Abraham and Peter: Contrasting Stories of Faith

Sermon delivered on Lent 2B, Sunday, March 1, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22.22-30; Romans 4.13-25; Mark 8.31-38.

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

During this young Lenten season we have looked at what we mean by Good News, the story of what God has done for us that has changed our world forever. We have seen that the gospel of Jesus Christ is Good News precisely because in Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has acted decisively to defeat evil, sin, and death and has launched the beginning of his promised new world, a world free from all vestiges of evil—this despite the formidable resistance of the dark powers and principalities and their human agents. But we have also seen that to really believe God has done this requires faith because while evil has been defeated and judged on the cross, it is not yet fully vanquished from God’s good creation. Neither is death vanquished despite the reality of the resurrection. It is this notion of having faith that I want us to explore briefly this morning. Specifically, what does faith have to do with us who try to observe a holy Lent?

In our OT lesson, we read the story of God renewing his covenant with Abram. This is the beginning of the gospel, of course, because it was through Abraham and his descendants, culminating with Jesus, that God promised to restore his good but corrupted world. As Paul tells us in our epistle lesson, God’s promise to Abraham that he and his descendants would inherit the world came through the righteousness of faith. But what did Paul mean by that?

It is easy for us to gloss over the story of God’s covenant with Abram and the latter’s faith if we are not careful. In Genesis 12.1-3 we see God making his covenant with Abram when Abram was 75 years old. God told Abram that he would make him into a great nation through which God would bless the entire world. Abram apparently believed God’s promise because he left his home country and traveled to Canaan as God commanded. But the years passed by and nothing happened. While Abram did indeed prosper as God promised, the promised offspring did not appear. And in Genesis 16.1-16 we learn that 14 long years had passed and the promise remained unfulfilled, so that Abram and Sarai took matters into their own hands. Sarai gave Abram her slave-girl, Hagar, and from that intercourse Ishmael was born. Problem is, Ishmael was not the promised offspring! 

So where’s the faith of Abram that Paul praises? On the one hand, we can really empathize with Abram. God promised him offspring and 14 years had passed. We want to dismiss this fact but the story forbids it. Think about it. Fourteen years had gone by! Think of the times you have waited for a promise to be fulfilled or when you are suffering. Fourteen days or even 14 minutes can seem like an eternity! In the meantime, Abram and Sarai were not getting any younger. He was 86 when Ishmael was born and she was 76, well past her child-bearing years. Who can blame them for what they did? But on the other hand, where is the trust, the faith in God, that Paul said Abraham had? Sounds more like myopic human behavior!

This brings us back to our OT lesson today. Another 11 years had passed and still no child that God promised Abram and Sarai. Abram was now 99 and Sarai was 89. Who in their right mind would ever dream of being able to have children at that age? But here is God again, promising Abram that he would be exceedingly numerous and that through his descendants (but not through Ishmael), Abram would inherit the entire world! And as if to seal the deal, God renamed both Abram and Sarai to better reflect that fact. It is almost as if God were making the conditions so crazy impossible that there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind who was responsible for making the promise come true when it happened.

Curiously the lectionary ends at verse 16 and we miss Abraham’s reaction to all this. Reading the next several verses gives us the answer, however. Abraham fell on his face and laughed (the author leaves us to wonder if Abraham was laughing in disbelief or because he finally realized God was going to deliver on his promises), asking himself if a child could be born to a man who was 100 and a woman who was 90. Again, who can blame Abraham for his response? After all, 25 years had passed since God first promised him offspring. Twenty-five years! That is a quarter of a century! Who could blame Abraham if he were to have told God to take his promise and shove it? Look here, God. I’ve been waiting on your promise for 25 years now. I’m 100 and my wife is 90. Given these metrics, there is no way you can deliver on your promise, dude. Now go away and stop bugging me. Sadly there are those today who react like this to perceived unfulfilled promises of God and/or unanswered prayer.

But Abraham didn’t do that. We know this because he proceeded to circumcise himself and all the males in his household as God commanded him to do. Despite his doubts and fears, despite the unbelievably long period of time that had passed (at least in human terms), Abraham still believed the promise of God. He had seen God’s blessing in his own life and through his life, God’s blessing of others, just as God had originally promised. As Paul tells us, hoping against hope, i.e., hoping against impossible odds, Abraham believed because he ultimately believed that God really is a God who calls things into existence that don’t exist and gives life to the dead. And God didn’t disappoint. God took two bodies that were good as dead, at least in terms of reproductive capacity, and brought forth new life, just as God promised. Whatever Abraham’s faith was or wasn’t in this story, as  Genesis 22.1-19 reminds us, Abraham’s faith in God had fully matured when God asked him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, the promised one.

Here is an example of faith on the ground we need to pay attention to because it smacks of the challenges we all face when it comes to putting our faith in God in the midst of a world that is good but still not devoid of evil. We dare not read stories like this with 20-20 hindsight and say to ourselves and others, “Oh well. That was Abraham and things were different for him. He was special.” Abraham may have been special in that he was called to be part of God’s Good News, but so are we! And he was no more immune to the uncertainties of life than we are. The saga of Isaac’s birth proves that without a doubt.

No, we are seeing the faith lived out that Paul praised. It is not a faith in this or that promise as much as it is an active and personal trust in God who does indeed call into existence things that do not exist and gives life to the dead, i.e., who does the impossible with no trouble at all (cf. Genesis 18.14). Just as Abraham looked at God’s promises and realized that God would give life where there was none, we Christians must look at Jesus’ death and resurrection and believe we are seeing God’s promise to rescue his broken and hurting world and us fulfilled, but in a way we didn’t expect or thought possible. After all, who ever heard of a rescue plan that involves God suffering and dying? Do you have this kind of faith, a faith that is rooted in the unshakable belief that God is indeed true to his word and who has done the impossible for us, even if you don’t fully understand it? I’m not talking about a blind faith. I’m talking about a faith that is based on the evidence of God’s active involvement in the life of his world and people.

Turning now to Peter, we see a stark contrast to Abraham. To be sure, one day Peter would have the faith of Abraham, but he certainly didn’t have it in today’s gospel lesson. Peter had gone from hero to goat in under 60 seconds. He had just confessed Jesus to be the promised Messiah, God’s anointed whom many in Israel hoped would usher in God’s kingdom and end their exile forever. And as Jesus reminded Peter, he hadn’t come by this realization on his own accord. It was revealed to him by the Father (Matthew 16.17). So far so good.

But now that the cat was out of the bag, Jesus began to teach his disciples something new and dark that they consistently struggled with and failed to understand. Jesus told them he was indeed the Messiah, but not the kind of Messiah they had in mind. He wasn’t coming as a mighty warrior to liberate God’s captive people and usher in the kingdom of God. Jesus was coming to rescue them (and through them the world) by suffering and dying for them. Human sin had alienated us from God and made a mess of his good world. So sin and the evil behind it had to be dealt with decisively, once and for all. And the only way to do this was to let the powers do their worst to Jesus, which they did by nailing him to a cross. But in doing so, the powers discovered they were the ones who were judged and condemned, along with our own sin, so that God could rescue us and his good world. This wasn’t exactly in anybody’s playbook and Peter reacted in a predictably strong way. He rebuked Jesus for his wrong-headed thinking, presumably out of love for Jesus and presumably because Peter felt the need to try to save Jesus from himself. Whoever heard of winning by losing? Everybody knows that is just crazy stupid! And besides, Jesus, if you really are the Messiah, I sure hope there will be a place of honor for me when you bring in the kingdom (wink, wink).

We get this at a visceral level because Peter’s reaction makes sense to us. The notion that God’s kingdom comes through the Messiah’s suffering and death (as well as our own) still isn’t in our playbook. Like Peter, we’d much rather rely on our human perspective rather than trying to see it (as best we can) from God’s perspective. But when we do, like Peter, we had better be prepared to hear the same response from Jesus that he heard: Get away from me, Satan! It wasn’t as if Peter had become satanically possessed or anything like that. Rather, the voice Jesus heard in Peter’s was the voice of Satan, who had tempted Jesus in the wilderness to shy away from the cross and choose a path to rescue Israel and the world that would surely fail because it did not come from God. You see, Peter did not have the faith of Abraham. He didn’t believe that God really is the God who calls into existence things that don’t exist and gives life to the dead. Peter was looking at things from a broken and limited human perspective and couldn’t (at that point) bring himself to trust the path God had chosen to rescue his world.

So what does this have to do with Lent with its emphasis on confession, repentance, and self-denial? Jesus tells us. He tells us he must suffer and die a horrible death so that God’s promise to rescue his world and us from evil, sin, and death will be accomplished. But there’s more. Jesus tells us that we too are part of the plan, that we too must follow him in his kingdom work of suffering and dying. He warns us that if we are not willing to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him, we cannot hope to inherit eternal life. Apparently our own self-denial, our own suffering for Jesus’ sake, our own proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection to a world fundamentally opposed to Jesus is also part of how Jesus’ victory on the cross gets implemented, strange and frightening as that might seem to us. This means that we have to take a cold, hard look at ourselves and work on putting to death all that is hostile toward God and his good purposes. And please, as we engage in this difficult work of dying and self-denial, do not mistake this as an invitation to self-loathing. We are made in God’s image and not everything in us needs to die. Hearing Jesus’ call to deny ourselves and take up our cross as a command to hate ourselves makes a mockery out of God’s words to us that we heard last week at Jesus’ baptism: You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased. We must always remember that we are indeed God’s beloved in Christ. Otherwise there would have been no cross. But there still is stuff in us that rightly needs to die.

This means, for example, that we have to leave behind our petty and pedantic ways. It means we have to stop acting like God owes us something (or anything for that matter) so that we throw a hissy-fit when things don’t go the way we want or expect. It means we have to stop thinking we are smarter than God. It means we have to stop being indifferent to the plight of the poor and needy or to any kind of injustice we encounter in our lives. It means we have to be willing to forgive others when there is absolutely no reason to do so. It means we have to love people enough to stop supporting lifestyles that will surely lead to their destruction, starting by looking at our own lifestyles. It means we must love people enough to boldly and fearlessly proclaim Jesus Christ crucified and risen to a skeptical and hostile world because we know that it is only in and through Jesus that folks can have any real hope at all, now and for the future.

And you know what? If we don’t really believe that in the death and resurrection of Jesus God has defeated evil, reconciled us to himself, and delivered us from death, there is no way we will engage in this extremely difficult work of dying to self and carrying our cross with the Spirit’s help. If we don’t really believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, we are still living in our sins and fears and don’t have any kind of real future hope because we have put our trust in a farce and a lie (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.12-19). This is what the enemies of the cross scream at us every day. This is what our common sense screams at us regularly! It’s all a lie! You can’t win by losing! The path to glory is not through suffering and death but by other means that we devise and which make sense to us. These voices scream at us because they don’t know (or are hostile to) the God who calls into existence things that do not exist and gives life to the dead.

But we do know this Lord, thanks be to God! And so we take time, especially during Lent, to imitate him and follow his path of suffering, self-denial, and death because we realize they are the path to our glory and the means by which our future is secured. This is not some kind of program of self-help or works-righteousness. It is about a firm hope and trust in the God who does crazy impossible things, at least from our perspective. It is about a firm hope in God to deliver on his promises, even when we do not fully understand all the hows and whys behind those promises. We can do this hard work because we know Jesus. We can do this work because we believe the gospel with its promise that Jesus is present with us right now in the power of the Spirit to help us become the people he calls us to be. Again, this is extremely hard work. But it is the most worthwhile and important work we will ever engage in because we know we are responding to God’s good love for us made known most powerfully in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, we do the work because we have the faith of Abraham, warts and all, not the faith of Peter when he confessed Jesus to be the Christ, and we believe that God will honor that faith, just like he did Abraham’s. It is a faith that is firmly rooted in the unshakable hope and trust that we really do have Good News, now 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 Feast Day of the Extraordinary Anglican Priest, George Herbert

Our God and King, who called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls, a poet, and a priest in your temple: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to perform the tasks you give us to do, knowing that nothing is menial or common that is done for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

George Herbert: Love

I am not a big poetry fan, but this poem speaks to me. George Herbert was an Anglican priest in 17th century England and he is one of my heroes. He is one after whom I try to pattern my own ministry. May his work speak to your heart and mind too.

From here:

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’

‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.

—George Herbert, Love

An Account of How Catechumens Were Prepared for Baptism in the Fourth Century

Fascinating. The season of Lent has always been a time when the Church prepared new converts to become full members by instructing them in matters of the faith and preparing them for baptism. Here is a description from how this was done in the 4th century in Jerusalem. Clearly it is no light thing to prepare for baptism and be instructed in matters of the Christian faith.

I must also describe how those who are baptized at Easter are instructed. Those who give their names do so the day before Lent, and the priest notes down all their names; and this is before those eight weeks during which, as I have said, Lent is observed here. When the priest has noted down everyone’s name, then on the following day, the first day of Lent, on which the eight weeks begin, a throne is set up for the bishop in the center of the major church, the Martyrium. The priests sit on stools on both sides, and all the clergy stand around. One by one the candidates are led forward, in such a Way that the men come with their godfathers and the women with their godmothers.

Then the bishop questions individually the neighbors of the one who has come up, inquiring; “Does this person lead a good life? Obey parents? Is this person a drunkard or a liar?” And the bishop seeks out in the candidate other vices which are more serious. If the person proves to be guiltless in all these matters concerning which the bishop has questioned the witnesses who are present, the bishop notes down the candidate’s name. If, however, the candidate is accused of anything, the bishop orders the person to go out and says: “Let such a one amend their life, and when this is done, then approach the baptismal font.” He makes the same inquiry of both men and women.  If, however, some are strangers, such people cannot easily receive baptism, unless they have witnesses who know them.

Ladies, my sisters, I must describe this, lest you think that it is done without explanation. It is the custom here, throughout the forty days on which there is fasting, for those who are preparing for baptism to be exorcised by the clergy early in the morning, as soon as the dismissal from the morning service has been given at the Anastasis. Immediately a throne is placed for the bishop in the major church, the Martyrium. All those who are to be baptized, both men and women, sit closely around the bishop, while the godmothers and godfathers stand there; and indeed all of the people who wish to listen may enter and sit down, provided they are of the faithful. A catechumen, however, may not enter at the time when the bishop is teaching them the law. The bishop does so in this way: beginning with Genesis and going through the whole of Scripture during these forty days, expounding first its literal meaning and then explaining the spiritual meaning.  In the course of these days everything is taught not only about the Resurrection but concerning the body of faith. This is called catechetics.

When five weeks or instruction have been completed, they then receive the Creed The bishop explains the meaning of each of the phrases of the Creed in the same way as Holy Scripture was explained, expounding first the literal and then the spiritual sense. ln this fashion the Creed is taught.

And thus it is that in these places all the faithful are able to follow the Scriptures when they are read in the churches, because all are taught through these forty days, that is, from the first to the third hours, for during the three hours instruction is given. God knows, ladies, my sisters,  that the voices of the faithful who have come to catechetics to hear instruction on those things being said or explained by the bishop are louder than when the bishop sits down in church to preach about each of those matters which are explained in this fashion. The dismissal from catechetics is given at the third hour, and immediately, singing hymns, they lead the bishop to the Anastasis [the cross], and the office of the third hour takes place. And thus they are taught for three hours a day for seven weeks. During the eighth week, the one which is called the Great Week, there remains no more time for them to be taught, because what has been mentioned above must be carried out.

Now when seven weeks have gone by and there remains only Holy Week, which is here called the Great Week, then the bishop comes in the morning to the major church, the Martyrium. To the rear, at the apse behind the altar, a throne is placed for the bishop, and one by one they come forth, the men with their godfathers, the women with their godmothers. And each one recites the Creed back to the bishop. After the Creed has been recited back to the bishop, the bishop delivers a homily to them all, and says: “During these seven weeks you have been instructed in the whole law of the Scriptures, and you have heard about the faith. You have also heard of the resurrection of the flesh. But as for the whole explanation of the Creed, you have heard only that which you are able to know while you are still catechumens. Because you are still catechumens, you are not able to the those things which belong to a higher mystery, that of baptism. But that you may not think that anything would be done without explanation, once you have been baptized in the name of God, you will hear of them during the eight days of Easter in the Anastasis following the dismissal from church. Because you are still catechumens, the most secret of the divine mysteries cannot be told to you.”

—Egeria, Abbess (late 4th century), The Pilgrimage of Egeria, 45-46

An Account of Polycarp’s Martyrdom on His Festival Day

From here.

ISIS doesn’t have anything over these guys. And I love the way Polycarp turned the use of “atheist” back on his enemies. Either the man was a lunatic or there’s a power here that we’d better pay attention to.

UnknownAs a very old man, probably in his 90s, he was burnt to death in front of a frenzied crowd in a sports’ stadium in the city of Smyrna, then in the Roman proconsular province of Asia, now Izmir in western Turkey. He had been Bishop of the Christian church in Smyrna.

The 4th century church historian, Eusebius, reproduced a contemporary Christian account of Polycarp’s martyrdom:

‘As Polycarp was entering the stadium, there came a voice to him from heaven, “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.” The speaker indeed no one saw, but the voice was heard by those of our friends present. Then he was brought forward, and great was the din as they heard that Polycarp was arrested. So he was brought before the Proconsul, who…tried to persuade him to deny his faith, urging, “Have respect to your old age…Swear by the genius of Caesar; change your mind and say, ‘Away with the Atheists!’ ”

‘Then Polycarp looked with a stern countenance on the multitude of lawless heathen gathered in the stadium, and waved his hands at them, and looked up to heaven with a groan and said, “Away with the Atheists.” The Proconsul continued insisting and saying, “Swear, and I release you; curse Christ.” And Polycarp said, “Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?” ’ (New Eusebius, ed. J Stevenson, SPCK, 1957, p21).

Almighty God,
who gave to your servant Polycarp
boldness to confess the name of our Saviour Jesus Christ
before the rulers of this world
and courage to die for his faith:
grant that we also may be ready
to give an answer for the faith that is in us
and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Theophan the Recluse on What It Takes to Bear Fruit

It must be realized that the true sign of spiritual endeavour and the price of success in it is suffering. One who proceeds without suffering will bear no fruit. Pain of the heart and physical suffering bring to light the gift of the Holy Spirit, bestowed in holy baptism upon every believer, buried in passions through our negligence in fulfilling the commandments, and brought once more to life by repentance, through the ineffable mercy of God. Do not, because of the suffering that accompanies them, cease to make painstaking efforts, lest you be condemned for fruitlessness and hear the words, ‘Take the talent from him’ (Matthew 25.28)

Every struggle in the soul’s training, whether physical or mental, that is not accompanied by suffering, that does not require the utmost effort, will bear no fruit. ‘The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence and the violent take it by force’ (Matthew 11.12). Many people have worked and continue to work without pain, but because of its absence they are strangers to purity and out of communion with the Holy Spirit, because they have turned aside from the severity of suffering. Those who work feebly and carelessly may go through the movements of making great efforts, but they harvest no fruit, because they undergo no suffering. According to the prophet, unless our loins are broken, weakened by the labor of fasting, unless we undergo an agony of contrition, unless we suffer like a woman in travail, we shall not succeed in bringing to birth the spirit of salvation in the ground of the heart.

—Theophan the Recluse

Such a bargain here. In seeking to grow in our relationship with God, we are promised that we have to suffer. Makes us want to sign right up, doesn’t it? Yet hard as Theophan’s words sound to us, they point us to the plight of the human condition. Humans can only find life in God, through suffering. We have to deny ourselves and take up our cross if we want to follow Jesus and this, frankly, ain’t easy to do. This is one of the challenges of Lent. This is one of the challenges of following Jesus. And you likely won’t do it (or even be willing to try) unless you are firmly grounded in the Good News of Jesus Christ, which means grounding it in the entire narrative of Scripture.

Piety? What Piety?

We often hear the criticism that the Church is afflicted with piety, but the real trouble is that its piety is not deep enough! An important contribution would be the liberation of the term “piety” from its present damaging connotations, reinstating it as a term of respect. We, indeed, have a little piety; we say a few prayers; we sing meaningfully a few hymns; we read snatches from the Bible. But all of this is far removed from the massive dose that we sorely need if we are to be the men and women who can perform a healing service in our generation.

The seat of our disease, says Helmut Thielicke, “is not in the branches of our nerves at all but rather in our roots which are stunted and starved.” The eloquent German points out that Martin Luther prayed four hours each day, “not despite his busy life but because only so could he accomplish his gigantic labors.” Luther worked so hard that a little desultory praying would not suffice. “To work without praying and without listening,” continues Thielicke, “means only to grow and spread oneself upward, without striking roots and without an equivalent in the earth.”

—Elton Trueblood, The New Man for Our Time

How are your roots doing these days? Might this be an area in which you exert a bit of Lenten discipline?

An Ancient Account of How Lent Was Observed in Fourth Century Jerusalem

When the season of Lent is at hand, it is observed in the following manner. Now whereas with us the forty days preceding Easter are observed, here they observe the eight weeks before Easter. This is the reason why they observe eight weeks: On Sundays and Saturdays they do not fast, except on the one Saturday which is the vigil of Easter; when it is necessary to fast. Except on that day, there is absolutely no fasting here on Saturdays at any time during the year. And so, when eight Sundays and seven Saturdays have been deducted from the eight weeks—for it is necessary, as I have just said, to fast on one Saturday—there remain forty-one days which are spent in fasting, which are called here “eortae,” that is to say, Lent.

This is a summary of the fasting practices here during Lent. There are some who, having eaten on Sunday after the dismissal, that is, at the fifth or the sixth hour [11:00am -noon], do not eat again for the whole week until Saturday, following the dismissal from the Anastasis [the cross]. These are the ones who observe the full week’s fast. Having eaten once in the morning on Saturday, they do not eat again in the evening, but only on the following day, on Sunday, that is, do they eat after the dismissal from the church at the fifth hour or later. Afterwards, they do not eat again until the following Saturday, as I have already said. Such is their fate during the Lenten season that they take no leavened bread (for this cannot be eaten at all), no olive oil, nothing which comes from trees, but only water and a little flour soup. And this is what is done throughout Lent.

—Egeria, Abbess (late 4th century), The Pilgrimage of Egeria, 27-28.

Water, Water Everywhere (Even in the Desert)

Sermon delivered on Lent 1B, Sunday, February 22, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Genesis 9.8-17; Psalm 25.1-9; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15.

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

On Ash Wednesday you recall that I urged us to believe the gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, instead of believing in good advice as sadly many Christians do. News, you recall, is about something that has happened and as a result everything changes, either for good or ill. We saw that in the case of the gospel, the Good News is that God has returned to his good but sin-corrupted world to defeat evil, sin, and death on the cross and usher in the beginning of God’s promised new world with the resurrection of Jesus. As a result, we no longer have to live in fear or worry that God has abandoned us. And so this morning I want to continue to work out this theme of why the Good News of Jesus is so critical for us as Christians as we enter this season of Lent (and beyond). Specifically, I want us to examine this theme through the lens of our lessons this morning to see how they can further instruct us.

The first thing we notice in our readings is the presence of mysterious and unseen dark powers and forces actively at work in God’s world to corrupt it and God’s creatures. We don’t like to talk about this dimension of reality much these days because we are afraid that we will be labeled as some kind of weirdo losers who are ignorant or “prescientific” or superstitious or worse. After all, we really have no way to directly observe or measure these forces other than what our bones tell us and so we’ve been told to discount them. But we shouldn’t because as our readings warn us, they are real and they are often the real power behind the human agents of evil. Peter talks about Jesus making proclamation to the spirits in prison. Who are those spirits and where is this prison? More about that in a moment. Mark talks about the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days where he is tempted by Satan himself, with the wilderness, of course, being a common biblical metaphor to describe all that is desolate and evil and threatening to God’s people (think Exodus). And while the writer of Genesis does not mention the dark powers and principalities explicitly, the context of the story of God making a covenant with Noah and his descendants certainly does. The whole reason God brought a flood to destroy the inhabitants of earth in the first place is because of the increasingly wicked behavior of his image-bearing creatures as outlined in Genesis 4.1-6.8 as well as the mysterious wicked angels we read about in Genesis 6.2ff who took human wives for themselves and mated with them. All this helped corrupt God’s good world and its creatures so badly that God looked at the evil humans had done to his world and was grieved to his heart that he had made his image-bearing creatures in the first place, probably the most terrifying statement in all Scripture.

All this should make us stop during this Lenten season and reflect soberly on evil. When we dismiss the reality of the dark powers in our world and their influence on us, it makes it much easier for those powers to operate in God’s world to corrupt and sicken us, and to use us as their unwitting agents to commit evil. This, combined with the innate human wickedness that led to the flood, should remind us that our own sin and rebellion also help to corrupt and defile God’s good world as well as ourselves. As I have said before, every time we sin it makes us sick.

So far there’s not much Good News to be had here. It’s news all right, but not of the good kind. And we get that. We look at the world around us with its wondrous beauty and see all kinds of evil being perpetrated. We look at our own bodies as we grow older and more infirm and realize that growing old isn’t for the faint of heart. We know in our bones that things should not be this way but we also know that we do not have it in our own power to fix it.

Having been confronted about the reality of evil, the corrupt nature of the human heart, and the effect each has on God’s good world (and us), we are now ready to look at the Good News found in our lessons this morning. We see it first in Genesis. While God regretted that he had created humans, the good news is that he did not destroy our race entirely and in our OT lesson we see God graciously making a covenant with Noah to never again judge the world with a flood. Despite human wickedness and rebellion against him, despite being grieved to his heart over us, God remained faithful to his creation and the human creatures he made to rule over his good world. Notice too that in making the covenant with Noah, God did not require anything from humans. The promise stemmed from the very heart and love of God. Think carefully about this amazing love and faithfulness of God during the 40 days of Lent. It will do your heart good.

The psalmist also recognized the wondrous love of God for his sinful and rebellious creatures. In our lesson this morning from one of my favorite psalms, David almost desperately relies on the love, mercy, and faithfulness of God to forgive his sins and rebellion against God so that David could find healing and hope and freedom to live as a truly human being. The good news is that God acts decisively in David’s life (and ours) to make known his love for and forgiveness of David (and us) so that David’s life (and ours) will be changed forever.

And in Mark we see the Lord himself announcing the Good News that the time to repent had come because the kingdom of God was breaking into the midst of God’s people Israel to free them (and ultimately the entire world) from their captivity to sin and evil. And as all the gospels make clear, Jesus showed what happens when the kingdom of God breaks in on earth as in heaven. People are healed of all kinds of illness and released from all kinds of slavery. Relationships are healed and restored. Forgiveness is offered to one and all who have the good sense to accept it. The dead are raised and justice is restored. This is what happens when the kingdom of God breaks through to confront the evil and sin that corrupt and destroy us. This is why believing must always accompany repentance. If we don’t really believe that in Jesus God has broken the power of evil decisively, freed us from our slavery to sin and death, and ushered in the beginning of his new creation, there is little reason for us to change our lives and pattern them after Jesus with his cross and suffering, which both our Lord and Peter call us to do.

But of course the ultimate victory over evil, sin, and death was accomplished with Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was on the cross that Jesus, the very embodiment of God, allowed all the forces of evil, both spiritual and human, to do their worst to him. And when they did, an astonishing thing happened. It wasn’t Jesus who was defeated. It was the powers who found themselves defeated because they no longer had any real power over us. In Jesus’ death, our sin and the evil behind it was also condemned so that God would not have to condemn us. And in Jesus’ resurrection, the power of death, the ultimate enemy, was broken and will be fully destroyed when our Lord comes again to finish his rescue operation of us and his world (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.20-26). This was the proclamation Jesus made to the spirits in prison that Peter talks about in our epistle lesson. They are the dark powers behind all the evil that corrupts our world. And after his resurrection, Jesus made the definitive announcement to them that by his death they had been judged and their power broken (thus their imprisonment), thanks be to God! He could do this because as Peter reminds us, Jesus is now Lord of all.

To believe this, of course, takes great faith on our part because while the powers are defeated they are not yet vanquished. But that is part of what it means to grow up as Christians. We must first learn to develop eyes to see as best we can the reality of heaven and earth, much the way Jesus saw the heavenly reality open up to him at his baptism, and then have the faith to access this power in and through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Think about it. Jesus’ didn’t run from the wilderness. In fact, the Spirit drove him into it where he was desperately tempted. But Jesus didn’t face his temptations alone. He did so in the power of the Spirit and because he knew he had the help of angels to assist him in his fight against Satan. None of this made Jesus’ struggle with Satan any easier. But it gave him the power he needed to prevail. God grant us the grace and mercy to avail ourselves of this same help as we confront the evil in our world and ourselves with eyes wide open, and focus this Lenten season on putting to death the body of sin that weighs us down and keeps us from enjoying God’s peace and reconciliation that is ours in and through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ shed for us.

This repentance and turning from our ways to God’s can be tricky business and it involves us dying. This is hard to do and we will possibly face scorn and ridicule from others when they see us turning away from our old self and turning toward Christ. But we can take heart because Jesus has overcome the forces that hate us and want to destroy us, and he is now Lord of the cosmos to help us in our struggle against evil. Suffering is indeed hard and nobody likes it. But the whole point of our epistle lesson is that it is better to suffer for doing good than for doing bad. You won’t believe this one second if you don’t believe in the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But if you do, well that’s an entirely different story!

And if we really do believe the Good News that Scripture proclaims but wonder just how God can possibly love us and want to include us in his kingdom to the point where we begin to lose heart, let us pay attention to Mark’s and Peter’s focus on baptism. By the waters of baptism we are brought into God’s family and made Jesus’ people. So listen closely to the voice Jesus heard at his baptism because what God said to Jesus he says to us, precisely because we are Jesus’ people: You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased. Let that really sink in. Believe it. Rejoice in it because strictly on our own merit none of us would ever hear God say he is well pleased with us. But we are not our own. We are the Lord’s. And because we are, this is our present status and future hope. This is why we must embrace the Good News—because it is a life-changer when we finally believe it. Our faith and trust in Christ opens us to the power and presence of the Spirit so that we truly can live as people of power, even when we are weak.

Whatever it is you need to turn away from or confront this Lent, whatever it is you are working on, remember God’s words to you as you do. You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased. Let God’s love for you made manifest in Jesus and the Spirit strengthen you and encourage you as you do the hard work of dying to yourself. Yes, the work is hard. But the reward is so much more fantastic. God’s kingdom has come, ushered in by God himself in Jesus Christ. Evil and sin are defeated, even if they are not yet fully banished. Jesus is with us now in the Spirit to help and guide us, and life, wholeness, healing, health, and happiness are our future, all because of God’s great love for us made known in Jesus our Lord. That, folks, is Good News, now 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.

Brother of Slain Coptic Christians Thanks ISIS for Including Their Words of Faith in Murder Video

Yes indeed.

maher-fayezThe brother of two of the 21 Coptic Christians murdered in Libya last week has thanked their killers for including the men’s declaration of faith in the video they made of their beheadings.

Speaking on a live prayer and worship programme on Christian channel SAT-7 ARABIC yesterday, Beshir Kamel said that he was proud of his brothers Bishoy Estafanos Kamel (25) and Samuel Estafanos Kamel (23) because they were “a badge of honour to Christianity”.

Harrowing scenes of the murders have been seen around the world. The last words of some of those killed were “Lord Jesus Christ”.

Beshir Kamel thanked ISIS for not editing out the men’s declaration of belief in Christ because he said this had strengthened his own faith. He added that the families of the ex-patriate workers are “congratulating one another” and not in despair: “We are proud to have this number of people from our village who have become martyrs,” he told the programme.

Read it all.

An Appropriate Lenten Response to God’s Love and Grace

Sermon delivered on Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the sermon podcast, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Joel 2.1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51.1-17; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21.

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

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a 40 day season we call Lent. It is a time for self-examination, confession, repentance, and self-denial. But why do we do these things? What’s the point? Is it to make us feel as badly about ourselves as we possibly can because that’s the way God feels about us? Sadly, I’m afraid, some Christians really believe this. To be sure, our sin and rebellion against God should make us remorseful, but to focus on that alone misses the broader context for Lent with its somber reflection on our sin and brokenness. God wants us to repent, but for the right reasons, and that is what I want us to look at briefly tonight.

To see Lent and its disciplines in their proper perspective we must step back and look at the whole narrative of Scripture. When we do, the first thing we realize is that it is the story of how God is fixing all that is wrong with his good and beautiful creation. Genesis 1-2 tell how God created this world out of nothing and that it was good. And of course, the climax of God’s creative activity was making his image-bearing creatures to run his good world. But as Genesis 3.1-19 makes clear, we humans didn’t get that memo and so we rebelled against God. The sin of Adam and Eve (and everybody ever since) is that we want to elevate ourselves to be God’s equal or worse yet, to replace God altogether. This resulted in God’s curse on us and his creation, and our sin opened the door for evil to operate freely in God’s good world to corrupt it. We all know what this looks like. In the midst of the incredible beauty of God’s world we see thorns sprouting up. Whatever those literal or metaphorical thorns are—whether it is the beheading of innocents or any other form of human cruelty, natural disasters, birth defects, wicked diseases, destructive relationships, or death itself, the ultimate evil—we are living with the consequences of our sin and the evil it has unleashed as well as God’s curse upon it. In our bones we know that life is not as it should be and something needs to be done to fix it.

At first blush this can make us think that God is some kind of ogre who doesn’t care at all about our happiness or welfare and who is out to punish us for every wrong turn we take. We read passages like our OT lesson with its fearsome announcement that God is indeed coming to judge his people on the great and terrible Day of the Lord and say to ourselves and others, “See? I told you. God is against us and wants to rain on our parade every chance he gets!” So we tend to enter the season of Lent reluctantly or with a chip on our shoulder. We tend to look at ourselves as pretty good people and wonder what all the fuss is about regarding sin and repentance, all the while ignoring everything that is wrong in our relationships and lives and discounting or denying our role in any of it. If you want to know what human pride and arrogance look like, look no further than the dynamic of this mindset for your answer.

But of course this gets the character of God and the destructiveness of human sin terribly wrong because sin of any kind makes us spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically sick and ultimately dehumanizes us by slowly but surely destroying God’s image in us. This, of course, displeases God, but not because God is some kind of angry and bloodthirsty God. The sin that dehumanizes us displeases God because he didn’t create us to be sick. He created us to be his healthy, image-bearing creatures who reflect his goodness and glory out into his world so that the world will also be a healthy and good place, just the way God intended it to be. Anybody who has raised children will understand this. At our best (and granted we aren’t always at our best), when our children rebel against us we get angry with them, not because we are angry parents who don’t want our children to ever have any fun, but because we want them to be healthy and happy and have the kind of fun that will contribute to that health and happiness.

And this is what the story of the Bible is about. In answer to our cry that something needs to be done to fix the world, Scripture tells us what God has done, is doing, and will do to fix his sin-corrupted world and its creatures, not to punish us for misbehaving (although that will inevitably happen if we refuse to come off our mark) but to restore us to the health and life he created us to have and enjoy in the first place, a health and happiness that is contingent on us having and enjoying a proper relationship with God, where we realize that God is God and we are not, and where we have the God-given wisdom and humility to be satisfied with that relational dynamic because we realize that only then can we be truly healed and fully human.

Consistent with the role God created us to play in his world, Scripture tells us that God is fixing his good and broken world by using his image-bearing creatures. God called a people for himself, Abraham and his descendants, to bring his healing love to the world. When Israel failed to live up to her call, God became human to do and be for Israel what Israel had failed to do and be. And if we ever hope to observe a holy and productive Lent (and beyond) that is not akin to sitting in a dentist’s chair enduring a root canal, we must understand what the Good News of Jesus Christ is all about because as Bishop Tom Wright has helpfully argued, all too often we don’t treat the gospel or Good News as news, but rather as advice to be followed—do this, don’t do that to avoid being zapped by God.

Think for a minute what news of any kind is. News is a report that something has happened or about to happen and as a result everything changes. Parents receive the news that they are going to have a baby and their lives will forever be changed once the baby is born. The news that we have cancer will change not only our present reality but also change how we look at the future. Again, news focuses on something that has happened and as a result, our lives will change. When we look at the gospel or Good News of Jesus Christ as news rather than advice, it must either change us or expose us as incorrigibly hard-hearted people because the Good News shows us the very heart and love of God for his creation and creatures.

So what is the Good News of the gospel? What has happened that makes us realize the world is a different place and we are living in a different reality? The gospel is the culmination of God’s good but unexpected rescue plan for us and his world, the way in which God has fixed all that is wrong with us and his world. It is the story of how the God of this vast universe became one of his human creatures in Jesus of Nazareth to announce to his people, and through them the rest of the world, that he had not abandoned them and was not indifferent to their suffering and plight. But he wasn’t going to fix all the world’s evil and wrong in a way that many expected and wanted. He wasn’t going to wave his hand and rid the world of its evil because if God did that, he would have to sweep us away too since all of us are sin-infected. But since God is faithful to his creation and wants to save it, this is not acceptable to him.

No, God’s plan to fix this world and defeat the power of evil consisted of becoming human and going to the cross to bear the the full brunt of evil and to condemn sin so that God would not have to condemn us. When Jesus died on the cross, sin was judged and condemned. Punishment was meted out and we who believe this news are now reconciled to God and find peace with him. This is at the heart of what Paul is talking about in our epistle lesson tonight and elsewhere (Romans 8.1-3; Colossians 1.19-21, 2.15). For Christians, the cross is the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord. Why wait to respond to this Good News? Lent is no better time to start!

Of course, without the resurrection, we would have no basis for believing that Jesus’ death was Good News. Without the resurrection, his death would have simply been the death of another failed Messiah wannabe. But when God raised Jesus from the dead, God confirmed that indeed sin and evil had been condemned and defeated and that his promised new world had begun, a world in which one day we will get to live directly in God’s presence and all vestiges of evil and sin are banished forever. And we get to live in this world and enjoy the hope of its promise solely because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, unexpected as that may be.

This is the Good News, then. Something has happened (Jesus’ death and resurrection) that has forever changed the world in which we live. It has changed our world because we know that God has acted decisively on our behalf to rid the world of evil without destroying it and us in the process. And despite the fact that evil is not yet totally defeated, we have hope that one day God’s new world will come as promised and in the meantime we can enjoy life in the way God always intended for us. If you really believe that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened, his death will make sense to you and you will have the necessary hope to help you prevail through the present darkness with all of its fears and uncertainty. This is why it is so important to regain our understanding of the Good News—our faith will be strengthened and sustained.

And this is where our Lenten disciplines come back into play. If we understand the Good News, we will understand that God has acted decisively for us because he loves us and wants the best for us. We will understand that God has visited us once in Jesus of Nazareth and will come again to complete the work that he started in his life, death, and resurrection. This allows us to hear the call to repent, not as some backward-looking thing we must do (and then only reluctantly) to address past sin, but rather as a forward-looking thing to engage in as we anticipate King Jesus’ return to usher in God’s new creation. Think about it. Suppose you got a call telling you that the POTUS was coming to visit. You wouldn’t sit still. You’d get ready for him to come to your house! This is what the call to repent is essentially all about. King Jesus, God himself, has visited and has promised to come again. Get ready. Develop the character and mindset that will allow you to enjoy his presence as fully as you can and to work on his behalf to get others ready for his coming. That’s what Jesus was talking about in our gospel lesson tonight. Doing in secret the things we ought to be doing will not only bring us godly contentment and joy, it will help us to learn to love God for the sake of loving God, not for some lesser reward.

What do you need to do to get ready in anticipation of God’s return? What embarrasses you? What are you ashamed of? What haunts you because you are unable to find forgiveness? What areas of your life are crying out to be tidied up that you have steadfastly ignored? These are the things you should focus on this Lent rather than giving up something meaningless just for the sake of “denying yourself” or because you think you have to give up something for Lent. Confess those things to God and trust that he will forgive you because you trust that the cross stands as the ultimate testimony to God’s love and mercy for you. Whatever it is you work on this Lent, do it as a grateful response for what God has done for you to change your life and world and in anticipation of the wonderful new world that awaits us when God’s new world comes in full because you really do believe that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, you have Good News, now 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.