from their sins.

Could this be? How could I have been so blind! Aha! Boy oh Boy! Eureka! I have found it!

Looking for a child who would be a shepherd and ruler for his people, they also found revealed before them God in the flesh, the one who will save, not through military might, but through himself and his sacrifice for the sins of all the people; for his blood family, the Jews, and for the others outside of Israel, the Gentiles, of which these men are. “I have found it, and didn’t know I was looking for all this!”

In their due reverence they brought to him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold, a symbol of light and royalty, fit for a king of his proper standing in Israel. Frankincense, a recognition that Jesus is a priest, and in this case we can say God himself, enfleshed for us and like us, used to offer up prayers to God as a sweet fragrance reminding the user of how sweet the prayers of the people are in the nostrils of God. And myrrh, the one which is most interesting.

This holy oil, the myrrh, is scented oil that is commonly used in the preparation of the dead prior to burial. It would help to hide the scent of death before the one on whom it is used could be buried.

See Mary, receiving this gift of myrrh for her little boy, Jesus. She accepts the gift, but with a deep question in her heart. Is my son going to die before me? What is going to happen? Why would they give such a gift? What deep pain and questioning must have gone through the Blessed Mary’s mind, questions that would be answered for her in 33 years when the purpose of Jesus, the God-Man wrapped in human flesh, were revealed in their final spectacularity.

He is the one who was prophesied, and about whom the Psalmist wrote, when he said:

 72:1 Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.

72:2 May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.

72:3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.

72:4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

72:5 May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.

72:6 May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.

72:7 In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

72:10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.

72:11 May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.

72:12 For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.

72:13 He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.

72:14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.

Jesus is all that God has promised to us his creation, who has come to set us free. Have we found it? Have we discovered who Jesus really is? Not just some baby with a claim to an earthly throne, but the God in flesh who shall be a prophet, priest, and King. The one, and the only one, who when being discovered causes men and women from the depths of their hearts and souls to proclaim aloud, and with great joy, “Eureka! I have found it!”

We have gathered here today in this assembly not by accident, but because we were drawn by light. Something about this light just can’t be shaken off and ignored. It is too hard not to notice, and it’s almost as if, by some sort of providence—God’s providence, we could say—that we have been brought together on this day, in this place, to hear of a God who has been joined together with his human creation in the flesh. What a great and curious thing that a holy God would take on the weakness of the flesh of a little baby to reveal himself to all humankind.

But this is exactly what he has done. And his heart and flesh will be tested by Satan, by the pressing in of the pressures of life lived amongst sinful humanity, and by those who would seek to kill him. And this God-Man, this one whom we have sought, and whom we realize first loved us enough to come amongst us, will be handed off by his own kin to be killed on a torture device built by those not of his own people. At any time we could think he could call it all off and accomplish the redemption of the world by some other means—except that he wouldn’t, because that’s the price he was willing to pay to continue to bring all of us into his everlasting covenant of peace. This peace bought for us through the marring of his flesh, the spilling of his blood upon the ground, and the excruciatingly painful death he would die. Yes, he brought us peace through his death, and in rising he won for us who are called by his name, Christians, victory over evil, sin, and death. All of this will happen to the one to whom the Holy Spirit has lead us to in this place, on this day. We might have come looking for something else, but we have indeed encountered our Savior and our God.

Close: And the only reason any of us could have ever found him is because he caused himself to be found by taking on fragile human flesh, uniting us to himself, and leading us to true knowledge of him by the Holy Spirit whom he also sent according to his good promise. May we ever remember that what, or more properly who, we have found is worth getting to know better more and more every single day.

To him who revealed himself to us in the flesh, the bright and morning star who breaks through the darkness to light our path and give all people saving knowledge of the one true God, be the glory now and forever. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Eureka! We have found him! Amen.

The Epiphany of our Lord for 2017 (3)

Christ is God, for he has given all things their being out of nothing. Yet he is born as one of us by taking to himself our nature, flesh-endowed with intelligent spirit. A star glitters by day in the East and leads the wise men to the place where the incarnate Word lies, to show that the Word, contained in the Law and the Prophets, surpasses in a mystical way knowledge derived from the senses, and to lead the Gentiles to the full light of knowledge.

For surely the word of the Law and the Prophets when it is understood with faith is like a star which leads those who are called by the power of grace in accordance with his decree to recognize the Word incarnate.

The great mystery of the divine incarnation remains a mystery for ever. How can the Word made flesh be essentially the same person that is wholly with the Father? How can he who is by nature God become by nature entirely human without lacking either nature, neither the divine by which he is God nor the human by which he became one of us? Faith alone grasps these mysteries.

—Maximus the Confessor, Five Hundred Chapters 1, 8-13

The Epiphany of our Lord for 2017 (2)

Matthew 2:1-12

Let us now observe how glorious was the dignity that attended the King after his birth, after the magi in their journey remained obedient to the star. For immediately the magi fell to their knees and adored the one born as Lord. There in his very cradle they venerated him with offerings of gifts, though Jesus was merely a whimpering infant. They perceived one thing with the eyes of their bodies but another with the eyes of the mind. The lowliness of the body he assumed was discerned, but the glory of his divinity was now made manifest. A boy he is, but it is God who is adored. How inexpressible is the mystery of this divine honor! The invisible and eternal nature did not hesitate to take on the weaknesses of the flesh on our behalf. The Son of God, who is God of the universe, is born a human being in the flesh. He permits himself to be placed in a manger, and the heavens are within the manger. He is kept in a cradle, a cradle the world cannot hold. He is heard in the voice of a crying infant. This is the same one for whose voice the whole world would tremble in the hour of his passion. Thus he is the One, the God of glory and the Lord of majesty, whom as a tiny infant the magi would recognize. It is he who while a child was truly God and King eternal. To him Isaiah pointed, saying, “For a boy has been born to you; a son has been given to you, a son whose empire has been forged on his shoulders (Isaiah 9:6).

—Chromatius, Tractate on Matthew 5.1

The Epiphany of our Lord for 2017

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.'”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

—Matthew 2:1-12 (TNIV)

In this way marvel was linked to marvel: the magi were worshiping, the star was going before them. All this is enough to captivate a heart made of stone. If it had been only the wise men or only the prophets or only the angels who had said these things, they might have been disbelieved. But now with all this confluence of varied evidence, even the most skeptical mouths are stopped.

Moreover, the star, when it stood over the child, held still. This itself demonstrates a power greater than any star: first to hide itself, then to appear, then to stand still. From this all who beheld were encouraged to believe. This is why the magi rejoiced. They found what they were seeking. They had proved to be messengers of truth. Their long journey was not without fruit. Their longing for the Anointed One was fulfilled. He who was born was divine. They recognized this in their worship.

—Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 7.4

A Prayer for the Feast of the Epiphany 2017

O God,
who by the leading of a star
manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth:
mercifully grant that we,
who know you now by faith,
may at last behold your glory face to face;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

The Twelve Days of Christmas—Day 12

Today concludes the series of Christmas reflections from the Church Fathers. I hope you have enjoyed them and trust that God will use them to enrich you and bring you closer to him. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Christmas is the day on which the Creator of the universe came into this world. This is the day on which the one who is always present through his power became present in the flesh. He came in the flesh with the intention of curing human blindness so that once we were healed we might be enlightened in the Lord. Then God’s light would no longer be shining in darkness but would appear plainly to people who wanted to see it.

—Augustine, Sermon 195, 2

The Twelve Days of Christmas—Day 11 (3)

In the very act in which we are reverencing the birth of our Savior, we are also celebrating our own new birth. For the birth of Christ is the origin of the Christian people; and the birthday of the head is also the birthday of the body [the Church]. As the whole community of the faithful, once begotten in the baptismal font, was crucified with Christ in the passion, raised up with him in the resurrection, and at the ascension placed at the right hand of the Father, so too it is born with him in this nativity.

For all believers regenerated in Christ, no matter in what part of the whole world they may be, break with that ancient way of life that derives from original sin, and by rebirth are transformed into new persons. Henceforth they are reckoned to be of the stock, not of their earthly father, but of Christ, who became Son of Man precisely so that they could become children of God; for unless in humility he had come down to us, none of us by our own merits could ever go up to him.

—Leo the Great, Sermon 6 for the Nativity

The Twelve Days of Christmas—Day 11 (2)

Beloved, our Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal creator of all things, today became our Savior by being born of a mother. Of his own will he was born for us today, in time, so that he could lead us to his Father’s eternity. God became human like us so that we might become God.

We sinned and became guilty; God is born as one of us to free us from our guilt. We fell, but God descended; we fell miserably, but God descended mercifully; we fell through pride, God descended with his grace.

—Augustine, Sermon 13 on the Time

The Twelve Days of Christmas—Day 10 (3)

Our Savior truly became human, and from this has followed the salvation of humanity as a whole. Our salvation is in no way fictitious, nor does it apply only to the body. The salvation of the whole person, that is, of soul and body, has really been achieved in the Word himself.

Our body has acquired something great through its communion and union with the Word. From being mortal it has been made immortal; though it was a living body it has beome a spiritual one; through it was made from the earth it has passed through the gates of heaven.

—Athanasius, To Epictetus 5-9