July 15, 2012

Sixth Sunday after Trinity Sermon

God of Loving-kindness
Psalm 85, Romans 6:3-11, Matthew 5:20-36
Sixth Sunday after Trinity
July 15, 2012

Our lives are punctuated with important events, and one of the most important is baptism. Through baptism you became a member of Christ's Church, and the promises of the Gospel of Christ were visibly sealed unto you. Through faith, water baptism is a sign and seal of that spiritual baptism which takes place in the soul, and through which you were baptized into Christ Jesus and into His death and resurrection to the "newness of life" we read about a few minutes ago in Romans 6. Our baptism into Christ applies unto us all the good things God wants to give us through Christ; all those things that are so immeasurably good they "pass man's understanding." Our baptism into Christ gives us the perfect righteousness of Christ, without spot or stain. It washes our souls clean and makes us pure so that our righteousness far exceeds that of the scribes and Phariseees. It makes us fit for the fellowship of God. Surely this is beyond our ability to fully understand, but we know that by His righteousness sealed to us, we shall enter into the kingdom of Heaven. In a sense, we are already there.

Obviously, I have been talking about the Scripture passages we read a few moments ago. The Collect for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity draws them together well. Based upon our baptism into Christ, and upon the perfect righteousness given to us by Him, we pray that we may love God above all things, and that we may receive from Him all that He has promised, which exceeds all that we can desire.

Psalm 85 is the song of people continually receiving the good things of God. Reading it we can almost see the ancient Jewish people gathered in the Temple to worship God, to implore His grace and mercy, and to hear again the great Biblical message of His blessings upon them. It begins with a thankful recognition of God's mercy.

"Lord, thou art become gracious unto thy land; thou hast turned away the captivity of Jacob. Thou hast forgiven the offense of thy people, and covered their sins. Thou hast taken away all thy displeasure, and turned from thy wrathful indignation."

We do not know the historical situation of this Psalm, therefore we do not know what "captivity" is meant in the words, "thou hast turned away the captivity of Jacob." We do know the Jews suffered many "captivities." They were captives in Egypt for more than four hundred years. In the Promised Land, they were under various "captivities" from Canaanites tribes for yet another four hundred years, and in the following centuries they found themselves under the Philistines, Syrians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. Seldom independent or self governing, Israel was almost constantly under the dominion of the powerful empires that waxed and waned in the area.

We do know the identity of their greatest enemy, the one that held them in its merciless grip for most of their existence as a nation. That enemy, of course was their own sin. It was in righteous retribution for sin that God allowed their other enemies to torment and conquer them. Thus, their greatest need was never political independence or freedom from human enemies. Their greatest need was always forgiveness of sin and deliverance from their guilt and offenses to God. This is why they rejoiced so much when they prayed the words of the Psalm, "Thou hast forgiven the offense of thy people, and covered all their sins."

We also know how their forgiveness was accomplished. We know how their sins were covered. One day the Lamb of God took away their sins. God laid them upon the Lamb, and the Lamb was slaughtered. He died bearing their sins. The Lamb of God is Christ and His sacrificial death was symbolised in the Temple liturgy and fortold in the Old Testament Scriptures. It is through Christ that we, too, are forgiven and our sins are covered. We have peace with God through the blood of His cross.

The Psalm voices the people's response to their forgiveness. It is important to note that part of their response is a plea that they may always continue in that condition of penitent faith. They continue to plead that God will quicken them, meaning to give life to their souls. They continue to pray for His mercy, and salvation. Some people are confused because the Psalm opens with a declaration of the forgiveness of sins, then asks God to turn again to them and show them His mercy. What happened? Did God turn away from them? Did they lose their salvation? No, they were praying that God will continue in mercy, and they will continue in faithful obedience to Him. This is not unusual. You do it every time you worship with this Church, and every time your pray Morning or Evening Prayer at home. If you are in Christ through Biblical faith, you know that your sins are forgiven. You know you are no longer liable for them. You believe the words of Romans 8:1, "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus." They are removed from you as far as the east is from the west; as far as Heaven is above earth. Yet you still confess sin and still beseech God to have mercy on you. This is because you carry the conciousness of your sins with you. You see that you still leave undone those things which you ought to be doing, and you still do those things which you ought not to be doing. And you have, if you are truly in Christ, a sense of shame about you for your sins. You often feel moved to pray, as the prayer of confession says in our liturgy of Holy Communion, we are "heartily sorry for these our misdoings: The remembrance of them is grevious unto us; The burden of them is intolerable." And, though you know that your sins are forgiven in Christ, the Communion prayer still expresses your heart when you pray with us, "Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christs' sake, Forgive us all that is past; and grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen" What are we asking for in these prayers? We are asking God to continue His blessings and mercies upon us, and we are asking Him to keep us in a condition of continuing faith and obedience uonto Him. And if we can both know the forgivenss of sins, yet still feel the need to pray for continuing faith and mercy, could not the Old Testament saints feel the same?

I think there is something else here. I am sure you have noticed that in those times when you are experiencing a deep sense of fellowship with God, when you are living in holiness and victory over temptation and in the sense of His great love, that you want more of it. That may be part of what the Psalm is expressing. The people have tasted the grace and mercy of God. They have been brought back to Him after a time of sin and sorrow. And they have tasted the love of God and they have tasted the joy of holy living, and they want more of it. That is not all that is happening in Psalm 85, but it may be part of what is happening.

So the people in the Temple sing because they know the grace of God. They know "He shall speak peace to his people." "His salvation is nigh them that fear him." "Mercy and truth are met together: righteousness and peace have kissed each other." "Yea, the Lord shall show loving -kindness; and our land shall give her increase."

And, thus, the Psalm ends where it began, with the grace of God pouring out His blessings upon His people. And, thus, we, the recipients of those blessings, pray,

"O God, who hast prepared for those who love thee such good things as pass man's understanding; Pour into our heart such love toward thee, that we, loving thee above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

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