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 blessèd 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!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

"Adam Lay Ybounden"

2 Peter 3:8-15a

Advent is about waiting. It is easy to believe that because the promised Day of the Lord, when all things will be set right, hasn’t happened yet, that it will never happen. And yet our Epistle reading exhorts us,

“Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance…But the day of the Lord will come…”

The musical text I have chosen to speak on today begins also with waiting,

Adam lay ybounden, Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter thought he not too long.

The first thing many people will notice about this text is its strange English. That is because the text comes from a 15th Century manuscript of unknown authorship. It is believed that the lyrics originated with a wandering minstrel from around Norfolk in England.

Secondly, people may wonder what this rather strange text has to do with Advent or Christmas. The setting our choir just sung is by Boris Ord and is traditionally performed following the First Lesson at the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at the chapel of King's College, Cambridge, where Ord was organist from 1929 to 1957.

Its connection to Christmas may be easy to miss, but has to do with the opening words I just read. The author describes the first man, Adam as being bound in a bond. He is a prisoner in chains, waiting for deliverance.

He has been waiting four thousand years. Medieval exegetes of Holy Scripture attempted to determine the age of the world through the use of the various genealogies and dates recorded in the Bible. The accepted period of time from the creation of the world to the birth of Christ was roughly four thousand years.

Adam, as representative of all mankind, is in bondage on account of his sin. The fall of mankind, recorded in Genesis 3, has rendered us all prisoners of sin and death, but Jesus was born to set us free.

In medieval theology and art, the Patriarchs and faithful men and women of the Old Testament were often depicted as waiting in the “Limbo of the Fathers” for the messiah. It was these that Christ visited when he descended to the dead. 1 Peter chapter three describes Christ as going down to the underworld and making proclamation to the imprisoned spirits. In iconography he is often shown as leading wasted prisoners out of the jaws of death.

The author of this song says that even “four thousand winter, thought he not too long.” Adam waited with joy because he believed the promise God made that the seed of his wife Eve would crush the head of the serpent by whose malice they were deceived and imprisoned.

In the fullness of time, when time was ripe and ready, God sent his Son to be born of a woman. In the words of another song,

“Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day to save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray.”

Just as Adam waited with joyful expectation for the coming the savior, Jesus Christ, so we too wait with joy for his second coming even if he should tarry “four thousand winters long.” We regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

There is a note of astonished wonder in the next stanza of Adam lay ybounden.

And all was for an apple, An apple that he took,As clerkes finden written in their book.

There is a certain poetry to the biblical story. One plucked apple shared between a couple doomed the world! All the misery of the world originated in a single act of covetousness.

There are no insignificant sins. Every small act of rebellion and disobedience on our part has dire consequences.

This stanza also reveals something about the speaker. This isn’t a work of high theology and learning. It is a folk song written by a simple, ordinary person. He only knows the story as a kind of rumor. It is the clerks—the priests and monkish scholars—who found the story written in their book.

Remember this is during a time before the printing press made the Bible widely available. It was a time before most the accessibility of translations in the vernacular. Most lay people only knew what they were told, what they learned from songs, from paintings, and architecture.

This folk quality is part of what makes this text so endearing. We get a glimpse into the religious imagination of the common people of 15th century England.

The conclusion of his poem seems foolish and misguided, and yet there is a surprising depth and insight,

Ne had the apple taken been, The apple taken been,Ne had never our lady abeen heaven e queen.Blessed be the time that apple taken was, Therefore we moun singen,
Deo gracias, Deo gracias

People usually scratch their heads at this point. Is he somehow saying that the original sin was a good thing? The author seems to be suggesting that Adam’s sin was good thing because so much good came as a result. As Saint Paul asks, “Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase?”

The fact is that sin, and all its horrible consequences remain damnable and evil. God has a holy sorrow and wrath against sin. In his folksy and somewhat impish way, however, the author of this song is offering a kind of theodicy. A theodicy is an argument for God’s goodness in view of the existence of evil.

Probably the most vexing question a person of faith can wrestle with is, “Why does God allow such suffering and evil in the world? If he is all powerful why doesn’t he stop it all?”

The author suggests that God allowed mankind’s fall, because through their redemption more good will come to the world than if they had remained innocent. Saint Augustine put it this way, “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.” 

This is the concept of the “Felix Culpa” a Latin expression that means happy or blessed fault. Our wandering minstrel may have known the phrase by way of the Exsultet which is sung at the Easter vigil. The English translation goes, "O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer."

It is also expressed beautifully in John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. In that poem Adam says,

“O goodness infinite, Goodness immense!/ That all this good of evil shall produce,/ And evil turn to good; more wonderful/ Than that which creation first brought forth Light out of Darkness!”

As horrible as the suffering and evil in the world is now, it is a slight and momentary thing compared to the immensity of eternity. The misery brought by Adam may go on for thousands of years, but the blessing brought by Christ is everlasting. Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Returning to the song, “Ne had the apple taken been, The apple taken been,
Ne had never our lady abeen heaven e queen.” Why is this the big pay off?

Where in Holy Scripture do we see Our Lady as a Heavenly Queen? It is in the account of Jesus’ birth that often gets overlooked. It is the version we here in Revelation chapter twelve. St John doesn’t tell the story as we are used to hearing it. He shows us behind the curtain to what Jesus’ lowly birth looks like in the spiritual realm.

We see a great lady in heaven crowned with stars, clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet. She is about to give birth to a Child, a king in fact, but there is a dragon waiting to devour him. This is the beginning of a cosmic battle between good and evil that will bring salvation to the world, but only after great struggle.

The Child is Christ and that heavenly Queen is our lady, Mary. It is that scene, a great lady in heaven crowned with stars, that Adam in his bonds was waiting to see. The child of that woman will crush the head of the serpent, the dragon, and set the world free.  

Therefore we sing Deo Gratias, Thanks be to God! 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending

Advent is more than just a countdown to Christmas.
The Advent season takes its name from the Latin Adventus Domini, which means “the coming of the Lord.” What is in sight, however, is not just the coming of the Lord to earth born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem.  Ultimately, Advent is about the coming of the Lord in Glory at the consummation of salvation history. In Advent our prayers turn to that day when Christ shall return to earth to judge the world and reign forever. 

It is that day for which all of creation groans in eager anticipation. A day unlike any other. A day in which the sun and moon will be darkened and the stars will fall from the heavens. This is poetic and dramatic language meant to evoke the cosmic and earth shattering significance of the coming of the Lord, “the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”

It is this grand spectacle immortalized in Charles Wesley’s classic Hymn, “Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending.” The pomp and magnificence of the scene is vividly brought to life through the tune most often associated with its text, Helmsley.
Throughout Advent and Christmas, I am going to be preaching on the words of some of the beloved hymns and anthems of these liturgical seasons. Wesley’s hymn seems like the appropriate place to start.

First, some background. Charles Wesley was an Anglican clergyman from the 18th century. He was educated at Oxford where he founded “the Holy club” out of which the Methodist tradition grew. His brother was the much more well known John Wesley. Although they were close and shared many core convictions, Charles strongly opposed the breach with the Church of England initiated by his brother.

He is the author of some of the most well loved hymns in all of Christendom. Among them, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “Christ whose glory fills the skies,” “Hark! The Herald Angel Sings,” “Christ the Lord is risen today,” and another Advent classic, our sequence for today, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.”

Wesley’s text for Lo He comes with clouds descending is actually a reworking of an older hymn by John Cennick called Lo he cometh! Countless trumpets. Wesley took the general narrative and theme of the text but vastly improved its poetry.
Even Wesley’s text varies slightly from hymnal to hymnal but the version in the Hymnal 1982 begins like this:

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,Once for our salvation slain;Thousand thousand saints attending,Swell the triumph of His train:Alleluia! Alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign!

There are several biblical allusions here. First there is the image of Christ, the son of man, coming in clouds and in glory mentioned in our gospel reading. More specifically the reference is to Revelation 1:7:
“Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.”

There are two paradoxical images set side by side. First, Jesus as the suffering servant, the one who was slain for the sins of the world. This is Christ in his brokenness and humiliation. Second, the victorious conqueror returning from battle leading a great army.  Hebrews 9:28 says,
“Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”
This is the king arriving with glory and honor. Jesus’ first appearance was in humiliation but his return will be in glory. He came first to purchase our salvation. He is coming again to bring that deliverance to completion and reign forever.
The second stanza reads,
Ev'ry eye shall now behold him
Robed in dreadful majesty
Those who set at nought and sold him
Pierced and nailed him to the tree,
 Deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall their true Messiah see.

What is asserted here, and in the verse from Revelation on which it is based, is that Christ’s return will be a visible appearance. Jesus said, “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” There won’t be any doubt he has arrived. It will be obvious to everyone.
An allusion is also made to the story of Joseph and his brothers.

Do you remember the story? Joseph’s brothers betrayed him. They stripped him of his robe and threw him in a pit. They sold him to slave traders, but in Egypt he was exalted to Pharaoh’s right hand. Years later, they found themselves standing before him, no longer naked and beaten, but clothed in royal authority. He had their lives in his hands and so they were terrified.

Wesley depicts the people of the world as Joseph’s brothers and Christ in his royal appearing like Joseph. We have every reason to be terrified of his wrath and judgment. He holds our life in his hands and yet, like Joseph, he is full of grace and mercy.

Long before the time of Jesus, God spoke through Zechariah the prophet,
“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” (12:10)

The deep wailing that Wesley writes about is the sorrow of the people of the world, and the people of Israel in particular, when they realize that the one they rejected, the one they set at naught and sold, is actually the true messiah and Lord of creation.

In the third stanza Wesley continues,
Those dear tokens of his Passion                          
Still his dazzling body bears,                                    
 Cause of endless exultation                                                        
 To his ransomed worshipers.                                      
With what rapture, with what rapture  
Gaze we on those glorious scars!
The allusion here is to Jesus’ appearance to Saint Thomas after his resurrection. We who at last behold him will cry out, like Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”
All our doubts will be at an end. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.

Jesus still bears the wounds of his passion as a demonstration that the same one who suffered for the sins of the world is also the victorious Lord. Those wounds are not evidence of his defeat but badges of glory. They are the visible evidence of our salvation and so for us his worshippers, they fill us with exultation. 

Notice how the appearance of the crucified and risen Lord is both a source of terror and remorse, but also rapturous joy. When we sing this hymn we are hung on its paradoxes. How can a hymn that contains the repeated words “deeply wailing” be such a triumphant and uplifting experience?

Contained in this hymn is the promise that the worst of human evil, the horrible reality of suffering, which now seems so meaningless, will at the last day be swallowed up in the victory of Christ and transmuted into glory.

This is why, in Advent, we wait with joy and expectation for that day which is simultaneously dreadful and gloriously joyful.  On that day the world will not be able to help but worship and glorify Jesus Christ, the crucified, risen, and returning king.

Yea, amen! Let all adore Thee high on Thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the pow'r and glory,
claim the kingdom for Thine own!
Alleluia Alleluia! Thou shalt reign and thou alone!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Day of Judgement

The speaker at our diocesan priest retreat this year, Fleming Rutledge, told a story of a venerable old New England clergyman who had a significantly modernist sensibility. He was asked to officiate at the wedding of his grand daughter and her fiancé. As he was going over the service with them—which was to be celebrated from the 1928 prayer book—he came to the part in the service in which the priest addresses the couple with the words,

“I require and charge you both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in Matrimony, ye do now confess it.”

He paused and remarked, “Maybe we ought to just leave that part out…”

His granddaughter objected, “Oh but Grand-pa-pa, I love the dreadful Day of Judgment!”

Our gospel lesson this morning, for Christ the King Sunday, is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It is all about the Day of Judgment when the Son of Man comes in his glory, with all the angels with him, and when he sits on the throne of his glory while all the nations of the world are gathered before him.

I think that many of us these days are a lot like that old clergyman. When it comes to the Day of Judgment, we prefer to just leave it out. It seems harsh and punitive and we prefer instead to focus on the kindness and love of God. I would like to suggest, however, that the Day of Judgment is an essential element to understanding God’s love and mercy. It may be dreadful, but it is good news for those who love justice and righteousness. There is good reason why we should—like the young bride in the story—love the dreadful Day of Judgment. Allow me to suggest three.

First, on the Day of Judgment Christ will return to reign as the true King of Kings and all tyrants and abusers of power will be dethroned and judged. Our Old Testament reading comes from the 34th chapter of Ezekiel in which the prophet pronounces judgment on the wicked shepherds of Israel, the corrupt rulers who have abused his flock and failed to lead them with justice. Ezekiel promises that God himself will seek out and save his people from the wicked shepherds and that he will set up a true king from the house of David who will be a good shepherd to his people.
Christ is the fulfillment of that promise. He will gather his people who have been scattered throughout the world; he will bind up their wounds, and restore them to health. He will lead them into peaceful, quiet, pastures of plenty.

We should love the Day of Judgment because on that day God will at last become king on earth as he is in heaven.

Second, we should love the Day of Judgment because on that day God will cast out evil once and for all. As it is, evil exists side by side with the good. The presence of evil is blight on God’s good creation.

On the last day Christ is depicted as a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats. This is true not only in our Gospel lesson but in the reading from Ezekiel as well which says, “I will judge between sheep and sheep.”

In those days it wasn’t always easy to distinguish the sheep from the goats. Today, after generations of breeding, sheep are easily recognized by their thick fluffy wool but In Biblical times the two would have been nearly identical in appearance. This is still the case in certain parts of Asia and Africa. So what is the difference between them?

Sheep hear and obey the voice of their shepherd, but goats go their own way. They refuse to be led and often disrupt the peace of the flock. They will often push and ram the sheep with their horns.

The comparison is clear. The sheep are those who submit to God’s rule, who hear and obey his voice. The goats are those who refuse the will of God and go their own way. At the last Judgment, God will separate those who are evil from those who are good. The evil will no more trouble the good.

Elsewhere a similar image is used of a harvester who winnows the grain separating the wheat from the chaff. The chaff is swept up and thrown into the fire.

There is a sense, however, in which there is a bit of goat in all of us. Each of us are a mixture of both wheat and chaff. At the last judgment, that which is evil in us will be named and judged. The prospect is indeed dreadful but it is ultimately for our good. We will finally be purged of the sinful propensities that plague us in this life.

Saint Paul puts it this way, “each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done… If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”

If we love what is good, we will look with joy for the day when what is evil is separated and destroyed.

Finally, we should love the Day of Judgment because we have confidence in the mercy and goodness of the judge.

Question 52 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks: ‘What comfort is it to you that Christ “shall come to judge the living and the dead”?

The reply is a beautiful summary of our Christian hope:

That in all my sorrows and persecutions, I, with uplifted head, look for the very One, who will come from heaven as the Judge, the same, who before offered Himself for me to the judgment of God, and removed all curse from me.

Who would you rather have your judge on the last day? Your peers? The media? Would you stand under that judgement? Could you even stand under the judgement of your own standards? None of these are as merciful a judge as our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Day of Judgment is not terrifying for the Christian because we believe that the one to whom we must give an account is the merciful and gracious savior of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the very one who loved us while we were yet sinners and who bore the penalty for our sins in his own flesh on the cross.

By faith we know that we are justified before God on account of the merits of Christ. What fear can we have of judgment seeing as there is no condemnation in Christ?

On the last day everyone will be judged according to the deeds done in this life. That should be sobering to us. The basis of our acquittal or rejection however ultimately rests on how we respond to Christ. Have we welcomed him or turned him away?

Jesus Christ died to purchase salvation for every person. The grace of God has appeared to everyone. He comes to every human heart with the opportunity to receive him with joy, to serve him or to reject him.
Notice that God’s judgment is not a theology exam. It is not ultimately about what we know or accept on an intellectual level, but about our openness to divine grace.

In the parable there are some among the righteous who seem unaware that the one they have served is Christ. They say, “When did we see you hungry and feed you or thirsty and give you drink?” What they have done for the least of God’s messengers they have done for him. They did not fail to regard him when he came to them unaware.

There is a day that God has appointed in which Christ will judge the world in righteousness, but the judgment begins now. If we open our hearts to receive his grace, confessing our unworthiness, we can be assured of his verdict of mercy. By faith we can stand justified before God today.

Brothers and sisters, “I love the dreadful Day of Judgment!