April 29, 2012

Sermon, Third Sunday after Easter

God before the gods
Psalm 138, 1 Peter 2:11-17, John 16:16-22
Third Sunday after Easter
April 29, 2012

"Grant, O Lord, that by thy holy Word read and preached in this place, and by thy Holy Spirit grafting it inwardly in the heart, the hearers thereof may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and may have power and strength to fulfill the same." In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The message of the third Sunday after Easter is perseverance in Godliness. The Collect, based on First Peter 2, leads us to seek God's help for those who go astray and to pray that all who are admitted into Christ will avoid that which is contrary to our faith, and follow, as the direction and orientation of life, all that is agreeable to it. First Peter 2 makes this point by beseeching us to "abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul." John 16 reminds us that the sorrows of this life are but for a little while, and even they will be turned to joy when we see Jesus. Psalm 138 is about remaining faithful to Christ in a world that is unfaithful and hostile to faith.

Since the end of Eden, this world has never been a friend of the Church. There have been times of renewal. There have been times of righteousness, when people turned to God and began to live for Him and put the teachings of the Bible into practice in personal life, business, and even government. But these eras have been brief, though, thanks be to God, their influence has been persistent. This was as true in David's time as it is today. David ruled the Old Testament Church, Israel, when it was surrounded by nations steeped in paganism, superstition, and open wickedness. And there was a tendency for the Israelites to drift into the ideas and practices of their pagan neighbors. Often, their adoption of pagan ways was so complete they almost completely lost their identity as the people of God. The surrounding nations were not passive in this. They waged an active and aggressive military and ideological war against Israel, and it often appeared that the pagans were winning.

I am sure the parallels between then and now are evident to the thinking Christian, for the world continues to aggressively oppose God and His Church. Sometimes the opposition comes in formal actions and policies of governments and agencies charged by God to defend the rights and freedoms of their people. Often it comes in formal actions and policies of Churches and religious leaders claiming to be doing the will of God, like those who burned dissenters and crucified Christ. But, mostly it comes in a general attitude of hostility toward the ways of God, and an equally general hostility toward those who attempt to follow God in Biblical faith.

David, king of Israel, king of this tiny, weak nation of shepherds, surrounded by stronger nations, dwelling on land wanted by the super powers of the era, and called by God to lead a people who were themselves often unfaithful and rebellious toward God, made a profound statement in this Psalm; "before the gods will I sing praise unto thee." This is the theme of this Psalm. It is a bold statement of steadfast faith when the whole world appears to have gone faithless. It is a statement of the intention to stand fast in the Biblical faith, even while the world chases after idols and false gods, and even while his own countrymen waffle and vacillate between God and the gods.

But there is even more in these words. David is saying he will stand for God in the face of a hostile world. Even before the gods, the very symbols of those who seek to eliminate the Church and her faith, David will stand with God.

One of the ways he will stand for God is by worshiping God in the Temple. This is one of the primary points of this Psalm, for it is in the Temple and the public worship of God that David gives thanks unto God and sings praises unto Him before the gods. It is as though David is saying, let the world and its idols look upon this scene, for in their very presence and in their plain sight I will worship the Living God. Every Sunday you pass cars filled with people on their way to worship. Most of them aren't going to Church. They are going to worship the god of the horse, the god of the lake and beach, or the god of materialism whose temple is the mall. Many are so dedicated to their gods they don't have to travel to worship them. Their houses and lands are their gods, and they live where their gods are. They literally dwell in the house of their gods.

I cannot help wondering how many of those at the horse trails, lakes, beaches, malls, and watering their azaleas claim to be Christians, yet habitually forsake the assembly of the Church for worship. And why? Not because there is not ample encouragement in the Scriptures. The Bible everywhere proceeds on the principle, the assumption that Christians are active members of the local church. The Bible was written to the Church. Romans was not written to individual Christians who happened to live in Rome. It was written to the Church in Rome. Revelation 3:14-22 was not written to individual Christians in Laodocea; it was written to the Church in Laodicea. We err when we think we don't need to be a part of the Church. We err if we think we have done all that God requires if we spend a few minutes alone with the Bible and prayer. The Church is His body and we are members of it. Thus, when Paul wrote in Hebrews 10:25 that we are not to forsake the worship assemblies of the Church, he meant the visible, local body of believers, not an intangible feeling of togetherness. It does not work to attempt to excuse forsaking the local church by saying you worship as part of the invisible Church which is that mystical body of all believers. It doesn't work because the invisible Church is manifested in the world, and participated in by the believer, through the local, visible church. My beloved in Christ, we need more than a Bible and a "quiet time." We need the worship and fellowship of the visible, organised Church.

If this world were a Christian world, we would still need the Church, and we would still need to be a part of the worship and services of it. But the world is not Christian, and that means we need the Church even more. And we need the discipline of standing firm for God in a faithless world. I beg and encourage you to sing God's praises and forsake the false gods and idols of this world. Stand fast for God, even before the gods sing your praise unto Him and worship toward His holy Temple.

"Almighty God, who showest to them that are in error the light of thy truth, to the intent that they may return into the way of righteousness; Grant unto all those who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ's religion, that they may avoid those things that are contrary to their profession, and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen."

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