Sunday, April 4, 2021

"He has risen. He is not here."

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III

Easter Sunday, 4 April 2021

Texts: Acts 10:34-43, Colossians 3:1-4, Mark 16:1-8

Collect of the Day

Almighty God, who through you only-begotten Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of our Lord's resurrection, may, by your life-giving Spirit, be delivered from sin and raised from death; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

* * * * *

“Salvation is the great theme of Scripture,” writes the Reformed pastor Kevin DeYoung. “If we can plot the biblical storyline as creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, then clearly it is that third act which dominates the pages of special revelation. Strictly speaking, the Bible details creation in two chapters (Genesis 1-2), the fall in one chapter (Genesis 3), and consummation in two chapters (Revelation 21-22). The other 1,184 chapters are about redemption.”

If that much of the Bible is devoted to that one theme, it should be beyond comprehension that so many, during various periods of history (and we must include the present among them) have read the Bible cover to cover and have somehow missed it. Ironically, the ones who have missed it seem to be the most prolific during the week leading up to Easter—the very time in which we are supposed to remember and recall the ordeal of the Passion, all the agony and sorrow our Lord endured in order to redeem us. In one article published this week, it was suggested that Jesus had doubts, even sinful doubts, about who he was and what he was to accomplish.* In another, the death and resurrection of Christ came in a distant second to the author’s favorite ideological agenda.

Kevin DeYoung’s article was the exception to the rule this week. So many others were just horrendous exercises in missing the point.

“There is a reason that all four Gospels culminate with the death and resurrection of Jesus,” DeYoung writes. “No other biography spends a third of its time detailing the subject’s last week. But the Gospels are not ordinary biographies. They tell the story of victory in defeat, of triumph through tragedy. Make no mistake: the point of Jesus’s life was to die, the point of his death was to rise again, and the point of his resurrection was to justify believing sinners (Rom. 4:25). Upon seeing Jesus, John the Baptist announced, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29). From even before his birth, the mission of the Christ was to save sinners. ‘You shall call his name Jesus,’ the angel told Joseph, ‘for he will save his people from their sins’ (Matt. 1:21). No wonder Jesus understood his own mission as coming ‘to seek and save the lost’ (Luke 19:10). ‘The Son of Man did not come to be served,’ he told his disciples, ‘but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:45).”

To the household of Cornelius, Peter, in our reading from Acts this morning, said, “To him [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

It was true then. It is true now. It has always been the truth that turns sorrow to joy, despair to hope, and death to everlasting life.

“Do not be alarmed,” says the young man to the women who came to the tomb. “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.”

Crucified, dead, buried. Buried in this very tomb, the entrance sealed by a stone you thought could not be rolled away. 

Are you seeking Jesus? Well, ladies, you’ve come to the wrong place.

“He has risen; he is not here.”

Here is a place for the dead. You are seeking him who has defeated death. You are seeking him who is alive and will never die again. 

You are seeking him over whom death has no claim!

“He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him.”

See with your own eyes that death could not hold him. The grave could not keep him. Hell could not defeat him.

“But,” don’t waste too much time here, “go, tell his disciples and Peter,” yes even Peter, that coward that denied him three times, because he still has work for him with Cornelius and a whole bunch of other people, “that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”

With all the sorrow and agony of the last few days, maybe you forgot that little detail—but he did tell you, no less than three times, that he would die and, after three days, he would rise again.

“See the place where they laid him.”

You can see he is not here. He is on his way to Galilee. You will see him there. I know you are afraid now, but again, “Do not be alarmed.”

Go, tell his disciples. Go, tell the world. Go, announce the good news that, for every sinner, there is salvation in the name of him who died and rose again.

“We will not be Bible people,” DeYoung concludes, “or Jesus people, or gospel people—if we are not salvation-for-sinners people. Though some may call it a soterian gospel or an individualistic gospel, the unavoidable reality of Scripture is that at the heart of the message of the cross is the simple, wonderful, glorious good news that Christ saves sinners like you and me. And if this message, and all that took place to accomplish what it announces, represents the climax of redemptive history—indeed, if all of history is about redemption—then we are right to conclude that this soteriological emphasis must shape the sound of our preaching, the priority of our ministry, and the mission of the church. . . . The mercy of God is the theme of our song because the salvation of sinners is the story of Scripture. Let us sing it, say it, and savor it—this week and for eternity.”

Thanks be to God.


*Denny Burke has written a helpful response to the article in question.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

"Sir, we wish to see Jesus"

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III

Fifth Sunday in Lent

21 March 2021 

Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 4:14-5:10, John 12:20-36

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)


Collect of the Day

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.



“It was not while bare and not participating in the limits of his emptying that God the Word became our model,” writes Cyril of Alexandria, “but ‘in the days of his flesh.’ Then, quite legitimately, he could employ human limits and pray insistently and shed tears and even appear somehow in need of a savior and learn obedience, though a Son. The inspired author is, so to speak, stupefied by the mystery that the Son, existing by nature truly and endowed with the glories of divinity, should so abase himself that he endured the low estate of our impoverished humanity.”

The “inspired author” of Hebrews is, says Cyril, “stupefied by the mystery” of the Incarnation. How could the very Son of God “so abase himself” as to identify with the lowest of the low, an “impoverished humanity,” scarred and corrupted by sin, far removed from the glories of the heavenly court, helpless to save itself from certain death?

Stupefying, indeed. How can anyone be anything but stupefied by something so glorious?

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

Glorified, says Proclus of Constantinople, “referring to the cross. For from it the power of the Lord was made known, [because] it changed the shame into glory—


the insult into honor,

the curse into blessing,

the gall into sweetness,

the vinegar into milk,

the slap in the face into freedom,

death into life.

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

But how is he to be glorified?

Glorified through one of the most inhuman forms of suffering every devised, for Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself.”

As if we needed this to be explained—and many of us do—John adds this little footnote, “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.”

There is no doubt that Jesus’ original audience knew what he meant about being “lifted up.” Their reaction says it all.

“We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”

They knew he was talking about dying. They knew he was talking about dying on a cross.

But that’s not the way it’s supposed to work, is it? Isn’t the Christ, God’s Anointed One, supposed to remain with us forever? If you die, how can you remain forever? How can you be who you say you are if your mission is “to be lifted up?”

Don’t miss the irony of connecting “the kind of death he was going to die” with being “lifted up from the earth.”

Jesus, “the Son of Man” and “the Christ” was to be “glorified” through “the kind of death he was going to die,” and now “the hour” of his glorification had come, signified by the fact that he was being sought out by “some Greeks” who were “among those who went up to worship at the feast.”

Not Jews. Not even Samaritans. But Greeks, the quintessential Gentiles, the “God fearers” who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast even though they would not be allowed to participate fully.

“Sir,” they say to Philip, “we wish to see Jesus.”

You might simply say their curiosity was peaked. They had heard so much about this Jesus since they had arrived. They respected the Jewish people. They wanted to know more about their faith but, up until now, they had been kept at arm’s length.

Maybe, just maybe, this Jesus was the answer they had been looking for.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

It is a pivotal moment. 

On two previous occasions, John says the authorities could have had the opportunity to arrest Jesus but they did not “because his hour had not yet come.”

Now, informed by Andrew and Philip that “some Greeks” are asking to see him, Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

“Glorified,” meaning, as we have already seen, the cross.

“Now is my soul troubled,” Jesus says. “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

To what “purpose” does Jesus refer? Nothing less than his own death—for that is what he came to do. The full plan and purpose of the Father, who has glorified and will glorify his name again, cannot be accomplished in any other way.

“Now is the judgment of this world,” Jesus says, “now will the ruler of this world be cast out.”

Jesus is giving away the ending, isn’t he? He’s telling us that, despite all appearances, his death will not be the end of him, but of his greatest enemy.

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Through his death, he will draw all people into his embrace of eternal life.


“He took up humanity into himself,” writes Irenaeus, “the invisible becoming visible, the incomprehensible being made comprehensible, the impassible becoming capable of suffering and the Word being made human, thus summing up all things in himself: so that as in supercelestial, spiritual and invisible things, the Word of God is supreme, so also in things visible and corporeal he might possess the supremacy, and, taking to himself the preeminence, as well as constituting himself head of the church, he might draw all things to himself at the proper time.”

That, in the end, is his purpose. It is the grand and glorious purpose of God: the perfect and complete redemption of his creation.

And what is required of you to be included in that redemption?

Only that simple faith expressed in the words of those “Greeks” who came to the festival.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”


Sunday, March 14, 2021

"Let him go up"

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Texts: 2 Chronicles 36:14-23, Ephesians 2:4-10, John 6:1-5

Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him. Let him go up.”


Collect of the Day

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen


A tragedy that ends on a high note.

A tale of despair that ends with a word of hope.

A story of death that ends with the promise of life.

Don’t tell me that God didn’t have a hand in writing all of this.

The history of ancient Israel, from the rise of King Saul to the fall of the southern kingdom of Judah, is one of unrelenting faithfulness on the part of God and of unending failure on the part of his chosen people.

Israel was to be a beacon of hope to all the nations, calling them out of the darkness of their pagan ways and into the light of the one true and living God. But instead of shining the light, she allowed herself to be overcome by the darkness.

There were some bright spots along the way, to be sure. There was David, the man after God’s own heart, but even he was not without grave moral shortcomings. There was Solomon with all his wisdom, but he was not immune to the temptations of the flesh. There was Josiah, the great reformer who died tragically young because God did not will for him to see his kingdom fall.

Faithfulness and failure always went hand in hand throughout the history of Israel, the northern kingdom that fell some years earlier, and Judah, the southern kingdom that, from time to time, did show some signs of life. God, being faithful, “sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD rose against his people, until there was no remedy.”

Even the patience of God has its limits. The end finally came, as God “brought up against them the King of the Chaldeans, who killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or aged.”

The consequences of disobedience, of failure to be the people God called them to be, were harsh and severe. Even the very house of God would not survive—for if it could not be pure and undefiled, it might as well not exist at all.

“And all the vessels of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the LORD, and the treasures of the king and of his princes, all these he brought to Babylon. And they burned the house of God and broke down the wall of Jerusalem and burned all its palaces with fire and destroyed all its precious vessels.”

And it’s not as if God hadn’t warned his people that such a punishment was coming if they persisted in their disobedience.

“He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.”

So great was the disobedience of the people that the land had been defiled and had to be purified—and that meant it had to be left desolate for seventy years. Yet, in that desolation, were being planted the seeds of restoration.

“All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath.”

The land was given rest in order that it might be prepared for the return of purified people.

And, as he had foretold the downfall, so he had foreseen the restoration.

Cyrus of Persia

“Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia,
that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: ‘Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, “The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him. Let him go up.”’”

And who were those “among his people,” God’s people, the LORD’s chosen ones? They were the ones who were exiles in the land, who wept by the waters of Babylon as they remembered Zion. They were down and out in a foreign land. To them came the call: “Let him go up.”

These are not merely the words of Cyrus king of Persia. They are the very word of “the LORD, the God of heaven.”

To those who are down, it is time to go up. It is time to go home.

A tragedy that ends on a high note.

A tale of despair that ends with a word of hope.

A story of death that ends with the promise of life.

Don’t tell me that God didn’t have a hand in writing all of this.

In fact, don’t tell me that God didn’t write the whole thing.

From its beginning, he knew its end; from its end, he knew its beginning. Everything in between came as no surprise.

All that will come after, he will know in advance, as well. The people will return, rebuild the temple, resettle the land, and start messing up all over again. Only this time, he won’t send a succession of prophets. He will send his own Son.

They won’t just refuse to listen to him.

They won’t just reject him.

They will nail him to a cross.

They will bury him in a tomb.

The light of the world slain, so it appears, by the powers of darkness.

But, on the first day of the week, early in the morning following the day of Sabbath rest, the true return from exile—of which all others before had only been pale shadows—bursts forth in glorious, everlasting day.

Up from the grave, he arose!

A tragedy that ends on a high note.

A tale of despair that ends with a word of hope.

A story of death that ends with the promise of life.

Don’t tell me that God didn’t write this whole thing.

Don’t tell me that God is not the Author of life everlasting.

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raise us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing. It is the gift of God.”

To anyone in the grip of despair, flailing away in the dark as sin pushes you down, hear the word of the LORD, the word of him who sent his Son to take your punishment upon himself:

“Let him go up.”


Sunday, March 7, 2021

If we were not wretches, we would not be here today

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III

Third Sunday in Lent, 7 March 2021

Texts: Exodus 20:1-21, Romans 7:12-25, John 2:13-22

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25a)


Collect of the Day

Heavenly Father, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you: Look with compassion upon the heartfelt desires of your servants, and purify our disordered affections, that we may behold your eternal glory in the face of Christ Jesus; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Some of the worst hymns in the history of the church were written during the period between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, during the heyday of the “Social Gospel” era. They were bad not because they were difficult to sing or because they were matched with cumbersome tunes and melodies. In fact, many of them, on the surface, have a very majestic sound and quality to them.

They were bad not because, taken individually, they contained any particularly objectionable material.

They were bad because, taken as whole body of work, in historical context, they were, and still are, generic and theologically vacuous.

Too many of them begin with “God of” this or “God of” that—a most impersonal deity.

“God of Grace and God of Glory” is a classic example. We still sing this hymn today with a lot of gusto. It is, in many ways, a stirring hymn. But to draw out of it any spiritual energy, you have to lay aside the historical background behind its composition and its composer.

Harry Emerson Fosdick

Harry Emerson Fosdick was, by any measure, a heretic of the first order. He wrote the hymn on the occasion of the dedication of his new church, founded and underwritten by none other than John D. Rockefeller, for the specific purpose of the propagation of Fosdick’s different gospel.

Scott Wilson (A Concise History of Preaching) describes Fosdick’s preaching in this way:

After floundering for his first years as a preacher, he devised a homiletic based in pastoral counseling that made preaching an adventure for him. Every sermon was to start with the “real problems of people” and was to “meet their difficulties, answer their questions, confirm their noblest faiths and interpret their experiences in sympathetic, wise and understanding co-operation.”

In other words, a lot of pop psychology and self-help with minimal Scripture and only used, when employed, to illustrate a pre-determined point. That method of preaching is exactly backward. You begin with the Scriptural text and move to the point. You don’t begin with the point and move to the text.

You might say I am using Harry Emerson Fosdick today to illustrate my pre-determined point. I would plead guilty to that, except for the fact that when I began writing this sermon, I had no idea I would even mention the man. But it was today’s text from Romans that started me down the path that led to my mentioning him and his stirring but flawed hymn.

“Wretched man that I am!” Paul writes. “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

 In the course of a service of worship, from its rudimentary planning all the way to the final blessing and dismissal, the Holy Spirit is at work—bringing together the collects and prayers, the Scripture readings, the hymns, the sermon, the gathering at the Table—all the elements of worship into a cohesive act of praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God.

That is always the case—every Sunday, every week. But there are some weeks when it is more clearly discernable. This is such a week—from the collect (which we will get to in a moment) to the readings to the hymns.

At the close of our service this morning we will sing “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” a hymn written barely 20 years ago. Yet, listen to these words, and hear the clear echo of Paul’s words:

How deep the Father’s love for us, How vast beyond all measure, That he should give his only Son to make a wretch his treasure!

Hymnwriters today seem to be rediscovering the power of biblical language. Hymnwriters of old were never afraid to us it.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!

When you understand the history behind these words, they are even more powerful. John Newton was very much a wretch. He was the captain of a slave ship. But after a powerful conversion experience, he became an Anglican priest. One of his parishioners was a member of Parliament named William Wilberforce, the man who was almost singlehandedly responsible for the abolition of the British slave trade.

John Newton
“Amazing Grace” was John Newton’s testimony—and it has become the testimony of so many others—to the power of God to save and deliver even the worst of sinners. Late in his life, he said, “Although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”

That’s not speaking about “real problems of people” but, rather, the problem and the solution, the only solution, that brings life and health and peace to every person. And is that not, again, merely a reiteration of the words of Paul?

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Romans 7 is a difficult passage, not only to preach but to read—because not a single one of us can read it without realizing we are, indeed, wretched. There is no comfort in the law because, as Paul says, “the law is spiritual” but we are “of the flesh, sold under sin.” Slaves, if you will, to sin. We are wretches. We are bound to do those things we know we ought not to do, yet we do them anyway.

If that sounds like circular reasoning, well, it is—because sin makes us go around in circles, bouncing off the walls, tying us up in knots, burying us in self-pity and self-loathing—restless souls longing to be free, but knowing we cannot free ourselves.

“Heavenly Father, you have made us for yourself,” we prayed earlier, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you: Look with compassion upon the heartfelt desires of your servants, and purify our disordered affections, that we may behold your eternal glory in the face of Christ Jesus; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.”

Augustine of Hippo

The language of this prayer, particularly the first part, is borrowed from St. Augustine, another wretch of a man that God made his treasure. In his
Confessions, his spiritual autobiography, he withholds nothing in bearing his soul to God about his own disordered affections that manifested themselves in some pretty wild youthful indiscretions.

I cared for nothing but to love and be loved. But my love went beyond the affection of one mind for another, beyond the arc of the bright beam of friendship. Bodily desire, like a morass, and adolescent sex welling up within me exuded mists which clouded over and obscured my heart, so that I could not distinguish the clear light of true love from the murk of lust. Love and lust together seethed within me. In my tender youth they swept me away over the precipice of my body’s appetites and plunged me in the whirlpool of sin. More and more I angered you, unawares. For I had been deafened by the clank of my chains, the fetters of the death which was my due to punish the pride of my soul. I strayed still farther from you and you did not restrain me. I was tossed and spilled, floundering in the broiling sea of my fornication, and you said no word. How long it was before I learned that you were my true joy! You were silent then, and I went on my way, farther from you, proud in my distress and restless in fatigue, sowing more and more seeds whose only crop was grief.

That is one paragraph in a 13-volume, 350-page work. Augustine, like Paul and like John Newton, was certainly not born a Christian. No one is. We are all born wretches. We don’t like to hear that. We don’t like to be reminded of it. But if we were not all born wretches, born in sin, far gone from original righteousness, we would not all be here today, to cry out as Paul and Augustine and Newton and countless others have done, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Behold the man upon a cross, my sin upon his shoulders; Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers. It was my sin that held him there until it was accomplished; His dying breath has brought me life; I know that it is finished.

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Devoted to destruction: An early exercise in hermeneutical gymnastics and creative (dis)obedience

The fall from favor of Saul, the first king of Israel, is a vivid illustration of the consequences of rebellion and a typical human attempt to rationalize disobedience into obedience. In 1 Samuel 15, Samuel instructs Saul on behalf of the Lord, "Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey" (v. 3).

The instructions are clear. But Saul engages in one of the earliest recorded examples of hermeneutical gymnastics. "But Saul and the people spared Agag [king of Amalek] and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them. All that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction" (v. 9).

When confronted by Samuel about his failure to obey the Lord's command, Saul denies that he has been disobedient. He says, "I have obeyed the voice of the LORD. I have gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal" (vv. 20-21).

Needless to say, neither Samuel nor the Lord is impressed with Saul's creative interpretation of obedience. Even "the best of the things devoted to destruction" are still "devoted to destruction" and are, therefore, wholly unacceptable as a sacrifice to the Lord. What Saul and "the people" (upon whom he would apparently lay all blame for any deviation from the original plan while exonerating himself) would offer as a sacrifice is an utter abomination. That which is "devoted to destruction" is unholy and cannot be offered as a sacrifice to a holy God.

Whether it's sheep and oxen under the Old Covenant or the living sacrifice of our very selves under the New Covenant, nothing unholy can be brought into the presence of God. That which is "devoted to destruction," that is, the sin that enslaves us in rebellion and idolatry, must be utterly destroyed. To claim certain sinful inclinations are "gifts" to be celebrated within the worshiping community (as some would now have us do) is a most abominable form of blasphemy, borne of a most arrogant presumption that rebellion against God can be rationalized into obedience by offenders who always seem to find clever ways of avoiding personal responsibility for their sinful actions.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Lenten disciplines as a means of grace

 The most commonly observed discipline associated with the Lenten season--that of "giving up something"--is but a pale residue of the actual disciplines of fasting and self-denial that are the true emphases of the season. These disciplines are means of grace whereby we, in the words of Hebrews, "lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely" in order that we may "run with perserverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."

Rather than simply "giving up something" that we will all too eagerly take up again at the end of these forty days, Lent ought to be a time of serious self-examination, a time to look deep within ourselves to see what hinders our walk with Christ and resolve to give up that sinful habit, that wrongful attitude, that errant practice not for forty days, but from this time forward and forever. St. John Chrysostom reminds us of the true purpose of the Lenten fast.

What advantage is it if we have kept the fast, and not improved our conduct? If someone tells you, I have fasted the whole of Lent, let your answer be, I had an enemy and am now reconciled; I had a habit of reviling, and have left it off; I had a custom of swearing, and this evil propensity is checked. It is no use for a merchant to cross the seas, unless the merchant returns home laden with goods, nor is there any use in our fasting, if with the act itself, all further good good ceases. If our fasting has consisted merely in abstaining from meals, when Lent is ended our fast will have passed away. But if our fast consists in abstaining from sin, when the fast has come to an end the benefit will still remain and will lay up for us treasures in the heavens.

Easter is the joy that is set before us. But first we must crucify "the sin which clings so closely" and hinders our growing up into Christ. Lent is the season for confronting all the roadblocks that Satan puts in the way. The joy of the resurrection will be all the more glorious when celebrated with a heart in perfect harmony with the will our heavenly Father.

The Lord my Creator took me as dust from the earth,
and formed me into a living being,
breathing into me the breath of life.
God honored me,
setting me as ruler upon earth over all things visible,
and made me companion of the angels.
But Satan the deceiver,
using the serpent as instrument,
enticed me by food--
parted me from the glory of God,
and gave me over to the earth and to the lowest depths of the earth.
But in compassion, O Savior, call me back again!

Byzantine Vespers

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

The world's first sissy

Irony is a common device employed throughout the biblical narrative. With the account of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16), we see it employed from the very earliest beginnings. Here are two brothers, sons of Adam and Eve. Of Cain, her firstborn, Eve says, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.” From a post-Eden, that is, fallen, perspective, Cain certainly appears to be the more “manly” of the two siblings. He is “a worker of the ground.” Abel, conversely, follows the more soft-spoken and gentle path of “a keeper of sheep.”

Yet, a careful reading of all that has come before clues us in on the impending calamity. The ground that Cain works is cursed because of Adam’s sin (Genesis 3:17). By working it, Cain is merely living out the implications and consequences of that curse. Abel, on the other hand, tends the sheep from whose “skin” came the “garments” which covered his parents’ shameful nakedness. Cain cultivates life under the curse; Abel seeks redemption from the curse.

It is apparent that Cain’s animosity toward Abel is festering long before the two make their respective offerings to God. Cain offers some of the fruit of the cursed ground that he has worked. Abel offers one of the firstborn of his flock. It is not God’s preference for animal carcasses over fruit that causes him to accept Abel’s offering and reject Cain’s. Rather, it is his requirement that every offering come from a pure heart. Cain’s offering of fruit from the cursed ground is indicative of a heart out of sync with the heart of God. He seeks not redemption from his fallen state but, rather, approval of his fallenness. He desires not to be conformed to God’s image, but to conform God to his image.

Abel, however, makes an offering from a heart fully devoted to God. His offering requires him to make a painful sacrifice. He must choose a spotless lamb, even before it is born, and raise it to maturity for the sole purpose of slaughtering it and presenting it to God as a burnt offering. Abel makes such an offering not because he was born with a pure heart, but because he realizes precisely the opposite is true. No less than his treacherous brother, Abel was born in sin. He realizes that redemption out of his fallen state requires sacrifice on his part, even the shedding of blood. Abel’s offering of the firstborn of his flock prefigures God’s own offering of Christ, the perfect Lamb, for the sins of the world.

Cain’s reaction to God’s rejection of his offering is all too typical of a fallen creature. He becomes angry and bitter. To be blunt, he whines and complains. How could God treat him so unfairly? But God sternly warns him that he is treading on dangerous ground. “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?” God asks him. “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

Significant here is the structure of God’s warning to Cain. It harkens back again to the curse placed on Adam and Eve. But it was to Eve, not to Adam, that God spoke in a similar manner, saying, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). Thus Cain, the “worker of the ground,” finds himself seduced by a most dangerous mistress. What God is saying to him is, in essence, “Be a man, you little whiner! Turn away from sin and give your life back to me!”

Tragically, however, Cain does not heed God’s warning. He continues to cultivate his fallenness, allowing his bitterness and resentment to continue to fester. Contrary to Eve’s expectation, Cain is not a man. Refusing God’s gracious offer of redemption, he becomes the world’s first sissy. His enmity toward God manifests itself in enmity toward his brother; his enmity toward his brother results in murder; and murder results in his being sent away into the land of Nod, to wander aimlessly for his remaining years, in constant fear for his life.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Epiphany 4/Septuagesima

Epiphany 4/Septuagesima: Church of the Holy Trinity, Grahamville
31 January 2021
4th Sunday of Epiphany/Septuagesima
Speaker: James Gibson
Text: Mark 1:21-28

Thursday, December 10, 2020

The church that had fallen asleep (Revelation 3:1-6)

 A church cannot live long off of its "reputation." The church in Sardis presented itself as a church that was "alive." Jesus, however, was not impressed. "You have a reputation of being alive," he says, "but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God." The Sardis church stands in contrast to the church in Smyrna. Smyrna was a church thriving in spite of persecution; Sardis was a church dying because it thought it was safe from trouble.

The language of Jesus' admonition was one the believers in Sardis would have understood all too well if they knew their history. Twice, in 549 B.C. and 218 B.C., the city had been sacked. Both times, the citadel of the city had been taken by stealth. The people were caught unaware, thinking the natural fortifications of the city were sufficient to fend off any attack. Jesus warned the believers in Sardis that if they "will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you." Just as the city had fallen into enemy hands because of a lack of watchfulness, so the church in that city would come under judgment if it did not awaken from its sleep.

It would appear the church in Sardis had become too much like its surroundings. Its "reputation" was becoming linked with that of the city itself and its ignominious history of failing to stay awake in the face of impending catastrophe. Having likewise fallen asleep, the believers in Sardis were admonished to wake up and face reality. They were no longer "alive," but "dead." Their idleness and apathy were sins for which they must repent. All was not yet lost, indeed, there were "still a few names in Sardis" who were "worthy," but the urgency of Jesus' warning indicated the time was short. His judgment would come at a time when they least expected it; and it would be swift, sure, and decisive.

Watchfulness is the theme that runs throughout the Advent season. Unlike the church in Sardis, we do not want to be found sleeping at our Lord's coming. Jesus promises that "[the] one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels." That is a promise worth waiting for!

"He who has an ear, let him hear what the  Spirit says to the churches."

The church that loved too much (Revelation 2:18-28)

 Any similarity between the church in Thyatira and present-day churches that overlook blatant heresy in the name of "love" is hardly coincidental. The church in Thyatira is the opposite extreme of the church in Ephesus. Whereas Ephesus is commended for its commitment to truth and rebuked for its lack of love, Thyatira is commended for its "love and faith and service and patient endurance" but rebuked for tolerating "that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols."

Thyatira is the church that loved too much. Its leaders are apparently too weak to resist the manipulations of "Jezebel," a particularly despicable woman whose name is a reference back to the wicked queen who, along with her husband King Ahab, instituted Baal worship in Israel at the time of Elijah. Calling herself a "prophetess," she has been given free reign in Thyatira to lead people astray into what appears to have been an idolatrous cult that glorified sexual immorality. There is nothing remotely Christ-like in her teachings or in the Thyatiran church tolerating her under the guise of "love."

Just as truth divorced from love leads to legalism, love divorced from truth leads to licentiousness. Both will ultimately lead to death. For the church to thrive and be a faithful witness for Christ (and thus a threat to the fallen order called "Babylon" throughout Revelation), it must keep truth and love in proper balance. Only then will it create an environment of grace in which true and loving disciples can be consistently made and nurtured.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Faithful unto death (Revelation 2:8-17)

 While the church in Pergamum has a few problems which need to be addressed, not least of which being the presence of the Nicolaitans, an obscure but dangerous heretical sect, Jesus has nothing but commendation to offer the church in Smyrna. Bearing faithful witness to Christ, however, is a dangerous thing in Smyrna. Jesus warns the believers that a time of testing is coming upon them. Some will be thrown into prison; some may even lose their lives. "Be faithful unto death," Jesus encourages them, and I will give you the crown of life." 

The bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, was ordained by John himself. The account of his martyrdom is one of the most moving stories of faith in the history of the ancient church. Polycarp would not deny his Lord, even if it meant making the ultimate sacrifice. He remains an example for all believers of patient endurance and faithfulness even unto death.

But as Polycarp entered into the stadium, a voice came to him from heaven; "Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man." And no one saw the speaker, but those of our people who were present heard the voice. And at length, when he was brought up, there was a great tumult, for they heard that Polycarp had been apprehended.

When then he was brought before him, the proconsul asked whether he were the man. And on his confessing that he was, he tried to persuade him to a denial saying, "Have respect to your age," and other things in accordance therewith, as it is their habit to say, "Swear by the genius of Caesar; repent and say, 'Away with the atheists.'" Then Polycarp with solemn countenance looked upon the whole multitude of lawless heathen that were in the stadium, and waved his hand to them; and groaning and looking up to heaven he said, "Away with the atheists."

But when the magistrate pressed him hard and said, "Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile the Christ," Polycarp said, "Eighty-six years have I been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"

But on his persisting again and saying, "Swear by the genius of Caesar," he answered, "If you suppose vainly that I will swear by the genius of Caesar, as you say, and feign that you are ignorant who I am, hear you plainly: I am a Christian. But if you would learn the doctrine of Christianity, assign a day and give me a hearing."

The proconsul said, "Prevail upon the people." But Polycarp said, "As for yourself, I should have held you worthy of discourse; for we have been taught to render, as is proper, to princes and authorities appointed by God such honor as does us no harm; but as for these, I do not hold them worthy, that I should defend myself before them."

Whereupon the proconsul said: "I have wild beasts here and I will throw you to them, except you repent." But he said, "Call for them, for the repentance from better to worse is a change not permitted to us; but it is a noble thing to change from that which is improper to righteousness."

Then he said to him again, "If you despise the wild beasts, I will cause you to be consumed by fire, unless you repent." But Polycarp said: "You threaten that fire which burns for a season and after a little while is quenched: for you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will."

Saying these things and more besides, he was inspired with courage and joy, and his countenance was filled with grace, so that not only did it not drop in dismay at the things which were said to him, but on the contrary the proconsul was astounded and sent his own herald to proclaim three times in the midst of the stadium, "Polycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian."

When this was proclaimed by the herald, the whole multitude both of Gentiles and of Jews who dwelt in Smyrna cried out with ungovernable wrath and with a loud shout, "This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the puller down of our gods, who teaches multitudes not to sacrifice nor worship." Saying these things, they shouted aloud and asked the Asiarch Philip to let a lion loose upon Polycarp. But he said that it was not lawful for him, since he had brought the sports to a close.

Then they thought fit to shout out with one accord that Polycarp should be burned alive. For it must needs be that the matter of the vision should be fulfilled, which was shown him concerning his pillow, when he saw it on fire while praying, and turning round he said prophetically to the faithful who were with him, "I must needs be burned alive."

These things then happened with so great speed, quicker than words could tell, the crowds immediately collected timber and sticks from the workshops and baths, and the Jews more especially assisted in this with zeal, as is their custom.

But when the pile was made ready, divesting himself of all his upper garments and loosing his belt, he endeavored also to take off his shoes, though not in the habit of doing this before, because all the faithful at all times vied eagerly who should soonest touch his flesh. For he had been treated with all honor for his holy life even before his gray hairs came.

Immediately then the instruments that were prepared for the pile were placed about him. As they were going likewise to nail him to the stake, he said: "Leave me as I am; for He that has granted me to endure the fire will grant me also to remain at the pyre unmoved, even without the security which you seek from the nails."

So they did not nail him, but tied him. Then he, placing his hands behind him and being bound to the stake, like a noble ram out of a great flock for an offering, a burnt sacrifice made ready and acceptable to God, looking up to heaven said: "O Lord God Almighty, the Father of Your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers and of all creation and of the whole race of the righteous, who live in Your presence;

I bless You because You have granted me this day and hour, that I might receive a portion amongst the number of martyrs in the cup of Your Christ unto resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and of body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among these in Your presence this day, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as You did prepare and reveal it beforehand, and have accomplished it, You that art the faithful and true God.

For this cause, yea and for all things, I praise You, I bless You, I glorify You, through the eternal and heavenly High-priest, Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, through Whom, with Him and the Holy Spirit, be glory both now and ever and for the ages to come. Amen."

When he had offered up the Amen and finished his prayer, the firemen lighted the fire. And, a mighty flame flashing forth, we to whom it was given to see, saw a marvel, yea and we were preserved that we might relate to the rest what happened.

The fire, making the appearance of a vault, like the sail of a vessel filled by the wind, made a wall round about the body of the martyr; and it was there in the midst, not like flesh burning, but like a loaf in the oven or like gold and silver refined in a furnace. For we perceived such a fragrant smell, as if it were the wafted odor of frankincense or some other precious spice.

So at length the lawless men, seeing that his body could not be consumed by the fire, ordered an executioner to go up to him and stab him with a dagger. And when he had done this, there came forth [a dove and] a quantity of blood, so that it extinguished the fire; and all the multitude marveled that there should be so great a difference between the unbelievers and the elect.

In the number of these latter was this man, the glorious martyr Polycarp, who was found an apostolic and prophetic teacher in our own time, a bishop of the holy Church which is in Smyrna. For every word which he uttered from his mouth was accomplished and will be accomplished.

The church that forgot to love (Revelation 2:1-7)

Several years earlier, Paul had written to his protege Timothy, urging him to "remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculation rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith" (1 Timothy 1:3-4). Apparently, Timothy succeeded in keeping the Ephesian church doctrinally pure. Addressing the church in Revelation, Jesus says, "I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary."

If doing everything "by the book" were the key to being a vibrant church, the believers in Ephesus would be a model congregation. Jesus, however, holds them to a higher standard. "But I have this against you," he says, "that you have lost the love you had at first."

Ephesus is the church that forgot to love. Jesus admonishes the believers to "Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place unless you repent."

Truth divorced from love is legalistic, judgmental, and cruel. Indeed, there is no church more spiritually dead than the church which does the right thing for the wrong reason. Chasing off false apostles is certainly not wrong in and of itself, but defensiveness cannot take the place of love as the defining characteristic of the church. Love compels the church not only to drive out the wolves, but also to seek out and bring home the lost sheep.