Sunday, March 11, 2018

“Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?!”

“Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?!” You remember that line from The Raiders of the Lost Ark?

Snakes are the one thing that Indiana Jones is afraid of and suddenly he is faced with the prospect of crossing a pit full of them.

Why do snakes make our skin crawl? Maybe for you they don’t. Some people seem fond of snakes. Strange people. Speaking for myself, I am terrified of them. Even a picture of a snake has the power to creep me out. I never visit the Reptile house at the Zoo.

Sometimes I even have nightmares about snakes. Nightmares strangely reminiscent of that scene from the Raiders of the Lost Ark which still haunts me. Sometimes I dream the snakes are in bed with me and I jump up screaming.

Studies suggest the humans have evolved  the innate ability  to sense snakes — and spiders, too — and to learn to fear them. This sensitivity helped our ancestors survive in the wild where a bite from a snake was an immanent and life threatening danger.

The symbol of the snake as a deadly threat is imbedded deep in our collective unconscious. I think this must be why they appear in my nightmares so frequently. I tend to have these dreams when I am feeling stressed, anxious, fearful, or even guilty. My mind is preparing my body for a fight or flight situation.  

Of course the snake is almost universally depicted as a sinister creature, not least in the Bible. The snake is humanity’s primordial enemy beginning in the Garden of Eden when the serpent lead Eve and her husband astray. God even promised to place enmity between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the snake. He says, “he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.”

This is more than just a folksy story meant to explain why people dislike snakes. It is description of the battle that goes on within all of us between our lower and higher natures.  

God cursed the snake for his part in the Fall,

Cursed are you above all livestock
    and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
    and you will eat dust
    all the days of your life.

The snake represents our lower nature, the flesh, the part of us that is tied to the earth, cursed to slither in the dirt. It is an irrational beast full of deadly poison.

When human beings rebelled against God they fell under the power of the serpent. Each generation struggled in vain against the snake. Each generation was stricken by the serpent’s poison and died.

This drama plays out again in our Old Testament lesson. The people of Israel rebel against God in the wilderness and as a result the Lord sends fiery serpents against them.

This is how God’s Judgment works. If we rebel against him, he lets us have our way. If we will not serve him, then we will serve our passions instead. To serve God is life but to refuse God and serve our sinful nature is death.

Saint Paul said it this way, “since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, He gave them up to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done.”

In our Lenten wilderness journey we struggle against the destructive passions and impulses that draw us from the service of God. We war against the deadly attacks of our sinful nature.

Why does God allow us to suffer these things? Is it because he is cruel or vindictive? Is it because he has abandoned us?

Psalm 78—recounting the people’s rebellion in the wilderness—says,

Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer.”

God disciplines us, he punishes us by handing us over to the consequences of our sin, not in order to be cruel, but in order to draw us back to himself. He lets us hit rock bottom because he knows that it is the only way that we will come to see the error of our ways. Only when we have come to the end ourselves are we truly prepared to look to God.

God does not allow us to be afflicted without also providing a solution to our affliction. He has not allowed us to fall under the power of sin without also providing a redeemer. He has not allowed us to suffer death without also breaking the power of death.

When the people of Israel were perishing from the bites of the poisonous serpents, God provided them an antidote. He instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. When ever someone was bitten, they could look up at the bronze serpent and he healed.

It seems an odd solution. Didn’t God punish the people of Israel for making a Golden Calf? Why is he here encouraging Moses to make a bronze snake? We know from later in the Biblical record that this Bronze serpent would later become a stumbling block for the people. They began burning incense to it and worshipping it almost as a God in itself. Under King Hezekiah’s reforms, the serpent was destroyed.

It was never the Bronze statue itself that was the source of the people’s deliverance, it was the thing that the image represented. In looking to the serpent the people were to look beyond the serpent to the one who himself bore their sickness, who died that they might live.

Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Jesus was the one who was promised even in the garden. He is the seed of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent. The serpent would indeed strike his heel, Jesus would suffer the same death that all mortal men are bound to suffer, and yet by virtue of an indestructible life and the power of the spirit  would rise from the dead and trample death itself under his feet.

When we gaze by faith upon our crucified savior we see he who without sin become sin for our sake. We see the poisonous serpent defeated and nailed to the tree. We understand and receive the deliverance that was promised and we are healed. We perceive that God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

This one who is lifted high for our salvation is the light of the world. That light shows us the depth of our rebellion and sickness, but it also chases the darkness away and leads our feet into the way of righteousness.

Thursday, March 1, 2018


There is a disastrously erroneous message being preached in some of the largest churches in the world. On the surface it seems very positive and encouraging and indeed many have responded to it very enthusiastically for that very reason. It is often called, “the prosperity gospel.” The basic premise is that it is God’s will—as taught by the Holy Scriptures—that all God’s people should prosper in this life. In other words those who put their faith in God and his son Jesus Christ will enjoy material abundance, financial success, personal happiness, health, vitality, and everything else associated with worldly prosperity. Many of its proponents enjoy lavish lifestyles including multimillion-dollar homes and personal jets.

Although it is largely a homegrown American theology, it has spread all over the world and has particularly flourished in places of extreme poverty and hardship. It’s devotees believe that faith is the key that unlocks the promises of western affluence and abundance.

What can we say in response to this? First we should acknowledge that God does indeed want us to flourish. He intends our ultimate good not harm. Knowing God’s love for us will indeed create an abiding joy in our life. What it does not mean, however, is that our lives will be free of hardship or trouble.
Jesus never promised anything like that. In fact he said the opposite. He said, “In this world you will have trouble.”

In this morning’s gospel Jesus speaks of his own immanent rejection and suffering. Peter is disturbed by this idea and tells him, “that be far from you Lord!” Jesus in return offers him this sharp rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

The blessings of the gospel are spiritual rather than material. If we only look to Jesus because we seek worldly comfort or gain than our minds are set not on the things of God but on human things. The Christian life is not about glorifying ourselves but glorifying God.

If we want to become Jesus’ followers, if we want to live as he lived, and to do the things that he did, he tells us we must take up our cross. This is what it means to be disciples of Christ rather than just consumers of a blessing we suppose him to offer. But what does taking up our cross mean?

For Jesus’ original hearers this expression had a very clear and startling message. The cross was a method of execution used by the Roman Empire against political dissidents. It was a humiliating, shameful, terrifying, and excruciating way to die. This is what it meant to them. Remember that at the time Jesus spoke these words he had not yet suffered on the cross. His disciples did not in any way connect the cross with Jesus or his victory over sin. Jesus was saying, if you want to follow me it means willingly accepting the rage, contempt, and aggression of the world. It means being willing to be stripped, tortured, and murdered. It means becoming an enemy to the empire and a byword to all respectable people.

Not exactly health, wealth, and prosperity! He couldn’t have made being his disciple seem less attractive. His point wasn’t of course that we some how earn our way to God’s favor through suffering, but he was warning us that following him would not always be easy.

In our own context, the prospect of painful execution for following Jesus is far less immediate. Taking up our cross has taken on a much broader meaning. It means self-denial something which is at the heart of this season of Lent. Now no one should think that giving up chocolate is even remotely similar to crucifixion, but for you it might be a small way in which you begin to put Jesus’ words into practice.
How so? It contradicts the attitude that says my feelings, my desires, my comfort, and personal happiness is my main goal in life. Self-denial means pushing the self off of the throne and inviting God to take its place.

Self  denial means putting others above my self. It means being willing to deny myself for a purpose beyond my self. It means sacrificing for a greater cause. It means recognizing that my life is not my own to do with whatever I want, but that I belong to God, created for his purpose, and bought with a price.

Self denial might mean putting aside my feelings to do something kind for someone I dislike. Self-denial might mean giving to the church or to the poor instead of buying myself a new pair of shoes. Self-denial might mean getting up early for church when I would rather sleep in. Self-denial might mean skipping lunch and spending that time in prayer instead.
We all know that sometimes in life we need to practice sacrifice, discipline, and self-denial if we want to be happy. It might seem in the short term that sitting at home all day watching Netflix and eating junk food will make me happier than going to work, but in the long term the effect that it has on my health and finances will not make me happy at all!

Jesus says that our efforts at securing our own well-being are misguided. If we try to save our own life, if we cling so tightly to this world, we will never find that happiness we seek. Ultimate fulfillment will slip through our fingers and the life we tried so hard to save will lie in ruins. If instead we lay down our lives, if we give ourselves for things that are greater than us, if we live for God above self, than, surprisingly, we will find true fulfillment and joy.

God does indeed want us to prosper, but the prosperity he wants to give us is so much more than the kind that we think we want. It is worth more than all the wealth, power, and accolades of the world.

This Lent I invite you to find abundance through self-denial, glory through the cross, and your life hidden with Christ in God.

Forty Days in the Wilderness

During the season of Lent we sojourn with Jesus in the Wilderness. Our Gospel lesson today tells us that immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness for a time of testing and temptation. In keeping with the Bible’s description, Lent is also forty days.

You might notice a parallel here between Jesus’ own experience and various stories in the Old Testament. Our Old Testament lesson today reminds us of the story of Noah and his Ark. It rained forty days and forty nights. The whole world was flooded and all the evil swept from the earth, but Noah and his family were kept safe in the Ark. In our Epistle Saint Peter makes a connection between the story of Noah and baptism. Just as God cleansed the world in the days of the flood, so he cleanses us through baptism. The forty days of lent are similarly meant to be a time of purification, and an appeal to God for a good conscience.  It represents to us the Christian life, life after baptism, in which God works in us to make us holy.

Do you recall the story of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt? The people were enslaved and cruelly oppressed by Pharaoh, but God sent them a savior. His name was Moses and he led the people out of Egypt into freedom by parting the red sea.
The people crossed through on dry ground but their enemies were swept away in the crashing waves. In some ways it is similar to the story of Noah isn’t it? Like the flood story, the parting of the Red Sea is a type of baptism. Just as God led his people out of slavery through the Red Sea, so he leads us out of bondage through baptism. He claims us as his own children and promises to bring us to the Promised Land.

After leading his people out of Egypt, however, God did not bring them immediately into the Promised Land. They wandered in the wilderness for forty years. During that time, God provided for them in miraculous way, but he also tested them with trials and tribulations. The people were tempted in the wilderness and often failed. Lent is meant to remind us of our own time of wilderness wandering. We have been purchased and redeemed by God in Baptism, but we are not yet in the Promised Land. We are in the in-between time, the wilderness time. During Lent we look to God to provide for us and give us strength to stand up against temptation.

Just as God lead the people through the Red Sea into the wilderness, so he led Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism. His forty days in the wilderness parallels the forty years that Israel spent in the wilderness. Just as Israel was tried and tempted in the wilderness, so was Jesus. Our Gospel lesson tells us of how he was tempted by Satan but does not give us the details that some of the other gospels do.

Jesus’ time of temptation in the wilderness  should remind us of another well known Old Testament story, the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden. God created Adam out of the dust of the ground, breathed the spirit into him, and placed him in the Garden. He gave him dominion over all living creatures. God brought each of the animals to Adam and Adam gave names to them all.

Jesus is sometimes called the New Adam and Baptism is sometimes called a new creation. When Jesus was baptized, God sent his Spirit in the form of a dove. Although Adam fell from God’s grace through sin, God speaks from Heaven to say that Jesus is his Son in whom he is well pleased. God, however, does not send Jesus to a Garden but to a wilderness.
The world that God made beautiful, good, and orderly had become dangerous, barren, and unpredictable.

Just as Adam was with the animals in the Garden, so is Jesus with the animals in the wilderness. There is two ways to read this. One would be to say that Jesus was surrounded by friendly woodland creatures like Snow White when she fled to the wilderness. I don’t think this is likely. The text says that they were wild beasts. It seems that just as the garden had become a wilderness, so the animals had changed from friendly companions to threatening predators. Jesus is stalked and tormented by the wild beasts, but just as God provided for the children of Israel in the wilderness, so he provides for Jesus. He sends his angels to minister to him.

Perhaps you have taken upon yourself some special fasts this season of Lent. Perhaps you set some goal for spiritual growth. During your Lenten journey you will no doubt struggle to maintain this commitment. You will be tempted to give up. Perhaps as you take a hard look at yourself through self-examination, the devil will accuse you and cause you to doubt God’s love for you.
 God may allow you to be tested in these ways, but he will also send you his help from heaven. He will minister to you through his angels just as he did for Jesus.

Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan in the Garden. They were tempted to eat from the tree that God told them not to eat from. They failed that test. Jesus too was tempted in the wilderness by Satan. Unlike Adam and Eve who fell to temptation, Jesus proved victorious.  Likewise he will help us to stand also when we are tempted. When we are weak he is strong. Through his obedience, he undid the damage brought about by Adam’s disobedience. Because we are joined with him by faith and Holy Baptism, we share in his victory. We should hear Gods words as spoken to us, “This is my son—my child—in whom I am well pleased.”

These are the words, this is the promise, that will sustain us through our wilderness wanderings. Take courage. Christ cleanses us from sin, he delivers us from bondage, and he helps us to stand under temptation.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

On Wings Like Eagles

As a native of the Philadelphia area of Pennsylvania, I want to draw your attention to our scripture reading from the prophet Isaiah on this Super Bowl Sunday,

“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles.”

Could it be a sign?! I’m sure a lot of my friends and family back home would like to think so, but…probably not! God hears the prayers of both sides for encouragement, protection, and strength to play their best, but I don’t think he takes sides in these matters.

If we want to know what God is actually saying to us through this morning’s reading, we would be better served by looking at the original context of this prophecy. Isaiah is writing to the people of Israel who were suffering in exile far from home. They wondered if God had simply given up on them, if his patience had run out, or if their enemies had simply proven too strong for him.

In response to these doubts, the prophet reminds the people of the power and greatness of God. 

In the ancient world, it seemed that every tribe and nation had their own gods and goddesses. If your tribe or nation was defeated by another, it must have meant that their god was stronger than your god.

However God—The God of Israel, the God of the Bible, our God—is  not some petty local deity. He is not just the God of Israel but the God of all the universe.

Although the strength and determination of men and women fail, although we sometimes loose heart, although even the strongest of human beings sometimes find themselves powerless before obstacles they cannot overcome, God is not like one of these. God is not a man or any other creature, but completely other than us. He is infinitely higher in strength, power, wisdom, and greatness.  There is nothing in the world that is more powerful than he is. Indeed, he is the creator and sustainer of everything that is.

Moreover, his wisdom and knowledge is not limited and partial like ours. He doesn’t forget. There isn’t anything that escapes his notice. He is all wise and all knowing. We on the other hand are anything but. Although God’s purposes may not be clear to us, although we may not understand his plan, we can be assured that God is absolutely competent, absolutely wise, and absolutely good in all of his judgments.

Because God is the creator and source of all things, because he is all powerful, everlasting, and all wise, he alone can sustain us. Our strength and our perseverance comes from him.

Some of us are all too aware of our limitations. When faced with our personal failings and weakness we too easily give up and surrender to despondency.  We despair at our ability ever to overcome.  Instead, we should look to God’s grace for the strength and power that we lack in ourselves.  Acknowledging our own weakness—the fact that our life has become unmanageable—should direct our attention to a power higher than ourselves.  The prophet exhorts us, “Lift up your eyes and see your creator.”

For some of us the problem is that we have not yet come to appreciate our weakness and limitations. We have an over inflated perception of our own ability and competence. We believe that we can manage everything on our own without the help of others. We neglect our need for rest, recuperation, and spiritual restoration. We work as if we were machines and never take the time to recharge our battery. Perhaps we believe we are too busy to pray, study our Bible, or slow down, be still, and know our God.  Unless we acknowledge that we are not God, but merely human, unless we acknowledge that we are utterly dependant on God at all times, we are bound to fall.

Jesus himself  reveals to us what it means to live a life humbly dependant on God’s sustaining power and grace.

In today’s Gospel reading we get a glimpse of  just how demanding Jesus’ ministry really was. Jesus came to town and the whole city gathered at the door. They brought to him all who were sick and all who were possessed by demons.  Could you imagine how physically and emotionally exhausting it must have been to be Jesus? Everyone wanted a piece of him.

I once read a comment from John Lennon about what it was like to be in the Beatles. Everywhere he went he was surrounded by screaming fans who wanted his autograph or even just to reach out and touch him, but that wasn’t the worst of it.  Wherever they went to perform, they would inevitably be greeted by a long line of sick or dying kids whose one wish was to meet the Beatles. How could they say no? How could they turn them away? And yet the physical exhaustion and emotional strain was almost too much for him. After all he was little more than a kid himself!

Elvis Preseley used to have to buy out an entire movie movie theater just to get some time to himself to unwind. Wherever he went fans would tear off pieces of his clothing and even break off pieces of his car!

Jesus was surrounded by the same kind of hysterical crowds, but more than that he was constantly confronted with those who were sick and desperate for healing. Our Gospel lesson tells us he cured many, but not all. There was a limit even to what Jesus could do. He inevitably needed a break. He needed to recharge.

The only way he could do that was to sneak away in the dark to a deserted place. Even then everyone was looking for him!

You may ask at this point, but isn’t Jesus God? Didn’t we just finish recounting about how God does not tire or grow weary, that he is limitless in power and might? Indeed we did.

Although Jesus was God, he became man for our sake. He accepted for himself the frailty and limitation of our human life. One of the reasons he did this was to reveal to us what a truly human life submitted to God really looks like. If even Jesus needed to rest and take time to seek the face of God, we certainly do!

“Those who wait upon God will renew their strength,  they shall mount up with wings like eagles.”

Although Jesus was the eternal son of God, he demonstrated through his humanity the source of all strength and life. He did not rely on his own power but casts himself always upon his heavenly Father. 

When we do the same, we will find ourselves lifted up from despondency and hopelessness. We will find new sources of perseverance and new strength.  We will not remain chained to our weakness or the limitations of our nature, but we will sore high above the world, the flesh, and the devil bourn up on the wings of the Spirit.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

One With Authority

Mark 1:21-28

There is something different about Jesus. There is something astonishingly different about Jesus. The things that this man says are powerful in a way that is greater than any other teaching they have heard before. He speaks with such conviction! Such certainty! All the people of the synagogue are astonished by him. Mark frustratingly doesn’t tell us what Jesus spoke, but it is enough to strike terror in the forces of evil for an unclean spirit calls out from within its host, “Have you come to destroy us?!”

With simply a command Jesus cast the spirit out of the man with a shriek. It is quite a dramatic scene. “What is this?!” the people ask. They had never seen anything like this. This was a new teaching with authority.

Every other teacher stood on some authority other than themselves. The scribes and the Pharisees stood on the authority of the law. The law itself was where the real authority lay. They received that authority as something handed on to them. Moreover that law was authoritatively interpreted by men who came before them. The scribes belonged to different schools of interpretations, different denominations if you will, built on the teaching of well-respected Rabbis. There was the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai for instance to name the two leading systems for interpreting the law in Jesus’ day.

These were two men whose interpretation of the law was considered to have authority. If as a scribe or teacher you wanted what you taught to have credibility you would say “Hillel said,” or “Shammai said.” To accept their interpretation of the law meant carrying their yoke. In general the yoke of Hillel tended to be a lot less strict and easier to follow than that of Shammai.

The people were in essence saying, “This teacher Jesus does not teach the yoke of Shammai, Hillel, or any other interpreter of the law, he is offering a whole new teaching entirely!”

There is more though. Jesus’s teaching was more unprecedented than they were even able to articulate at that moment. Hillel and Shammai were both interpreters of the law, but Jesus spoke as if he himself was greater and more authoritative than the law itself. He spoke as if he were the lawgiver himself!

A more contemporary Rabbi, Jacob Neusner gets to the heart of Jesus’ difference with every other teacher of the law. In his book, “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus” he explains in a straightforward and unapologetic way why, if he had been in the Land of Israel in the first century, he would not have joined the circle of Jesus’ disciples.

For Neusner at the heart of Judaism is the sanctification of the world through the observance of Torah. Jesus, he says, turns the focus away from Jewish Law and ritual to himself. Jesus lifts up his own word as the word of God himself, higher even than the Torah. It is true that Jesus said he did not come to abolish the Torah but to fulfill it, but this implies that his own teaching is the perfect realization of Torah, the reality to which it points, and is therefore greater. 
As a deeply committed follower of Judaism, this is simply not a claim Neusner feels he can accept.

Christians often look to our Old Testament lesson today, Deuteronomy 18, to show that even the original law giver, Moses, understood that the message that he brought was not the final an ultimate message. There was another who was to come, one greater than himself, who would be an intercessor between God and his people.
Many Jewish commentators have insisted that this prophecy was meant to refer to a succession of prophets rather than one prophet in particular. They point out that God raised up many prophets after Moses to lead his people.

In the books of Acts, however, both Saint Peter and Saint Stephen, name Jesus as this prophet like Moses who God promised to raise up after him.
God gave the law to Israel through Moses and made a covenant with his people. Every other prophet called people to obedience to the law and foretold of the coming of Christ and the promise of a new covenant.

Only Jesus fulfilled all the promises of God. He was the one not only that Moses spoke of, but all the prophets spoke of. He speaks with the very authority of God himself!
How can we be sure that the authority that Jesus claims for himself is true? One of the ways in which Jesus’ authority is demonstrated and proved is through his mighty deeds, his miracles, healings, and especially his exorcisms.

Jesus not only spoke with powerful and compelling authority, he did things that nobody else could do. He opened the eyes of the blind, he healed the sick and the crippled, and he delivered people from the powers of evil.

Where did he get these powers? How was he able to do these things? He must be from God. Jesus spoke and God listened. God powerfully confirmed Jesus’ authority through signs and wonders, through the power of the spirit. Other teachers came in the name and the authority of men, but Christ in the Holy Spirit and with divine authority.

The evil spirits recognized his authority; they shrieked and howled because they were powerless to oppose him. Some claimed that Jesus himself was acting under the power of these spirits, but as Jesus said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” He was not an ally to these demonic powers but their greatest threat.

Jesus still to this day has authority over every power that oppresses and enslaves you. He has the power and the authority to set you free.  Fall at his feet and let him break your chains. Let him prove to you in whose authority he has come.  

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Urgency of Discipleship

There once was a man named Anthony who grew up in a small village in Egypt. The Church was fairly young at this point, only a bit more than two hundred years old, but Anthony’s family were very devout Christians. Anthony loved attending church. He listened with great attention and sobriety to the reading of God’s word although he himself was illiterate.

On one occasion Anthony heard the words of Christ spoken in the Gospel of Matthew to the rich young ruler, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow Me.”

Anthony felt as if Christ was speaking directly to him. He had recently inherited quite a bit of property after the death of his parents, but he sold it off and distributed the money to the poor. He left everything behind and moved out into the desert to live a life of prayer, poverty, and celibacy.

Anthony became something of a trend setter, soon thousands of men and women were renouncing the world and moving into the desert to live a life of self-denial and discipline. Anthony wasn’t the first Christian hermit, but nevertheless his influence was such that he is nevertheless called the father of monasticism. His feast day is January 17, celebrated this past Wednesday.

When the disciples in today’s Gospel message hear Jesus’ pronouncement,  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news,” they—like Anthony—leave everything and follow him. There is an urgency to this message that takes precedence over everything else.

Our Epistle reading reinforces the seriousness and urgency of the gospel’s call. Saint Paul writes, “let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.”

How then should we respond? Does the gospel demand that we renounce the world and live as hermits in the desert? Can a person be both a disciple and also an active person in the world, working, and raising a family?

To answer these questions, we need to put Saint Paul’s comments in the context of the rest of the chapter. Paul is responding to certain zealous believers in the Corinthian church who want to make celibacy the norm for Christians.

He quotes from a letter they sent him which said, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” Saint Paul basically responds by saying that singleness is good for some, and that in his opinion it may even be preferable for those who can manage it, but that it is not reasonable to expect that all should be single and celibate. It can be very difficult to be single and chaste, and for many having a husband or a wife is the best choice. It certainly is not sinful. In fact, he goes on to instruct both husbands and wives not to neglect their partner’s needs for physical intimacy out of some misguided attempt to be super spiritual.

Next Saint Paul addresses the question of whether a Christian who is married to an unbeliever should seek a divorce.  His counsel is that they should stay with their spouse, “For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband…Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife.”
“If your unbelieving partner separates,” he writes, “let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you.”

Saint Paul’s suggestion—and he makes it clear that he is merely offering his own advice here—is that each person should remain in the station of life in which they were called.  He writes, I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are.”

What is this impending crisis? Many people suggest that Paul is here referring to Jesus’ return and the final judgement. They believe that Paul expected these events to take place in his own life time.  On the other hand, the date of this letter is often said to be around 55-59 A.D. during the reign of Nero. The signs of the coming persecution and hardship for the church may have already been written on the wall.

We could see Paul as like an airplane attendant who says, “everyone please remain in your seats we are about to experience some turbulence.”

I said earlier that Paul believed that celibacy may be preferable to marriage. The reason he felt that way wasn’t because he was harboring some puritanical view of sex, but because marriage and family are a huge responsibility.  Those who are single are free from such restraints and concerns. You can see why he may have felt that way in light of the coming persecution.

All of which brings us to the Epistle reading for today. The time is short. No matter what our situation is, Paul wants our perspective to be focused not on the things of this world but eternity, not on what is passing away but on what will endure forever.  Only with such hope can we persevere in suffering.

Those who are married and those who are unmarried have the same goal, to grow in holiness to be perfect even as Christ is perfect. For some the path of celibacy is their road to holiness. For others, it is the discipline of marriage. We shouldn’t fool ourselves. Both are demanding vocations that require sacrifice, self-denial, and discipline.

Are we in mourning for someone we have lost? Let us remember that sorrow does not last forever and that we do not grieve as those without hope. Are we rejoicing? Let us remember that the joys of this world are fleeting, but that the joy of our inheritance in Christ is eternal.

Do we have lots of wealth, little, or none? Regardless, we each have the same goal to keep our hearts from being snared by the deceitfulness of wealth. If we have wealth let us give generously. If we do not than let us be content with what God provides, trusting in him.

Are we a mover and a shaker in the world or are we a hermit like Anthony? We both have the same goal, to love the Lord above all things and seek first the Kingdom of God.  We should be in the world but not of the world, living in it as ambassadors of the Kingdom.

As Christians we should not pattern our lives on the changing fashions of the world because the fashion of this world is passing away, it is temporary. We should not live as if this life and this world is all that there is, but remember that it is but a brief moment in light of eternity.

We may not all be called to follow Christ in the same way as someone like Anthony, but the call of discipleship is always radical and demanding. Each of us is called to leave behind our worldly perspective just as the disciples left their boats and nets. Each of us must allow Jesus to change us from those who work for earthly gain to those who work for eternal gain, from fishermen to fishers of men. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

"We Three Kings"

I want to conclude our sermon series on the hymns and songs of Christmas by discussing a song I’m sure we all know well—our processional hymn today—We Three Kings. This text is not profound poetry. There are other Hymns for Epiphany that are perhaps more eloquently written, but none have left their mark on our culture the way this one has.

Nearly everyone has been to a Christmas pageant where three boys in Burger King crowns and costume jewelry march out to the tune of this beloved hymn. The scene is classic Americana. Indeed, We Three Kings is a classic American hymn. The editor to the United Methodist hymnal, Carlton R. Young, remarks, “Because the wealth of USA Appalachian and other folk carols was yet to be discovered, this carol for almost a century was regarded by hymnal editors as the sole USA contribution to the repertory of English language carols.”

The author and composer was an Episcopal priest named John Henry Hopkins Jr. He was born in Pittsburgh, Pa and earned his education at the University of Vermont and General Theological Seminary, where he later went on to become the first instructor of Church Music.

He also served as the rector of a parish in our diocese, Trinity Church in Plattsburgh New York.

The reason his hymn We Three Kings is such a staple of Christmas pageants is that it was in fact written and composed for that purpose. Hopkins wrote the song for a pageant performed at General Theological Seminary in 1857.  He intended verses 2, 3, and 4 to be sung solo by different voices.

There is much said about the individuals who visited Jesus that is the product of tradition rather than scripture. The names, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar are never mentioned in Matthew’s account. We are not even sure that they were three in number. We simply presume they were three based on the three gifts they brought. One early commentator says that there were as many as thirteen!

Hopkins’ hymn reinforces some of these traditional assumptions. For instance he writes of “Three Kings.” Again, the story in Matthews Gospel says nothing about them being kings. He calls them wise men or magi, scholars and astrologers from the East. The tradition of calling them kings arose early as a way of aligning the story with the prophecy of Isaiah,

“Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…and all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”

One has to admit the parallel is striking! We may never know if the magi were literal kings, but the application is clear. The babe in the major is the true king of kings. He has appeared for not only the nation of Israel but for all the nations of the world. Every knee must bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.
Hopkins beautifully interprets what the three gifts these visitors brought say about who Jesus is.

Born a King on Bethlehem's plain,
gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign.

The gold that the wise men brought to Jesus speaks of his royalty and majesty. A king is crowned with gold! Gold is a valuable and precious metal. The most precious of all metals. It is synonymous with wealth and power. It contrasts rather ironically with Jesus’ own humble birth in a stable where the only gold was straw!

Gold is also pure and refined, purged on all impurities, which speaks of Jesus’ holiness. Gold is strong and durable. It does not rust or corrode away and thus it speaks of Jesus as “king forever” and “ceasing never,” the son of David who shall have an everlasting dominion.

In verse three the second King sings,

 Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising,
worshiping God on high. 
Frankincense is used for perfume and incense. It was often burned during religious rituals in the ancient world including by the Hebrew people. The book of Exodus contains detailed instructions for the use of incense in conjunction with the sacrifices prescribed by the law.  The scent is meant to purify and sanctify the gifts being offered and those who are offering them. The cloud of smoke speaks of the glory and ambiance of heaven. The Book of Revelation describes the heavenly worship as follows:

"Another angel came in holding a censer of gold. He took his place at the altar of incense and was given large amounts of incense to deposit on the altar of gold in front of the throne, together with the prayers of all God's holy ones. From the angel's hand, the smoke of the incense went up before God, and with it the prayers of God's people."

This gift offered to the Christ child “owns a deity nigh.” It speaks of his divinity. Jesus is Lord even at his birth and is worthy of our worship and adoration.

In verse four the fourth king sings,

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

Myrrh was an aromatic resin commonly used to prepare the dead for burial. This gift is foreshadowing the fact that Jesus will suffer death for our redemption.  Even at this early age, Jesus is marked as the one foretold as the suffering servant. The one who will bear the iniquity of his people.

The gift of this sweet smelling burial resin speaks of the fact that in his death, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Hopkins sums up what all of these gifts say of Christ in his fifth stanza,

Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
sounds through the earth and skies

Finally there is the refrain of the song which is addressed to the star of Bethlehem. The star which the wise men saw rising in the east. The star they followed to Bethlehem and the infant Christ.

O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.

Hopkins is not the only one to address the star in song. Many of the hymns of Epiphany seem to do the same. For instance there is Reginald Heber’s text,

Brightest and best of the stars of the morning, Dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid

If all you knew of Christian worship were our Epiphany hymns you might be forgiven for concluding that we were star worshipers!
What is behind all this poetic adoration of the star of Bethlehem? Although these poets address the star, they are doing so only because they see in the star a type of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Hopkins describes the star of Bethlehem as shining with “royal beauty bright.” The splendor of this star is the majesty of the king. It leads us to  the one who is the source of its beauty, the light of the world, Jesus Christ. This is why we sing, “guide us to thy perfect light.”

As brightly as the Star Bethlehem shone, its glory pales in comparison to the uncreated light which shone in the face of the Christ Child. His is the light that all wise men seek. His is the light that brings kings to there knees in adoration.
This truth is beautifully articulated by William Dix in another song we will sing this morning,

Holy Jesus, every day
Keep us in the narrow way;
And, when earthly things are past,
Bring our ransomed souls at last
Where they need no star to guide,
Where no clouds Thy glory hide.
In the heavenly country bright,
Need they no created light;
Thou its Light, its Joy, its Crown,
Thou its Sun which goes not down;
There forever may we sing
Alleluias to our King!