Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Grace of Baptism

Listen to the audio here. 

As soon as we are born we begin to be formed and shaped by the world around us, by our parents, by our siblings, our environment, and culture.

No sooner do we become conscious of our autonomy than we are presented with choice.  What impulses will we follow? What inclinations will we obey? Where will we look for guidance?

It is the responsibility of our parents and elders to lead us in the right way. The book of proverbs says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Left to our own devices, like sheep, we are all liable to lose our way. We need to be gently shepherded and put on the right path. We need to be taught to choose what is right and follow the path that leads to life.

How many times have one of my children begun to do something foolish or destructive and I have observed my wife level her gaze at them and ask, “Is that a good choice?”
Jesus Says, “I am the good shepherd.” He leads us to choose what is good. It is he who is the shepherd and guardian of our souls. Trusting in him we shall not want. It is he who restores our souls, who feeds us with good pasture, who defends us against evil, and who will lead us at last to his Father’s house.

If there is a good shepherd, there is also a wicked and a false shepherd. If the good Shepherd has our best interest in mind, then the false shepherd has evil designs for us. Following the false shepherd leads to ruin.  This is the hireling who does not own the sheep, who does not care for the sheep.

We must be on our guard not to be lead astray by those things that do not reflect the true meaning and purpose for which God made us. When we give ourselves to serve and follow what is less than God, this is idolatry. We were not made for idols but for God. God is our Father and we are his children. The idol is a stranger.

When we present a child for baptism—as we are with James and Emilio this morning—we are welcoming them into the sheep fold of the Good Shepherd. They are adopted into the family of God and made children of God.
In baptism we are brought into the divine reality, into the fellowship of the Father Son, and Holy Spirit. By extension we are also brought into the communion of the Church which is Christ’s body. As members of Christ and of the Church we are formed and shaped by the Holy Spirit.

As we said before, simply by virtue of being born we are already being formed and shaped, cultivated by our environment and influences. In bringing James and Emilio to the waters of Baptism their parents and godparents are saying that they wish these children to be brought under the influence of the Holy Spirit and raised as Christians.

As growing Disciples of Christ in the community of Christ, these Children will learn to know and follow the voice of their shepherd. Jesus says that he knows his own and his own know him. They will receive their spiritual nourishment from Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Even as they grow and learn daily, moving ever more into maturity, so we ask by God’s Spirit that they grow more and more into the stature of Christ.

The scriptures teach us that God created us in his own image. He created every person with dignity and worth, but in the garden we were lead astray by a stranger’s lie. We were deceived into seeking our identity apart from God, into worshiping idols instead of the true God. In these waters the pollution of that lie is washed away. In the place of that darkness we receive the knowledge of our true identity in the light of Christ.

In baptism we take our rightful place as God’s own children and heirs of his promises. We are able to take these privileges only because Christ has refuted the lies of the evil one and vindicated us as his rightful children in Jesus Christ. We say that we become God’s children in Baptism—and so we do—but in saying this we say only that we become what we already are by God’s own gracious choice.

Saint Paul tells us that we were called according to God’s purpose and predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.  He has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world.
F.W. Robertson compares our Baptism to coronation, the crowning of a King or Queen. Coronation makes a king, but crown a pretender and the coronation will not make a king. It can actually only make one king who is a king already by divine right.

The coronation is an official and authoritative recognition of that status before God and man by witch that status becomes a reality in the present. Baptism makes a child of God in a similar way that coronation makes a king. It is the outward and visible sign of a spiritual reality, an authoritative declaration from God himself that we are his children and that he has chosen us in Christ. The blessings and status conferred by this rite is actual, no mere symbol, but a Divine Sacrament.

The worst thing that we could do is to exalt ourselves in believing that our baptism gives us a special claim to the love of God that is denied to our neighbor. God forbid we should think such a thing! Christ has called us to go to every people and nation in the world to baptize them in the triune name because he is the savior of all, because God is the Father of all, and the Holy Spirit the royal inheritance of all people.

He says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Brothers and sisters, this is the great responsibility of our Baptism. God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ in order that we might be a blessing to the world.  We have a mission to proclaim the love of God in Christ to all people, to respect the dignity of every person, to draw them into the fold of the Good Shepherd, and claim for them their inheritance as children of our heavenly father.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

He Thirsts for You: A Good Friday Sermon

Knowing that everything had now been accomplished, and to fulfill the scripture, Jesus said, “I thirst.” (John 19:28)

If we use our powers of imagination briefly, perhaps we can begin to have some small appreciation of the vast thirst that came upon our Lord us he hung dying. Dehydration has set in and he is burning with fever.  He has lost a tremendous amount of blood from the vicious flogging he received, from the nails driven through his hands and feet, and from the thorns pressed down upon his scalp and brow in cruel mockery. He has now hung upon the cross for about six hours, suspended in the blazing sun during the heat of the day. The sweat and blood run mingled down his tortured frame. Flies buzz around his head. His eyes are dry in their sockets. His tongue is swollen stuck to the roof of his mouth. His jaw hangs slack as he gasps for air.   

His thirst is one aspect of his immense physical suffering, but as with every utterance recorded of our Lord during his passion, there are layers of meaning to this one.  Saint John sees in Jesus’ words an intention to fulfill Holy Scripture.
He evokes a Psalm 22:
“my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.”

A sponge soaked in sour wine was lifted to his lips on a long branch of hyssop. This jar of sour wine was supplied for the soldiers attending him, vinegar being part of the allowance of Roman soldiers, diluted with water and wine, and used as a drink they called, “Posca.” Again, this happened to fulfill scripture. Psalm 69 reads:

“They also gave me gall for my food and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”

His thirst is deeper than the physical. This great thirst penetrates to the depths of his soul. All his life, Jesus the eternal son of God, has enjoyed the immediate spiritual presence of his heavenly father. He has walked faithfully in his slight never once turning from his righteous law, and yet now he finds himself alone in the dark. His father’s face is hidden from him. He experiences the estrangement and isolation from God that is the lot of sinful humanity. He longs—heart and soul—to restore that broken communion. In the words of Psalm 42:

“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.”

As Christ hung dying upon the cross, his great desire—his consuming thirst—was to reconcile humanity to God, to overcome the terrible breach. He has known the unbroken fellowship of the Father. He has lived the perfect human life. Now he experiences the depth of human depravity. Now he knows himself the terrible cost of sin. As both the divine Son of God and the fully human son of man, only he can be the mediator. Only he can reconcile the two.

From the place of his humanity, it is the living God that he thirsts for, but from the place of his divinity it is us. As we in our tortured anguish cry out for God—even if we are ignorant that it is he that we truly long for—God pines—even more—for us.

It is not just the righteous that God longs for either, not only those who return his love, but even those who spurn and reject him, even the very ones who crucified him. God is wholly indiscriminate in his love.
The scriptures say: 

“Christ died for the ungodly.  For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

And God is not like the misanthropic philanthropist of whom it was said, “he wants to save humanity, but its people that he can’t stand!” No! It is not humanity in the abstract but each individual soul in particular that is the object of his love and longing.

Know this brothers and sisters, as our Lord hung upon the cross it was you that he panted for. It was for your love that he suffered such pains. It was a desire to be united with you that consumed him for such longing. 

You are the object of God’s great thirst.  It is you—just as you are—even in your sin, even with your indifference, even in your lack of faithfulness—you. 

Mark now the next and final words of Jesus upon the cross:
 “When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

It was for this great purpose, to reconcile humanity to God, to overcome the power of sin that estranged us from God, to accomplish your salvation, that Christ hung upon the cross. It is finished he says! The great breach is overcome.  He has drained the cup his Father gave him to the dregs. There is now nothing that separates you from God. He has accomplished our peace.

Rebel, will you now come out from behind your barricade? Will you lay down your arms? He knocks at the door of your heart. Will you open to him that he might enter in and dine with you? He thirsts for you. Will you give him vinegar to drink?

The Bride and the Bridegroom: An Easter Sermon

One of the more surprising facts about the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection recorded in the gospels—given the time and culture they were written—is the centrality and importance of the women in the story. In first century Palestine, women were not considered reliable or trustworthy witnesses. It was thought that women were easily deceived and given to fanciful delusions, and yet the gospels are unanimous in telling us that the first witnesses to the resurrection were women. 

The fact that they include this detail is strong evidence for their historical reliability. No one at that time would go out of their way to include this fact in a fabricated account. The first century theologian Origen had to defend the resurrection’s reliability against pagan critics over this very point! It was clearly a source of embarrassment for many early Christians.

Yet God is not embarrassed by his faithful daughters. He has chosen what was considered foolish by the world to shame the wise!
It is not to Peter or John that the resurrected Christ chooses first to reveal himself, it is Mary Magdalene. Jesus appoints her as the first herald of the resurrection, an apostle to the apostles. This is not a detail to be dismissed. It signals to us the radical change that Jesus’ resurrection intends to bring about.  

Bishop Tom Wright says this,
“Something has happened in the renewal of creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus which has the result, as one of its multitude spin-offs, that whereas Jesus only ever sent out men, now – now of all moments! – he sends out a woman. And though the church has often struggled- to put it mildly -  with the idea of women being called to genuine apostolic ministry, the record is clear and unambiguous.”

Who was this woman who is given so great an honor? Not much is really known about her, but she has a fairly prominent role in the gospel narratives especially in the stories of the crucifixion and resurrection, more so than many of the twelve disciples. She and the other women stayed close to the foot of the cross throughout Jesus’ crucifixion. Early on the third day they discovered the empty tomb when they brought myrrh to anoint his body.

She is often conflated with Mary of Bethany and the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, but she is almost certainly separate from both these individuals. She was probably not, as she is often depicted, a repentant prostitute although both Mark and Luke record that Jesus cast seven demons out from her!

This morning, however, I want to draw our attention to the special role she plays in the story of the resurrection as recorded by Saint John. She is a type or representative figure of Israel the bride of the messiah!

Now before you think I am going all Dan Brown-Davinci Code on you, let me say up front that I don’t think Jesus and Mary Magdalene were actually married! There really isn’t any evidence for that.

John is merely casting the story of her encounter with the risen Christ in a symbolic way that—for those who have eyes to see—has several allusions to the biblical love-poem, the Song of Solomon.

The poem--like our story from John—is set in a garden that recalls the original Garden of Eden. It tells of the romance between King Solomon and his beloved, the Shulamite woman. It has often been interpreted as an allegory about the love of God for his people, about the time when the messiah will come to take Israel as his bride and all things will be made new. 

Listen to this reading from the third chapter of Song of Solomon,

On my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not.  I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves. I sought him, but found him not.  The watchmen found me as they went about in the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?” Scarcely had I passed them when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go until I had brought him into my mother's house, and into the chamber of her who conceived me.

Now let’s look at the resurrection story as John tells it. Mary rises early while it is still dark to go to Jesus’ tomb. She searches for him but cannot find him. Like the Shulamite she is desperate and distraught. She is like Israel who has waited and searched all these long years for her messiah. She feels at last she has found the one her soul loves, the one she was made for, but suddenly her honeymoon has become a nightmare. He is gone and now she can’t even find where they have laid his body.

When next we see her she is weeping by the tomb. She is found by two Angels—Angels who are often referred to as watchers—and they interrogate her.
She tells them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

The word that is translated here as Lord can also be translated as Husband. It is a double entendre.

When next she turns around it is Jesus standing beside her, but she supposes him to be the gardener. The symbolism here is thick. Adam was a gardener in Eden. The bridegroom in the Song of Solomon is also depicted as a gardener.

The Shulamite sings of him, “My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to graze in the gardens, and to gather lilies. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine; he grazes among the lilies.”

He likewise sings, “I came to my garden, my sister, my bride . . .I slept, but my heart was awakened.”

When the Shulamite at last found her bridegroom that had been taken from her she clung to him and would not let him go until she brought him to her mother’s house, the place where their love would at last be consummated. When Mary sees Jesus she also clings to him, but he tells her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

This curious incident makes much more sense when read along side the Song of Solomon. Jesus is telling Mary that the time of the consummation of the kingdom is not yet. Before God can at last dwell with his people, his chosen bride, in the new creation he must first ascend to his father. Earlier Jesus had told his disciples, “if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

Until that time she has a job to do. Her bridegroom has gone off to prepare a place for her. She must go and tell his brothers about this. She must share with them the good news of what she has seen, that Christ is risen!

As God’s people, the Church, his chosen bride, we have been given a promise. Christ is risen and he will return at last take us to himself as his bride so that we can dwell with him forever in the New Heavens and the New Earth.

We are the ones who have been chosen for so great an honor, to be heralds of the resurrection. We are the ones who, like Mary, have been set free from bondage to the demonic powers of evil. 

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish

Brothers and sisters, have you found the bridegroom of your soul? The one who you were made for! It is Christ! Today if you meet him, cling to him and do not let him go.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God cursed the snake for his part in the Fall,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 1, 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forty Days in the Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 4, 2018

On Wings Like Eagles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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