December 29, 2013

Sermon, First Sunday after Christmas

The Fulness of Time
Psalm 98, Matthew 1:18-25, Galatians 4:1-7
First Sunday after Christmas
December 29, 2013

Galatians 4 uses an unusual word to describe time.  We don’t notice it very much because we are accustomed to hearing it.  But if it were not in the Bible and someone were to use it today as a new phrase, like “re-gifting” or “unfriending” we would notice its distinctiveness immediately.  That word is fulness. It is unusual because we don’t usually think of time as having fulness.  To us time simply is.  Our schedules may have fulness, especially at this time of year when families and friends are coming and going and events are still happening and in the planning stage.  But time is different from our schedules, and it is neither full nor empty, it just is. 
Yet the Bible talks about the fulness of time, as though time were something that can be poured into a container, and when the container is full, a certain event will occur. I vaguely remember a pop song that said, “If I could save time in a bottle.”  Well, God can, and the picture here is of God pouring time into a bottle until it reaches its fullness, and then something He has been planning happens.  A similar picture is found in Luke 2:6.  You remember the words there, referring to Mary in Bethlehem, saying the time was “accomplished” that she should be delivered.  “Accomplished” in the Greek New Testament, is from the same word translated “fulness” in Galatians 4.  We understand Luke’s meaning.  The baby has developed and matured in the womb and is now ready to be born.  The task of growing inside the womb has been accomplished and fulfilled, and the time to come out and face the world has arrived.  The time is accomplished.  So the “fulness of time” means that a time of preparation is accomplished, and an event is ready to take place, the Messiah is ready to be sent into the world.
Remember that image of God pouring time in a bottle until is reaches its perfect fullness.  Remember it because it shows that the birth of Christ is not an accident.  It is the culmination of a time of preparation, which is itself the enacting of a plan and a purpose.  We are familiar with many of the Old Testament verses that tell of the coming Messiah.  They cover the entire Old Testament, beginning with the book of Genesis.  Remember the words of God to the serpent regarding the seed of the woman, “it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” Man had fallen into sin, into all the sorrow and loneliness and personal and cultural disintegration and distorted ways of thinking and acting that we call the misery of sin.  Yet God is promising even at that point, that One will come who will begin to put the world, and us, right again.  He will bruise the serpent’s head.
As we look through the Old Testament we see God continuing to fill the bottle.  We see Him call Abraham to found a family for God.  We see him rescue His family from Egypt.  We see Him give His family rules of conduct that enable its people to live together in peace and respect.  We see Him establish the great feasts, which are like family gatherings and Christmas dinners.  And He calls them together for the more ordinary things of family life, like worshiping together on the Sabbath.  He gives them wise family sages to help them negotiate the trials and stages of life.  He gives them family historians to record their pilgrimage and remind them who they are and remind them of the family traditions and their meaning and importance.  In all of these things God is their Father, the head of the family, the leader provider and protector.  As long as the family stays with Him they live in prosperity and happiness.  When they stray from Him they find that the serpent still lurks under rocks and fallen trees, and his bite is still deadly.
And what did the children of Israel do?  They ran away from home.  Instead of a loving Father, they imagined God as a self-serving tyrant.  Instead of seeing His laws as a protective fence they imagined them as oppressive prison walls.  They rejected their Father as an enemy and embraced their enemies as friends.  But God did not abandon them, nor did He abandon hope that they would return to the family.  And when the bottle of time was full He sent forth His son, born of  woman.
I will talk about this unique Son of God more in future sermons and Bible studies.  For now let it suffice to say He is the word we find in the first chapter of John’s Gospel. He always was, always is, and always will be THE GOD.  And, while never giving up His full Divinity, He added flesh to Himself and became fully human, born of woman.
Today I want to emphasise why God did that, why He became a human and was born in a cattle shed and died on a cross.  He did it for love, a Father’s love for His children.  Most of you have read Laura Ingalls’ “Little House” books, or have seen the TV programs.  You remember the story of the blizzard.  Laura and Mary were walking home from school when they were engulfed in a sudden and terrifying blizzard.  As the snow and wind increased they were unable to see the way home.  They were lost and afraid, and rapidly freezing to death.  What did their father do?  He put on his coat and went out into the very teeth of the storm. He searched and called and called and searched until he found his daughters and took them to safety.  It almost killed him.  There was very little life left in him when, exhausted and frozen, he got the girls to a warm house.  Why did he do it?  Love.  He loved his daughters more than he loved himself.  He valued their lives more than he valued his own.  He would gladly sacrifice his own life to save theirs.
That’s a pretty good illustration of why Christ came to earth.  God loves His children, but they are lost and dying in the blizzard.  He came to take us safely home.  “When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

December 22, 2013

Srcripture and Commentary Fourth Sunday in Advent through Week of First Sunday after Christmas

Week of Fourth Sunday in Advent


Morning - Ps. 116, Is. 33:13, Lk.1:5-25
Evening - Ps. 104, Is. 35, Rev. 20:7

Commentary, Luke 1:5-25

            Our reading begins with the birth of John the Baptist, who comes to make straight the way of the Lord.  Zacharias and his wife, Elisabeth, were both of priestly descent, and were residing in Jerusalem while Zacharias served a term burning incense in the Temple. We don't often pay much attention to the ancestry of John, but it is worth noting that his father was a priest and his mother was descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses.
            John himself is a summation of the work of the entire line of Old Testament priests, for the task of the priesthood was to prepare (make straight) the way of the Lord.  The Temple and sacrificial system, which was given into their care, foreshadowed Christ, "the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world."  Thus, their work prepared people for the coming Messiah.  In Luke 1 the Messiah is drawing near and we see the arrival of John.

Christmas Eve

Morning - Ps. 50,   Lk. 1:67
Evening - Ps. 85, Zech. 2:10, Mt. 1:18

Commentary, Luke 1:67

            Zacharias' power of speech was taken from him when, in the Temple he did not believe the angel's message.  Now, after the birth of his son, it returns to him along with the inspiration of the Spirit by which he speaks forth the great passage of Scripture which is this morning's Second Lesson.  He speaks first of the Messiah, raised up to be a "horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David" (1:69).  The One foretold by the prophets, by whom we are saved, through whom the mercy of God is performed toward us, is ready to come into the world.  Indeed, He is already here in the Virgin's womb.
            Next the priest turns to the ministry of his own son, John.  He is the prophet of the Highest.  He will go before the Messiah to prepare His ways, give the people knowledge of their sins, and give light to them that are in darkness and the shadow of death.  John prepares the way, Jesus is the way.

Christmas Day

Morning - Ps. 89:1-30, Is. 9:2-7, Lk 2:1-20
Evening - Ps. 45, Micah 4:1-5, 1 Jn. 4:7-14

Commentary, Luke 2:1-20
               At last the Day arrives.  Only it is not "day;" it is night.  Nor is the King of Kings born in a palace, but in an animal shed; not heralded to kings and rulers, but announced to simple shepherds.   Thanks be to God that the Good News has come to us.  "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord."

December 26, the Feast of St. Stephen


Morning - Ps. 118, 2 Chron. 24:17-22, Acts 6
Evening - Ps. 30, 31, Acts 7:59-8:8

Commentary, Acts 7:59-8:8

It is notable that our cycle of prayer and Scripture moves immediately from the birth of the Saviour to the cost of following Christ, for Stephen is the first New Testament martyr for Christ.  Thus we are reminded that being a Christian is not just about going to Heaven; it is an absolute and lifelong commitment to observing all things He has commanded us.  In the murder of Stephen, the persecution of the Church began, for which the city of Jerusalem would pay so dearly in Revelation 4-11.  8:1-4 tells us the persecution was so severe, all Christians, except the Apostles, fled Jerusalem.  But persecution followed them.  Saul was probably only one of many who captured Christian Jews and returned them to Jerusalem to die (Acts 9:1).
If the events of this passage are true, and if the God to which they testify is real, then becoming a Christian is not something we do in search of self esteem or to enhance our quality of life.  We become Christians because we owe God obedience and love.  We become Christians because we have been made to understand that we were living in rebellion and sin against God, and because we want to turn away from sin and begin to do what is right. In short, we become Christians because it is right to do so.  All other considerations are secondary, at best.  I wonder if the Church today, including myself, spends too much time inviting people to go to Heaven and too little time calling people to obey God.  Stephen's short time as a Christian was a time of prayer, service to God's people, and obedience unto death, not about blessings for Stephen.

December 27, Feast of St. John the Apostle

Morning - Ps. 23 &24, Ex. 33:12, Jn. 13:2-26
Evening - Ps. 97, Is. 6:1-8, Rev. 1

Commentary, Isaiah 6:1-8

            Today we return to a passage we have looked at before, Isaiah 6:1-8.  The prophet is given a vision of God in all His terrifying holiness and power.  From the vision of God, Isaiah is moved to see his own unworthiness.  He is a man of unclean lips, meaning, a sinner.  The seraphim sing "Holy, holy, holy," unto God, but Isaiah's lips are not worthy to address the Lord.  He sees his sin as filthy rags beside the incredibly white and shining Goodness of God, and he knows that he is "undone," or, destroyed, before God.  If Isaiah is to be allowed into real fellowship with God, God Himself is going to have to find a way to cover his sins and make him holy.  The seraphim touches Isaiah's mouth with a live coal from the altar where the sacrificial animals are killed and burned.  Symbolically, the sins of the Jewish people were laid upon the sacrifice, which paid the price of sin by dying on the altar.  The coal represents all the animals killed to pay for Isaiah's sin.  The sacrificial lambs themselves represent Christ, the Lamb of God and the only Sacrifice that could truly pay for the sins of any person.  It is Christ broken, sacrificed, and applied to our "undoneness" that restores us to wholeness before God.  In sin we are undone.  In Christ we are restored to wholeness. In sin we are broken.  In Christ we are repaired.  The restoration includes an invitation.  Isaiah was being called to preach the Word of God, but more than that, he was being invited into the fellowship and love of God.
            Thus we see a threefold emphasis in these verses.  First is the vision of the greatness of God.  Second is the awareness of being undone.  Third is the cleansing of sin and the invitation to return to full fellowship with God.  The true Christian has a similar experience.  At some point we come to realise that God is far greater, far more worthy, and far more "good" than we ever imagined.  That knowledge immediately brings the knowledge that we are far smaller, far more unworthy, and far more wicked than we ever believed ourselves to be.  At this point we realise, "Woe is me! for I am undone" (vs. 5), and the only way to become whole and restored is for God to do something Himself that will cover our sins and restore us to His favour.  Christ restores us by taking our sins on Himself and paying their price with His own life. He then covers our sins with His own sinless perfection, and God counts us as righteous for His sake.  Now we are taken into the heart of God.  We have the joy of His presence and love in such abundance it can only be described as God dwelling in us, and us dwelling in God.

December 28, Feast of Holy Innocents

Morning – Ps. 8 & 26, Jer. 31:1-6, 15-16, Mt. 18:1-14
Evening – Ps. 19, & 126, Is. 54:1-13, Mk. 10:13-16, 23-31

Commentary, Isaiah 54:1-13

            Isaiah 54 is about God’s faithfulness and mercy.  The barren (childless) woman is Judea, whom God has allowed to be conquered and taken into captivity by the Babylonians.   God says He will not leave her in Babylon.  He will rescue her with great mercy, and gather her back to her home in Jerusalem (vs. 7).  The symbolism of this passage refers to God’s deliverance of the Jews from Babylon.  It also refers to our deliverance from the spiritual Babylon of sin that has held us captive until Christ our Redeemer set us free.  It is a beautiful and moving passage.

Week of First Sunday after Christmas
Monday, December 30

Morning - Ps. 33, Is 59:1-21, 1 Jn. 2:1-17
Evening - Ps. 111, 112, Is. 60:13, Heb. 2

Commentary, Isaiah 59:1-21

            The Christmas season is one of the highlights of the year, and it is made even more precious as we follow the daily Bible readings.  Hebrews shows how Christ fulfills the meaning and intent of the Old Testament ceremonial laws, and how they pointed to Him as the only real sacrifice for sin, the great High Priest who intercedes for His people, and God Himself purchasing and applying salvation and forgiveness to His people.  1 John is a practical guide to living in Christ's Church, and in the fallen world around us.
            Isaiah 59:2 expresses the very heart of every person's problem with God.  Our problem is not that God is unable or unwilling to do good, but that our sins have separated us from Him.  Fallen humanity, and, often, Christians also, blame God for the mess of the world.  They conclude that, because God does not give world peace, personal affluence, freedom from disease, and a general happiness, He either does not care, does not hear their prayers, or is unable to do anything about the problems they face.  Such people impose two contradictory demands upon God. First, they demand total freedom to choose their own way and shape their own destinies.  Second, they expect God to force all people to act in accordance with general principles of goodness, so they can live in peace.  They refuse to see that their own sin is the cause of their separation from God, and that they themselves have contributed greatly to the general malaise of life on planet earth.
            Because of sin, judgment and wrath have come upon all people.  Isaiah addresses first the people of Judea and their situation when the Babylonians come upon them in bloody and murderous conquest.  But the principle is true of all nations, all peoples, and all individuals.  We live in a world of sorrows because our sins have made it so.  The human race is naturally reaping what we have sown, and it is important that we see that sin has consequences for us in this world as well as in eternity.  Yet there is hope.  God has not deserted us, nor has He abandoned His plan to save His people.  "The Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression" (59: 20).  Throughout the Bible we see God working out His plan of salvation.  He called Abraham to be the father of a new people.  To them He gave His Commandments and His Word.  Through them He sent the Messiah; the Saviour, not for Israel alone, but for all who will receive Him as their Saviour and their God.  The descendants of Abraham were not always faithful to God.  More often than not, they were like sheep straying from the protection of the Shepherd and away from the safety of the Fold.  Though God allowed them to reap the bitter fruit of sin, He did not abandon them.  In the fullness of time the Saviour came to purchase their forgiveness and to call both Jews and Gentiles into His Kingdom and Church.  By His grace He overcame our sin, and even now He is working in the lives of His people to prepare us to be with Him in Heaven forever.  The surprise is not that we suffer hardship and troubles in this world.  The surprise is that God has not abandoned us to destruction and hell.  The surprise is that He came in grace to redeem us.

Tuesday, December 31

Morning - Ps.147, Is. 62, 1 Jn. 2:18
Evening - Ps 90, Dt. 10:12-11:1, Heb 3

Isaiah 62 looks forward to the restoration of Jerusalem and Judea after the Jews return from their captivity in Babylon.  But, like much of the prophecy of Isaiah, it uses the return from captivity to foreshadow a greater return, a greater glory of Jerusalem, and a greater Salvation than from mere human enemies.  It foreshadows the grace of God given to Jew and Gentile through the Saviour Christ.  Jerusalem here represents the entire the people of God; the Church of Christ in all ages.  The love of God is poured out upon them forever.

Wednesday, January 1, Circumcision of Christ

Morning – Ps. 103, Dt. 30:1-10, Eph. 2:11
Evening – Ps. 148, Dt. 30:11, Rev. 19:11-16

Christ was circumcised eight days after birth, receiving the sign of the Covenant with God made to His people through Abraham.  He received the sign of the Old Covenant because He obeyed all the commandments of God.  Only one who is perfectly righteous in His being and in His obedience to God can be the perfect sacrifice for sin.  It is noteworthy that the sign of the Old Covenant has passed away with the inauguration of the New Covenant.  Baptism, the sign of the New Covenant, has replaced circumcision.
The real message here is the surpassing and absolute righteousness of Christ.  He kept every part of the will and commandments of God.  He kept both the letter and the spirit of the law, which is the only way to actually obey God.
Because Christ kept the law perfectly, He was able to be the unblemished Lamb of God; able to offer Himself for our sins and suffer for our transgressions.  Another sinner could not accomplish our forgiveness, even by dying for us.  Another sinner could only die for his own sins.  But Jesus Christ the Righteous was able to live without sin, and, thus to suffer for ours.

Thursday, January 2

Morning - Ps. 37:26, Is. 63:1-14, 1 John 3:1-11
Evening - Ps. 2, 110, Is. 63:15-64:1, Heb. 4:1-13

Commentary, Isaiah 63

Chapters 60 through 62 of Isaiah describe the blessings of Israel after her conquest and captivity by the Babylonians is over.  Chapter 63:1-6 inserts a short note about God’s judgment on Edom and its capital city, Bozrah.  Located between the Gulf of Aqaba and Moab, just south of the Dead Sea, Edom had a long history of aggression against Israel.   But its aggression did not go unnoticed by God, nor will it go unpunished.  “I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save” (vs. 1) is shown coming from Edom with blood on His garments because He has trodden down the Edomites like grapes in a winepress (vs. 3).  These verses are very similar to Revelation 19:13-16, where Christ goes forth to judge the nations who resist His will and Gospel.  Those who remain in their sin will be trodden out in the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.
Verses 7-19 are a prayer offered to God by Isaiah, who is speaking as the representative of Israel.  There is deep thanksgiving in the prayer, for the “great goodness toward the house of Israel” (vs. 7).  There is also contrition and confession because, though having been blessed by God, Israel rebelled against Him and vexed His Holy Spirit (vs. 2).  Therefore God became their enemy and fought against them in the form of the conquering Babylonian army (vs. 11).  The prayer asks where is God now when they need Him?  Where is He that brought Israel up from Egypt and led them through His servant Moses (11-13)?  Israel asks God to look upon her from Heaven and return to her in mercy (vs. 17).  The chapter closes with the statement that Israel is God’s elect.  The people who now oppress Israel were never subject to His rule or called by His name (vs.19).

Friday, January 3

Morning – Ps. 66, Is. 64:4, 1 Jn. 3:13
Evening – Ps. 34, Is. 65:8-16, Heb. 4:14-5:14

Commentary, Isaiah 64:4

Isaiah 64 follows a deep and moving prayer for redemption of the people of Judea.  Isaiah did not live to see Judea invaded and conquered by Babylon.  But, by the Spirit of God, he saw by faith both the conquest and restoration of the land.  Chapter 63 asked God to remember that He is the “Father” and God of the Jews, and to remember mercy even in His very just anger.  The Jews in Babylon would read these words, and, by the grace of God, some of them would understand that their captivity was God’s just response to their sin, meant to correct them and to call them back to God’s gracious blessings.  God does cleanse and chastise His people.
This morning’s reading begins in 64:4, where the prophet tells of God’s merciful answer to their prayers.  He will do more for them than simply return them to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.  He will send the Messiah, who will ultimately deliver them into a Kingdom that is far greater than the physical/political realm of Israel (vs. 4).  The most earnest prayers for relief are worthless without real sorrow for and turning away from sin, and in verse 6 the prophet is moved to a prayer of humble confession and repentance for all of Judea.  The prayer will be read by the captives in Babylon, many of who will be moved to confess their own sins, and to really and truly seek God.
The evenings reading shows God’s merciful response to those who truly repent and unfeignedly believe His holy Gospel.  There will be blessings for them (65:8).  They will inherit the holy mountain, meaning Jerusalem and the Temple mount, and, ultimately, the Kingdom of the Messiah (65:9).  Places now barren wasteland will blossom with abundance (65:10).
The blessings will not come before repentance, and repentance will not come before chastisement.  Thus God says again that the sword will come to Jerusalem.  Verses 11-16 tell of both wrath and grace.  Some will be saved from the sword and will repent and return to God.  How sad that they would not repent before the sword came to them.

Saturday, January 4

Morning – Ps. 92, Is 65:17, 1 Jn. 4
Tuesday – Ps. 91, Is 66:1-13, Heb. 6:1-12

Commentary, Isaiah 66:1-13

The Jews returning to Jerusalem will be under the special protection of God.  They will be delivered from war, and life will not be cut short or hampered by battle.  The Lord will answer their prayers before they pray, and the land will enjoy a time of peace and rest.  But the language of this passage obviously looks for more than just the restoration of Jerusalem.  Isaiah is supernaturally enabled to see far into the future to the new heavens and new earth, which God will bring into existence in the Kingdom of the Messiah. Like us, the prophet sees this dimly, as through a smoked glass. He describes it in terms of earthly blessings, using things we understand to describe things we cannot really understand while we live in this world.   So, as wonderful as the Messiah’s reign sounds in Isaiah’s words, its reality will be immeasurably greater in every detail.  His Kingdom will not be completed until the end of time, but it has begun already.  We in the Church have begun to reap the fruit of it.  One day we will see it fully.  We will walk in its streets and know its joy more fully than we now know the present world.  We now call that Kingdom “Heaven.”  One day we will call it “Home.”

Isaiah 66 takes up a different subject.  There are those, in both Israel and the Church who attempt to mix the pure Gospel with the unbiblical views and practices of the people around them.  In the time of Isaiah and the Jews, they mixed Biblical teaching with pagan religion.  Today it is more likely to be mixed with pop psychology and humanistic ideas of self-fulfillment and personal happiness.  Either way, God is dethroned and man becomes the center of his own religion.  In Isaiah’s time, pagan people believed their deities lived in houses built for them by people, and ate as food the sacrifices offered to them.  Many Jews applied the same ideas to God, the Temple, and the Sacrifices.  God explicitly denies any dependence on people (66:1-2).  He owns all things, so, people can really offer Him nothing.  Furthermore, anything offered unto God under such false understandings or motives is absolutely rejected by God.  An ox sacrificed to God in such a way (even with the greatest sincerity and best intentions) is as bad as murdering a man and offering him up on the altar of God  (66:3).   A lamb offered in this way is no better than a dog.  This passage is a clear and desperate call to true repentance and to Biblical faith and practice.  Those who truly repent will be welcomed to God as a loving mother welcomes her beloved child.  Even Gentiles are welcomed into the love of God.  “As one whom his mother comforteth, so I will comfort you; and ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (66:13).

Fourth Sunday in Advent Sermon

There Standeth One Among You
Philippians 4:4-7, John 1:19-29
Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 22, 2013

“There standeth one among you.”  Theologians and preachers often make much ado about the transcendence of God.  And we should.  Transcendence is an important attribute of the greatness and glory of God.  He transcends the physical universe.  He transcends time and space. Christina Rossetti, who, by the way was an Anglican, wrote the beloved Christmas carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter” in 1872.  We will sing it tonight at our Christmas service, and I will completely obliterate the timing of the words in the second verse, like I do every year.  You know the words, “Our God, heav’n cannot hold Him, nor earth contain.”  I will get the timing of those words wrong tonight, but I have their meaning correct in my heart.  I know God is bigger, and greater, and far more glorious than the stars and galaxies I see in the night sky.  I know the heavens cannot hold Him. He transcends all things.
 But the Bible makes a great deal about another attribute of God.  The Bible goes to great lengths to show that He is as immanent as He is transcendent.  In other words, He is down here as much as He is out there.  This point is made throughout the Bible.  In the very first verse, God created the heavens and the earth.  In the second verse, the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. In Genesis 2 “God took the man and put him in Eden.  In Genesis 3 Adam and Eve heard the voice of God walking in the garden, and in Genesis 3:9, “the Lord God called unto Adam.  In other parts of the Old Testament the Lord speaks to Noah.  God speaks to Abraham. God speaks to Moses.  God speaks Joshua.  The Lord calls Samuel.  He speaks to the prophets, whose writings echo the refrain, “The word of the Lord came to me.”  He appears to Isaiah “sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.”  To Jeremiah He says, “Am I a God at hand… and not a God afar off?”  He is telling Jeremiah  He is here with us.  He is “at hand.”
The immanence of God is also one of the primary messages of the New Testament.  Matthew 1 tells us Christ is God with us. John 1 tells us the word, who always was, always is, and always will be God, “was made flesh and dwelt among us.” “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world,” Christ said to the Apostles. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” Christ promised His Church.  According to the Bible Christ dwells in us.  We are His Temple.  He has put His Spirit in us, the Holy Spirit, who is called the Spirit of Christ. This brings me to the words of the Gospel reading this morning, John 1:26, “there standeth one among you.”  The words were spoken by John the Baptist regarding Christ Jesus.  John did not know exactly which man in the crowds he spoke to was the Christ.  That had not been revealed to him yet.  But he knew one thing about Christ; he knew He was here.  He knew Christ was among them.  He still is.  Christ is among us.  The point of all of this is to say we are never alone.  God is with us, an ever present help and friend.  “There standeth one among you” and that One is God with us.  That is the first point of today’s sermon.
For the second point we turn to the Epistle and read in Philippians 4:5, “the Lord is at hand.”  While it is certain that “at hand” refers, in part, to the return of Christ, the words also apply to Christ’s continuing presence with His people.  He is, as He said through Jeremiah, a God at hand and not a God afar off.  But the point I want to emphasise here is found in verse 7; “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding shall keep your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ.”  This is the result of Christ being among us.  This is the result of Christ dwelling in us.  This is the result of us being in Christ.
There is no peace in this world.  There is, at times, the appearance of peace, but it is always an illusion, for in such times the next big problem is advancing upon us.  It may be war.  It may be poverty.  It may be illness.  It may be family problems.  It may be disillusionment.  It may be disappointment.  But something is coming at us, and it will shatter our illusion peace.  That’s why Jesus said the peace He gives is not like the peace the world gives.  The peace Christ gives is as eternal and unbreakable as God Himself.
The peace of God is based upon His atoning sacrifice on the cross.  It is based on the knowledge that Jesus died for our sin, and that all who believe in Him in Biblical faith are completely and eternally forgiven.  His blood has washed away our sins.  He has removed them from us as far as the east is from the west.  That means that when we stand before God on the other side of the grave, we will not tremble in the consuming wrath of God, we will give thanks in His consuming love.
The peace of God is based on the removal of the fear of death.  Why do people fear death?  Isn’t it because we instinctively know we will face God?  And don’t we fear that meeting because we know we have sinned?  In short, don’t we fear death because we fear hell?  But in Christ that fear is gone.  The sting, the pain of death is gone.  The grave is no victory for hell, it is the entrance to eternal life, and we can face it with assurance.  That is peace.
The peace of God is based upon the knowledge that earthly troubles will pass, but Heaven is forever.  We often hear the words, ‘life is short.”  They are often followed by an exhortation, like, “use the good china,” or “hug your wife and children.”  They are usually said with a smile, yet there is a sense of urgency in them.  If life is short we should make every minute count.  We should do what is important.  I agree, and I add, seek God.  Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, and mind.
The peace of God is not based upon getting the most out of life here and now.  It is based on the  knowledge that when earth is over, and all the treasures we have worked so hard to get, and all the pleasures we thought were so important, and all the troubles we thought were so huge and debilitating, will end soon.  And one day, God’s people will look back on them and wonder how we could have been so dominated by them because they will be absolutely insignificant in Heaven.
The peace of God is based upon the knowledge that God loves us and is working all things to our good, here and now.  Life on earth, for the Christian, is like a preparatory school.  It not the end or the goal; the be all end all.  It is only a classroom to get us ready for Heaven.  Knowing this we can trust God with life.  We can put it all in His hands and accept what comes to us.  We know that the troubles of life cannot separate us from God, and that all things work together for our good.
All of these things put a peace in our hearts the world can’t take away.  We can lose our homes.  We can lose our cars.  We can lose our health and our lives.  But we can never lose God or the benefits of His love.  That knowledge gives peace.  Philippians 4:7 says it will keep your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ.  Keep means to protect.  The word projects the image of a strong and heavily armed guard standing watch over your soul.  Who is this Guard?  He is no mere man; nor even an angel. He is no less than Christ Jesus.  He is the guardian of your soul.  It is He who keeps you by His peace.  May His peace be with you.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.X

December 15, 2013

Scripture and Comments, Third Week of Advent

Week of the Third Sunday in Advent


Morning - Ps. 84, Is. 29:1-14, Mk. 5:1-20
Evening - Ps. 75 &76, Is 29:15, Rev. 18:11

            Most people live for what Francis Schaeffer called, "personal peace and affluence."  If they worship God, or believe in Him at all, they consider Him as one of many articles in their possession to add to their peace and affluence.  But this is nothing new; the Jews in this passage of Isaiah were doing it seven hundred years before the time of Christ.  They gave God lip service, but lived for themselves.  Yet, they believed God was satisfied with them, and that their half-hearted participation in the ceremonies and rituals of their religion was more than sufficient to appease God.  For generations God called them back to Him.  Prophet after prophet was sent to tell them of His love and warn them of His wrath.  They ignored God's prophets, preferring instead to appoint prophets of their own choosing who would tell them what they wanted to hear, rather than the Word of God.  So God, in Isaiah 29 says even Jerusalem, and even the Temple will be destroyed and leveled by military conquest, along with the people.  Ariel is Jerusalem, and God says He will cease sending true prophets, allowing the city to be continually led astray by false prophets.  He will pour out on the people a spiritual slumber.  The word of God will be unintelligible to them.  The wisdom of the wise and the understanding of the prudent will disappear, and the people will follow fools and liars.
            Sadly, this sounds terribly like what is happening in the Church today.  Many have deserted Biblical faith and chosen to place themselves under the tutelage of false teachers.  Others offer lip service to God, while treating Him more as their servant than as their God.  If God was willing to level the Temple and conquer the Jews with war, can we expect Him to let such sin go unchastised today?
            Isaiah's news is not all bad, however.  Even in wicked Jerusalem there are still righteous people who seek and love God.  They, and many who repent of their sins and return to God, will be blessed, even amid the suffering and conquest of Jerusalem.

Morning - Ps. 90, Is. 30:8-17, Mk. 5:21
Evening - Ps. 91, Is. 30:18-26, Rev. 19:1-16

It seemed to the king of Judea that the whole world was at war and that his tiny country was going to be drawn into it and destroyed by it.  In the east, the Assyrians were rising to power.  Ruthless warriors, they would soon conquer most of the other nations in the area.  Syria and Israel were trying to fight Assyria, and wanted Judea to join them.  Their kings were joining forces to attack Judea in an attempt to force the kingdom to join them.  To the west, Egypt was preparing its own powerful war machine to do battle with the Assyrians.  Judea lay right in the middle of these two super powers, and both of them wanted it.  Believing Egypt would be the better ally, the King of Judea attempted to make a treaty with the pharaoh.  This was an arrangement the Egyptian king would gladly accept.  It allowed Egypt to put soldiers in Judea and use the Judean army and the Judean countryside as a buffer in case of an Assyrian attack.  To the pharaoh, Judea was useful only as a place to fight Assyria.  He would gladly sacrifice it to keep the horrors of war out of his own territory.  That is why one of the major points of Isaiah 30 is that there is no hope for Judea in Egypt (vs. 7). 
            But Judea's real problem was that they were seeking their security in the things of the world instead of in God.  They looked to the king of Egypt to deliver them, rather than to the King of Kings who holds the stars in His hand and raises or casts down nations as He pleases.  Isaiah's book has many passages beseeching the Jews to return to God and promising His protection and blessing if they will.  But this was a message the Judeans did not want to hear.  They wanted prophets who would tell them happy things and prophesy peace to them (vss.9-11).  They did not want to hear a message that required faith and holiness.  They did not want to hear any preaching that required them to turn away from sin, or required them to find fulfillment in God instead of the possessions, pleasures, and amusements of this life.  Thus, the Judeans cast God aside in a vain attempt to cling to their "happiness" in earthly things, and, as a result, they lost both (vss. 12-14).
            Yet the unfaithfulness of Judea will not annul the promise and purpose of God for Israel.  God called Abraham and his descendents to be the people through which the Saviour would come in the fullness of time.  Their unfaithfulness could not stop God's purpose, nor had everyone in Judea turned away from God.  Verses 15-33 tell of God's grace on the remnant who abides in Him, and of the fulfillment of His purpose for them in the Kingdom of the Messiah.

Ember Wednesday

Morning - Ps. 1 & 15, Jer. 23:9-15, Lk. 12:35-48
Evening - Ps. 92, Jer. 23:16-22, Mt. 28:16

            Today is a day of prayer for ministers.  The readings from Jeremiah deal with false prophets and it is intentionally chosen to amplify the Epistle for the Third Sunday in Advent, which begins in 1 Corinthians 4:1.  A faithful steward preaches the Bible.  He does not add to it, subtract from it, or alter it in any way.  As an ambassador for Christ, he delivers his Sovereign's Word, not his own.  This is not as easy as it sounds, for there is always a temptation to preach what people want to hear, and they don't always want to hear the truth.  Please pray that your minster will be found faithful. 


Morning - Ps. 96, Is. 32:1-4, 15-20, Mk. 6:1-6
Evening - Ps. 93 & 98, Is. 33:1-10, Rev. 20:1-6

            We live in a fallen world, and the evidence of sin is all around.  Fools are considered wise. The wicked are envied and called good.  Cheaters are considered generous.  The ungodly are called spiritual.  This is nothing new.  It is the trend of mankind from the beginning, and it was true even of the Old Testament chosen people of God. But it will not always be this way. Today's reading looks to a time when a righteous King will rule a righteous people, and there will be justice, and wisdom, and generosity, and godliness.  In one sense Isaiah 32 and 33 look forward to the end of time, when God's people dwell with Him in a place where they will see and know God face to face, where the desire to sin is gone forever, and  where the peace of God will shine like a thousand suns.  In another sense these chapters look to the era of the New Testament Church.  In the Church we live in the Dominion of the King of Righteousness, and everything the Old Testament says about a future of peace and blessing is fulfilled in the Church.  She is that new humanity, a people restored to God's original purpose for mankind, a Kingdom of peace, generosity, respect, wisdom, and love.  This is what makes the local church so important.  Through it we participate in the new humanity.  Through it we live in the new Kingdom.  Judea learned there was no hope in Egypt, and the Church must learn there is no hope in the world.  We must stop looking to "Egypt" and start looking to Christ.
            There is also chastisement in these chapters, and just as God chastised Israel He will not hesitate to chastise the New Israel.  Remembering that all Holy Scripture was written for our learning, let us make every effort to "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest" the message of these chapters.   

Ember Friday

Morning - Ps. 40:1-15, Jer. 23:23-32, 2 Cor. 5:2
Evening - Ps.51, Jer. 26:1-13, 2 Tim. 3:14-4:8

            The faithfulness required of God's ministers is absolute.  No man is to take the office of the ministry of his own accord, nor is he to speak his own ideas to the people.  It is not his calling to tell people what he would like God to say or the way he would like God to be.  Such preaching is only the deceit of their own heart (Jer. 23:25).  Yet the Bible seems to imply that the majority of ministers are of this type.  How can a minister know he teaches God's Word rather than his own views?  He must ensure that he teaches and believes what the Church has always believed.  This is not as difficult as it sounds, for there is a very visible body of Biblical doctrine that has been held by all true ministers of God from the Apostles to this very day, and, no matter what other credentials he may have, a man who teaches or believes contrary to this body of doctrine is a false minister.  So ember Friday affords ministers the opportunity to examine their core beliefs and practices.  If they find themselves out of accord, they have a chance to repent and return to the truth.
            The faithfulness required of the people is also absolute.  Ember Friday also gives the "laity" a chance to ensure that they are hearing the Word of God.  God would not call and equip ministers if He did not want people to attend the services of the Church and hear the Word.  God would not be against those who preach false doctrine if He didn't want people hear and do the truth.  So the message of Ember Days speaks to everyone on both sides of the pulpit. To the preacher it says, "Speak Truth." To the congregation it says, "Hear Truth."  Let us all do whatever is necessary to obey.. 

Ember Saturday

Morning - Ps. 42 & 43, Mal 2:1-9, Mt. 9:35-10:15
Evening - Ps.103, Mal. 3:1-6, Heb. 4:14-5:10

            There is a tendency to belittle authority today, and this tendency finds its way even into the Church.  People want to be their own authority, sometimes even placing themselves above the Bible.  There is a growing trend toward Churchless Christianity and a growing trend toward Creedless Christianity, in favour of self-directed "Christianity."  This goes against everything the Bible teaches, and we must all make the decision whether we believe the Bible or our own ideas.  Remember what God said of those who believe their own way in yesterday's reading (Jer. 23:25).  In Malachi God reminds His priests of Levi.  Levi loved and respected God.  The truth was in his mouth.  He walked in the ways of God with peace and equity (2:4-7). All ministers must strive to be like Levi.  Their lips should keep knowledge.  People should be able to hear the word of God from their mouths, for they are called to be messengers of the Lord of Hosts 2:7). The priest who departs from God's word corrupts the faith and causes people to stumble.  What a sad day it will be when a priest stands before God only to find those who followed him followed the wide road that leads to destruction. How bitter his eternity will be knowing he led people into hell.

Third Sunday in Advent Sermon

Ministers and Stewards
1 Corinthians 4:1-5, Matthew 11:2-10
Third Sunday in Advent
December 15, 2013

            In 1 Corinthians 4:1 and 2, the Bible addresses the issue of the nature of the ministry in the New Testament Church.  Written by the Apostle Paul under the direction of the Holy Spirit, these verses help the Corinthians, and through them, all Christians, understand who and what a minister is.  The Corinthian Christians were not Jews.  Therefore, they were not raised in a home or culture that worshiped God.  They did not know the Old Testament.  They did not know the synagogue.  They knew only the pagan temples and the rudimentary understanding of the Gospel they were able to learn during Paul’s two year ministry in Corinth.  And they knew Christ. I admire them for trying to be faithful to Christ in a hostile culture, with very limited understanding of the Scriptures, and with only novice clergy to lead them in the faith and worship of God after Paul left.  But I have to recognize the fact that the Corinthians compromised the Faith.  They mixed Christian doctrine with pagan mythology, and they tried to worship God the way they formerly worshiped their pagan idols. This brought them into serious trouble, so serious the Apostle Paul, referring to their corruption of the Lord’s Supper, wrote, “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep” (1 Cor. 11:30).  Many are dead because of their abuse of the things of God.
            A big part of the problem in Corinth was the large number of self appointed apostles teaching and leading people into wrong and heretical doctrines and practices.  Paul has spent much of the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians addressing this problem.  He started in the very first verse, saying, he is “called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God.”  From there he defended and explained his calling and ministry.  He was not boasting.  He was not claiming to be a great man or trying to force the people to honour him.  He was simply telling them he was a real apostle, called and commissioned by Jesus Christ for this ministry, and the others in Corinth who claimed to be apostles, were not.  In chapter two he said the Corinthians can tell a true minister of Christ by the way he builds upon the foundation Paul laid when he was preaching and teaching in Corinth.  That foundation is Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11, 12).
In chapter four he returns to the issue of his true apostleship and what that means in the way the people of Corinth should think of him and the other true Apostles.  How should they account the Apostles?  How should Christians account any real minister of the word?  The first thing he says is “let a man so accounts us, as of the ministers of Christ.”  It is interesting to read this verse in the original Greek. We all know that the Latin word from which we derive our English word “minister” means “servant” or “slave,” and I expected to find the Greek equivalent for it in 1 Corinthians 4:1.  I was shocked (again) to find that the Greek says, “let a man so account us as official representatives of Christ.”  Paul is saying something similar to what he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:20, where, again, writing about the Apostles and their relationship to the Church he said, “we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us.”
There was something special and unique about the ministry of the Apostles.  They occupied and performed a unique ministry in the Church and their office ended when the last one, probably John, died.  There are no more Apostles.  There is an apostolic ministry in the Church, and listen very carefully to what I am saying here, because the apostolic ministry is different from the office of an Apostle.  The apostolic ministry is the ministry that continues to preach and teach the Faith and Practice given to the Church by Christ through the Apostles.  There is much more that I want to say on this subject, and I hope to return to it soon.  For now I must simply say that a man who is dully called and ordained, and who preaches and teaches the Apostolic Faith and Practice, is to be regarded as an official representative of Christ.  He is called and ordained to his ministry by God through the Church, and God Himself uses that man to lead His people.
There is another word in 1 Corinthians 4:1 I want to talk about for a moment, and that word is “stewards.”  A steward is a person who cares for some one or some thing for the benefit and in the service of another.  In Roman times, which is when the New Testament was written, it usually referred to a slave who was put in charge of his master’s property.  A steward had authority from the master to direct the property, and other servants, for his master and according to the master’s directions.  A steward could be in charge of the kitchen, the house, the estate, or several estates.  There are four main points I want to make about a steward.  First, he was installed in his position by the master.  Second, he acted by the authority of the master.  Third, the property and other servants did not belong to him.  Fourth, he was accountable to the master for his actions. “It is required in stewards that a man be found faithful.”
I want to turn quickly to what the Apostles and those who carry on the Apostolic Faith and Practice are stewards of.  We are stewards of the mysteries of God. That, in its purest sense, means the Faith.  It is our task to “preach the word,” as Paul wrote to Timothy.  It is our task to guard and keep the Faith pure, to defend it from enemies.  It is not within our authority to change the faith in any way. It is not ours to change.  We preserve it for our Master.
The Apostolic Faith and Practice is given to us in the Bible, so we are stewards of the Bible.  We are to proclaim its message and to preserve it unaltered for future generations.  We are to teach all of what Jesus commanded.  That is the Apostolic Faith.  We are also stewards of the Apostolic Practice.  We are called to preserve the practice of the Apostles in worship, Church ministry and organisation, and public and private life as followers of Christ.  We are stewards of the Apostolic Practice, not innovators and inventors of new and better things.
We are stewards of the Sacraments. The sacraments are not given to individual Christians; they are given to the Church.  When a person is baptized he is baptized into the Church, and especially into the local manifestation of the Church, which is the local congregation.  He is not baptized to be a Christian at large.  Sometimes there is no viable church to attend where a person lives.  Such a person can be a member of a believing church outside of his area, as many of our Anglican Orthodox members are.  But church membership and participation are important parts of following Christ.  The Lord’s Supper is given to and celebrated by and in the context of the Church.  It is not to be celebrated by random groups of Christians who happen to meet at the RV park or at the beach.  It is celebrated under the authority of the Church.
Finally, we are stewards of the Church herself.  We are responsible for leading and teaching the Church in the things of Christ.  We are responsible for ordering and organizing the Church according to the pattern given in Scripture.
I know this is a brief and sketchy presentation, and each of the points and sub points I have made today could be a sermon, or a book, or a library of its own.  I hope to preach more about them in the future, especially those which may be easily misunderstood, such as the point I made about the Apostolic ministry.  But I want to hurry on now to another important point, namely that clergy aren’t the only ministers and stewards in God’s house.  There is a sense in which the Bishop is the head steward of the Church, and the priest or deacon is the head steward of the local congregation.  But there is another sense in which all Christians are ministers and stewards of the mysteries of Christ.  Let’s go back to the Roman slave who was the head steward of, say, the master’s house.  Was he the only one charged with seeing that the house ran the way the master wanted it?  No.  Every servant in the house was a steward of something.  One may have been steward of the kitchen.  One may have been steward of the stable.  Another was steward of the furnishings.  And all were required to work together to keep the house for the master.  We are all stewards of the Lord’s House.  We are all ministers in His Kingdom.  Let us be found faithful.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. 

December 8, 2013

Second Sunday in Advent Sermon

Written for Our Learning
Romans 15:4-13, Luke 21:25-33
Second Sunday in Advent
December 8, 2013

“Written for our learning.” You will recognize these words as coming from Romans 15:5, which is part of the Epistle reading for this, the Second Sunday in Advent.  The Apostle Paul, under the guidance of God, wrote these words to the Christians in Rome about the year 58 Anno Domine to explain to them the purpose of Scripture.  He referred to the part of the Bible we know today as The Old Testament.  It was written for our learning.  But Scripture was not completed with the Old Testament.  The Old Testament was the book of promise.  When its promises were fulfilled, the book of fulfillment needed to be written.  We call the book of fulfillment the New Testament. With it Scripture is complete.  No more Scripture is being written, no more prophecy is being given, no new revelation or word from God is being given, nor are they needed.  All that we need to know about God and our salvation is given in the Bible.  God is able to give His complete revelation to man, and He has given it in the Bible.  It is the Holy Scriptures  written for our learning.
Before we proceed, let me define the word, “Scripture.”  We are not talking about the books and writings of other religions.  We are talking about the Old and New Testaments in the book we call the Bible.   And we are making a claim that the Bible is different from every other book, story, or writing that ever has been and ever will be.  We are saying the Bible is not one book in a genre of literature.  It is not one set of holy scriptures among many sets of holy scriptures.  We are claiming that the Bible is nothing less than the word of God Himself.  We are saying that the Bible alone is given by inspiration of God.  We are saying that among all the books that claim to come from prophets and gods and divinely inspired authors, only the Bible really does.  It alone was written by men “as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pt.1:21).  So when 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “all scripture is given by inspiration of God” it means the Bible.
We are saying something else here, about the Bible.  We are saying it reveals God.  In fact it was given by God to reveal God to us.  Exodus tells us of God delivering Israel from Egyptian slavery, and we see that God is merciful.  Genesis tells us of the creation of all things, and we see that God is almighty.  The Psalms tell us God inhabits eternity and we see that He is from everlasting and to everlasting.  The prophetic books tell us God speaks, and we learn that He is a rational being.  The Gospel of John tells us that if we have seen Jesus we have seen the Father, and we see that Jesus and the Father are one.  Matthew tells us of Jesus teaching the disciples and commissioning them to tell others what He taught them, and we see that the Christian Faith came from God and was given to the Apostles, who taught it to others and recorded it in the Bible, and we see that the Bible is God’s revelation of His being and His will.
Why did God do all this?  Why did He give His word to Moses and the prophets and the Apostles?  Why did He have them record His word and put it together in a book?  For our learning.  He did it for our learning.  We can learn many things from the Bible.  For example, the Bible is a historical book.  It contains the story of God’s work with humanity in history.  So we can learn about Egypt and Babylon and Rome. And yet, the message of the Bible is not history or geography.  The Bible teaches principles of conduct and morality that help us build a good government, run a good business, build a happy home, and build a happy life.  I don’t mean the Bible teaches accounting or house repair, or even government organisation.  I mean the principles and values and morality given in the Bible apply to every aspect of life.
Yet, the message of the Bible is not morality.  It is important to state that clearly because most people think the Bible is just a book of morals.  Most people think the message of the Bible is that we need to try to live by the moral standards taught in its pages, and if we do a fairly good job of keeping those standards we will go to Heaven.  They think the heart of the Bible is the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ maxim that the essence of the law is to love God above all else and to love your neighbor as yourself.  But that is not the real message of the Bible.  The real message of the Bible is what happens between God and people who have failed to love Him above all else, and failed to love their neighbors as themselves.  That message is expressed in two words that I want to talk about for a moment; comfort and hope.
Comfort here means help in our distress.  If it is true that the Bible addresses what happens between God and people who have failed to love Him and their neighbors, then we are all in a condition of terrible distress, for we all have failed.  I urge everyone to consider the confessional prayer in our service of Morning and Evening prayer for a moment.  If we pause after the words, “we have done those things which we ought not to have done,” and take a few moments to confess our specific sins, really confess them, we are led to the realization that sin is our natural condition.  There really is no spiritual health in us, and there never will be unless we receive it from God as kind of spiritual transplant and a gift from God. The spiritual sickness of sin is the natural direction of our lives.  It is what we are.  There are moments when we genuinely seek God, but the general direction of our lives is toward our own desires instead of, and even in spite of, God’s desires.  If you have not experienced this, I urge you to get on your knees and read that prayer and start confessing your specific offences against God’s holy laws.  Be very specific about the times you have left undone those thing you ought to have done, and done those things you ought not to have done, and see where such confession leads you.
It will probably lead you to call out to God for mercy and help.  It will lead you into distress and you will need comfort only God can give.  And He gives comfort.  “Comfort ye my people” He said to the prophet Isaiah.  “Comfort one another with these words,” He said through the Apostle Paul.  There is comfort in the Scriptures for they tell us of mercy.  They tell us of forgiveness.  Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow.  As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our sins from us.  He accomplished this through Jesus Christ.  He paid the price of our forgiveness. This is the meaning of what we call the “comfortable” or comforting words in the liturgy of Holy Communion.  This is what the Bible was written to teach us.  We don’t have to carry the burden of our sin.  We don’t have to bear its penalty.  We don’t have to let it separate us from God now and forever.  We can be free of it, saved from it.  That’s the message, the comfort of the Bible. All we have to do is trust Jesus to forgive us.
 The Bible comforts us with the message of forgiveness.  It also comforts us with the hope of Heaven.  We will not dwell in this earthly vale of tears forever.  There is a better place where the sorrows of this life are only dim memories.  There are no sorrows there, no sickness, no death, no good byes.  In that land there is only good and peace and joy. The Lord is coming back to take His people there.  He said, “I go to prepare a place for you,” and “I will come again to receive you unto myself.” One day the dead in Christ will rise.  One day those who are alive in Christ will be caught up, gathered up in Christ, and will be taken to that place to dwell with Him forever.  This is our comfort in our distress.  This is the Christian’s blessed hope.
Hope is the opposite of the belief that there is no meaning or purpose or reason to life.  It is the cure for the fear that nothing matters.  Despair agrees with Solomon’s words, “all is vanity.”  But hope is the confidence that God has a purpose for us, to gather us together in Christ and to bring us into His House of Many Mansions.  Hope believe God lives, therefore life is worth living and death is worth dying.  The Bible was written to give us this hope.  It is a major part of what we are to learn from the Bible.  The Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent summarises all that this sermon has been trying to say.

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen. 

December 1, 2013

Scripture and Commentary, Advent Week One and Two

Week of the first Sunday in Advent


Morning - Psalm 1 & 3, Is. 1:1-9, Mk. 1:1-13
Evening - Psalm 4 & 8, Is 1:10-20, Rev. 3:14

            Isaiah was a wealthy priest who began his book in the year the King Uzziah died, about 742 B.C. He was the King's pastor, and was possibly a member of the royal family.  Well educated and a faithful minister of God, his book is a warning to a people who have turned away from God. The heart of today's readings is found in the words of God, "I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me" (1:2).  This verse sets the tone for the entire book of Isaiah, for everything after this verse is either a plea from God to repent and be blessed, or a revelation of the terrible price they will pay for their sins.
            The people found these words shocking.  After all, they were the chosen people, and they were outwardly very religious.  They were very conscientious about observing the ceremonial regulations of feast and fasts and animal sacrifices.  But their hearts were far from God.  Thus, God is full of their burnt offerings and has no delight in the blood of bulls and goats (1:11).  When God says He is "full" of their burnt offerings He does not mean He is satisfied as a person would be after a good meal.  He means He is overfull.  He is like a person who has eaten far too much, and is violently sick because of it.  He is so sick of their insincere worship that the very thought of it makes Him nauseous. 
            God will not endure this forever.  If the people repent He will feed them with the good of the land, but if they refuse they will be devoured with the sword (1:19-20).


Morning - Psalm 7, Is 1:21-28, Mk. 1:14-28
Evening - Psalm 11 & 12, Is. 2:1-5, Rev. 4

            The morning reading from Is. 1:21-28 is summarised in two phrases.  The first is found in verse 24.  The "adversaries" and "enemies" of God are outwardly good, religious people who do all the religious things specified by the Old Testament ceremonial law.  But, somehow they have separated faith from life.  They keep the Sabbath with meticulous detail, but oppress and mistreat their brethren throughout the rest of the week.  The concept of Godliness in every aspect of life, from work to recreation to home and church is foreign to them.  But God demands Godliness in all things.  He demands to be Lord of your home as much as of your church, and Lord of your morals as much as of your worship.  The plan of God for Israel was for people to love God, to worship Him in Biblical worship and faith, and to put that faith into practice in every aspect of life.  So there is no part of life that is separate from "religion."  God is Lord of all of life.  The same is true for the New Testament Israel, the Church of Jesus Christ.
            The second phrase that summarises this passage is in verse 25.  The image of this verse is the refining furnace, which burns away impurities from precious metals.  God is telling the people of Judea He is going to put them through the refining fire. He is going to burn away their dross in the fire of His wrath.  He is going to purify them through suffering, much of which will come through brutal military conquest of their land.
            The evening reading looks beyond the fire to a day when God Himself has healed His people and brought peace to them forever.  In that Day all nations will walk in His ways and there will be no more war.  This is the time of the Prince of Peace, our Lord Jesus Christ.  That Day is not here in its full sense, yet it is here in the Church.  It would be good to think and discuss how the Church fulfills this passage (or falls short of it) as part of your Evening Prayer tonight.


Morning - Psalm 9, Is.2:6-22, Mk. 1:29-39
Evening - Psalm 15 &19, Is. 3:1-3, 6-15, Rev.5

            The people in today's readings from Isaiah have a problem.  It is not a problem of poverty or hunger, for there is no end of their treasures (Is. 2:7).  Their problem is that they have forsaken the greatest treasure of all, God.  Forsaking God, they have turned to false gods.  Why would they turn to idols?  Because it is easier to fall for a lie than to stand for the truth.  To put it another way; idols are easier to serve than God.  We can create an idol to be anything we want.  We can dictate to it what kind of god it will be and what it will require of us.  But God refuses to be dictated to.  God always demands that we change to conform to Him.  He never changes to conform to us.  Do people today try to change God to make it easier to serve Him?  On what do you base your answer?


Morning - Psalm 10, Is. 4:2, Mk. 1:40
Evening - Psalm 24 &30, Is. 5:1-7, Rev. 6:1-11

            Isaiah 4:2 and following look past judgment to the redemption and restoration of Judea.  The reforms under King Hezekiah and the restoration of the Jews after the Babylonian Captivity are the first applications of this passage.  But it looks beyond these things to an event that is immeasurably greater than both of them, and of which they are symbols and representations.  That event is the advent of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  Christ is the Branch of the Lord, beautiful and glorious.  The salvation of souls and the Kingdom of Christ is the fruit He brings forth by His suffering and resurrection. In Him Jerusalem (the Church) is holy.  In Him the filth (sin) of the daughters of Jerusalem (people who receive Him as Lord and Saviour) is washed away.  Through Him the cloud of smoke and fire (the presence of God in Christ and the Holy Spirit) descend to Mt. Zion (the Church) and her assemblies (meetings for worship).  He is the Tabernacle, the shelter from the heat, storm, and rain (the results of our sins).  Note that a shelter protects us by bearing the storm for us.
            Isaiah 5 returns to the theme of judgment.  The vineyard is Judea.  Called and blessed by God, she has refused to bear the fruit of righteousness.  Thus, she is left to be overgrown by thorns and weeds.  This, too, is applicable to Israel and Christ.


Morning - Psalm 22, Is. 5:8-29, Mk. 2:1-12
Evening - Psalm 6 & 13, Is. 6:1-11, Rev. 7:1-4, 9-17

            The Word of the Lord in Isaiah 6 is a terror to the prophet.  He has been commissioned to proclaim the Word to Judea, but he is told that the people will not understand or receive it.  Instead, his preaching will make their hearts fat, their ears heavy, and their eyes shut, that they may not hear and convert and be healed.  The prophet probably remembers the warnings of God's anger, which he has already been preaching to the people.  Those warnings were coupled with a promise of forgiveness to those who repent.  But now Isaiah is told by God that the majority of people will not repent.  Most will not even understand or receive his message. Instead of hearing it with fear and repentance, their ears and hearts will become calloused to it.  It will fade into the background noise, like music in a mall.
            Perhaps a similar thing has happened to people today.  The Gospel has been the foundation of Western civilisation and culture.  It has formed our values and our world.  We have rarely come close to actually living up to it, but it has always been a force to reckon with, even when we have strayed from it.  After 2,000 years, people are no longer listening to it.  It is there.  Even the most secularised places play Christmas carols at this time of year.  But people are not paying attention.  It has become background noise.  It puts them to sleep, even those who believe it is true.  God help us to hear it. 


Morning - Psalm 28 & 29, Is. 7:1-9, Mk. 2:13-22
Evening - Psalm 27, Is. 7:10-20, Rev. 10

Ahaz was Uzziah's grandson.  He actually attempted some reforms in Judea.  In chapter 7 Israel, which separated from Judah and formed its own country after the death of Solomon, has joined forces with Syria to fight against Judea.  God's message to Ahaz is that He will not allow them to defeat Judea.  He offers to give a sign, which Ahaz refuses.  So God gives the sign, but not just for Ahaz; for all people.  A virgin shall be with Child.

Week of the Second Sunday in Advent


Morning - Psalm 33, Isaiah 8:5-20, Mk. 2:23-3:6
Evening - Psalm 42 & 43, Is 9:8-17, Rev. 11:15

Today we read again of Immanuel (8:8).  This time His name is spoken in great sadness, for the land of Judea, Immanuel's Land, will be occupied and conquered by an army so vast and powerful its lines will "fill the breadth of thy land, O Immanuel."  Chapter 8 is given first as a promise of security to Ahaz and the people of Judea.  It is the good news of the fall of their enemies.  Rather than conquering Judea, they will be conquered by Assyria (8:7).  This will be a temporary deliverance for Judea, and during their deliverance, they will have a time of partial reformation and faith as Hezekiah attempts to move the people back towards God.  But, the reforms will be incomplete, and many of the people will resist them.  And so, even Judea will be troubled by the Assyrians, and, eventually fall to the empire that conquered Assyria, Babylon.

In tonight's reading, we skip over the great promises of Is. 9:6-7.  We will take them up later, of course.  We move on to 9:8 where the Northern kingdom of Israel is boasting that it will rebuild.  Chapter 8 warned that Israel would be defeated by Assyria.  In chapter 9 this has already happened, yet the people will not turn from their sins to God (9:13).  They boast that if they don't have bricks they will build with stones.  If good, sycomore wood is unavailable they will build with cedar.  Their attitude is very much like that expressed in the poem, "Invictus."  Because of this the wrath of God will be as darkness upon the land, and the people will be as fuel for the fire (9:19).


Morning - Psalm 48, Is. 9:18-10:4, Mk. 3:7-9
Evening - Psalm 46 & 47, Is. 10: 5-21, Rev. 12:1-12

The Lord continues to warn Judea of His approaching wrath. Notice the disintegration of Judean society which causes God's anger to burn against them.  All of Israel was called to be one people.  They were like a family, and were to walk together in love to God and love to one another.  Instead of love they have given hate. They have trampled the rights of the poor; they have bought and sold "justice" with bribes and threats.  They prey on widows and rob orphans of their own people.  Thus, they will become prisoners and casualties.  God has set them aside to become fuel for the fire.  If He punished Samaria, capital of the Northern tribes of Israel, shall He not also punish Jerusalem, capitol of the Southern tribe of Judah?

Tonight's reading turns to the Assyrian conquerors.  True, God will allow them to destroy Israel and Judea, but their deeds are still evil.  They will build an empire by blood and death, and they will enrich themselves with their victims' spoils, but God will not let them go unscathed.  He will bring judgment and wrath upon them as surely as He has done upon His own chosen people (verses 12 and 13).  What does it mean in verse 15, "Shall the ax boast itself against him that heweth therewith?"  Who is the ax and who heweth therewith?


Morning - Psalm 50, Is. 11:1-10, Mk. 3:20
Evening - Psalm 49, Is 12, Rev. 13:1-10

Judea is cut down.  Once a great tree, luxuriant and well watered, it is shown here as a dying stump.  Years of war have leveled it.  Future conquests, coupled with internal decay, will wear even the stump away.  But out of the roots of that tree will come a shoot, a branch.  Seemingly tender and weak, it will grow to be mighty and great.  In it all the promises of chapters 11 and 12 come to pass.  Read these verses in light of the Messiah and His Kingdom and you will see their meaning.


Morning - Psalm 62, 63, Is. 13:1-5, 7-22, Mk. 4:1-20
Evening - Psalm 66, Is. 13:6-15

Today's readings take us through the 13th chapter of Isaiah, which foretells the destruction of Babylon in devastating military conquest.  Even her women and children will be mercilessly murdered by the cruel sword of the conquering army.  Babylon was famous for its wealth and luxuriance.  The Tigris and Euphrates rivers provided abundant water, and that meant an abundance of food, waterways for shipping and trade, and the accumulation of wealth.  The Babylonians became a mighty empire, ruling most of the Middle East, including Israel and Judea, both of which fell to her advancing armies.  The Old Testament makes it very clear that God raised up the Babylonians and allowed them to conquer the Jews as punishment for sins.  But He would not let the Babylonians go unpunished.  Their conquest and oppression of others was still wrong, and they would suffer for it terribly.


Morning - Psalm 73, Is. 24:16, Mk.4:21-19
Evening - Psalm 77, Is. 26:11-19, Rev. 15

Isaiah 24 contains the dual themes of wrath and mercy.  The first 15 verses are about God's wrath on the Jews, from which we can easily draw parallels about all humanity.  Truly all have sinned and are by nature children of wrath as much as the Jews of Isaiah's time.  And while God is just if He makes the earth desolate and its people to live in sorrow, yet He delights to have mercy and to give His grace and peace to those who seek Him.  And even in the midst of the fires, that is, the wars and pestilence and destruction that comes upon the earth, there are people who still seek and glorify God (24:15).  Our reading begins at verse 16 and continues to tell of the sorrows of the ungodly.
            The evening reading jumps ahead to Is. 26:11-19, saving chapter 25 for Easter Sunday.  Tonight's passage reminds people what happens when other lords have dominion over them.  Whether those lords are human or idols the result is always evil, and the people have suffered for it greatly.  But here also is a hint of repentance in verse 13; "by thee only will we make mention of thy name."


Morning - Psalm 80, Is. 28:1-13, Mk. 4:30
Evening - Psalm 5, Is. 28:14-22, Rev. 18:1-10

Is. 28 tells rebellious Israel (Ephraim) that its crown of pride and wealth will be taken from it.  Again we remember that Israel joined Syria in a war on Judea.  Syria and Israel wanted to resist the advance of the Assyrian Empire, which threatened to conquer and destroy them.  Alone, they were no match for the Assyrian war machine.  Even together they had little chance of surviving an Assyrian attack.  But Syria, Israel, and Judea united would be a formidable army which the Assyrians might not even attack.  So Syria and Israel joined their armies to force Judea to support them.  You remember that Isaiah told Ahaz, king of Judea, that he need not fear Syria or Israel, for before they would be able to mount a serious offensive against Judea, they would both be conquered by Assyria.  Today's readings are about Israel and God's dealings with her.  The prophet takes much time to show the sins of Israel, that they may know that God is patient and kind, giving countless opportunities for repentance and faith.  But there is a time when the day of opportunity ends, and the day of wrath begins.