Sunday, February 4, 2018

On Wings Like Eagles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 1, 2018

One With Authority

Mark 1:21-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Urgency of Discipleship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 20, 2018

"We Three Kings"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In verse three the second King sings,

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

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

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

In verse four the fourth king sings,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

In The Bleak Mid-Winter

I have mixed feelings about the winter. The sight of fresh fallen snow on the trees and housetops is beautiful, but the long nights and the bitter winds get me down. 

Sometimes the winter feels like a cold dark tunnel that goes on forever. As it drags into February, March, and sometimes even lingers into April, my heart really starts to groan in anticipation for the arrival of spring, sun, and warmer weather.

The one thing that makes the arrival of winter bearable, and even joyous, in my opinion is Christmas. As the weather gets colder and the sky gets darker, we hang festive wreaths and decorative lights, we sing songs of joy and peace, and gather with our friends and loved ones. Christmas arrives to fill our darkness with light and gladness.

Without Christmas, winter would not be nearly as merry. Think of the way C.S. Lewis describes the reign of the White Witch in his classic children stories the Chronicles of Narnia, “It was always winter and never Christmas.”

Christmas arrives to break the spell of the witch. It assures us that the cold and dark will not last forever. We gather together and are warmed in the glow of the radiant Christ child.

I can’t think of anyone who captures my feelings about Winter better than the poet Christina Rossetti in her beautiful poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter” published in January, 1872. Rossetti originally titled her poem “A Christmas Carol” and it was indeed set to music by Gustav Holst in 1906. Harold Darke’s anthem setting was voted the best Christmas carol by choirmasters in 2008. The song begins on a melancholy note,

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter long ago.

Pedantic critics like to point out that there would almost certainly not be snow in Bethlehem and that Jesus probably wasn’t born in the winter anyway! While we might take exception to their dating of Jesus’ birth, I think we miss the point if we get hung up on the historical setting of the story. I don’t think that is Rossetti’s concern. She is writing to say something about her own time and place. Even though the events she describes happened “long ago,” she writes of them as if they  were something that happened where she lives, in her own time, 19th century England.

Critics also dismiss this song because they don’t think it is doctrinally rigorous. I disagree! I believe there is a lot of profundity to Rossetti’s lyrics, but its meaning is contained in her descriptive imagery. She shows us rather than tells us the truth of Christmas.

The bleak mid-winter she describes is a symbol of our human condition. The world that Christ was born into was frozen in its sin, spiritually dead. Like a garden in the midst of winter, there was no life, nothing growing. Our hearts were like the Earth, hard as iron and the water like a stone.

The human race was buried under its own iniquity. With every passing age our guilt piled up higher and higher with no end in sight, snow on snow, snow on snow.
Who can imagine the joy and vitality of spring in such a frozen wasteland? It would seem a long way off. It is to such a hopeless scene that Christ comes. When we are in our darkest and most desolate place, our Lord visits us. He draws near to us. He shares our sorrow and pain. There in our weakness he is Emmanuel, God with us. She continues,

Our God, heav’n cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
Heav’n and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God incarnate, Jesus Christ.

Have you ever stopped to ponder the miracle of Christmas? Our minds cannot even begin to fathom the shear immensity of God. Even the creation, the earth, the solar system, the universe boggles the mind, and yet God is the creator and sustainer of all of this. The scriptures tell us that even the highest heavens cannot contain him. God is bigger, God is greater, than anything we know and yet on that first Christmas Eve he came among us, born of a simple woman, and lying in a manger. The Lord God of all creation became a helpless baby.

Christ is God’s gift of love to the world, the gift of his own presence. The fountain of God’s love overflows from heaven to earth. As Rossetti wrote in another beautiful carol, “Love came down at Christmas. Love all lovely. Love Divine.”

Only the love of God can thaw our icy hearts. Only the light of the world, Jesus Christ, can dispel the darkness and bring spring and new life to the frozen world.
Rossetti wonders, “What can I give him, poor as I am?”

We all have had this experience. What do you give to that friend who has everything? Finding the right gift for everybody can be difficult especially when times are tight and your wallet slim.  Have you ever received a wonderful Christmas gift from someone only to realize, to your embarrassment, that you had nothing to give to them?

God has given us the perfect gift in his son, Jesus Christ. He has showered us with his love and generosity without us having done anything to deserve that gift. In our spiritual poverty we have nothing to offer him in return. What could we possibly give him that he hasn’t given us?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him, give my heart.

The greatest Christmas gifts are the most simple and heart felt. Sometimes our love and presence is the best thing we can offer our friends and family. Christ wants nothing more from us than our love and devotion, our heart. The only thing we have to give him is our gratitude and devotion.

The winter may be cold and bleak, the night may be long, but within our hearts is an unconquerable hope, in our hearts is the warmth of God’s love. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

Throughout Advent and Christmas I am preaching about some of the great hymns and songs associated with this time of year. Here I want to discuss the history and theology behind one of my favorite Christmas Carols, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”
The author of this hymn text is Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876) a Unitarian parish minister and author. He was educated right here in Schenectady NY at Union college where he was awarded a prize for his poetry.  After graduating from Union he attend Harvard Divinity School.

He composed his famous text during a period of intense personal struggle and looming political conflict both here and abroad. It is a somewhat unusual Christmas Carol because it does not mention the actual birth of Christ! Instead, it is a meditation on the revelation of the angels to the shepherds of Bethlehem.

He beautifully evokes the silence of the evening countryside of Judea as the song begins,

It came upon the midnight clear,/That glorious song of old,/From angels bending near the earth,/To touch their harps of gold;/“Peace on the earth, good will to men,/From Heaven’s all gracious King.”/The world in solemn stillness lay,/ To hear the angels sing.
But although he is describing events from long ago, the scene quickly shifts to a more contemporary setting. Sears wants us to hear the Angel’s song as well,

Still through the cloven skies they come/With peaceful wings unfurled,/And still their heavenly music floats/O’er all the weary world;/Above its sad and lowly plains,/They bend on hovering wing,/And ever over its Babel sounds/The bless├Ęd angels sing.
There is a contrast between the peace and serenity of the Angels and “weary world” with its “sad and lowly plains.” And yet these heavenly messengers bend down to bring us good tidings and serenade us with the music of Heaven. Their beautiful harmony is contrasted with the “Babel” of the world, a reference to the confusion of tongues in Genesis (11:1-9). Here on earth, we are confused and divided amongst ourselves but the Angels are inviting us to share in the blessing of their harmony.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife/ The world has suffered long;/Beneath the angel strain have rolled/Two thousand years of wrong;/ And man, at war with man, hears not/The love-song which they bring;/ O hush the noise, ye men of strife/And hear the angels sing.
Although Sears does not mention the Christ Child in this text, his silence should not be taken as unbelief. Sears’stated views on our Lord were considered unusually conservative and traditional within the Unitarian Church. He wrote in Sermons and Songs of the Christian Life (1875), “Although I was educated in the Unitarian denomination, I believe and preach the Divinity of Christ.”

Sears believed in the incarnation, that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. He wrote that only Christ could bridge, "the awful gulf between God and man." Although Christ has extended his message of salvation to all the world, Sears believed that the peace of the gospel depended on our human response and acceptance. His hymn can be read as a plea to the world to receive the good tidings of heaven.
The final verse of the hymn has sometimes been criticized as unscriptural and even pagan.

For lo! the days are hastening on,/By prophet-bards foretold,/ When with the ever circling years/Comes round the age of gold;/ When peace shall over all the earth/Its ancient splendors fling,/ And the whole world send back the song/ Which now the angels sing. 

Critics believe that they detect in Sear’s verse hints of the doctrine of eternal return, or the belief—from antiquity—that history is an ever recurring cycle and that in the last age we return again to a lost golden age of simplicity and peace. At the very least, it is felt that Sears shares with his generation, to much confidence in the inevitability of progress. His final verse is almost always altered in some way. Our hymnal 1982 alters it slightly, removing the “prophet-bards,”  “ever circling years,” and “age of gold.”
I happen to really like Sear’s final verse, but can understand the criticism. It seems to me that he was simply using pagan imagery (perhaps evoking Virgil) to express a deeply Christian hope. We do in fact wait for a promised time of peace, a “millennium,” when the Lion shall lie with the lamb, and the nations hammer their swords into plow shares (Isaiah 11:6). We do in fact pray and expect that God’s Kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. This is, however, the work of God and not the inevitable product of history.
I rather like Edward Bickersteth’s alternative verse for his Hymnal Companion To The Book of Common Prayer (1870).

For lo! The days are hastening on,/ By prophets seen of old/ When with the ever circling years,/ Shall come the time foretold/When the new heaven and earth shall own/The prince of peace their King/ And the whole world send back the song/ Which now the angels sing.

One of my favorite versions:

O Come O Come Emmanuel!

This date, December 17th, marks the beginning of a very ancient Advent Custom dating back to the fourth century. The singing of the “O Antiphons” or the “Great Antiphons.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with this term, an antiphon is a short text sung before or after a psalm or a canticle.

These particular antiphons are sung at Evening Prayer and accompany the Magnificat—Mary’s song of praise as recorded in the gospel of Luke, which we sang today as our gradual hymn.  Each one of these chanted prayers addresses Christ with a different messianic title taken from the Old Testament. They serve as a kind of liturgical countdown to Christmas Eve.

Anglican priest and scholar, John Mason Neale, translated a Latin hymn text based on these antiphons, and penned the popular Advent Hymn, O come O come Emmanuel

The version of the text in our hymnal begins and ends with a paraphrase of the final antiphon,

O come, O come, Emmanuel,And ransom captive Israel,That mourns in lonely exile hereUntil the Son of God appear.

The name Emmanuel, which is also used in the repeated refrain, comes from a promise God made to King Ahaz through the prophet Isaiah, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” The title means “God with us.”

Although given to king Ahaz, The prophecy is broader than Ahaz’s particular moment; it is grand and cosmic in scope, speaking of God’s everlasting faithfulness to his servant David. It is the revelation of the eternal word of God breaking into human history. It is spoken not just to Ahaz, but to the nation, and indeed to the whole world, even to us. St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Christ is the fulfillment of this promise. 

Although Israel was no longer in exile in Babylon as they once had been, there was a sense that they were still waiting for the full restoration promised by the prophets. Israel’s situation is representative of the whole human race who mourns in exile and estrangement from God, but Christ comes to liberate us from exile and restore us to God’s blessing. He is God with us.

Christ is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. He is everything Israel and the world has been waiting for. Each of the verses of this hymn points us to an Old Testament promise or expectation  fulfilled in Christ.  There is a rich world of biblical truth behind each of these titles. I don’t have time to cover them all, a separate sermon can be given for each, but I want to walk you through them.
The first of the titles is O sapientia or O Wisdom,

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,Who orderest all things mightily;To us the path of knowledge show,And teach us in her ways to go.

Christ is the Wisdom of God who was with him before the world began. He is the eternal Word through whom all things were made and by whom all things are sustained. He is the light that enlightens all who come into the world. This same wisdom of God came among us and showed us the way to the father. If we strive to know and love wisdom, we must look to him.

The second antiphon is O Adoni, or O Lord.

O come, O come, great Lord of might,Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s heightIn ancient times once gave the lawIn cloud and majesty and awe.

The ancient Jews had a prohibition against repeating the divine name. When they came to the place in the text where the name of God was written, they substituted instead the name “Adonai” which simply means Lord. Most English translations of the Old Testament continue this tradition. When you see LORD, written in all caps, it is a place marker for the name of God which we sometimes translate as “Jehovah” or “Yahweh.”

In this verse Christ is identified as the Lord God, himself, the God of Israel and the giver of the Law. All of the Torah, or Law, is meant to direct us to Christ.
The third antiphon is, O Radix Jesse or O Root of Jesse

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, freeThine own from Satan’s tyranny;From depths of hell Thy people save,And give them victory over the grave.

David was chosen by God to be king out of all the sons of Jesse. It was from David’s line that the messiah was expected to come. Jesus is the Son of David, the root of Jesse, the promised Christ who conquered the grave through his death on the cross.
The fourth antiphon is, O Clavis David or O Key of David.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,And open wide our heavenly home;Make safe the way that leads on high,And close the path to misery.

Isaiah says of the messiah, “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.”

A key indicates control or authority. As the true king of Israel and God’s anointed Messiah, Jesus has been given all authority. He holds the keys to the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem. Therefore, he has the power to grant us eternal life.
The fifth antiphon is, O Oriens or O Day-spring,

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheerOur spirits by Thine advent here;Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,And death’s dark shadows put to flight 
Day-spring simply means sunrise. The power of sin has plunged the whole world into darkness, but Christ is like the light the breaks over the horizon and dispels the night. There is a certain poetry to the fact that now in the darkest time of year we wait for Christ the sun of righteousness to shine upon us once more.

The sixth antiphon is, O Rex Gentium or O King of the Nations. In our hymn today, it is paraphrased, “O come desire of nations.”

O come, Desire of nations, bindIn one the hearts of all mankind;Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,And be Thyself our King of Peace. 
Jesus Christ is not only the king that Israel was waiting for, but the true king of kings that all the world is waiting for. In a world torn apart by so many sad divisions, Jesus is the one that can unify us. He is the true Shepherd that will lead his people to peace.

The seventh antiphon brings us again to where we began. The promise of Emmanuel brings us to the climax of anticipation as we wait the celebration of Jesus’ incarnation when the Word became flesh. God came among us born of a virgin.

The O Antiphons  teach us to hope, but they also contain a promise. Many have noticed that if you write out the first letter of the Latin versions of the titles from last to first they spell, Ero Cras which means, “Tomorrow, I will come.”

Was this intentional? No one knows. Regardless, it is awfully appropriate. In the O Antiphons we have not only a fitting prelude to Christmas, but they also give voice to the continued longing of God’s people. In so many ways, we still mourn in lonely exile. We struggle with sin, with injustice, with sickness, and death. We still wait for the fullness of God’s promise. We yearn with eager anticipation for Christ’s Second Advent when he will set all things right. Christ is here, and he is coming again. O come, O come, Emmanuel!