Comfort ye, My People

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church

Easter II

April 30, 2017

Comfort ye my people…”

Isaiah 40:1-2: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. 2 Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins.”

Comfort. What a wonderful word. What a warm, soft, beautiful word in all that it conveys. I picture a snowy day in Illinois with a warm fire, a soft blanket and a cup of delicious coffee at hand. Here in Texas, I picture comfort as a nice cool bedroom at night, with the air conditioning going when it is hot and sultry outside.

Yet, comfort may be an unappreciated word in our all-too-comfortable society. We really don’t tolerate discomfort very well, which is both a glory of our modern society as well as its curse. Perhaps we are too comfortable. Most modern Americans will tolerate nothing else. Let me also issue a disclaimer here. The very fact that we Americans have such manifold comfort available to us is a great blessing from Almighty God; one for which we should be very thankful. At the same time, we should keep in mind and pray for those who live without daily comfort.

In today’s O.T. Reading, Isaiah, the great prophet of the coming Messiah, speaks to the people of Israel. This was the Northern Kingdom, who after many years of repeated warnings had been conquered by the Assyrians and carried away captive. Some commentators tell us that this particular passage occurs during the exile in Babylon.1 In their misery, Isaiah speaks “comfort” to them, telling them that they have received double recompense at the Lord’s Hand for all their sins.

Recall that the majority of Isaiah’s ministry dealt with the apostasy of Israel. Consider these lines from the very first verses of his prophecy, Isaiah 1:3-4: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider. 4Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward.”

In verse after verse, Isaiah rightly complains of the idol worship, the lax morals, and the corrupt lifestyle of the Israelites. When God saw there was no repentance, judgment occurred in the form of foreign invasion and enslavement. Their punishment was so severe that even Isaiah comments that they received “double” punishment for their sins. Wesley terms it as this: “Double — Not twice as much as her sins deserved, but abundantly enough to answer God’s design in this chastisement, which was to humble and reform them, and to warn others by their example.”2

Yet now, according to the prophecy, Israel was to receive comfort from her vexations and punishments. She was to be assured that her “warfare”or tribulation in the world, was completed and that her iniquity was forgiven. The Hebrew word “ratsah” actually means to be favorably disposed towards or kindly towards one. If one could perceive God’s “mood” so to speak, it may be one of kindliness or good favor. Even though God’s wrath had been kindled towards His People, their punishment had expiated this.

How then, does God visit retribution on His People, seeing that He Himself is beyond emotion and thus beyond the feelings of anger, jealousy, and rage? How can we even say, “the Wrath of God?” While that topic is beyond the scope of this brief address, suffice it to say that God’s absolute Holiness and absolute justice demand that some recompense must occur to atone for sins against Him. Yet, being the font of eternal love, God Himself paid the price for these offenses in the person of Jesus Christ.

This is exactly what Isaiah speaks about when he tells us that a Voice is crying:”The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:”3 This voice is God, telling us to prepare the way for His Son. In language used later by John the Baptizer, it is a voice crying in the wilderness.

Typical with Isaiah is his ability to project his prophetic voice both near and far. By that, we mean that he speaks both to the near-term easing of Israel’s distress, which would eventually happen, and to the long-term prophecy of the coming Christ. We see both in this passage as the people receive a comfortable word in the present, while at the same time Isaiah speaks prophetically of the Christ to come. Although the presence of man fades, for we are but grass, the word of God lasts forever.

Thus, we clamber into the mountains and proclaim to the world, “Behold your God!” He will come with a strong hand and a strong arm to do his work.

What work will this be? It is pastoral, natural and beautiful: He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.”4

At once we are propelled into the Gospel era as St. John relates how Christ said, 11 I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.”5 In fulfillment of the words of Isaiah, Christ proclaims Himself to be what he is, the Bishop and Captain of our souls.

Note what the Voice was crying in the wilderness: Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who gives his life for the sheep. Not as a hired worker, who sees the danger and flees, but rather as a courageous shepherd who knows his sheep and is known by them. Interestingly, although sheep are easily led, they do not follow just anybody. They know their shepherd’s voice and follow only him. Conversely, the shepherd knows his sheep and does everything he can to protect them, up to and including giving his own life to protect them.

Thus, to quote the old gospel hymn, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!”6 What a Friend indeed.

There is only One who will save you from an uncertain eternal afterlife: Jesus. There is only One who saves your soul from the piercing, totally accurate justice of God and replaces it with mercy: Jesus. There is only one Good Shepherd who is able to fill your soul with the holy love and grace it so desperately wants: Jesus.

Jesus reaffirms his relationship with God the Father as He tells us that in the way that His sheep know Him, He is known of the Father. This is a special relationship made perfect by perfect love in the community of the Holy Trinity.

In one last affirmation of hope and unity, Christ tells us that he has other sheep that must join his flock. Although not of this fold, they too must and will be brought along with Christ. This is most glorious, for it foretells the wonderful day when all Christian divisions will cease “and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”7 With our limited human vision, we can’t see any way that the gaping divisions in the Church can be healed. Denominations tend to divide; once divided, they tend to keep dividing. Some of the reasons for our divisions are valid, others not so much. Yet, in the mystery of God’s perfect vision, there will occur a day when all Christians will worship the Holy Trinity in one church. What a glorious day that will be! Imagine a church where unity of vision and unity of purpose is the focus, rather than the disagreements that divide us. It will be a miracle indeed. It will be one that only the Good Shepherd can bring about.

One last question remains to be asked: are you under the care of the Good Shepherd?

Have you entrusted your life, both here and forever, into the Hands of the One who can see it safely to eternal pasture? If there is any area of your soul where some “hold back” occurs, or where you are less than enthusiastic about the Good Shepherd’s directions? If so, let it go. Let it go and experience both the freedom from self and the wonderful peace of God.

After all, this is what Good Shepherd Sunday is all about. It is about giving your soul what it so desperately needs, the sacred pasture of Christ.

Amen.

3 Isaiah 40:3-4

4 Op. cit. 40:11

5 John 10:11

6 Hymn #422, The Hymnal, 1940

7 Op.cit. 10:16

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Covenant and Grace

Covenant and Grace

 

15th Sunday after Trinity 2013

September 8, 2013

St. Barnabas Anglican Church

Rev. Stephen E. Stults

 

From our O.T. Lesson for today, please hear this:

Deuteronomy 7:7-8   ”The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: (and) Deuteronomy 7:9   9 “Know therefore that the LORD thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations;”

 

These words, taken from the Old Testament Lesson for the 15th Sunday after Trinity, have both great significance and prophetic power for us today. They are significant because they tell us what we are as the people of God.  They are prophetic because they tell us what we are to expect from God in that role.

 

These are weighty and powerful statements, to be sure. Let us examine the context in which they were said and see how they apply to us today. The Israelites had been encamped on the slopes of Mt. Sinai for some time. According to God speaking through Moses his prophet, the People have stayed there long enough.  Here they received the Law.  Here, no doubt, they have had many excellent and fulfilling discussions about it, but now it is time to move the Law out into the world.  Before they go, Moses reminds them how they were brought out of Egypt, with a mighty hand.  He also reminds them of the former generation’s fear of possessing the land.  Recall that the fact-finding mission of Caleb, Joshua, and a few other faithful men many years ago urged Israel to rise up and possess the land.  Recall how they brought back the fruit of the land and joyfully told the congregation of Israel that it was a good land. Yet, instead of moving forward in faith, the congregation cowered in fear. They talked of the Anakins, the giant people of the land, and they spoke of all the obstacles they would have to overcome. The group that came out of Egypt was afraid.  They had already forgotten what their purpose was and who they were.  As a result, they did not do what God commanded them to do, despite the fact that He said that He would fight for them. Instead, they shrunk back.

 

Now, in today’s lesson, we have a different scene. Since God had them wander about for forty years, the majority of that original murmuring group of ex-Egyptian slaves were now dead. In place of that generation are a group of people who want to do God’s will and who want to go in to possess the land. Some of them must have been very eager, “chomping at the bit”, so to speak.

 

It is to this group that Moses speaks.  He tells them what they must do, as well as what they mustn’t do in order to reap the benefits of God’s favor. First, he tells them that when, not if, God destroys their enemies before them, in order to establish them in the land, they must not mix with,  intermarry, or adopt the ways of the  people around them.  After all, these were the detestable, pagan, satanic Canaanites, who practiced devil worship, human sacrifice and unclean personal relations. In short, they were corrupt. God did not want His People to be so corrupted. As we know, later in their history, the Israelites eventually would be very much influenced by their pagan neighbors and pay a heavy price for it.  At this point, however, they were not tainted. Moses hoped to keep it so by presenting to them the advantages of keeping pure. He also showed to them the negative consequences of breaking covenant with God.

 

In the verses immediately preceding our reading, hear the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 7:2-3:    “And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them:  3 Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.” 

 

The reason is clear when Moses continues: Deuteronomy 7:4   For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly.”  It is clear that evil tends to corrupt, and that absolute evil tends to corrupt absolutely, to paraphrase Lord Acton’s aphorism about power.  There is no doubt that corruption does spread, like a contagion.  This is exactly what Moses fears and what he preaches against in this address.

 

Perhaps the most interesting point is when he says, (Deuteronomy 7:7) The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people:” God did not choose a mighty people on which to manifest his glory. Instead, He chose a wretched slave people, now freed, to be His ambassadors throughout the earth.

 Moses’ statement are compelling, because he says: (Deuteronomy 7:8)  But because the LORD loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the LORD brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” In short, God did not choose the Israelites because they were powerful, or even numerous in terms of what a nation should be.  He did not choose them because of their righteousness or their just deserts.  He chose them because of the oath He made to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. God is being true to Himself, which is what He must always do.

 

Moses continues to expound on the relationship when he mentions that God will destroy those who hate him. He will not be “slack” in repaying those who reward love with hate.  As an aside, it is truly an amazing thing when one finally realizes that he or she is truly and fully loved by God.  Not in some ephemeral, surface sort of way, but in the deep meaningful sort of way that one loving spouse says to another, “I love you.”  Yet, even this is inadequate to describe the love of God for us.  It goes way, way beyond the human capability to love. It is a love that is so deep and so profound that it cannot be described with words.  The only way it can be described is with actions, and the action that describes God’s true love for us is the Cross.  All of the other actions that are meant to signify God’s love for us pale in comparison to this.  All of the puritanical rules and codes of conduct that have turned so many against Christianity, yet that are done in the name of Christ, are meaningless and destructive without the true spirit of love in them. Loveless, joyless life, if one can call it that, does not please God. We are to show God how much we love Him by loving Him, and our neighbor as ourselves. The formula of love is simple, but not easy.  It is: love God, love yourself in and through God, and love your neighbor as yourself.

 

Yet, in the mercy and love of God, He does more, if that is possible. God did not just provide for our eternal destination and then leave us to survive as best we can until we get there.  No, instead He promises to keep covenant with those who keep covenant with Him.  In keeping covenant, He provides for our earthly needs as well. Thus, if we remain faithful, He will keep faith with those who keep faith with Him. Moses tells us this in Deuteronomy 7:12-13:“Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep, and do them, that the LORD thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers:  13 And he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee: he will also bless the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy land, thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep, in the land which he sware unto thy fathers to give thee.”

 

There is a great lesson in this for us, in several ways.  First, we should consider the numerical question. Yes, we are small at this point, but so were the Israelites at one time. Yet, God blessed them and increased them. Recall how Jacob rehearsed God’s words to him, when he encamped beside Jordan on that fateful night when he would become Israel: (Genesis 32:12) ”And thou saidst, I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.” In like manner He will do the same with us, on one condition.  Just as the Israelites were to remain faithful, so we must continue to remain faithful.   As we obey the law of love, so God will love us, keep us, and multiply us.

 

We are the blessed people of God.  We are the new Israel, blessed in God, blessed in the love He has for us, and most importantly, blessed in the love we have for each other.

 

It is all important that we remain faithful.  It is all important that we obey the law of love.  Finally, it is all important that we rejoice in the love God has for us.

 

Deuteronomy 7:6  “For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.”

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A Little While…

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church

The Third Sunday after Easter

 

April 21, 2013

“A little while…”

John 16:16  “ A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father.”

 

From one of the most beloved books of the New Testament comes this interesting and puzzling statement.  John the beloved disciple tells us that Christ speaks to the apostles thus, both puzzling them and intriguing them at the same time.  In fact, in the verse following this one, some of the disciples openly questioned this.  They asked, “What is this that he saith unto us, A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me: and, Because I go to the Father?18 They said therefore, What is this that he saith, A little while? we cannot tell what he saith.?”[1]

 

In short, they were baffled.  As a boy, listening to this passage in Trinity Episcopal Church in Monmouth, Illinois and again as a teenager at St. Joseph of Arimathea Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee, I too was puzzled.  I remember one time walking out of church shaking my head at it.  Evidently, our rector didn’t choose to elucidate that particular piece of Scripture that day. Perhaps he should have.

 

What Christ says here is both simple and profound, as always.  As the second member of the Holy Trinity, Christ always speaks to us in ways we can understand, while also speaking of things beyond our natural understanding; that is, absent the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

 

This is one of those sayings.  On the surface, we understand, especially with the aid of 2000 years of Christian tradition behind us.  That is, we have the Word of God to inform us that Christ did indeed die and was buried. Thus, “a little while and you will not see me.”  We also understand the part where he says, “and again, a little while, and ye shall see me:”[2]

 

Obviously, this is in reference to His post-resurrection appearances. First, he appeared to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, then to the gathered disciples who were assembled, “for fear of the Jews”, in a locked room[3], and also to the disciples while fishing in John 21. Finally as St. Paul tells us in 1st Corinthians 15:6, “After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once;”[4]

 

No doubt the disciples’ joy was immense. Christ even compares it to the joy and relief a woman feels after the agony of childbirth. The disciples’ joy was to be similar, so great and real that they would forget the pain and grief they knew when Christ was parted from them. One of them, John, felt this pain most acutely because he, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdeline witnessed his death at the foot of the Cross.

 

Thus far, we understand the meaning of these words.  Yet, in the next statement, Christ throws his disciples into confusion when he says, “because I go to the Father.”  This is what really bothered them.  It stuck “in their craw”, so to speak, to use a country colloquialism.

 

As well it might in ours, if we didn’t have the historic Christian experience and calendar to guide us.  In His last, most puzzling statement, Jesus is telling about His last mighty act in this world.  He is, in fact, foreshadowing the glorious completion of the earthly ministry.

 

This final act is the completion of Christ’s ministry as he ascends to the Father, returning back to the Glory from whence He came, some thirty-three years before. The final act we will celebrate on May 9th, better known as Ascension Day, which is one of those important, but usually inconvenient and sparsely-attended mid-week services.

 

Ascension marks the final act of Christ’s life in all its major scenes, including his Immaculate Conception, His humble Nativity, His daily Ministry, His woeful Passion, His glorious Resurrection, and finally, His Dazzling Ascension. The Ascension marked the final chapter in the earthly saga of the Christ on Earth.

 

 

We will speak more on the importance of Ascension later, when we celebrate the Day itself. Suffice it to say that its importance is immense, as well as the immense amount of neglect it receives.  However, one point must be mentioned, namely that without the Ascension, our exaltation into Heaven as the family of Man would be impossible. Thus, Jesus, on His way to the ultimate exaltation in Heaven, as He rejoins His Father in unspeakable splendor, came to visit and reassure us. When He does come out of the grave in glorious resurrection form, both showing Himself and enjoying fellowship with His disciples, he tells them that your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.”[5]

 

This statement is most profound and poignant, simultaneously. The reason for this profound sense of joy comes from Christ’s earlier mention of the expediency of His going away in verse 7 of this same chapter.  Christ is going away, yes; Christ is leaving His disciples in bodily form, yes, but Someone else is coming. Following on the heels of Ascension is that great New Testament celebration of the Holy Ghost, or as the Authorized Version calls him, the Comforter. The Third Person of the Holy Trinity comes to us, to lead, guide, instruct, comfort and strengthen us.

 

Thus, this is an amazing time of year.  Perhaps the historic church calendar truly captures the fullness of the Christian faith as we celebrate Ascension first, honoring the Son, then Whitsunday (Pentecost), where we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, then finally Trinity Sunday, where all three members of the Holy Trinity are celebrated together. We sing and worship the fullness of the Three Persons of God, one being in three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Truly, if one is living one’s life in accordance with the Church year, this is amazing and most fulfilling.

 

Returning to the one theme on which we can seize for the day, it might very well be that of Joy.  Jesus said that our joy…”no man taketh from you.”[6]   So we hope it is for you.  When one considers the sheer enormity of what Christ accomplished for us, our joy should be full. When one considers the durability of our forgiveness and the permanence of our salvation, our joy should be full.

What does this mean? It means that when Christ forgives us our sins, they are remembered no more. There is no sneaking, half-remembrance of what we did in the past.  It is covered with the precious Blood of Christ in complete forgiveness. Simply said, God remembers no sin for which one exhibits true repentance and amendment of life. Surely this is an occasion for joy, as well as immense thanksgiving.

 

Our joy, which no man can take from us, must stem from another source as well.  While this may seem incredibly obvious, it stems from the fact that we Christians even have a God like unto our God.  Unlike what the Existentialists once believed, we don’t stumble, Godot-like, through our lives.  We don’t face the Universe alone and un-befriended. We don’t have to make those brave existential decisions to prove that we are. With all due respect to Albert Camus and Jeam-Paul Sartre, theirs was a unnecessarily lonely and erroneous position as to the orientation of Man.  We are not alone. We are not lonely, in the recesses of our soul, unless we want to be, or have allowed the deceptions of the Devil to convince us so.  For the spirit-filled Christian, it is just the reverse. Our position, the Christian position, is completely opposite the sterile, sad and hopeless state of the atheist or existentialist.  We are not filled with the sad darkness of the deceived, we are full of light. We are not aching with loneliness in a dead universe, vainly searching for meaning from a cold and passionless void. We are filled with the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, who brings us into full relationship with God the Father and God the Son. We are not sad and depressed as we try to fill our emptiness with counterfeit or fabricated experiences. We have the real experience of Christ in our hearts, our minds, and our souls as we move forward to our eternal Home with Him.

 

We Christians can’t claim to have cornered the market on joy. That would be absurd and even a bit egotistical, perhaps. After all, many things in this life can give us joy.  There is a difference, however, between true Christian joy and that of the World.  Whereas joy from things in this life is fleeting and transient, only the joy in Christ can withstand the test of time. There is a joy which no man can take from you. It is the same joy that Christ promised to His disciples so long ago.  It is the same joy available to us today.

John 16:22  22 And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.”

 

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


[1] John 16:17-18

[2] John 16:17

[3] Ibid 2019

[4] I Cor 15:6

[5] John 16:22

[6] Ibid 16:22

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The God of “If”?

1st Sunday in Lent 2011

“The God of “IF?”

Rev. Stephen E. Stults

St. Barnabas Anglican Church

Bellville, TX

 

Mat 4:3

“And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.”

 

William Golding’s novel, The Lord of the Flies, caused quite a stir when it was released in 1954.  In this small but important book, he tells us about a group of English schoolboys whose airplane is shot down during WWII, leaving them stranded on an island, presumably in the Pacific.  The story relates relates how this group of middle and upper-class boys quickly reverts to tribalism, savagery and barbarism in a very short period, even going to the point of idol worship, the so-called “Lord of the Flies.”  It is a vivid picture of our true fallen state, when Law or Gospel does not govern it, or in this case, even human maturity.  In short, The Lord of the Flies goes to the heart of what we believe makes us human.

 

Similarly, our Gospel for the day goes to the very heart of what we believe to be true as Christians.  It is about as basic as that.  In the opening lines of the Gospel passage we read, from  Mat. 4:1:”Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.”

 

Recall that at the end of the previous chapter of Matthew, Chapter 3, Christ has just come from His baptism in the river Jordan at the hands of John the Baptizer.  In that amazing scene, remember that the Spirit of God had just descended upon Jesus and a voice from heaven had said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Christ submitted to baptism (though of course He had no original sin to wash away) and showed us the way, while receiving glory and recognition.  Christ also more closely identified with our humanity by His Baptism in Jordan, just as He assumed our Humanity at the Incarnation, yet without sin.  Remember that what Christ did not assume, he could not redeem.  What he did not redeem, he could not glorify.  Yet, the glory of Christianity is that Christ did assume our humanity.  He fully identified with us in His humanity and paid for us on the Cross, thus accomplishing the Atonement.  After his mighty Resurrection, He glorified our humanity by taking it to heaven with Him in the Ascension.  Thus, these four doctrines: Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection and Ascension are key to our beliefs as Christians.

 

Note also, the direct inference to the Holy Trinity in this passage, as we see Jesus recognized by a “voice” that says, “this is my Son”, which necessarily implies a Father. Next, the Holy Spirit comes to him like in bodily appearance, “like a dove” and lights upon Him.  Those who have doubts as to the Trinitarian nature of God need to review this word of Scripture.  The early church Fathers used this important passage as they culled the doctrine of the Holy Trinity from the Scriptures.

 

Now, comes the temptation of Christ.  Satan tries to undo God’s Plan by the invocation of one little word, “if.” Christ had just been exalted, and now as Matthew tells us in Mat 4: “Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.”  Oftentimes, honor precedes humbling or trials; as Matthew Henry tells us: “After we have been admitted into the communion of God, we must expect to be set upon by Satan. The enriched soul must double its guard.”[1] If we see Christ, the Lord and Captain of our Faith set upon by Satan after having received great honor, should we expect different treatment?  It is an interesting question, is it not?

 

Many commentators on this passage have mused as to why Jesus Christ would need, submit to, or even agree to such a situation.  Although there is much discussion of this, we may safely assume three areas of consensus:

  1. Christ suffered temptation that he might fully identify with all aspects of         our human condition, yet without sin.
  2. Christ battled with Satan and overcame him, not in evidence of divine power, but in the absence of any outward manifestations of power.
  3. Christ, in his human nature, exhibited complete reliance upon His Father and his Holy Word, thus giving us the perfect model.

 

Turning to the temptations themselves, note that there three of them.  It’s always been interesting to me, as an aside, the role that numbers play in the Scriptures, especially the numbers three, four, seven, twelve and their respective multiples.  Examples of this can be found in the Holy Trinity and the temptations of Christ (representing three), as well as the Four Last Things on which we preach from time to time, which are Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Other examples abound as well. Although being an English major and therefore not necessarily a “numbers guy”, I do respect the way that numerology plays such a significant role in the Bible.  The point to be noticed here is that the Scriptures themselves testify that we have a God of order, who “rulest all things well.”

 

The first temptation deals with Christ’s physical well-being, as we see Him hungry and in the wilderness, tempted by Satan to make bread out of stones.  This attack is both insulting and predatory.  First, comes the insult, “If thou be the Son of God…”, as if the Son of God was not self-aware.  This is course is manifestly false, as we have been tutored out of Luke 2:49, when Christ tells his parents, ”And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” Recall that this episode occurred at the age of twelve, when his parents found him “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions.”  Here, Satan the Great Deceiver is seeking to cause Jesus to doubt himself in his physical weakness.

 

This leads to the predatory aspect of Satan’s attack on Christ and on us.  Being the wicked and brilliant tactician that he is, the Devil attacks us when we are weak. Be it through physical need, be it through sickness, be it through melancholy, be it through (God forbid) despair, he seeks a chink in our spiritual armor in which to insinuate his infernal suggestions, temptations and fears.

Of course, there are times when all of us, being mere flesh and subject to the weaknesses of the same, fall prey to his devices.  However, if we keep our minds and our spiritual eyes on Christ, we will frustrate the plans of the devil.  In this instance, Christ dismisses Satan’s assault with a word of Scripture.  From Deut. 8:3: “And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.” Satan is rebuffed.

 

Having failed in his first attempt, Satan then takes another approach, this time appealing not only to Jesus’ physical safety, but to the very image of who He Is. Now we see Jesus taken by the devil to a pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Again comes the insult and the word of doubt, “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down…”  Here is a great lesson concerning evil, the nature of sin and Our Adversary’s dealing with us.  Note that Satan does not throw Christ off the pinnacle himself, thus doing Him direct harm, but rather, suggests that Jesus “cast” himself down.  Thus, Satan has no power over us but is limited to the power we give him in our lives.  Sin always requires an active response from us in some assent of the will.

 

In this case, Satan’s temptation is obvious and flagrant.  Once, again, Christ repels him with a word from Scripture, “It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” Some commentators have interpreted this as “Don’t presume on God to save you when you engage in some self-destructive or sinful act, in exercise of your free will.”[2] Yet, even when we act stupidly or behave in a flagrantly sinful way, or are self-destructive, God in his mercy often mitigates the ill effects of our actions. Somehow, by common grace, He does not allow to be as bad as we could be. He may also allow us to realize the consequences of our sins to teach us.  We know that, while God forgives us our sin, the “scar tissue” of our misdeeds remains.  Forgiveness abounds from God’s mercy when we truly repent, but the consequences of our sin are a lasting reminder of our rebellion against God.

 

It is not so with Christ.  Satan is defeated again with a rebuke from Scripture, but being the persistent, devious “devil” that he is, he takes yet one more approach and makes an appeal to Jesus’ supposed pride.  In a twisted, perverted view of Christ’s Kingship, Satan shows Jesus all the earthly glory, or at least the satanic version of it.  In Mat 4:8 “Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.” Here is where Christ’s patience is exhausted at last, for as the Tempter says, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me”, Christ expels him a command: “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”

 

This is the so-called “last straw” for Christ, for the idea of the Lord of Heaven and Earth prostrating Himself before this hideous fallen angel is too much.  Christ speaks with authority and the Devil leaves, defeated and frustrated.

Now, the victory is won and the angels, who had been watching this whole contest with worshipful admiration, came and ministered to Jesus, tending to His needs. Satan had done his best and had failed.  Just as Christ would defeat Satan on the battleground of Calvary later in His ministry, so he vanquished him now.

 

At the start of this homily, I mentioned that this passage “goes to the very heart of what we believe to be true as Christians.”  Satan used the “if” word three times, once for each temptation: “if thou be the Son of God, “if” thou be the Son of God, and “if” thou wilt fall down and worship me.”  Each of these is a conditional statement that seeks to provoke doubt or sin.  Each time, Satan seeks to cause Jesus to question Himself, and/or he mockingly insinuates that Jesus Christ is not the One, the eternal Son, and the Spotless Lamb of God.

 

If this were true, Christianity would be shattered.  If Christ is not who He says He is, the Son of the Almighty God, the Lord and Savior of Mankind, we are confounded and hopeless.  If Christ is not the Son of God, we might as well submit to the toothless doctrine of the Enlightenment, where Christ’s dying on the Cross is not substitutionary, but merely a supreme example of what a good man does.  Finally, if we worship an “If” God, we Christians are, in the words of St. Paul, the most miserable of all people.

 

“But, now is Christ risen from the dead and become the first fruits of them that slept.” (1st Cor. 15:20)  In the eternal sense, now is our Savior Christ victorious over sin, death, hell and the Devil.  We do not worship an “If” God. No, we worship an “Is” God, He who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.  The Great “I AM THAT I AM” does not exist in the past, He does not exist in the future, He simply exists.  Thanks be to God.

Glory be to God the Father, and to God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, now and forever.   AMEN


[1] http://blueletterbible.org/Comm/mhc/Mat/Mat004.html, Mathew Henry, “Commentary on Matthew”

[2] Ibid

 

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Conflict, Within and Without

Conflict, Within and Without

Sexagesima 2010

Rev. Stephen E. Stults

St. Barnabas Anglican Church

February 07, 2010

 

2 Corinthians 11:19 9 For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.

 

Thus opens this particular passage from II Corinthians, as the Apostle Paul now finds himself under attack from the very congregations he planted so laboriously at Corinth.  I say “congregations” because Corinth turned out to be one of St. Paul’s very successful church plantings, resulting in several congregations, actually house churches of various sizes, all over the city.  Recall how that in 1st Corinthians, Paul complained that the church at Corinth was threatening to break into factions, some following Paul, others following Apollos, and others Cephas.  Thus, it seemed that that the church had growth problems, which lent themselves to bickering over leadership and other issues.

 

Evidently, the church at Corinth had something else, too: pride.  As you know from your church history, Corinth was a prosperous city with a strong economy.  This was owed in part to its strategic location.  One source says, “Corinth was located directly south of the Corinthian Gulf, on the Peloponnesian side (southern Greece) of the Isthmus of Corinth. Two harbors accommodated the city’s position of control over the isthmus between two seas. Lechaeum served the westward facing the Corinthian gulf, and Cenchreae functioned as the harbor on the eastward facing the Saronic Gulf.”[i] In addition, “Not surprisingly the city derived income from its control of the isthmus. A charge was imposed for boats or cargo hauled on a platform across the isthmus on the “Diolkos,” a paved road.” They actually hauled boats and ships across this narrow strip of land for a fee.

 

It must also be noted that Paul’s congregation was varied and diverse, including the noveau riche of Corinth, working men, slaves and freedmen.[ii] This diversity naturally led to a rich, but heterogeneous church congregation.  A mix of  peoples, occupations and incomes such as this expressed itself in many differing views and opinions, no doubt some of them very strongly felt, and many of them concerning the Apostle himself. This is the position He found himself when he penned the second Corinthian epistle.

 

The pride the Corinthians felt was coupled with a misdirected sense of leadership. Paul goes on to say: For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face.[iii]”  In saying this, Paul sets up a choice and a dichotomy that many of us in the Body of Christ face from time to time.

 

How could this be?  What situation in the early Church could have triggered such a statement? Simply, it was the fact that soon after the Church was founded, many false preachers and religious charlatans approached the early congregations. Speaking wonderful words and projecting a holy and pious presence, these men, many of them rank heretics, appeared at many of the meeting places and sought to sway the congregations.  Taking advantage of both the simplicity and generosity of the early Christians, these religious con men sought not only hospitality, but wages as well.  Contrast this to Paul’s claim that he sought nothing from them but their earnest faith in God.  He emphasized that he supported himself, as he told us in “I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel.  34 Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me.”[iv] Paul also states that he ”robbed other churches” to help support the Corinthian mission effort.  By this he obviously meant that he used general church funds to subsidize them.

Again, contrast that with the openly avaricious itinerant preachers descending on the Corinthians.

 

What is the point of this to us? How can we benefit today from the struggles of a 1st century Greek church?  Simply this: earlier we mentioned that St. Paul had set up a dichotomy and a choice that we all face some time or another in life.

This dichotomy is the choice of two paths, ultimately.  One path is the tried, true, ancient, and honorable doctrine and beliefs of traditional Christianity, while the other is the lure of the new, the sensational, and the exciting “new frontiers” that mankind constantly seeks.  The one, old and burnished with age, may be battered and besieged with the onslaughts of the New Morality, yet it stands.  The New, while claiming to be something fresh, is simply the old traps laid out by Our Enemy below, that nevertheless succeed in snaring those souls bereft of Gospel armor.

 

Let me provide a current example.  We are all aware of the alarming rate of teen and underage pregnancies in this country.  Several approaches have tried to combat this problem, including safe sex seminars, free contraception giveaways, and sex education in general.  Most have mixed results, to the point that some large school systems have adopted a “if you can’t beat ‘em, then join ‘em attitude.” They have, in effect, thrown up their hands.  Then, lo and behold, a new study has just appeared that shows one approach has had good success in places where it has been funded and applied.  That approach is called abstinence training. In response to this new study, the anti-abstinence forces are furious. Recently, a reporter shoved a microphone in front of a 12-year-old girl who was participating in abstinence training.  When the reporter demanded if the girl thought that abstinence training really worked, she coolly replied, “Every time it’s tried.”  Are we surprised?

 

Let us return to the Corinthians and draw a lesson from their situation.  Just as people can choose the time-honored, but rarely practiced abstinence before marriage versus the new frontiers of societal libertinism, the Corinthians had a choice.  They could continue to honor the teachings and moral example of their apostle and founder, St. Paul, or they could embrace the new, the fresh, and erroneous teaching of the new voices in their midst.  This is exactly why St. Paul upbraids the congregation by telling them that they must be wise, because they put up with fools.  John Calvin says this: “For ye bear with fools willingly. He calls them wise — in my opinion, ironically. He was despised by them, which could not have been, had they not been puffed up with the greatest arrogance 7 He says, therefore- “Since you are so wise, act the part of wise men in bearing with me, whom you treat with contempt, as you would a fool.” Hence I infer, that this discourse is not addressed to all indiscriminately, but some particular persons are reproved, who conducted themselves in an unkind manner.”[v] Here they have the greatest Evangelist known to the Christian world, one who lovingly planted their congregations and fed them even with other churches’ funds, only to find himself vilified and dismissed as a fool.  This is, once again, a fine example of fallen human nature at work.

The extent of St. Paul’s sense of injury is so immense that he even proceeds to rehearse his qualifications for the Corinthian church. He is “compelled” to boast, as he later tells us, of his sufferings for Christ. They are immense, only to be described as incredible to anyone who had not had the irresistible conversion experience that St. Paul underwent on the Damascus Road. To sum up his sufferings, he was beaten five times with the requisite 39 stripes, he was beaten with rods three times, stoned once, and suffered shipwreck three times. He suffered hunger, thirst, privation and danger, both from the Gentiles and the Jews.  He was exhausted, sometimes sleepless and constantly harried on many fronts.

On top of these external dangers and troubles, Paul had the daily pressure of care for the churches.  Sometimes, when I feel a bit stressed, I read this passage and realize that it is all very, very good. The only time I personally have shed blood for our Lord was during a church cleaning session when an old sanctuary lamp shattered in my hands! I daresay there is no comparision….

What we are talking about is not a new or even novel message in any way.  It is, in the words of our Presiding Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Leonard Riches, not even old-fashioned enough to please our Lord. He addressed the presbyters and delegates in that fashion, saying that it could be a problem if we are not that old-fashioned.

Rather than run after the effervescent, even nebulous directives, whims and fads of a lost society, let us hold to the old, the tried, the true, and the tested. Our Lord doesn’t change; He is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.  We need to be the same.

Refresh yourselves in the old and rich.  Read the Scriptures every day. At least once a year, read the Thirty-Nine Articles to get a flavor of the strong intellectual underpinnings and vibrant faith of the Anglican Fathers. Meditate on your salvation with uplifted heart and eyes.  Give thanks that God has chosen you, despite your sins and failings, to enjoy life with Him forever.  Never let that fade from your heart.

We Christians are a blessed people. We are fortunate beyond our deserving. We are saved without merit, forgiven beyond measure, and strengthened beyond belief for a life of love and service.

This is not a new message. It is as old as Christianity itself, and yet as fresh as the purest sunrise in the first days of spring, when all the Earth celebrates the ever-present Glory of God.

Glory be to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, now and for ever.   AMEN

 

 

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Calling and Justice

Septuagesima 2010

Rev. Stephen E. Stults

St. Barnabas Anglican Church

Jan. 31, 2010

 

Calling and Justice

Matthew 20:9-10 9 “And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius.  10 “But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius.”

 

Our Gospel for the day clearly illustrates a concept from Isa. 55:8, as the LORD informs Israel: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.”  Consider this in terms of what we consider fair and what the Lord knows to be right.

 

With that thought in mind, allow me to pose some questions: what is “fair?”  Who came up with the doctrine of “fairness?” Who even said that life had to be “fair?” Have you ever heard someone say, “That’s not fair!”Believe me, as a schoolteacher, I hear that a great deal from my class, especially when homework is involved

 

In reality, it actually seems that we do have an idea of what being fair is all about.  If we could hazard a guess, it might have something to do with a sense of justice.  Seeking a definition for “fair”, we find the following: “free from favoritism or self-interest or bias or deception; conforming to established standards or rules; “a fair referee”; a “fair deal.” Thus, fairness and justice have a common link.

 

Although I am not a philosopher by training, sometimes in life we must turn to philosophy to try to gain an understanding of why things are as they are.  In this case, we must consider from where comes this underlying sense of justice.

How it is that man has a sense of justice?  Can one describe justice?  For answer, let me quote the Rev. Frank Levi, our REC rector in Chicago, who teaches an ethics course at seminary.  He once said, “One has difficulty defining justice, but no one has difficulty knowing what injustice feels like.”  What an amazing statement and how true…

 

If one can, without difficulty, feel injustice, there must be some underlying moral reason for it. That is, something in Man senses injustice and pursues justice. Again, we all know what it feels like when someone deals with us unjustly. With that in agreement, let us beg the question: what is it in man that triggers this response?  How it is that even an unjust man knows the difference between justice and injustice? Is it that the man who is so used to unjust dealing with others is hyper-sensitive to those pertaining to his own interest? Is it that way with all of us?  Are justice and its flip-side, injustice, merely a case of guarding our own self-interest?

 

These are questions worth pondering, even without the guarantee that we can arrive at an answer. We can, however, posit at least two observations.  The first deals with the humanist side of the issue and the other, the God-centered one.  The humanist will claim that it is merely a part of the innate nature of man, that since people are basically good, they will seek justice and the general welfare of mankind. This is true, of course, once they have learned to be good with the requisite education and training.  Like the modern ethics courses in corporations that were so popular a few years ago, some think that good ethical behavior is simply a matter of being taught the right things.  Evidently, some brilliant minds thought that one could be taught not to steal from one’s employer or corporation.  While this is laudable and maybe even praiseworthy in its goals of reforming the corporate rascals, it is ultimately foolish and futile.  Fallen human nature will do as fallen human nature will do.

On the other hand, the Christian knows better. He or she knows the source of justice is not the limited, finite nature of man, but rather the infinite Mind of God. The sense of justice and the desire to treat and be treated fairly is not a human concept, but a divine one. How can a limited, finite and error-prone being such as Man come up with an impeccable concept like justice?   The answer is simple: he didn’t.  Only the divine can invent the divine and so it is with an intangible reality like justice.  It can’t be touched or handled, but it is a real, living reality in our lives.

 

Yet, this being said, it is a mystery how we know from our infancy the knowledge of justice vs. injustice. We are simply “hard wired” that way. Some theologians believe that since our Creator is just, and since we are created in His Image, we too are cognizant of this reality. We know that justice and injustice are just as real as the floor on which we stand. We all know that justice is the undergirding of civilization, the quality that makes reciprocity possible. Without the ability to deal with other in some sort of equitable basis, all would be chaos and violence.

 

On a divine level, justice rises to an ultimate degree. That is, justice and the quality of being just is an attribute of God. Only He is capable of being completely just and ensuing ultimate justice.  Let’s consider the ramifications of this.

 

If true justice is of God, that gives it both a beautiful and a terrible quality. It is beautiful in that it is absolute and unchanging. It is also terrible in that it is absolute and unchanging. Thus, when one sins against God, payment must be made.  Conversely, when one is found acceptable in the sight of God, rewards and blessedness is the consequence.

 

The reaction to this by our human sensibilities is simply this: “What? God is supposed to all merciful and all suffering.

How can He demand payment, when we, from our foibles and mis-direction, commit sin against Him? Who can pay such a debt?”

 

Exactly. This is the point that ultimately draws the distinction between God and Man. Sinning against an all-holy and completely good Being who, at the same time, is completely just, has consequences. Although we do not consider our sins worthy of punishment, God does. We, who are of such a fallen nature that we take our sins for granted, as a part of life, do not really see ourselves as sinners in the way God does. Only He can see the true nature of our being.  Recall that Christ responded to the rich young ruler who called him good by saying, “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.”[i] That being said, How can we respond to a completely just God, with only our lives and our sinful natures in our hands?

 

If it were up to us, our cause would be lost.  We can only pay for our sins with that which is inherent in us, our lives. Complete and ultimate justice, being completely balanced in terms of offense and repayment, demands this. If left to our own devices, we would be lost.

 

Admittedly, this was hard for me at one time to accept, especially when I had heard all my life that God was a loving God, one who forgave all offenses without number.  How could He demand ultimate payment? After all, He’s God, while I am a mere human.  Why, it’s simply not fair!

 

Once again, this is exactly the point.  What’s fair to God is not fair to Man.  Here’s why.  God, being absolutely just, and at the same time absolutely good, does not demand justice from us.  He doesn’t require us to pay for our sins with our lives. Instead, he paid for our sins with His life. Look again at Christ on the Cross in this respect. He paid the price so that we wouldn’t be required to pay it.

Looking at this in another light, it could have been that God would require us to pay for our sins with our lives. It could have been that God would say to each of us at the Day of Judgment, “You have sinned against my Absolute and Complete Holiness; thus you shall die.” This is justice, albeit one that is difficult for us humans to accept.  Without Christ, this would be the way it would be.

 

God being God, however, this is not the way it will be. Simply because God is who He is, his Justice is tempered with absolute mercy. It is not that He didn’t stay true to Himself regarding justice; he did.  It is only that He Himself paid the price to satisfy the requirement of His own absolute nature.  As mind numbing as it may sound, God both set the standard for which all dealings must be made, the standard of absolute integrity, and then paid the price to keep it true to those standards.   This is the difference between Man and God.  Man can only attempt to strive towards justice and exact punishment or retribution to compensate for wrong. God has not only defined justice, he also achieved its ultimate perfection.  This perfection, this universal satisfaction, is embodied in the Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

Thus, when we, like the workers in the vineyard, exclaim “It’s not fair!” Let us rethink the situation.  Let us consider the nature and quality of our calling in God.

Are we murmuring against God because we are laboring in the vineyard longer than others?  Do we perceive ourselves somehow more worthy than they because we have labored longer? Do we even secretly resent those who are called late in life to salvation?  We trust not that it is so. When we consider the “just” reward of our sins and negligences, it is amazing that any of us are called at all to work in the vineyard.  Those of us who are called and come to labor will receive the same reward, regardless of the timing of our call.  We, who trust in Christ for our salvation, will receive the most just reward of all, that of God Himself.

It is something that we do not deserve.  It is something that we do not merit.  It is simply the consequence of an all-loving God being true to Hinself.

 

For that, we offer endless thanks and praise.  For that, we acknowledge the ultimate distinction between God and Man.

 

Matthew 20:15: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?”

 

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to Holy Ghost, now and for ever.

 

AMEN


[i] Mark10:18

 

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