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.