26 November 2014

Sermon – “A King Like No Other” (Ezekiel 34:11-24)

In southeastern Iraq there is a town named al-Kifl. Located not far from the ruins of ancient Babylon, it boasts no great fame, no great attractions, except that it is the site of an ancient tomb, believed to be the grave of none other than the prophet Ezekiel. For more than a thousand years, al-Kifl was a place where Jews gathered on special occasions for worship. Given the events of current times, it is hard to believe that until relatively recently Iraq was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the Middle East. In al-Kifl there was a market run by local Jews for the pilgrims who came to pray at Ezekiel’s shrine. They were housed in the rooms surrounding the adjoining courtyard. Today very little evidence of that Jewish presence remains and the shrine itself is a ruin.
Fortunately that is not all that is left of Ezekiel. Far more valuable than any shrine, we have the forty-eight chapters of his prophecy in the Bible. Along with Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel, Ezekiel is considered one of the four major prophets of the Old Testament. Of all the prophets, Ezekiel is perhaps the most pictorial. It is to Ezekiel that we owe the vision of the mysterious whirling wheels within wheels. Above them stood the throne of God in all his glory. Ezekiel’s prophecy ends with the prophet standing at the entrance of the temple, with water trickling down from its threshold. As the prophet is led farther and farther from the temple, the water becomes deeper and deeper, at first up to his ankles, then to his knees, his waist, and finally so deep and so wide that it cannot be crossed. On either side of the river are flourishing trees, whose leaves do not wither nor their fruit fail—a picture of the abundant life that flows from the presence of the living God. Aside from these two vivid images Ezekiel also gives us the arresting account of the valley of dry bones, which, as Ezekiel obeys God’s command to prophesy to them, miraculously start to move and take on flesh to become living beings—the promise of resurrection and a passage which for that reason we read every year at the Easter sunrise vigil.

The false shepherds of Israel

In this morning’s reading from the Old Testament we are exposed to another of Ezekiel’s visions, this time of shepherds and sheep. For ancient Israelites sheep and shepherds were a familiar sight in a way that they just aren’t to us modern city dwellers. Not only that, but the notion of a leader as a kind of shepherd was one that had an immediacy and a relevance that we cannot replicate today. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the founders of the nation, had all been shepherds. Moses had spent forty years of his life as a shepherd. David, the greatest of Israel’s kings, had grown up as a shepherd.
Thus, in the opening verses of chapter 34, when the Lord commands Ezekiel to prophesy against the shepherds, everyone knew against whom his words were directed: the leaders of the nation.
Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.
It was a telling condemnation. Yet in his infinite compassion towards his people God was not prepared to allow them simply to be scattered, gradually to disappear altogether. No, he himself would both be their shepherd and send them a true shepherd—and in this morning’s passage we have a description what the Lord would do for his sheep.

The true Shepherd

That description is structured around eight strong verbs and they are these: seek, rescue, bring back, feed, bind up, strengthen, judge and finally, in verse 22, save. I want us to take a few moments now to look briefly at each of them.
First of all then, seek (or search). Just as in English we have two words with overlapping meanings, the same is true in the Hebrew of the Old Testament, and they are often found together in parallel. They bring with them the sense of single-mindedness, of earnestness. It is the word that David uses in the psalms: “One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after… ‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face. Lord, do I seek” (Psalm 27:4,8). Elsewhere we have the image of the young lion roaring as it seeks its prey (Psalm 104:21). And in Proverbs (2:4), “If you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures—then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” Or again, in Psalm 119:2, “Happy are those … who seek [the Lord] with their whole heart…”
All of those verses have to do with our seeking the Lord. Yet far more wonderful is the truth that Ezekiel shares in this passage: that we have a God who seeks out you and me with infinitely greater diligence and compassion. Our Lord Jesus brings that out for us in his parable of the lost sheep in Luke’s gospel. The shepherd leaves his whole flock behind in order to search for the one that has been lost.
Ezekiel’s next verb is “rescue”. It’s the same word that is used in the opening chapters of Exodus, as God sees the plight of his people, oppressed for generations as slaves in Egypt. “I have observed the misery of my people… I have heard their cry… I know their sufferings, and I have come down to rescue them” (Exodus 3:7,8). And rescue them he did—and so he will do again for all his lost and scattered sheep.
Thirdly, God promises that he will bring them back. The word literally means to turn around and you’ll find it more than six hundred times in the Old Testament. It can mean a literal turning around, like doing a uey in your car when you realize you’re headed in the wrong direction. Yet as often as not it refers to a moral and spiritual change of direction. God turns us around, brings us back from the edge of disaster.
God our shepherd not only brings us back to himself. He also nourishes and feeds us. We give physical expression to this every time we come forward to the communion rail and kneel to outstretch our empty hands and bring the cup to our lips. Jesus told his disciples that he had food to eat that they did not know about. It is he who feeds us with food that endures to eternal life as we come to him in trust.
Next Ezekiel speaks of binding up. It is the word that Jesus used when he read from the scroll in the synagogue in Nazareth, from the opening verses of Isaiah 61: “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…” So many of us find ourselves battered, bruised and wounded. And like the good Samaritan with the injured traveler at the side of the road, the Lord comes to us in mercy. He pours oil on our wounds, binds them up and brings us to safety.
Ezekiel’s sixth verb is “strengthen”. Can you see the progression here? The word can also mean to stiffen or to harden. Ezekiel’s is the same word the prophet Isaiah used when he wrote, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God…” (Isaiah 35:3,4a). A few weeks ago my mother-in-law fell and broke her hip. So the surgeon placed a pin in it to strengthen it and by the next day she was beginning to walk again. In the same way God is able to give us strength in times of weakness, courage in times of fear, faith in times of doubt, hope in times of discouragement.
The second-to-last verb that Ezekiel uses is “judge”. The Bible assures us again and again that God is a righteous judge, that he judges the people with equity. He upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow; he is a stronghold for the oppressed. And though the world may be fraught with injustice almost anywhere we care to look, we can be assured that God’s justice will be the final word.

The Shepherd who gives his life

All of that brings us to our final word, which is “save”. “I will save my flock” (22). In many ways this one word incorporates everything that has gone before: searching, rescuing, bringing back, feeding, binding up, strengthening, judging. Yet it takes us far beyond them as well. The word in Hebrew is yasha. It’s where we get the name Jesus: “You shall name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The fulfillment of Ezekiel’s promise comes in Jesus, who not only deigns to take the humble role of a shepherd, but surrenders his very life for his sheep.
As I was flying back and forth between here and Nova Scotia, I spent some of the time reading a book that was given to me a month or so ago, entitled A Wind in the House of Islam. It tells the stories of some of the many thousands of Muslims all over the world who have become followers of Jesus. One that particularly caught my attention was of a very talented musician and composer named Rafiq in North Africa. One day as Rafiq was wandering through the streets of Paris, it began to pour and he ducked into a doorway for shelter. He turned around to see that it was the entrance to a Catholic church. He stepped inside, the first time he had ever entered a church. Above the flickering votive candles he saw an image of Jesus holding a lamb. Beneath it were the words, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This set him thinking, “What kind of person was this, who would lay down his life for others?” He obtained a copy of the four gospels and read them over and over. He began to have dreams filled with Jesus and wrote a two-and-a-half hour musical about him. In the process, Jesus became his whole life and he found himself being transformed from within. “I stopped smoking and drinking. I no longer wanted to spend time in the bars or partying. Instead, I wanted to return to North Africa to tell my wife and family about the one who had come into my life.”[1]
Later, David Garrison, the author, writes,
Traveling through the villages of the Berber mountains, visiting homes and churches of the believers, I often noticed the framed pictures of Jesus depicted as the Good Shepherd. Written beneath these images were the same words that Rafiq had seen in the Catholic sanctuary in Paris: The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Only this time they were written in Berber… These Berbers were no longer sheep without a shepherd. They had found their Shepherd and were attuned to his voice.[2]
Today, on this festival of Christ the King, the final Sunday of the church’s year, may we rejoice in the King who is also our Shepherd, who searches for us, rescues us, brings us back, nourishes us, binds us up, strengthens us, judges us and saves us. This is our God. May we listen to his voice.

[1]     page 85
[2]     page 97

10 November 2014

Sermon – “Desiring the Day” (Amos 5:18-24)

We easily grow accustomed to our environments. Sometimes it requires a different set of eyes to see things as they really are, to start asking the important question, “Why?” Two centuries ago that was true of William Wiberforce in England and a generation later of John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe in this country. They dared to question the rightness of something that many people either assumed to be acceptable or at least were willing to tolerate: the ownership of other people as slaves.

This morning in our Old Testament reading we also meet with an individual who dared to question the status quo. His name was Amos. Challenging the status quo was something that Amos had in common with all the prophets. After all, that is what being a prophet is about. Yet there were ways in which Amos was different. For one thing, Amos prophesied for only a very short period of his life—two years at most, perhaps only for a matter of weeks. For another, Amos never saw himself as a prophet. When Amaziah the priest addressed him as a seer, Amos flatly denied the title. “I am no prophet, nor the son of a prophet. I am a herdsman, a dresser of sycamore trees.”

Elsewhere Amos tells us that he was from Tekoa, an area of the southern kingdom of Judah on the edge of the dry and barren slopes that led downwards to the Dead Sea. On these marginal lands Amos was able to engage in mixed farming and at some point—perhaps to sell his produce—Amos found himself in the northern kingdom of Israel.

Now Judah and Israel were sister states. They had gone their separate ways two centuries before, but they still shared a common language and culture. Yet what Amos saw when he journeyed through Israel stunned him. On the surface the northern kingdom appeared to be a nation that was prospering. But Amos did not have his eyes on the surface, and beneath he saw a nation that was seriously ill. The poor were being victimized by the rich and powerful; there was no regard for sexual mores; religious vows were scorned and those who spoke the truth were silenced.

None of this apparently caused any consternation among the people of Israel. What did concern them, however, was a growing threat from outside. The neighboring Assyrian empire, which had been in decline for some time, was beginning to flex its muscles again. Annual military campaigns were bringing its armies closer and closer to the borders of Israel. How was this tiny kingdom going to withstand this military tidal wave that was approaching?

The Calamity

There were some in Israel who took comfort in their belief that God himself would mightily intervene on their behalf and rescue them from their powerful enemies. They placed their hopes the day of the Lord. They believed that God would scatter their foes, just as he had overthrown other powerful nations before them.

Amos, however, saw what was developing from an entirely opposite perspective. The threat of the Assyrian armies was not something that God opposed. Quite the contrary, it was a sign of God’s judgment on a nation that had given itself over to evil and had become rotten from within. Consequently, the day of the Lord was something that the Israelites should anticipate not with hope but with dread. It would be a day not of vindication but of condemnation. “It is darkness,” he warned them, “not light.”

In verse 19 Amos gives us a picture that might easily be comical if the situation were not so serious. Many translations of this verse, including the one in our pew Bibles, miss some of the irony contained in this verse, when they translate the Hebrew word for “and” right in the middle of the verse as “or”. Amos is not offering two alternative pictures. Rather, it is a single scene that goes from bad to worse to even worse. Here is a more colloquial rendering based on New Living Bible: “In that day you will be like a man who runs from a lion—
only to meet a bear. Escaping from the bear, he goes into his house and leans his hand against a wall—
and he’s bitten by a snake.” The point was that for the nation of Israel their doom was sealed. Run where they might, there was no escaping the judgment that was about to fall upon them.

There were others in Israel who thought that they could buy God off. When the northern kingdom of Israel separated itself from Judah, it needed an alternative place of worship from the Temple in Jerusalem. So King Jeroboam had two new temples constructed, one in Bethel and one in Dan. He also had a golden calf placed in front of each and proclaimed, “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:27-29)—words eerily reminiscent of those of Aaron at the foot of Mount Sinai centuries before.

I have no doubt that the worship that took place in those two temples, and around the many other high altars that were set up across the land, was lavish, magnificent. The sight of the smoke billowing into the sky from the animal sacrifices, the fragrance of the incense, and the melodious sounds of the musical instruments and choirs, would have combined to overwhelm even the most hard-bitten with awe. Yet it was all false worship offered out of false motives to a false god. To the true and living God they were an offense.

As we read all of this, we must realize that Amos spoke as he did, not with any sense of pride or glee, but as a man who could barely hold back his tears. What he witnessed before him in Israel was a tragedy and its people were rushing headlong into it.

The Connection

We have seen so far what the people of Israel were doing wrong: placing their hope in the day of the Lord and thinking they could win God’s favor through their extravagant worship. Yet all the while the poor were being trodden under foot and people were living lives of moral abandon. Amos had identified the problem for them. And in the last verse of this morning’s reading he also identifies the solution: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

What Amos was saying is that there needs to be a connection between our spiritual lives and our social realities. The two cannot be compartmentalized—or, if they are, it will be to our peril. As Old Testament scholar David Hubbard has written, “Our worship must motivate and inform our acts of righteousness and justice towards all humanity, especially the poor, afflicted and oppressed.”[1]

Let us pause for a moment to ask ourselves, what if a modern-day Amos were to come into our midst today? What would he see? I think it is quite possible to recognize the counterparts of ancient Israel in the church and nation of our own day. The people of Israel were spending their time awaiting the day of the Lord, and there are many in the church who do the same today. It is easy for us in the mainline Protestant tradition to wag an accusing finger at those who debate over exactly when Jesus will come again or whether we are pre-mil, post-mil or a-mil, because that is just not a part of our heritage. Yet I believe that for us who count ourselves as conservative or evangelical there is still the danger of using up our energies arguing the fine points of doctrine to the point where we fail to see the people and the needs around us.

A greater concern, however, lies in Amos’ second criticism of Israel, which had to do with their worship. Their services were lavish. They spared no resources on their music and their sacrifices. Yet it had no impact on their lives outside their temples. Today too we run into the danger of separating our what happens here on Sunday morning from who we are and what we do through the rest of the week. We are uplifted by the music, nourished in the sacrament, upheld in the prayers, instructed through the word. More than once I have said that some of the most important words in the liturgy are the last ones, “Let us go forth in the name of Christ.” Yet so easily worship that is intended to strengthen and equip us to be Christ’s servants in the world can become an escape from the world, an esoteric experience unconnected with reality.

The Challenge

I remember chatting before the last presidential election with a Christian friend whose wisdom I greatly respect. When I asked him which party he was favoring, he answered, “I always want to think about who might most benefit the poor.” I think his advice was profoundly biblical and his words have stuck with me ever since. So often I am inclined to vote on the basis of what would be of the greatest benefit to me, to lower my taxes or offer me greater services. Yet again and again the focus of the Scriptures is on the poor. Think of verses like these:

•  When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:22)

•  Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’ (Deuteronomy 15:11)

•  [The Lord] raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap… (1 Samuel 2:8)

•  The needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish forever. (Psalm 9:18)

•  Happy are those who consider the poor; the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble. (Psalm 41:1)

•  I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor. (Psalm 140:12)

•  Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, 
but those who are kind to the needy honor him. (Proverbs 14:31)

•  Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full. (Proverbs 19:17)

•  If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard. (Proverbs 21:13)

And we haven’t even reached the prophets yet! By far the most arresting call, however, comes to us from our Lord himself, in the Gospel that we will be reading two weeks from today. There Jesus commends those who seemingly without even being aware of it have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, cared for the sick and visited the prisoners. Then he tells them, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.”
Like the Israelites of old who felt so threatened by the advances of the Assyrian army, we see the church threatened today by so many things—whether it is secularism, declining morality, Islam, or whatever. If Amos were here, might he be warning us that this is a judgment call—that you and I need to heed the challenge to make that vital connection between theology and justice, worship and action, to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”?

[1]     Joel & Amos (Tyndale Old Testament Commentary), 88

04 November 2014

Sermon – “All the saints” (Romans 16:21-27)

It is now nearly five months since we first dipped our toes into that vast ocean of Christian teaching contained in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. While I cannot speak for those who stepped in and so ably carried us forward during my absence—Mary, Judy, Dave and George—I know that in my own preaching I have only skimmed the surface, or perhaps more accurately the surface of the surface. When we began way back in June I made the statement that Romans is in some ways 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. Yet this final chapter, from which we have read this morning, reminds us that Romans is more than that. It is a letter, written by a real person to real people, women and men with daily lives and families, jobs and relationships. And so on this All Saints’ Sunday we have an opportunity to meet face to face with some of the saints who peopled the church in Rome.
It was four years ago, during Karen’s and my unforgettable trip to Libya and Turkey, that this reality struck me in a new way. There, as we wandered through ancient ruins, we were able to see with our own eyes the marks left by individual Christians: baptismal fonts where new converts were initiated into the faith; a pulpit from which the gospel was proclaimed to a congregation of believers (and evidently a very large one); Christian symbols scratched into stones; and even the theater in Ephesus into which Paul’s co-workers Gaius and Aristarchus were dragged by an angry mob. 

Handley Moule, one of the great scholar-bishops of Durham in England, gave an imaginative perspective on this last chapter of Romans in his commentary of 120 years ago:
Hour upon hour has passed over Paul and his scribe as the wonderful message has developed itself, at once and everywhere the word of man and the word of God. They began at morning, and the themes of sin, and righteousness, and glory, of the present and the future of Israel, of the duties of the Christian life, of the special problems of the Roman mission, have carried the hours along to noon, to afternoon. Now, to the watcher from the westward lattice, [the sun slowly sinks into the horizon.] The apostle, pacing the chamber, as men are wont to do when they use the pens of others, is aware that his message is at an end, as to doctrine and counsel. But before he bids his willing and wondering secretary rest from his labors, he has to discharge his own heart of personal thoughts and affections which have lain ready in it all the while…[1]

The People

In the course of this chapter Paul singles out 26 members of the church in Rome (24 by name). He also draws attention to seven who were with him in Corinth at the time of writing. The first to be named is Phoebe, whom he identifies as a sister in the faith, a deacon in the church in Cenchreae and “a benefactor of many”. From all of this it seems that Phoebe was a woman of means, who was able to give generous support to the church and to travel freely. It is evident that Paul put great store by her, as he entrusted her with the delivery of this letter into which he had poured so much prayer and careful thought.
Having introduced Phoebe and commended her to the congregation in Rome, Paul moves on to give his personal greetings to some of the members of the church. First on the list are Prisca and Aquila. They were a couple with whom Paul had had a long association. We meet them five times in the New Testament. The first occasion was when Paul was in Corinth. Originally from Rome, they had been forced to leave when the Emperor Claudius issued an edict in AD 49 expelling all Jews from the city. Like Paul they were tentmakers and were able to establish a new life in Corinth, where they hosted Paul in their home throughout his time there. They also took a new convert, Apollos, under their wing and helped him to understand the faith more accurately. Some years later, presumably after the death of Claudius, they were able to return to Rome, where their home became a place where one of the many house-churches regularly met. Paul also tells us that they risked their lives for him, but that is an incident that we no nothing more about.
Next Paul singles out Epaenetus, who was the first to give his life to Christ in the Roman province of Asia (what is now modern Turkey). I think it’s appropriate to stop for a moment and remind ourselves that some of the places where Christians are most under persecution today are where there were Christian believers even before the time of St Paul. Perhaps the prime example is Antioch (modern Antakya) in Syria, where the name “Christian” was first given to the followers of Jesus. Yet today Christians have been all but driven out entirely. We need to pray for those brave brothers and sisters who remain—and for the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit to blow over the people of those ancient lands.
Another husband and wife team that Paul introduces us to are Andronicus and Junia. He describes them as his kinsfolk, by which he probably means his fellow Jews, and that they shared with him in one of his imprisonments. Besides this, Paul had two other reasons for respecting them: they had known Christ for longer than he had and were prominent among the apostles. The notion of a woman among the apostles is controversial to some today. Yet more than sixteen hundred years ago John Chrysostom specifically drew attention to Junia as being a woman apostle. He wrote, “Oh how great is the devotion of this woman, that she should be even counted worthy of the appellation of apostle!”
We know nothing about the next people in the list: Ampliatus, Urbanus, Stachys, and Apelles. Next Paul asks twice that his greetings be passed on not to individuals but to whole households—those of Aristobulus and of Narcissus; and here we can say something. “Household”, or “family” as our NRSV Bibles translate it, most likely means household servants or slaves, and so we are talking about wealthy or prominent families in Rome, of which there were many. The Aristobulus Paul was referring to may have been the grandson of Herod the Great. A friend of Emperor Claudius, he had retired to Rome and died there. It is likely that he was already dead at the time of Paul’s writing. According to custom his household would have been taken over by the emperor with its members continuing to retain his name. Tiberius Claudius Narcissus was one of Emperor Claudius’ most important officials. He was put to death at the beginning of Nero’s reign and all his possessions, including his slaves, were taken over by Nero. In either case we may have an instance of the church penetrating all the way up to the imperial court.
More individuals follow: Heriodion, Tryphena and Tryphosa, Persis, Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, Philologus, Julia, Nereus and Olympas. However, we might stop at Rufus, a name we do find elsewhere in the New Testament. It is in the Gospel of Mark, also written for the Christians in Rome. As Jesus is being led to Calvary, Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that a passer-by, a man named Simon from Cyrene in Libya, was pressed into carrying his cross. But it is Mark alone who stops to inform us that this Simon is the father of Rufus and Alexander. Could it have been that these two men were known to the members of the Roman church? And could it be that this was the same Rufus? Most scholars think it likely. Add to this Paul’s greeting to Rufus’ mother (presumably Simon’s widow) and his singling her out as one who was like a mother to him, and we can see Rufus had the privilege of being born into a noble heritage of serving others.
And so you have the Roman church, a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, merchants and slaves, new converts to the faith and seasoned Christians, all worshiping and serving Christ together. New Testament scholar C.K. Barrett has described them in this way:
A mixed company, these first century Christians, just as we are; but they all have their place in Christ, and in his church… There is no suggestion of hierarchy among them, except the hierarchy of service… They are a family of brothers, sisters, and mothers; not an institution.[2]

Paul’s Blessing

It is on this wonderfully diverse and sometimes problematic collection of people that Paul now confers his final blessing:
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.
In these last fifty words Paul concentrates half a dozen of the themes that have driven the sixteen chapters of this long letter. There is the gospel, the good news that centers in Jesus Christ, the good news of which Paul is not ashamed because he knows through his own experience confirmed again and again that it has the power to bring men and women into a living faith in Christ.
There is the wondrous truth that God, who revealed himself through the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament, has fully and finally revealed himself in Jesus Christ—and supremely through his death and resurrection. These are events that took place in a historical context, but whose consequences reverberate right through our own time and into eternity.
There is the glorious recognition that God’s favor is not restricted to the Jews or to any one race or people, but is for all, that no one is excluded from God’s grace. And added to that, once we have accepted God’s love in Christ there is nothing, not even the devil himself, that can separate us from him.
There is the acknowledgement not only that God loves all people, but also that he calls each of us into a relationship of faith in him. Just as Abraham trusted God and was justified, so it is not merely our standing before God, but our very lives that are changed as we place our faith in Jesus.
There is the amazing wisdom of God, whose ways still remain in large part hidden and mysterious, yet whom we may trust to the uttermost.
And there is the unspeakable glory of God, a glory whose brightness immeasurably outshines all the tragedy and suffering of this world and in whose fullness you and I and all who put their trust in Christ will one day share.
Like Abram looking up into the vastness of the starlit sky, it is more than we can take in. We stand amazed that the God who created the universe in all its infinite complexity should set his love upon the likes of us, should send his Son to die for us. But he has. And all that is left is for each of us to join with Paul in adding our own personal Amen. Amen!

[1]     The Epistle to the Romans, 421,422
[2]     Reading Through Romans, 85