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!