April 3, 2011

Monday after the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Day Twenty-three


Lectionary

Morning - Psalm 90, Genesis 44, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31
Evening - Psalm91, Jeremiah 13:15, Mark 12:18-27

Mark 12:18-27

Then come unto him the Sadducees, which say there is no resurrection; and they asked him, saying, Master, Moses wrote unto us, If a man’s brother die, and leave his wife behind him, and leave no children, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother. Now there were seven brethren: and the first took a wife, and dying left no seed. And the second took her, and died, neither left he any seed: and the third likewise. And the seven had her, and left no seed: last of all the woman died also. 23 In the resurrection therefore, when they shall rise, whose wife shall she be of them? for the seven had her to wife. And Jesus answering said unto them, Do ye not therefore err, because ye know not the scriptures, neither the power of God? For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven. And as touching the dead, that they rise: have ye not read in the book of Moses, how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err.

Commentary

The enemies of Christ would take Him by force, but the people would defend Him.  So they resort to trickery.  Their questions are well thought out traps intended to trick Him into saying something that would turn the crowds against Him.  Surely this complicated riddle about the resurrection would trip Him, but it did not.  His refutation of them is decisive.  They were in error because they knew neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.  The resurrection life is of an entirely different kind from that of this physical world.  In it we will be like the angels, free of the passions of earth, and devoted entirely to the glory and enjoyment of God.  Our fellowship with one another also will be free of earthly passions, enabling us to love as Christ loves.

Devotional

One of the best ways to pray the Bible is to use the Book of Common Prayer.  The Prayer Book is simply the Bible in devotional form.  Much of it comes right from the Bible, word-for-word.  Other parts of it convey the Bible’s ideas and thoughts through indirect quotations and paraphrases.  Consider the following prayer of thanksgiving from the service of “Evening Prayer.”

“Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we, thine unworthy servants, do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and lovingkindness to us and to all men; We bless the for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all, for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.  And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful; and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.”

It has been said that to have a God is to worship Him.  We may legitimately add that to worship God is to pray.   May God help us to be a people of prayer.

Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent


Freedom
Galatians 4:21-31
Fourth Sunday in Lent
April 3, 2011
Holy Trinity Anglican Orthodox Church

Throughout the Roman Empire a fact that was known to all was that children of slaves were slaves, and children of free were free.  It was terrible, it was unjust, it was a negation of the God-given rights of all people, but it was a fact of life seen by every person every day wherever Rome ruled.  Nor was Rome the only empire, nation, or people to engage in slavery.  Every race, culture, and nation has engaged in some form of slavery at some point in its history.  And it has always been true that the children of slaves were slaves.

The Apostle Paul, writing the Epistle to the Galatians, used this fact to illustrate the slavery and freedom of the soul.   He used two well- known women of the Old Testament to symbolize his meaning.  First was Hagar, the mother of Ishmael.  Hagar was the slave of Sarah, and when Hagar bore a son, even though Abraham was his father, that son was still legally a slave.  The other woman was Sarah, the legal wife of Abraham and the mother of Isaac.    Her son was legally free.

Paul used the two women and their sons to symbolize two ways two ways of dealing with the worst problem faced by all humanity; the problem of human sin and the righteousness of God.  Let me state this problem a little more fully.  God is righteous. He is pure goodness.  There is no moral flaw in Him, no moral failure in Him, only 100% pure goodness.  But every human is flawed.  Every human is morally imperfect.  We have done evil, and we have loved it.  We have lived our own way instead of God’s way, and we have loved it.  We have known to do right, yet we have intentionally done wrong, and we have loved it.  In Biblical language, we are all sinners, and sinners deserve to be punished.  As God asked through the prophet Jeremiah in our reading on Thursday evening, “Shall I not visit them for these things? saith the Lord: shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this? (Jer.2:9).  Thus, our problem, aside from all the misery caused by sin in this life, is that one day we will depart from this life, and we will stand before this God of flawless goodness, and God will have the right to avenge Himself on us.  What are we to do?  Is there any way to atone for our sins, and enable us to be received into Heaven as friends of God instead of cast into hell as His enemies?  There are three possible answers to this question.  First, maybe there is no way to atone for our sins, and we will all go to hell.  Second, maybe there is something we can do to atone for our own sins and make ourselves acceptable to God.  Third, maybe God will do something for us to atone for our sins.  There is, of course, a fourth possibility, maybe there isn’t any God, or if there is, maybe there isn’t any hell.  If you want to take that gamble, more power to you.

Paul does not even deal with the first and last possibilities.  He, and the entire Bible, assumes God exists, and that there is a way for our sins to be atoned for.  Paul and the Bible concentrate on the two ways our sins might be forgiven.  Hagar represents the first, and this is the way most people think.  Hagar represents us trying to atone for our sins by our own actions.  According to this view, God never really forgives our sin because forgiveness isn’t necessary.   Instead of seeking forgiveness, we merely settle our “debt” to God by paying it off.    How do we pay it off?  Either by doing enough good works to cancel out our sins, or by doing works of penance, usually ceremonial actions, which God accepts as the payment for our sins.

The Bible says Hagar represents Mt. Sinai.  At Mt. Sinai, God reaffirmed the abiding standard of the moral law.  He did not give the moral law there.  The Ten Commandments are not the first time the moral law has been given to humanity.  The moral law has been known from the start. It was re-affirmed and explained at Sinai.  It was the ceremonial law that was given at Sinai.  The laws about offering sacrifices, and making things ceremonially clean and unclean were given to Israel at Mt. Sinai.   The point of identifying the ceremonial law with Hagar and Ishmael is that the ceremonial law, and its rituals, did not really atone for sins.  Everyone knows, deep down, that killing a lamb on an altar can never atone for adultery, or theft, or murder.  Killing a thousand lambs cannot atone for a single sin, or undo the sorrow and pain it caused.  Washing your hands cannot cleanse your soul, and abstaining from certain foods cannot keep evil thoughts from entering your mind.  The ceremonial law was never meant to be a means by which we cover our sins.  It was always meant to be a way of showing the seriousness of sin, and of our need for God to do something to make us right with Him.  That is why Galatians compares the ceremonial law to Hagar.  Hagar was a slave and would always be a slave.  Neither she nor her children could change that fact.  In a similar way, those who try to make their sins right through ceremonies and good deeds are in slavery to sin and cannot escape.  Their actions will never earn their freedom because they cannot atone for sin.  So, applying this to our own time and situation, it is not our good deeds, or our religious fervor that makes us right with God.  It is not enough to be a good person, to abstain from the “big” sins, to go to Church, take Communion, or put money in the offering plate.  These things will do you no more good than killing a lamb, if you are counting on them to atone for sin and earn a place in Heaven.

Sarah represents Jerusalem.  She is not the earthly city of Jerusalem; She is the Heavenly Jerusalem, which ultimately represents the grace of God in Christ.  Sara’s son, Isaac, was born free.  He did not earn freedom; it was his as his birthright.  And the point of this is that God makes sinners free by causing us to become children of His grace.

Remember that we must either atone for our own sins, or God must atone for them Himself and give us that atonement as a free gift.  But we cannot atone for our own sins.  That is the point Paul has been making in this story about Hagar and Sarah.  But God can and does atone for our sins.  He paid our sin debt by becoming a man and dying for our sins on the cross.  He bore in Himself the entire cost of our sins, and the entire cost of our forgiveness.  Instead of punishing us, He bore it all Himself.  And He gives this atonement to us as a free gift.  And so, those who accept His gift are like the children of Sarah.  We are free, not slaves.  We are free of the necessity of earning an atonement we could never earn.  We are free of trying to pay for our sins with ceremonies and rituals that can never pay our debt.  We are free from the fear of meeting God and being told we are not good enough to enter Heaven.  We are free from serving God as fearful slaves trying to avoid punishment, and we are free to serve God as loving children to whom He has given the very best that He has.

Therefore, let us not return to slavery.  Let us not return to vain attempts to atone for our own sins by ceremonies and actions that cannot make atonement.  Let us not place our faith in anything we do.  Let us put our whole trust and faith in Him, believing that He has forgiven our sin through His sacrifice on the cross.  For, in Christ, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.