Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Magnificence of God

On any short list of the most influential philosophical and theological minds in the history of the world Saint Thomas Aquinas would appear close to the top. The Roman Catholic Church in particular celebrates him as the Church’s greatest theologian and teacher and his works have long been considered the core basis for anyone studying to be a teacher of the catholic faith. His influence extends beyond the Roman Church influencing protestant theology as well and even secular philosophy. 

Along with being an individual of great intellect, he was also a man of profound spirituality and holiness. He had many dramatic mystical experiences and these increased in frequency and intensity toward the end of his life. On December 6th the Feast of Saint Nicolas, while celebrating mass, Thomas received a divine vision, the nature of which is not precisely know, but following that day he discontinued work on his great Summa Theologica and ceased to dictate to his secretary. When his confessor Fr Reginald urged him to take up his pen and continue his writing, Thomas said, “Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw compared to what has been revealed to me.” It wasn’t long from that time that the great Saint took to his bed and passed from this mortal life.

What reality, what vision, what revelation, could cause one of the loftiest intellects this world has known to declare that-comparably--all his work is of little value? It is believed that the Lord stooped to Thomas to show him just a portion of his majestic and transcendent glory. I say ‘just a portion’ because as God informed Moses upon the mountain top, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”
What is the effect that seeing the glory of God—even in part—has on the beholder? Surely to experience even a small glimpse of God’s glory is to be moved to awestruck worship and praise, but it is also inevitably accompanied by repentance, an acknowledgment of our place under God as his creatures, and a radical humbling of the intellect and of human pretentions. 

Our Old Testament reading this week brings us to the epilogue to the Book of Job. A few weeks ago we looked at the beginning of the book, at the testing of Job and his great perseverance in the face of suffering. The bulk of the book consists of Job’s debate with his friends on the meaning of suffering. Job’s friend’s are well intentioned, but misguided and more than a bit insensitive. They insist with all their eloquence and rhetorical might that Job’s suffering must be on account of some sin or unfaithfulness he committed against the most high God.

Job in turn insists upon his innocence and in his protests he not only rails against his friends calling them miserable comforters but he also thunders at the heavens crying out to God and demanding to be answered. 

Now job was absolutely right to defend his integrity against his accusers. He was indeed innocent. No one else in the story is privy to the information that we the reader have about Satan’s accusations against Job and God’s willingness to allow him to be tested, and that is precisely the point. The ultimate meaning and purpose of our suffering is not available to us.

Who can know the mind of God? Certainly not Job’s friends who try to put God in the box of their conventional wisdom, but even Job spoke ignorantly when he demanded that God make himself understandable to him. God unleashes himself in power revealing himself in a whirlwind and interrogating Job, 
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”
Job can only respond by silencing his questioning and repenting in dust and ashes. God never reveals to Job the meaning of his suffering. He makes no defense for his righteousness or his goodness. All Job’s questions seem like straw in the face of God’s magnificence.

God’s ways are not our ways. He is in heaven and we are on earth and it is vain to think that we can make God accountable to us, to pull him down to earth and pin him to a board like some specimen collected by an entomologist, an exotic butterfly to be analyzed and catalogued.

This is deeply challenging to preachers like myself who are committed to offering a reasoned defense of the faith, to making it understandable and relatable to others. While I believe this is necessary and worthwhile I also have to humbly admit the limitations of my ability to give an answer for every question.
The great preacher Charles Spurgeon once said, “the Gospel is like a caged lion. It doesn’t need defending. It just needs to be let out of its cage!”

But what about Job’s anguished longing? His need of deliverance? His hope of a mediator to bridge the gap between God and Man? Do these cries fall on death ears? Has God no pity for his poor creatures suffering in darkness?

God does not offer us answers to all our questions but he has not failed to send us deliverance or to assure us of his love. He sent Christ to rescue us from sin and death, but also to proclaim to us his boundless love and compassion. God gives us his promise that he is like Jesus. 

The one who came for the lost, who healed the sick, caused the blind to see, the death to hear, the lame to leap for joy, from who’s lips flowed words of grace for sinners, who opened wide his arms upon the cross to all who would come to him, and offered prayers of mercy even for his tormentors, this is God. God is not otherwise. There is no other God hiding behind the back of Jesus. The grace and mercy revealed in him is no ruse, no smoke screen, no disguise for a cold and indifferent God.

As Saint John has written, “This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.”
When the world seems dark to us and God’s ways impenetrable, we cling to the revelation of God in Christ. We put our faith in God’s love sometimes in defiance of the appearances. We walk by faith and not by sight. Sometimes faith is a struggle and sometimes—when we come up dry—we need to lean on the faith of the Church, of our brothers and sisters.

This week our faith has been tested by tragedy. Our brother, our dear friend in Christ—David Born—was taken from us in a horrible accident. Our hearts are broken as we grieve with his wife—our sister Anita— their children, Gillian and Christopher, and their whole family. Why did this happen to such a vital and active servant of Christ? Why did God call him away now so unexpectedly from his family and friends, from his important ministry? I have no answers to give you, but only the conviction that God is bigger than our doubts and questions, and the assurance of his love in Jesus Christ.

For all the great suffering and anguish that Job was subjected too, for everything that he lost, the Book of Job ends not on a somber or sorrowful note but with joy and restoration. We are told, “The LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning.” What are we to make of this?

God promises everlasting comfort to those who persevere in righteousness through affliction. For many, the consolation for their suffering does not come in this life. Job functions as a parable and so we must look beyond the earthly story to the heavenly meaning. God’s promises are far greater than anything this world can offer.

Saint Thomas—who’s story we heard in the beginning of this sermon—teaches us,
“Everlasting life is the full and perfect satisfying of every desire; for there every blessed soul will have to overflowing what he hoped for and desired. The reason is that in this life no one can fulfill all his desires, nor can any created thing fully satisfy the craving of man. God only satisfies and infinitely exceeds man’s desires; and, therefore, perfect satiety is found in God alone. As St. Augustine says: “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” Because the blessed in the Fatherland will possess God perfectly, it is evident that their desires will be abundantly filled, and their glory will exceed their hopes.”

The grief and sorrow we experience in this life can feel so all consuming, but Holy Scripture teaches us that they are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to come. In comparison they are straw. Our brother David is—even now surrounded—by that glory, and we wait in hope for the day when we will be united with him in the resurrection.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Hit By the Book

The Word of God poster

In her short story “Revelation,” the great American author Flannery O’Connor writes about a character named Mrs. Ruby Turpin. Ruby is a rather plump, older middle class southern lady, possessed of a rather formidable sense of superiority. The story opens with Mrs. Turpin in a crowded waiting room at a doctor’s office. She is looking around with a savagely critical eye and ranking herself in relation to all the other people waiting there.

She begins a conversation with a nicely dressed grey haired lady of a similar social status to herself, and the two chat in a casually racist and smilingly passive-aggressive way. Throughout the whole conversation, Ruby is distracted by a scowling young woman reading a large text book called, Human Development.

The girl is the grey haired lady’s daughter. She apologizes for her daughter’s anti-social behavior and the two begin to talk about her as if she isn’t there. They talk about how ungrateful the younger generation is. Ruby proclaims,

"If it's one thing I's grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting...'Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!'”

It is at the point that the young woman hurls her textbook at Ruby’s forehead. O’Connor writes,

"The book struck her directly over her left eye. It struck almost at the same instant that she realized the girl was about to hurl it. Before she could utter a sound, the raw face came crashing across the table toward her, howling. The girl's fingers sank like clamps into the soft flesh of her neck…The doctor and nurse intervened, controlling the girl and administering a long needle and syringe to her. But before she yielded to sleep, the girl looked fiercely into Mrs. Turpin's eyes. "There was no doubt in (Mrs. Turpin's) mind that the girl did know her, knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition. 'What you got to say to me?' she asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation.

"The girl raised her head. Her gaze locked with Mrs. Turpin's. 'Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,' she whispered…”

When Ruby returned home she couldn’t get the girl’s words out of her mind. O’Connor writes,  “It was like a message from God.” Ruby asked herself, “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?"

Ruby’s question just may be one of the most theologically pointed questions in all of literature. The conviction of our sinfulness is a shocking revelation, a rude awakening, but it is the necessary first step of human development, of becoming the person that God created us to be. The big book of human development that comes out of nowhere to knock us off our feet and open our eyes to the truth about ourselves is the Bible, Holy Scripture, God’s Word.

Most people don’t come to the Bible to be confronted with the desperate nature of their situation. They open the book looking for some ancient wisdom on how to live a moral life. This is what the rich young man in our Gospel reading came to Jesus looking for. He was saying, in effect, “Ok Jesus, the theology is interesting and all, but how about some practical life application? Tell me what I need to do in order to inherit eternal life.” Jesus was happy to oblige him and reminded him of God’s holy commandments. Very confident of his own righteousness, the earnest young man said, “I’ve done all of these things since I was a kid.” It was at this point that Jesus threw the book at him, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." At this the man went away sad.
We need more than a bit of good advice. Most of us know the commandments, the problem is that we don’t follow them. You want to know how to have a good marriage? Be selfless and lay down your life for your spouse. You want to know how to live a life pleasing to God? Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. How is that working out for you?

Don’t settle for good advice when what you need is the transformative power of the gospel. Don’t settle for a life coach when what you need is a Savior.

The Bible is more than just a treasure trove of timeless moral principles. We call the Bible, “the word of God,” and it is appropriate to do so; but we need to correctly understand what that means. The Word of God is primarily God’s act of self-revelation. The Bible is God’s word because God chooses to take up these ordinary human words and infuse them with his own Spirit. God speaks to us through the Bible in a unique and authoritative way. To the extent that God uses the faithful preaching of scripture to reveal himself to others, it too can be called the word of God. The primary way in which God speaks to us, however, is through his son Jesus Christ. He himself is the living revelation of God, the Word made flesh.

Our reading from Hebrews tells us that the Word of God is living and active. What this means is that reading Holy Scripture is more like encountering a person than it is absorbing a body of information. The risen Christ himself comes to us through its words and we are brought into the light of his dazzling and life-altering presence.

The author of Hebrews continues, it is “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The Word has the power to cut through all our defenses, to pierce the dense fog of our ignorance. To those who would set themselves against God as his enemies, it wounds them, disarms them, and brings them to justice.

The word brings us before the throne of our righteous Judge, we hear the accusations made against us, and we know that we are guilty. There is no place to hide. Before him [Jesus Christ] no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

We spoke of how God’s Word convicts us of our sin, but it doesn’t leave us hopeless. It is not only the revelation of God’s righteous law but also of his boundless grace. Christ is our judge, but he is also our advocate. The Judge accepts the penalty in our place.

To use a different metaphor, Christ gives us the horrible prognosis of death, but he also offers us healing. To those who bend the knee and surrender to his mighty power the sharp two-edged sword of the word is the scalpel of a skilled physician and healer. Like a surgeon, he opens up our spirit and soul, to cut from it the deadly cancer, the deadly infection of sin that poisons us.

God does not leave us to our own devices. He became directly involved in our life by becoming one of us in Jesus Christ. He gives us mercy in our guiltiness, hope in our hopelessness, and deliverance from death. He throws the book at us, but he also helps us to our feet. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Good and the Bad

Job 1:1; 2:1-10

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12


An anonymous puritan author once wrote, “My trials have been fewer than my sins.” It sort of puts things in perspective doesn’t it? Consider for a moment those blessings you have enjoyed in life. What have you done to deserve them? True there may be those who are worse then you who prosper, but couldn’t it also be true that some who are more virtuous than you have experienced greater suffering?

If any man was justified in bringing a complaint against God, it was Job, and yet in our reading today he challenges us with these words, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” If we receive from God his gracious blessings—among them being our life and salvation—shouldn’t we also endure with patience our suffering?

Many identify with Job because they feel the pain and suffering they experience in life is unjust and unwarranted. The scriptures describe Job as a man of perfect integrity. Job was blameless. How many of us can honestly claim the same for ourselves?
If we take an honest assessment of our lives we will no doubt find that God has been enormously patient with us in overlooking the many ways we have sinned against him. As the psalmist writes, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” Shouldn’t we rather grieve our sins more than our misfortunes? And yet instead of giving thanks to God for his amazing grace towards us, we down play our culpability by rationalizing our sins and telling ourselves they are no different than what is common to all people. We say to ourselves, “everyone does it.”

Diogenes was a cynic philosopher from ancient Greece. He is well known for being a kind of wandering hobo who carried a lamp in broad daylight, claiming to be searching for one honest man. His search is sometimes portrayed as a sincere attempt to discover what true virtue looks like, but there may have been (appropriately enough) a more cynical motivation. As a younger man Diogenes and his Father, who were involved in banking, were caught in some impropriety--either embezzlement or debasement of currency, it is not clear which—but as a result he was sent into exile. Diogenes’ crime was actually a rather common one, he was just unfortunate enough to get caught. Some suggest that his so called mission was an act of protest in order to expose the hypocrisy that sent him into exile. In effect he was saying, “No one is truly honest, everyone is out for themselves, why should I be singled out?”

Like Diogenes with his lamp, Satan too has been roaming the earth. He is searching not for honesty, but for some accusation to bring against the righteous. He seeks to justify himself by exposing some fault in those whom God loves or by leading them into sin. The accusation that Satan made against Job was that he only loved God because of the many material blessings he received at God’s hand. Job was a very wealthy man—we are told he was the wealthiest in all the east-- he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. God had also blessed him with a beautiful family. He had seven sons and three daughters.

Satan’s claim is a pointed one. Do we only love God when things in our life are going well? Is our relationship with the almighty a transactional one, where he pours out his blessing on us and we in return give him worship? Do we love God for his own sake or merely for the things that we receive from him? In order to test the sincerity of Job’s faithfulness, God gives authority to Satan to take away all the good things in Job’s life.  In rapid succession Job’s whole life collapses around him. All his possessions and even his beloved children are taken from him.

It is the general testimony of the saints throughout the ages—those who have known the depths of holiness and the spiritual life—that while the beginning stages on the journey towards union with God are full of spiritual graces and consolations, if one pushes on, one will inevitably pass through what they call the dark night of the soul. This is state of inner bareness in which the blessings of communion with God are taken away. This they say is God’s way of teaching us to love him for his own sake.
Even after Job’s life becomes a desolation, he—remarkably—clings to his integrity and faithfulness to God which brings us to the place in which our reading picks up. After he fails to ruin Job, Satan appears before God again. “Skin for Skin,” he says, “All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face."

Satan’s proverb is perhaps better translated, “Hide for skin.” This is a reference to animal hide which was commonly used as clothing. In response to Satan’s first attack Job declared, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” Satan claims, “A person will give up even the shirt off his back to preserve his life from physical danger. People are inherently selfish and care more about themselves than anything else. Job is no different. He may have endured the destruction of his property and his children, but attack him personally—his flesh and bone—and he will curse you.” 

The sheer amount of suffering that Job endures in such a short time is staggering, many a weaker individual has seen their faith and integrity crumble under such trail. Job’s own wife begs him to, “curse God and die” but as we have already said, Job resigns himself to his lot and refuses to curse God. 

Job experiences deep confusion, doubt, and even anger, but he never allows himself to be overtaken by despair. He clings to his hope in God not only in the good times but also the bad.

There will surely come times when our world feels like it is collapsing around us, times in which it feels like we are passing through a dark and barren valley, the question is will we persevere in faith through those times. Can we trust—in spite of everything our distressed mind and sorrowful heart tells us—that God intends us good and not evil? Where will we find the power to overcome despair?
Job lived in a time long before the birth of Jesus Christ and yet he saw by faith a redeemer, a mediator between man and God, in whom he could place his hope. How much more should we, those on whom the end of the ages have come, anchor our hope in Jesus Christ?

God does not stand far off from us in our time of suffering. He who made everything that exists, visible and invisible, according to our reading today from Hebrews, became for a little while lower than the angels.
He experienced himself everything it means to be a human being, and not just the sweet things but the bitter also. It says, “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”
The perfect obedience of the Son consisted in his willing acceptance of his Father’s will even unto death on the cross. The sins of the whole world were poured out on him. Like Job, he too was handed over to Satan. He was stripped of everything he had and even his very flesh was torn from him. At the pinnacle of his suffering his sorrow was so great and so black he could no longer see his Father’s face or feel his love. He stood with us at the very pit of despair and cried out, “My God why have you forsaken me?!” Yet still, he did not turn back his obedience. He tasted death for every man. He drained the dregs of its bitter cup.

Jesus can give us hope in our darkest times because he has been there. He was lead through the dark night and thrown into the fire of affliction, yet he emerged triumphant.

If God handed over his own son into the clutches of Satan, if Christ who was innocent endured such horror for our sake, rescuing us from the eternal consequences of our sinful rebellion, should we then curse him? No, let us give thanks. These light and momentary afflictions are not worthy to be compared with the eternal glory he has purchased for us.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Saint Michael and All Angels 2015

People are fascinated by Angels. Why wouldn’t they be? The idea that there are other intelligences other than human beings is a belief that is truly ageless. Every people and culture has had some belief that their lives were affected or guided by invisible agents. Many civilizations have worshipped them as gods, built temples to them, and told stories about their exploits. Tribal and indigenous peoples continue to see the world as one inhabited by good and evil spirits as well. Even in our age, where belief in the Spiritual world has waned among many, a preoccupation with extra-terrestrial lifeforms and U.F.O’s persist.

Others have dismissed all such notions as superstition, but the Christian faith has not. The Bible speaks of these invisible, spiritual entities as Angels. Like us, angels are created beings. They occupy a place on the hierarchy of being above those of mortal men. They inhabit the spiritual world and even surround the very throne of God, offering him worship continually. Although as Psalm 8 reminds us, God has made us a little lower than the Angels, he has given us a destiny even greater than those of the Angels. He has appointed these heavenly beings to be our servants and to be his messengers to us, indeed the word ‘angel’ simply means messenger.

Not all the angelic host is so kindly disposed to the human race however. The scriptures also speak of rebellious, fallen angels, who bear a violent hatred and jealousy toward the human race and the place of honor God has given us. There is war in the spiritual world between the servants of God and the servants of the leader of the angelic rebellion, whom scripture calls Satan.
The chief opposition to Satan among the angelic hosts is Saint Michael, the Archangel. In our reading from Revelation he is described as leading the armies of faithful angels in battle against Satan, the great dragon. He succeeds in casting Satan from heaven. In Revelation 20, an unnamed angel who may be Michael as well, binds Satan and throws him into the abyss.

Because of this place of prominence Michael has in the battle against evil, many commentators have insisted that Michael must be identified with the pre-incarnate Christ. This is the belief of the sect called the Jehovah Witnesses, but it is also the opinion of many Protestants as well. I think this is a misguided interpretation for a number of reasons, among them being what is written about Saint Michael in the book of Jude. He is described as disputing over the body of Moses with Satan, an incident not recorded in the Old Testament but part of ancient Jewish tradition. Saint Jude tells us that Michael did not presume to stand in Judgement against Satan himself, acting on his own authority, but instead said, “The Lord rebuke you!” This incident wouldn’t make much sense if Michael was himself the Lord. While Michael is never referred to as Lord, Jesus is, and he seemed to have no qualms about openly rebuking Satan. Jesus openly identifies with God, but Michael’s name which is a rhetorical question, “Who is like God?” is a clear rejection of divinity.

Michael is not Christ, but he is an archangel. He has been identified with the angel that Joshua saw at Jericho, the commander of the armies of the Lord. In the book of Daniel he is called, the great prince who stands guard over the people of Israel and he is depicted as contending against the spirit of Persia for Israel’s sake. Not only was he believed to be Israel’s champion but he is also believed to be the guardian and defender of the Church against the devil.

Michael is not the only Angel named is scripture. There is also the Angel Gabriel, which means, “God is my strength”. Gabriel is often the one sent to deliver a revelation or a message from God. He is the interpreter of the prophet’s visions in book of Daniel.  In the Gospel of Luke he appears to Zechariah to announce the birth of John the Baptist, and then again to the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation where he tells her that she has conceived Christ in her womb. He is sometimes, especially in later traditions, identified as the Angel that announces the second coming of the Lord.  Incidentally he also plays a central role in the Islamic faith as the deliverer of the Holy Quran to Muhammad.

Saint Raphael the Archangel is known to us from the apocrypha book of Tobit, where he is called “one of the seven who stand before the Lord.” His name means, “God Heals.” He disguises himself in human form and becomes the traveling companion of Tobiah, the son of Tobit. Under cover he goes by the name Azarias. Along the way he serves as a protector from a demonic spirit and he restores the sight of Tobit.  The Early Church—because of his reputation as a healer—has also associated him with the angel that would stir the water at Bathesadia in the Gospel of John.

In the Anglican tradition Uriel is listed as the fourth Archangel. His name means, “God is my Light.” He appears in the apocryphal book of 2 Esdras in which he is sent by God to instruct the Prophet Ezra. In some sources he is named as the Angel who stands at the entrance of Eden with a flaming sword. Perhaps because of his association with fire and light, in the Anglican tradition he is the patron of the Sacrament of Confirmation.

We should feel encouraged to know that there are innumerable angels that always work on our behalf. The enemies of our souls are many, but those who are for us are more. Although angels appear throughout the bible, there are precious few angels named in scripture and of the ones who are named we are told very little. They are creatures that instead prefer to work behind the scenes invisibly on our behalf. They are content to give glory to God. Let us all strive to perform our own ministries in the same way.