Monday, June 23, 2014

Sermon – “Good News, Bad News” (Romans 1:16-25)


We’ve all heard the “good news, bad news jokes”. A tomato and a carrot were out for a walk one evening. They were crossing the street when a car tore by and seriously injured the carrot. The carrot was carried off in an ambulance while the tomato rushed to the hospital after him. Outside the emergency room he met with the doctor. “How is my friend doing?” he asked breathlessly. “Is he going to live?” The doctor looked at him sternly and replied, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that your friend is still alive. The bad news is that he’s going to end up being a vegetable for the rest of his life.”

If you listened carefully to this morning’s reading from the New Testament, you will have noticed that it contains both good news and bad news. Paul starts with the good news, which is the gospel—and he gives us two good reasons why this is so. First of all, it is the power of God. The word in Greek is dunamis, from which we derive our English words “dynamic” and “dynamite”. And so we believe that, unlike other stories, the gospel has a power of its own, to bring those who hear it into a relationship with God.

I may have told you before of the story of Ernest Gordon, a Scottish military officer who was captured by the Japanese in World War 2 and taken to a prisoner of war camp in Burma, to work on the infamous “railway of death”. He and a group of his fellow prisoners began to read the New Testament together and it was not long before they were realizing that this Jesus of whom they were reading was not just a figure of history but one who was present in their very midst. Soon their lives were being transformed. Where there had been despair there was hope. The near-animal behavior that they had been reduced to by their captors was replaced by courageous acts of self-giving. They would never be the same again. That story has been duplicated again and again wherever men and women come into contact with the gospel.

The Gospel [wrote Karl Barth] is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question mark against all truths. The Gospel is not the door but the hinge… By the Gospel the whole concrete world is dissolved and established. 

The gospel is good news because of its power. But that power derives from its content. “For in it,” Paul tells us, “the righteousness of God is revealed…” Now you could just as easily translate those words, “In it the justice of God is revealed.” Whichever way you do it, it will become clear to us as we venture through Romans that God’s righteousness and God’s justice are not the same as human righteousness and human justice. According to human justice, the punishment must fit the crime. One of the earliest things a child learns to say is, “But that’s not fair!” What we will find is that God’s justice simply does not fit neatly into any of our human categories. It will always baffle us, always confound us—and that is why Paul says it is revealed “from faith to faith”, or as the New Living Translation puts it, “from start to finish by faith”.

The Act: They suppressed the truth


However, this amazing good news, which Paul proclaims and which is the subject of this letter, is set against the backdrop of bad news. Just as the gospel reveals the righteousness of God, so by contrast it inevitably reveals the wrath of God as well. Now speaking about God’s anger makes many people profoundly uneasy. It conjures up images of hellfire-and-brimstone preachers of past generations who appeared to think it was more effective to frighten their parishioners into Christian faith than to woo them. Yet when you take a moment to think about it, are there not things in this world that God ought to be angry about—the carnage of war, the horror of slavery and human trafficking, the evils of racism; or on a closer to home level, domestic abuse, bullying that drives children to suicide, a drunk driver who plows into a family of five? What kind of God would he be if he were not angry about things such as these?

Paul will have more to say about specific evils in the final verses of the chapter. However, for the moment he calls upon us to look at the root cause of so much of what is out of kilter both in his world and (I want to say) in our world today. It all revolves around two verbs. The first is in verse 18. Paul speaks of those “who by their wickedness suppress the truth”. The term quite literally means “hold down”. So you have a picture of a group of brigands taking someone captive and holding them to the floor. It happened to the prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament. Jeremiah was warning that the city of Jerusalem was going to fall to the armies of Chaldea and that they ought to surrender. The city officials didn’t like what he was saying because they were afraid it would undermine the morale of their troops. (Never mind that Jeremiah was right and that surrendering from the start would spare a great many lives and even the city itself.) So they took him captive and shut him up in a muddy cistern.

So it is that not only individuals but whole societies can become profoundly uncomfortable with the truth, to the point where they will go to almost any length to suppress it—and this is where Paul’s second verb comes in, in verses 23 and 25: “exchange”. Once the truth has been rejected, there needs to be an alternative “truth” to take its place. In verse 23 Paul writes, “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.” He was expanding on a verse from the Psalms, where the psalmist looked back to the construction of the golden calf on Mount Sinai and wailed, “They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass” (106:20).

Lest we think the church is immune from this, the lessons of history teach us otherwise. At the time of the Reformation the church had exchanged the free grace of God for a system of rituals and indulgences. In Nazi Germany the church exchanged God’s love for people of all nations for the myth of the German Volk. Today I fear that we have exchanged God’s holiness and the call to repentance for a “gospel” of inclusivity.

Late in the seventh century BC the prophet Jeremiah lamented,

Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:11-13)

The Consequence: Their hearts were darkened


You cannot drink for long from a cracked cistern. There will be consequences, and the first consequence that Paul identifies is that “their senseless minds were darkened”. In actual fact the word that Paul uses in verse 21 is not “mind” but “heart”. And at its root the word translated “senseless” means something like lacking comprehension, insight or understanding. What we are seeing here is a dreadful process: that our actions and our thoughts, what we do with our bodies, what we entertain in our minds, will invariably penetrate deeper into what makes up the very core of our being.

The lesson is brought home in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The ring that lies at the center of the story wields great powers in the hands of its possessor. Yet it becomes clear that the ring exerts a power not only on the external world but also in the heart of the one wearing it—and that that power is not for the good. The case in point is the evil Gollum, a slimy character who dwells in darkness at the bottom of a cave, surviving on a diet of raw fish and the occasional straying goblin. Gollum had begun his life as a hobbit, but the power of the ring had gradually corrupted his heart to the point where he was wholly given over to the purposes of evil.

We think of our heart affecting our minds and actions. The book of Proverbs teaches us, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, 
for from it flow the springs of life.” Yet it recognizes that the flow goes in both directions. How do we keep our hearts?

Put away from you crooked speech,
and put devious talk far from you. 

Let your eyes look directly forward, 

and your gaze be straight before you. 

Keep straight the path of your feet… 

Do not swerve to the right or to the left; 

turn your foot away from evil. (Proverbs 4:23-27)

As Jesus’ disciples we are challenged to maintain a difficult balance. Our place is in the world, but how important it is not to allow the world’s values to take hold of our minds and penetrate our hearts. For then we cease to be the salt and light that Jesus calls us to be. And if the salt has lost its saltiness, what is it good for?

The Outcome: God gave them up


And so we have the truth being suppressed and exchanged for a lie. We have hearts darkened. But the bad news does not end there. There is still one more dreadful and frightening detail that Paul has to add. “Therefore,” he says in verse 24, “God gave them up…”

What haunting words! What a dreadful sentence! Can you imagine anything more devastating? To be given up by God. For God to leave us alone, entirely to our own devices. To call out and all we hear is an echo. To have nothing and no one in any ultimate sense to whom to turn. This is the final outcome of suppressing the truth and exchanging it for a lie. This is what happens when we allow our hearts to be darkened. It is a terrible fate.

“God gave them up…” Yet already, in the prospect of that devastating silence, there is a faint whisper of hope. The darkness has descended upon us; yet as we look to the eastern horizon we see the first glimmer of the first ray of dawn—and it is found in those very words of desolation: “God gave them up…”

The hope is in the fact that this is not the last time in his letter to the Romans that Paul will use those words. Underneath the fearful scene that Paul paints for us in chapter 1 is the abiding conviction of chapter 8—that the God of his gospel, the God whom he proclaims and in whom we put our faith today, is the God “who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). In the words of Stuart Townend’s hymn,

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

How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns his face away,
As wounds which mar the Chosen One
Bring many sons to glory.

When Jesus cried aloud, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he was taking God’s absence, the final outcome of our exchanging the truth for a lie, upon himself. “So remember,” Paul writes elsewhere, “that at one time you were without God in the world. But now you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:11-13).

Out of the bad news our wondrous God brings good news. May we find our minds made new and our hearts set free by its transforming power.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Sermon – “Good News People” (Romans 1:1-10)


Over the course of the summer we will be reading through much of the sixteen chapters of St Paul’s letter to the Romans. John Calvin, the great Swiss reformer, stated of it, “If we have gained a true understanding of this epistle, we have an open door to all the most profound treasures of Scripture.” More recently the great English evangelist, preacher and teacher John Stott claimed, “It is the fullest, plainest and grandest statement of the gospel in the New Testament.”[1]

Nevertheless, I think that many of us would see studying Romans as a daunting task. Although it takes the form of a letter, it is much more than that. It is really a thesis, Paul’s clearest and most complete statement of his theology, of his understanding of Christ and the church, of the human condition and the gospel. If you find Romans difficult at times to follow, you are in good company. Even the apostle Peter confessed, “Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand…”

Author and hymn writer James Weldon Johnson told the story of a preacher who stood up before his congregation one Sunday morning and declared, “Brothers and sisters, this morning I intend to explain the unexplainable, to find out the indefinable, to ponder over the imponderable, and to unscrew the inscrutable.” I don’t lay claim to any such powers as those as we make our way through the letter to the Romans, but I do believe that as we look to the Holy Spirit and allow the Scriptures to speak to us—as the Bible says, to let deep call to deep—we will find ourselves being transformed in the process.

From the very outset Paul makes it clear that his subject and his overarching theme, indeed his passion, is the gospel. He describes himself simply as “a servant of Jesus Christ”—and if you check out the footnote, you will see that the word literally means “slave”. And Paul’s whole task as a slave, his assignment so to speak, is the gospel.

Now “gospel” simply means “good news”, and that is the way that a number of our contemporary English versions of the Bible translate it. Originally it was used of a messenger announcing a military victory, but it has a considerably wider application than that. The passage from Isaiah that Jesus read in the synagogue at Capernaum spoke about good news: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1). Elsewhere Isaiah wrote, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’ ” (Isaiah 52:7). And Paul had come as just such a messenger.

The good news foretold


The first thing that Paul sought to make clear was that the gospel was not his invention. It was a message that he had received and was now passing on. In the ancient world the Romans had a way of conveying messages called the cursus publicus. It was a state-operated relay system, with rest houses placed every eight miles or so. Here messengers would swap out their tired horses for fresh ones, guaranteeing that messages were delivered swiftly and efficiently. The system continued into the fifth century and there was nothing to compare with it again until the development of the modern post office.

That was how Paul saw himself, not as an originator of a message, but as a messenger faithfully passing on the message with which he had been entrusted. “I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received,” he wrote to the congregation in Corinth (1 Corinthians 15:1). Now in this letter to the Romans he traces that message all the way back to patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament.

Of this the great theologian Karl Barth reflected,

The gospel is no intrusion of today. As the seed of eternity it is the fruit of time, the meaning and maturity of history—the fulfillment of prophecy… The words of the prophets, long fastened under lock and key, are now set free. Now it is possible to hear what Jeremiah and Job and the preacher Solomon had proclaimed long ago. Now we can see and understand what is written.[2]

Thus as Christians we want to affirm the value of the Old Testament. We believe that in it, every bit as much as in the New, are to be found all the treasures of the gospel.

Perhaps you have heard, as I have, people who reject the Old Testament because the God they find there is a God of vengeance and judgment, and not the God of love and forgiveness that we find in the New. Early in the second century there was a famous heretic named Marcion. The core of Marcion’s heresy was very similar. He taught that there were two Gods revealed in the Bible: the God of the Old Testament, who is a God of law and justice, and the God and Father of Jesus Christ, who is a God of mercy and salvation. As a result he taught his followers to reject the Old Testament in its entirety. But that is the opposite of what we hear from Paul in these opening verses of Romans, and it contradicts the unanimous teaching of the New Testament, not least Jesus himself. The good news we proclaim issues out of the Old Testament like a flower growing from a seed. As the old Sunday school rhyme puts it, “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.”

As we read on in Romans, then, we will find Paul quoting from no fewer than fifty passages found in thirteen books of the Old Testament. The largest proportion of them is from the Psalms, and I would like to pause there for just a moment. One devotional exercise that I have found helpful is, as I have been reading through the Psalms, to seek to recognize Christ in them—not just in the obvious psalms like Psalm 22, but to see, for example, that Jesus is the man in Psalm 1 “who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers”; that Jesus is the man in Psalm 25 “against whom the Lord counts no iniquity and in whose spirit there is no deceit”; or in Psalm 40, “who makes the Lord his trust, who does not turn to the proud or to those who go astray after a lie”. As I have done this I have found the Psalms speaking to me with I richness I might never have otherwise imagined.

The good news focused


The second thing that Paul tells us about the gospel in this passage is that it centers in God’s Son. Twice he describes it in that way: in verse 4 and in verse 9. The good news that we proclaim is not a philosophy. It is not an experience. It is not a code of behavior. Rather, it is all about a person, Jesus Christ.

I have to say that Paul is a little like a pit bull in that regard. And you have to be. It is so easy to be distracted, to be derailed, to find that we are focusing on something other than Jesus. It may be the beauty of the liturgy, or the growth of the church, or the benefits of meditation, or the plight of the poor, or any of a thousand other things. I do not question that all of them are good and worthy, but they are not the gospel. They are not good news unless they emanate from Jesus and direct us to him.

I remember years ago watching John Stott being interviewed on a Christian television program. His interviewer (himself a Pentecostal pastor) kept talking about Christianity. It finally got to the point where, several minutes into the show, John interrupted him and said, “It’s not Christianity we’re here to talk about: it’s Christ.”

There is no power in Christianity. Christianity is a system. The power of the gospel is in a person, Jesus Christ. It is he, Paul tells us elsewhere, and he alone, who is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone … so that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28).

The good news fulfilled


A third thing we learn about the gospel in this morning’s reading is that it is for all people. Already in Paul’s day, scarcely a generation after the events of Jesus’ cross and resurrection, the message had reached all the way to Rome. Now Paul had plans to take it to Spain as well. Already it had cut across distinctions of race and ethnicity, social class and gender. Already it was being embraced by people from the lowliest slaves to members of the household of Caesar.

All of that is wonderful in itself, and it is the fulfillment of Jesus’ command in this morning’s Gospel reading, to go and make disciples of all nations. Yet it seems to me that the clincher comes in two little words. You will find them at the beginning of verse 6: “including yourselves”. The gospel isn’t just for “them”. It’s for you. It’s for me.

I remember many years ago as a teenager sitting in the office of a local pastor. I’m not exactly sure how we got to this point in the conversation, but he asked me to elaborate what I believed as a Christian. My answer was basically the Apostles’ Creed: that Jesus was God’s Son, that he had died on the cross for the sins of the world… Then he stopped me. “John, you say that Jesus died for the sins of the world, but do you believe that he died for your sins?” At that point I had been attending church for some time, a couple of years or more. I had been teaching in the Sunday school. But I was unable to give a positive answer to his question. What that question did, though, was to set me on a quest that not long after led me into a relationship with Jesus that was truly personal—and I am forever grateful for his willingness to ask it.

It is an easy assumption to make that because someone is in a church—they may even be in the choir or serving on the vestry or teaching in the Sunday school as I was—that they have responded to the personal challenge of the gospel. Erica Sabiti was the first African Archbishop of Uganda. As a young lad he had been a pupil in a church mission school where he had no doubt been exposed to the gospel. He later trained as a teacher in one of those mission schools and then as a catechist in the church. That in turn led him to theological college and ordination, first as a deacon and then as a priest. Yet all that time he would have described himself as being one foot away from the kingdom of God—the distance between his head and his heart. It was only when he went out one day to pray and accepted Jesus into his heart that the gospel that he had heard from his youth became a life-giving reality for him.

Again, as Karl Barth has put it, “What [the gospel] demands of [us] is more than notice, or understanding, or sympathy. It demands participation, comprehension, co-operation.”[3] The gospel is not fulfilled until I appropriate it personally, until I recognize that its message is for me—until I bow before Jesus, its source and center and subject, and allow him become a reality for me today.




[1]     Romans: God’s Good News for the World, 19
[2]     The Epistle to the Romans, 28
[3]     The Epistle to the Romans, 28

Monday, June 9, 2014

Sermon – “Pour Out Your Spirit” (Acts 2:17; 2:4 & John 7:37,38)


If I were to have a favorite prayer in our Book of Common Prayer, I think it would have to be the one that follows a baptism. The candidates have just been baptized. The water is still trickling down their foreheads, when we pray, “Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and”—here’s the bit I especially like—“the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”

“The gift of joy and wonder in all your works…” Over a century ago G.K. Chesterton wrote about the wonder that characterizes childhood.

When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.

He then went on to lament the tragedy of the loss of that sense of wonder that happens to all of us.

We have all read … the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star… We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.[1]

In his book Dangerous Wonder, Mike Yaconelli uttered a similar lament:

Most of us cannot say when it happened, we only know that it happened. When we became aware of the absence of God’s voice, there were a thousand deaths within us. Idealism and innocence died first. And across the scarred terrain of our souls, one could see the withered remains of dreams, spontaneity, poetry, passion, and ourselves—our real selves, the persons we were made to be.

What happened? What happened to our aliveness? …

The death of the soul is never quick. It is a slow dying, a succession of little deaths that continues until we wake up one day on the edge of God’s voice, on the fringe of God’s belovedness, beyond the adventure of God’s claim on our lives.[2]

Jesus’ followers lived at a time when a relationship with God had been reduced to a matter of following prescribed rules and regulations. The wonder of the Red Sea parting to allow their ancestors to cross or of the smoke and thunder atop Mount Sinai were but a shadowy memory. The same might easily have happened to Jesus’ followers as well. The feeding of the five thousand, the stilling of the storm on Lake Galilee, the healing of the demoniac at Gerasa and the hundred and one other staggering events that they had witnessed over the course of those three years—not to mention the resurrection itself—might easily have become just memories, were it not for one thing: Pentecost.

I can’t imagine that they had any idea what was happening to them at first: the roar of a violent windstorm filling the house; what seemed to be tongues of fire settling on each of them; and then, perhaps eeriest of all, speaking in languages that they had never known. I can only think that initially at least they were as mystified as the crowd that began to gather outside. “What is going on?”

Pouring


It was Peter who was the first to begin to figure it out: “This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.’ ” Joel had not been the only one to prophesy what was happening. We read it in Isaiah and Ezekiel as well.

I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring. (Isaiah 44:3)

I will restore the fortunes of Jacob, and have mercy on the whole house of Israel… Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God … and I will never again hide my face from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 39:25, 28, 29)

I took a moment to look up the word “pour” in a thesaurus. Here are some of the synonyms I came up with: teem, drench, gush, stream, surge, cascade, spill. So when God pours out his Holy Spirit, it is not as though he does it with an eyedropper. What we are talking about is Niagara Falls.

Ezekiel gives us an amazing picture of this in the second-last chapter of his prophecy. He has a vision of himself standing at the entrance to the Temple. He looks down and at his feet he sees a tiny trickle of water seeping out from beneath the threshold. He walks a distance of five hundred yards and the water is now ankle-deep. Another five hundred and it is knee-deep. Another and it is up to his waist. Finally it is so deep and so wide that he cannot even swim across it. This is the water that brings freshness and life, healing and vitality to the world.[3]  

That is the way of the Holy Spirit. We’d be far more comfortable if we could have him in little doses. It would make life so much simpler—especially for us Episcopalians, who prefer our religion to be genteel, restrained. But that is not how God works. Our heavenly Father is lavish. He pours out his Holy Spirit on us. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). “This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:7). It’s like drinking from a fire hose.

Filling


Luke tells us in verse 4 of this morning’s reading from Acts that the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? The first thing that comes to my mind is that the Holy Spirit wants all of us. We are so accustomed to compartmentalizing our lives. It could be into work and family and leisure activities—or the physical versus the intellectual versus the spiritual. Perhaps we have some other way of dividing things up. However we do it, the end result is more often than not the same. There is a spiritual component, or a God component, that frequently ends up occupying the tiniest portion of who we are.

But that is not how God sees us. God sees us as whole beings. He has created us in such a way that body, mind and spirit are inseparably and indivisibly intertwined. This is something that modern science is increasingly recognizing. We are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made”. So it is that the Bible calls upon us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God. Why? Because this is our spiritual worship. What’s more, it calls us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. The Holy Spirit yearns to fill all of us: body, mind and spirit.

Thus Paul prays for his fellow believers in Ephesus, that they “may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18,19). Later in the same letter he tells them to “be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18-20).

Robert Boyd Munger wrote very helpfully about this in his little booklet, My Heart—Christ’s Home. It is about what it means to invite Jesus into our lives—not just to leave him in the entryway, but to invite him into the library: the books I read, the magazines I browse and perhaps nowadays the internet sites I visit. He then moves into the dining room, the place of my appetites and desires, and then the living room, the workroom, the rec room—and by now you get the picture. So it is with the Holy Spirit. He desires to fill every area of our lives with his life-giving, renewing presence. And in my experience, that is a life-long project.

Flowing


We have thought about God’s pouring out of the Holy Spirit into our lives and of our being filled with the Spirit. However, if you look at our Gospel reading, you will notice that Jesus speaks not about filling up but about flowing out. “Let any who are thirsty come to me,” Jesus said, “and let any who believe in me drink. As the Scripture has said, ‘Out of their hearts shall flow rivers of living water.’ ”

What Jesus is expressing here is a principle that is embedded deep within the Scriptures. That is that we are blessed in order that we may be a blessing to others. It was true of Abraham and his descendants in the Old Testament. Paul enunciates it in the New Testament when he writes about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would come upon them so that they could be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.

God does not give us his Spirit so that we can enjoy some esoteric experience. He fills us with his Spirit in order that we may serve others. The Spirit flows into us in order that he may flow out from us. We are not meant to be bottles, but channels. Perhaps you are familiar with the parable of the Dead Sea:

Israel has two lakes. The one in the north is Lake Kinneret—the Sea of Galilee. Most of the water in Israel comes from this lake. As they did in New Testament times, people still catch fish there for a living, and its redbelly tilapia are considered a delicacy.

The second of Israel’s lakes is the Dead Sea and it is an area of desolation. Even though the fresh waters of the Jordan wind their way over 156 miles and down 700 feet into it from the Sea of Galilee, no plants grow along its banks and no fish swim in its salt-laden waters. The mineral content is so great that it burns the eyes and any open wound. After being in the water, bathers must wash to cleanse themselves from its residue.

Lake Galilee remains fresh and life-supporting because water flows both into and out of it. When water reaches the Dead Sea there is no way out except to evaporate. So too, God graciously fills us with his Holy Spirit in order that his blessings may flow through us and out to others, bringing life and peace, kindness and joy. There is no limit to the Holy Spirit’s supply. He will keep filling us and filling us and filling us.

May we know that filling today—and as we do may we see the blessings of the Holy Spirit spilling out into the lives of others as well as he moves us to love and to serve them in Jesus’ name.




[1]     Orthodoxy, Ch. 4, “The Ethics of Elfland”, 52,53
[2]     Dangerous Wonder, 14,15
[3]     Ezekiel 47:1-12

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Sermon – “He Ascended Into Heaven” (Acts 1:3-11)

We call them mountaintop experiences—and in the Bible we meet with many of them quite literally:

•     Noah and his family standing atop Mount Ararat as the rain-soaked earth began to come to life once again, the rainbow stretched across the blue sky, and God established his covenant, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:20 – 9:17)

•     Abraham clutching his beloved son Isaac to his breast at the peak of Mount Moriah, as the scent of the freshly sacrificed lamb fills the air. He calls the place Jehovah Jireh, “The Lord will see to it”. (Genesis 22:9-14)

•     Moses at the summit of Mount Sinai as God himself passes by before him and proclaims himself as “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” (Exodus 33:18 – 34:8)

•     And it may have been in the exact spot once again where Abraham had met with God that Isaiah had his astounding vision of the Lord, the train of his garment filling the Temple and the seraphim crying aloud to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:1-5)

We find that same pattern repeating itself in the New Testament. Jesus takes three of his disciples to the top of a mountain where he is transfigured before them. I love the way the old King James Bible renders it: “And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.”

So it is today that we come to another mountain, the Mount of Olives—a Sabbath day’s journey, as Luke describes it, or about three-quarters of a mile, outside of Jerusalem. For forty days Jesus had been appearing to his followers. In last week’s sermon I referred to Jesus’ meeting with seven of them on the shore of Lake Galilee. This week the scene is back in Jerusalem, where Jesus had instructed all the disciples to gather. In spite of having seen and met with Jesus on numerous occasions, their minds were still racing with questions. “Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus leaves them in their quandary: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons…” But he does give them one sure promise: “You will receive power…”

Then Luke tells us that in plain sight of all of them Jesus was taken up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. It is a strange scene, and so far out of our experience that it is impossible for us to explain or fully understand. On the one hand I am inclined to avoid a literalistic interpretation of the passage, where Jesus shoots up like a missile being launched into the stratosphere. On the other hand, I don’t think we are entitled to understand Luke’s account simply as a kind of metaphor or worse still, an invention or a myth. I believe that Luke is relating an actual historical event. The problem is that it is beyond description. It lies outside all our normal human categories.

One thing is certain, however, and that is that the cloud that took Jesus from the disciples was nothing less than the Shekinah glory of God. It was the cloud that enveloped Mount Sinai when Moses received the Law and that led the people of Israel in their forty-year trek across the wilderness into the Promised Land. It was the cloud that had filled the Tabernacle when the Ark of the Covenant was returned—so thickly, in fact, that the priests were unable to stand to minister. “The Lord is king!” sang the psalmist. “Clouds and thick darkness are all around him” (Psalm 97:2).

We see that same cloud in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration. Matthew describes it as “a bright cloud”. And just as Jesus had been accompanied by two people on that occasion—Moses and Elijah—so now, as they gazed upwards into the heavens, the disciples found themselves in the company of two men. Have you ever had one of those experiences where your thoughts are in an entirely different place and suddenly something brings you back into the “real world”? I suspect that that is what happened to the disciples when the men spoke to them. “Galileans, what are you doing standing there, looking into the sky?” But you can hardly blame them. Just as Peter had wanted to put up lean-tos for Moses and Elijah, so now the disciples needed time to ponder this unique and remarkable moment in their lives. Nineteenth-century hymn writer Frederick Faber put it well:

My God, how wonderful thou art,

thy majesty, how bright;

how beautiful thy mercy seat

in depths of burning light!

Father of Jesus, love’s reward!

what rapture it will be

prostrate before thy throne to lie,

and gaze and gaze on thee!

Praise


So what do we mean when we say Sunday by Sunday, “He ascended into heaven”? As with the disciples, the first thing that Jesus’ ascension should do is to draw us to look upwards—to recognize that Jesus shares fully in the glory of the Father. As we read in Philippians (2:9-11),

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

So it is that Christian worship is always Christ-centered, Christ-directed worship—for Jesus is the focus of worship not just on earth but in heaven. With John in the Revelation we hear the roar of the heavenly host as they sing together, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12) Our worship here at Messiah is a foreshadowing of that day when we too shall gather around the throne of the risen, ascended, glorified Christ. We recognize that fact in the Eucharistic Prayer as we confess that we are joining with those “countless throngs of angels [who] stand before you to serve you night and day; and, beholding the glory of your presence, offer you unceasing praise”.

Too easily the focus of worship can move from Jesus to me. I have seen it in congregations and I have seen it in myself. Instead of keeping my focus on Jesus, the criterion shifts to what I want, to my preferences, to my comfort zone. Worship moves from being Christocentric to being egocentric. That does not mean that we should suspend all our critical faculties when we gather for worship. There are bad prayers, bad songs, and even (dare I say it?) bad sermons—and I’m sure I have preached my share. Yet that does not mean that because it challenges us or annoys us or even profoundly upsets us that a sermon or a prayer in itself is bad. Worship that draws us into the presence of the risen, exalted, glorified Christ will always be challenging.

Prayer


Our Gospel reading this morning is taken from what is often called Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” in John 17. There is a reason that we read from that prayer every year on this particular Sunday. It is to remind us that, just as Jesus prayed for his church on the eve of the crucifixion, so he continues to intercede on our behalf even now. As we read in the letter to the Hebrews (7:25), “He is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” When Stephen, the church’s first martyr, was facing death, the Bible tells us that he gazed into heaven. And what did he see there? Jesus not seated, but standing at the right hand of God. Jesus was interceding for him at that very moment.

When you really begin to think about it, it boggles the mind. Many times when I have visited people in times of illness or severe distress, they have shared with me how they have felt physically buoyed up by the prayers of their Christian sisters and brothers. There have been times when I have felt that myself as well. Did you know that each Sunday there is someone in prayer for our worship throughout the service? It happens invisibly and unnoticed. Yet I believe that that prayer is a significant factor in making the presence and power of the Holy Spirit a reality for us when we meet.

But pause for a moment to realize that Jesus himself is praying for us right now. And if John 17 is anything to go by (which it is!) he is asking, “Father, may they know you…” “May you truly be God in their lives…” “Keep them in your care…” “May they be one as you and I are one…”

As I examine my own life I am aware that all too often I have ignored Jesus’ own heart’s desire for me in the presence of the Father. As I look at the church, I see how many times down through history right to our present day we have made that prayer into a mockery. I know that if I were Jesus, I would have thrown up my hands in despair and given up praying a long time ago. Yet Jesus continues to plead for us, to intercede before the Father on our behalf—and he promises that as we learn to pray in the same way he will grant our requests.

Power


A third thing about Jesus’ ascension was that it was necessary in order to make way for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had said to his disciples after the last supper, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). Now, before he ascends to the Father, he tells them again, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

During his time on earth Jesus’ ministry extended over little more than a 150-mile stretch. Within a very few years the gospel would be making inroads into Egypt in the south and over the whole northern coast of the Mediterranean as far as Rome and beyond. But none of it would have happened without the Holy Spirit.

My suspicion is that the disciples might easily have been quite comfortable spending the rest of their lives simply sharing their reminiscences about Jesus. It was the Holy Spirit who would turn all that they had experienced over the previous three years into a passion, an unquenchable flame that would spread across the world.

Statistics reveal that, according to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, 50.7% of the population identify as introverts. Several years ago we took an informal poll of the Vestry and discovered that 80% of us were introverts. That makes sharing the gospel a challenge. It means that we are probably more comfortable being a “holy huddle”—that the notion of evangelism (at least as it is portrayed much of the time) strikes terror into our souls. But perhaps there is a good side to that as well—if it makes us depend more on the Holy Spirit.

Jesus did not command his disciples to be witnesses. He made a statement of fact: “You will be my witnesses.” We are Jesus’ witnesses, whether we like it or not. And I believe that as we live in conscious dependence upon his Spirit he will turn our eyes to those around us—and the Spirit will open our hearts to the heart of Jesus to make his love known.