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Every Spiritual Blessing

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,” (Ephesians 1:3)

Christmas is not just a single day, but a season of twelve days on the church calendar. Part of the reason for this is that it takes some time for us to grasp the magnitude of what it is that we have been given in Christ, what Paul called God’s “inexpressible gift” in 2 Corinthians 9:15.

One way to take stock of what it is that we’ve received from God in Christ at Christmas is by going through the list of all the “spiritual blessings” with which we have been blessed by God in Christ in Ephesians 1:3-14.

Tim Keller says that whenever we read anything in the Bible that we should always ask ourselves – “How would I be different if this truth was explosively alive in my inner being?” So, the question to ponder this Christmas is – “If the spiritual blessings with which God blesses us in Christ according to Ephesians chapter 1 were “explosively alive in our inner being,” then how would we, and the world, be different?”

What did you get for Christmas? (1)

“God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world…” (Ephesians 1:4a)

In 1975 Janis Ian sang of – “…those of us who knew the pain of valentines that never came and those whose names were never called when choosing sides for basketball…”

It wounds deeply not to be chosen, and so the list of spiritual blessings with which we are blessed by the coming of Christ in Ephesians 1:3-14 begins with the announcement that God has chosen us! I think of the angelic announcement to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night that the baby in Bethlehem is “proof” that God is “well-pleased” with us. Every commentator on this verse emphasizes its personal and affectionate tone, as R. Kent Hughes explains, “God’s eternal choice is warm and smiling.”

Christmas offers us the gift of election, the joy of being chosen.

What did you get for Christmas? (2)

“that we would be holy and blameless before Him.” (Ephesians 1:4b)

This is the week for reassessments. At some point we will sit down and look back over the year just passed. We will review the ground covered and decide what needs to change. Our regrets, disappointments, and mistakes set an agenda for growth. Resolutions establish destinations for the next leg of the journey.  Less of this, more of that. We know who we’re supposed to be, we see the distance between that and who we are, and so we make plans for change. 

But can we?

Do people change?

Jeremiah wondered if a leopard could change his spots and if one accustomed to doing evil could stop and begin to do good (13:23)? And Nicodemus asked Jesus, “Can we enter a second time into our mother’s womb and be born again (John 3:4)? We want to change.  We need to change. We all know this about ourselves. But can we? Will we?

The Gospel says “yes!”  The whole proposition rests on the premise that we can become new creatures, that the old passes away and the new comes (2 Corinthians 5:17), that we can be born again (John 3:5-8), that we can die to sin and self, and be raised to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:1-11). We can “be holy and blameless” before God, not by our best efforts, but by God’s saving work in Christ offered to us as a gift.  AS Wayne Watson sang in one of his songs –

“New lives for old.

Warm hearts for cold.

Have I got a deal for you today.

Come on, step right this way,

And get your new lives for old.”

Christmas offers us the gift of change in Christ, newness of life.

What did you get for Christmas? (3)

“In love He predestined us to adoption as sons and daughters through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, with which He favored us in the Beloved.” (Ephesians 1:5-6)

The word that probably jumped out of this text at you was “predestined.” There are Presbyterians and there are Methodists because this text has been read differently by different Christians. Presbyterian Christians have traditionally read it to say that who gets adopted by God as His sons and daughters is what’s predestined by God, and by implication, who’s not adopted. Methodist Christians have traditionally read it to say that what’s predestined is the way that people become God’s sons and daughters. It happens through Christ, as Peter explained in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, Christ was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). If that fight interests you, then have at it.  I’ve come to the conclusion that God’s in charge just like the Presbyterians say, and that human beings have real agency just like the Methodists say. God does the saving.  God does the saving through the person and work of Jesus Christ. We do the “getting saved.” When the lifeline gets thrown to us, we take hold of it.  That’s what I know.

The words that jump out of this text at me are the ones that describe God’s attitude towards us.  There are five of them – “love,” “the good pleasure of His will,” “the glory of His grace,” “favored,” and “beloved.”  Those are some great words.  They’re echoes of what the angels sang to the shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks the night that Jesus was born – “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among humanity with whom God is well-pleased!” (Luke 2:14)

John Claypool said that when he was asked by the preacher, “What do you believe about God?” that the burning question he had was, “What does God believe about me?”  The angels’ song on Christmas Eve answers that question.  God is well-pleased with us.

Christmas offers us the gift of knowing that we are “beloved.”

What did you get for Christmas? (4)

In Him we have redemption through His blood,  the forgiveness of our wrongdoings, according to the riches of His grace 8 which He lavished on us.” (Ephesians 1:7-8)

I was reading about the “hierarchy of truth” yesterday. This is the idea that while we believe many things, not all the things that we believe are equal. This is a familiar idea in my spiritual tradition, a tradition that has been quick to quote the old adage – “In essential, unity; In non-essentials, liberty; In all things, charity.” As always, the devil’s in the details. What’s essential, and what’s non-essential?

The folks over at Credo House have done a nice job of sussing out the details of this. Using a series of concentric circles radiating out from a center, they identify seven categories of belief – those that are “Essential for Salvation,” those that are “Essential for Historic Christian Orthodoxy,” those that are “Essential for Traditional Orthodoxy,” those that are “Essential for Denominational Orthodoxy,” those that are “Important but not Essential,” those that are “Not Important,” and those that are matters of “Pure Speculation.” You can read about what they put on each of these categories @…/essentials-and-non-essentials….

At the midweek Eucharist I attend we stand and recite the Creed. Disciples are a “noncreedal,” church, and so while this is not something that I’ve done regularly for a long, long time, I find that the weekly exercise is edifying. With Alexander Campbell, I find that “I can say, ‘ex animo’ (from the heart; sincerely), that I believe every word of it.” But even as I say the Creed, naming all the things that I believe together with the church “everywhere and always,” I find that some of these beliefs I am affirming matter more to me than others.

The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner (1904 –1984) suggested that there is a “distinction” in the hierarchy of truths. The church has its “objective” hierarchy – the things it insists are true and important, and then, he said, each individual Christian has his or her own “subjective” hierarchy – the things that we personally find “healing and liberating in its effect.” And so it was that the last time I was at midweek Eucharist (pre-Covid surge), and we stood and recited the Creed, I found that the affirmation my head and heart warmly settled on was, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” As the Scottish Theologian H.R. Mackintosh (1870 –1936) argued at the beginning of his book on “The Christian Experience of Forgiveness” (1927) –

“Among the possible brief phrases in which the essence of Christianity might fairly be summed up, one certainly would be: I believe in God who forgives sins through Jesus Christ. …No man can properly rank as a Christian, in the sense of the New Testament, who has not received the forgiveness of sins, or who is not conscious through its impartation something has happened of decisive moment for his relation to God. …Forgiveness clearly is one of the foci… from which it is at once possible and natural to survey the whole circumference of Christian truth, and to determine the relationship which obtains between one conviction and another.”

What Mackintosh saw so clearly was how the Christian experience of salvation, understood as the forgiveness of sins, depends on the Christian estimate of the true identity of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. This is why the angel told Joseph that the name of Mary’s baby conceived by the Holy Spirit would be Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

And so, the Christmas gift of Bethlehem’s baby includes “the forgiveness of our wrongdoings, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us.”

What did you get for Christmas? (5)

“In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He set forth in Him, 10 regarding His plan of the fullness of the times, to bring all things together in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth.” (Ephesians 1:9-10)

Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) was an English pastor who went to India as a missionary and became a Bishop in the Church of South India. He served Christ and the church in a part of the world that was crowded with competing religious claims, the part of the world that gave us the parable of the blind men and the elephant.  You know it.

The blind men each grab hold of a different part of the elephant and dogmatically assert that elephants are just the part they hold.  But the king who brought the elephant and the blind men together in the first place, and who can see, wisely counsels them to be more humble in their claims.  It’s a good story with an important truth, but Lesslie Newbigin used it to make a different point.

“In the famous story of the blind men and the elephant, so often quoted in the interests of religious agnosticism, the real point of the story is constantly overlooked. The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of the truth. The story is constantly told in order to neutralize the affirmation of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognize that none of them can have more than one aspect of the truth. But, of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite. If the king were also blind there would be no story. The story is told by the king, and it is the immensely arrogant claim of one who sees the full truth which all the world’s religions are only groping after. It embodies the claim to know the full reality which relativizes all the claims of the religions and philosophies.”

Knowing God, who God is, and what God wants, and where God is taking things, is a matter of hunches and guesses when everybody is blind. But the minute somebody sees, and speaks, everything changes. Christianity makes a claim about revelation, about God speaking and showing.  The Gospel of John states it forthrightly –

”The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (John bore witness to him, and cried, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.’”)  And from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.”

Orthodox Christians talk about God’s “essence.” And God’s “energies.” God’s essence is who God is in Himself, it is unknown and unknowable. It’s what we’re talking about when we sing – “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes…” But God’s energies (God’s “working in”) refer to the ways that God becomes present and active in our lives and our world. We can know who God is by seeing what God is doing. We don’t know everything about God, but we know something. As Deuteronomy 29:29 puts it – “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever…”

Christmas offers us the gift of knowing God.

What did you get for Christmas? (6)

11 In Him we also have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things in accordance with the plan of His will, 12 to the end that we who were the first to hope in the Christ would be to the praise of His glory.” (Ephesians 1:11-12)

55 years ago, when I first became a “conscious” Christian with an “owned” faith, I thought that I had it made.  The way the Gospel had been presented to me, by crossing the threshold of personal faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I was stepping onto a “cloud nine of exalted mood without any defeat.” As Robert Raines put it, I was left with the impression that once the airplane of my soul was aloft, that the automatic pilot function in the cockpit would be engaged and I could just sit back and float into the heavenly city without another care or concern.  Because I was saved, I was going to be shielded, sheltered, pampered, and entitled. It hasn’t worked out that way.

My “Patron Saint,” the Saint with whom I share a birthday, is St. Ignatius of Antioch, nicknamed “Theophorus,” which means “God borne,” or “God carried.” Tradition says that he was one of the children Christ picked up and blessed in the days of His public ministry and pointed to as those to whom the Kingdom belongs. Talk about privileged.  But St. Ignatius’ icon shows him being eaten by lions.  He was arrested during the reign of Trajan, marched to Rome, and martyred in Flavian’s Amphitheater.  Among the last things he wrote were –  “Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ,” and “I am the wheat of the Lord; I must be ground by the teeth of these beasts to be made the pure bread of Christ.”   Nobody told me about him when I was first considering the claims of Christ.  Nobody told me (in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer) that when “Christ bids a person, Christ bids that person to come and die.”  No, what I was promised were blue skies and easy streets.

If all there is to Christianity is my present experience of it, then I would have to reconsider my faith decisions, and give some serious thought to becoming a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Buddhist. Fortunately, one of my teachers along the way was George Eldon Ladd, who always made it very clear that “the second coming of Jesus Christ is an absolutely indispensable doctrine in the Biblical teaching of redemption,” and that “apart from His glorious return, God’s work will be forever incomplete.”  This is why today’s verses land with such force in my heart.  The words “inheritance,” “end,” and “hope” speak of the future, of the things that God has yet to do in His “plan” and according to His “purpose” for the healing of our lives and the world. And the fact that the tense of the verbs describing our possession of this coming salvation are past – “obtained” and “predestined” – assure me of the certainty of their coming reality.

Christmas offers us the gift of God’s faithfulness. God keeps His promises.  God will finish His saving work.

What did you get for Christmas? (7)

13 In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation – having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of the promise, 14 who is a first installment of our inheritance, in regard to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.” (Ephesians 1:13-14)

The Charismatic Movement coincided with my spiritual awakening in Southern California in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. When I came into the orbit of the ministries of Chuck Smith and Calvary Chapel through Maranatha Music in the Jesus People days, I was routinely asked if I had received the Holy Spirit?  This was understood as a second and distinct act of grace that would be evidenced by praying in tongues.  Evangelicalism was concerned with whether I had been born again. The Charismatic Movement was concerned with whether I was Spirit-filled.  The “full” Gospel involved both.

When I was confirmed by the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles in 1965 when I was 12, he laid his hands on me and after promising to follow Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, he prayed –

“Almighty and everliving God, who hast vouchsafed to regenerate these thy servants by Water and the Holy Ghost, and hast given unto them forgiveness of all their sins; Strengthen them, we beseech thee, O Lord, with the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, and daily increase in them thy manifold gifts of grace: the spirit of wisdom and under-standing, the spirit of counsel and ghostly strength, the spirit of knowledge and true godliness; and fill them, O Lord, with the spirit of thy holy fear, now and forever. Amen.”

I have a piece of paper signed by a Bishop that says I was given the gift of the Holy Spirit.  In the words of E. Stanley Jones, I was “outwardly in.”  But the question was whether I was “inwardly in?”  I’d been sacramentalized, but had I been experientially indwelt by the empowering presence?  Was I aware that I had the Holy Spirit?

Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) was a Puritan Divine (teacher of divinity) ordained to the ministry of the Church of England in 1609, and he lectured in theology and preached at the churches in and around Cambridge from 1609 until his death 26 years later.  He wrote about the importance of “entertaining the Holy Spirit.”  He believed that the Holy Spirit must be “an integral part of our lives, our churches, and our world,” and that the way that this happened was through what he called “entertaining” the Holy Spirit in every facet of our life and experience.  For Richard Sibbes, “entertaining the Holy Spirit meant to welcome with hospitality and then to nurture our friendship with the indwelling Spirit.”    The Holy Spirit is the agent of conversion.  It is the basic work of the Holy Spirit to take the objective work of the salvation that God in Jesus Christ has accomplished in history on the cross and out of the empty tomb, and to subjectively apply it individually to our hearts and corporately to the church.  The Spirit convicts us of sin and then draws us to believe, and when we do, the Holy Spirit then takes up residence in our hearts to assure us that we are the children of God and to direct the process of sanctification by which we are increasingly conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.  It is this “indwelling Spirit” who must be “entertained” by us, that is, the presence of the Holy Spirit in us is something that we must consciously welcome and then consistently acknowledge.  Just like a “bad marriage” in which one partner can take advantage of the other partner’s contributions while failing to appreciate him or her, it is possible for us as Christians to “grieve the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 4:30) and to “quench the Holy Spirit” (I Thessalonians 5:19) by presuming on the Spirit’s presence and power in our lives without being aware of them or appreciative for them.   And so, Richard Sibbes urged Christians to “make a daily effort to appreciate the Holy Spirit.”

I now affirm the Charismatic Movement’s stirring up of the Holy Spirit in me as the growth of a seed that was planted when years before the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles laid his hands on me and prayed that I would be filled with the Holy Spirit. It took some time, but that sacramental act eventually became a crucial part of my lived spiritual experience. Mark the Monk, one of the great spiritual teachers in Asia Minor in the fifth century put it like this –

“However far someone may advance in faith, however great the good he has attained … he never discovers, nor can he ever discover, anything more than what he has already received secretly through baptism…. Christ, being perfect God, has bestowed upon the baptized the perfect grace of the Spirit. We for our part cannot possibly add to that grace, but it is revealed and manifests itself increasingly, the more we fulfil the commandments …. Whatever, then, we offer to Christ after our regeneration was already hidden within us and came originally from Him.” Christmas offers us the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Now is the time for each one of us to consciously welcome the Holy Spirit and to start intentionally nurturing the fullness of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Christianity simply doesn’t work without the Holy Spirit

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What’s Changed? (Luke 2:1-15)

The last time I saw you was a month ago. It was the last Sunday of November, the first Sunday of Advent.  The Scripture I preached on that morning is the same Scripture that I am preaching on here this morning, Luke 2:1-15, the Christmas story.  I preached on that passage a month ago with this morning in mind. You might remember that in that sermon I quoted the great American theologian, Yogi Berra, how he said, “If you don’t know where you are going, then you might wind up somewhere else.”  Knowing how easy it is for us to get distracted by all the clutter and the clatter of this season, I wanted to keep the Savior who was born for us in Bethlehem this day long ago clearly in view as Advent began.

A month ago, the reading of Luke 2:1-15 was a preview of coming events. Here this morning, the reading of Luke 2:1-15 is the announcement of the fulfillment of a promise. A month ago, my message from Luke 2:1-15 was, “It’s coming!” This morning my message from Luke 2:1-5 is, “It’s here!”   But, what’s here?  What does Christmas bring? 

The angels’ song in Luke 2 tells us that the birth of the Savior in Bethlehem means – “Peace on earth among humanity with whom God is well pleased!” (2:14). Christmas and peace have a certain compatibility, don’t they? Because the promise was that “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders, and he will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor,’ ‘Mighty God,’ ‘Everlasting Father,’ the ‘Prince of Peace’” (Isaiah 9:6-7), we tend to think, and sing of Christmas and peace as something of a matched pair –

Good Christian men, rejoice

with heart and soul and voice;

Now ye need not fear the grave;

Peace! Peace! Jesus Christ was born to save!”

“Hark! the herald angels sing
‘Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!’"
“‘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.”
“O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy birth.
And praises sing to God the King.
And peace to men on earth.”
“Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child
Holy Infant so Tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.”
 So, where is it? If Christmas and peace go together, now that it’s Christmas, where’s the peace?
 Do you remember Simon and Garfunkel’s "7 O’clock News/Silent Night" recording from 1966? It was just them quietly singing “Silent Night” against the backdrop of an evening news broadcast that gradually increased in volume until it completely drowned out the song with its reports of civil rights unrest, political fights, a mass murder, a celebrity dying from a drug overdose, the War in Vietnam, and antiwar protests.  I was 13 when I first heard it, and I remember it shaking a foundation. 
 I was raised in church and had a personal encounter with the living God when I was 12. Christianity was both true and real for me. But this 1966 Simon and Garfunkel song exposed a weakness in the claim of Christianity for me. It’s the gap between what the angels sang to the shepherds about peace on earth when Jesus was born, and the slaughter of all of Bethlehem’s baby boys when Herod got mad because the Magi went home by a different route.  I’ve heard it described as “the promise of unrelenting triumph” giving way to “the harsh realties of the fallen world,” and to “the frustration of disappointed experience.”  It’s the perfect formula for a crisis of faith.  The promise of blue skies and perpetual sunny days will leave people shattered and teetering when the rain falls, and the winds blow, and the floodwaters rise.
 A rabbi friend of mine likes to tell the story of a Rabbi in Jerusalem on the Monday morning after Easter.  He woke up, threw open the shutters of his house, and looked out on the world.  He saw merchants still cheating their customers.  He saw bullies still roughing up the small, the slow, and the different.  He saw Roman soldiers still occupying the streets.  He saw husbands still running around on their wives. He saw the sick still sick, the poor still poor, the sad still sad, the lost still lost.  And the rabbi shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s not true. He wasn’t the Messiah. Nothing’s changed.”  
 Let’s be very clear about this.  The Christmas Gospel makes some claims. The angel told the shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks by night that he - (1) had some good news for them, (2) good news of a great joy, (3) good news of a great joy which will come to all the people (2:10).  The content of that good news of great joy for all people was that born in Bethlehem, the city of David, that very night was a Savior who was Christ the Lord (2:11).  The angel told the shepherds that the “sign” of this good news of great joy for all people would be the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” that they would find (2:12). James Moffatt translated the phrase “and this will be a sign for you” as “and here is the proof for you.”  “Proof?” Proof of what? Proof that God’s intention for the world is peace and that God’s disposition towards us human beings is good.  The birth of Jesus Christ shows us what God wants for us, and how God feels about us.  Okay, so where is it? Where’s the peace?  Where’s the good will?
The most “realistic” Christmas Carol I know is, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” based on a Christmas poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863. I won’t sing it, but I will recite it –
 “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along the unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:

‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,

‘For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.’

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Longfellow wrote this poem during a very painful season in his life and in some of the darkest days of the Civil War.  His wife had died in a fire that left him severely burned as well, and then his son enlisted in the Union Army and was wounded in battle.  There was some question of his survival, and so Longfellow rushed to Washington D.C. to be at his son’s bedside.

Longfellow sat down on Christmas Day in 1863, and wrote a poem to give voice to what it was that he was feeling. He was in that gap between what the Bible says is so, and how life really is. It moves from the standard Christmas affirmation of peace on earth, good will to men in its first two stanzas, to the realistic acknowledgement in the third stanza of the violence and upheaval that still plagues creation despite the coming of Christ, to a reaffirmation of the very real peace that the coming of Christ has put in motion in the last two stanzas. Longfellow recognized that God’s peace in Christ is something begun and underway, but not arrived. It’s one of those “already” but “not yet” things that the Bible’s full of.

Because we live, move, and have our being in-between Christ’s first coming as a baby in Bethlehem and Christ’s second coming in glory at the close of the age, our experience of Christianity is always going to partial, incomplete, unfinished. We don’t have it all yet.  There’s more to come. This is why my favorite stanza of Longfellow’s poem that we sing as a Christmas carol is the last one. This is where he described how the peace of Christmas comes –

“Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

You see, it doesn’t come all at once, full-grown, ready to go. It takes time to develop.

When you throw a rock into the middle of a placid pond, from its point of entry, a series on concentric circles begin rippling out across the surface of the water, and this is the near perfect picture of the gradual spread of the peace of God that Christmas brings, if you ask me. Peace is not just one thing in Scripture. When I go through everything the Bible says about peace, I detect at least six different dimensions of peace. There’s –

(1) Peace with God (Romans 5:1);

(2) Peace within ourselves (John 14:25-27);

(3) Peace in our interpersonal relationships (Romans 12:14-21);

(4) Peace between social groupings (Ephesians 2:13-18);

(5)  Peace between nations (Revelation 22:1-5); and finally, there’s –

(6) Peace in all of creation when the Kingdom comes, and God’s will is

     done on earth as it is in heaven (Revelation 21:1-5).

And, if I’m reading it right, then all the other kinds of peace that the Bible promises – inner peace, family peace, interracial peace, world peace, and cosmic peace – they all flow from the first peace that the Bible announces with the coming of Christ, the peace that the angels sang about on Christmas Eve – peace with God. 

Another song about peace that we sometimes sang over at Northway during Christmas says, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me,” and that’s the dynamic that I see at work in Longfellow’s poem.  Like the candles at a Christmas Eve service that slowly pass the flame from the Christ Candle throughout the entire congregation, pew by pew, from person to person, gradually filling the darkness of the night with the light of Christ, so the peace of Christmas is given to us, and then it radiates out from us in ever widening circles.

In just a moment now, we’re going to go to the Lord’s Table to remember what Christ came to do for us and the world.  In the broken bread and shared cup, we are going to receive emblems of the gift of God’s light, and love, and life in Christ. That’s the rock that’s thrown and breaks the surface of the waters and sinks to our depths. We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1). His love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5).  And we will pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Those are the ripples that flow away from where the rock went into the pond.  When we have peace with God, we find peace of heart, and we seek peace with others. The peace of Christmas begins here, doing this, and then it ripples out from here to everywhere we go, to everyone we meet, in everything we do.

“Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Let’s pray…

Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, Born this happy season;
Jesus, to Thee be glory given;
Word of the Father, Now in flesh appearing. 

We come, O Lord, to adore you,

We come, O Lord, to adore you,

We come, O Lord, to adore you,

Christ our Lord.

Like a rock breaking the surface of a placid pond, LORD, break through the nonchalance of our lives and customs of this holiday with a fresh view of that baby born in Bethlehem and with a new appreciation of what it is that He brings.

Be known to us here this morning in the preaching of the Word, in the breaking of the bread, and in the fellowship of the church.  Inhabit the praise of your people and hear us as we pray. Pour your love into our hearts and let us know the peace we have with you because of the saving work that you have done for in Christ. And then, LORD, like ripples on a pond, from the peace we have with you in Christ, let your peace begin to flow out from us in every direction, touching every part of our lives –

  • Give us peace of heart and peace of mind;
  • Let us know peace in our relationships with the people we know best;
  • Use us to make peace everywhere people are divided today because of who they are, or where they’re from, or how they think, or what they’ve done;
  • Bring peace anywhere nation rises up against nation, where armies gather, and hatred grows; and
  • Hasten the day when your Kingdom comes, and your will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Until then, LORD, help us to be peacemakers, and thus be known as your children, we pray, in the name of Him who is the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.

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“Let Us Go and See” (Luke 2:1-15)

I loved “show and tell” when I was a kid in grade school, so I’ve brought something to show and tell with you this morning.  This is a print of a painting that’s hung in my home for some 30 years now.  It’s a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. He was one of the most important painters of the Northern Renaissance.  He is best known for his winter scenes, paintings with snow in them, paintings like this one.

[A print of Pieter Brueghel’s “The Numbering at Bethlehem” (1566) was on display]

This is a picture of your typical Flemish village in the middle of the 16th century. It shows an ordinary winter day in the life of some insignificant little town. A butcher slaughters a pig. A woodman pulls a load of firewood on a sled. Children skate on a frozen pond. An old woman gathers eggs. A carpenter frames a house. A young man flirts with a young woman. A couple of drunks scuffle in the street. A government official sits a table where a line of people waits to pay their taxes.  There’s nothing special about the day, or the place, or the people, or the activity… until you look a little bit more closely. 

Down front and in the center of the painting, hidden in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the scene, like Waldo in a “Where’s Waldo” picture book, there’s a very pregnant woman on the back of a little donkey being led into town by an anxious-looking man carrying a big saw. It’s Mary and Joseph, and suddenly you understand. This is a picture of Bethlehem, but set in Brueghel’s time and place.  It’s a Christmas painting, and it’s making a very important spiritual point about Christmas.  It would have been easy to miss, to have been so busy with other things that the event that forever divides the ages could have passed us by completely unobserved.  As Jesus put it, it’s possible for us to look and not to see (Matthew 13:13), and to see but not perceive (Mark 4:12). Let’s pray –

“Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus,
to reach out and touch him, and say that we love him.
Open our ears, Lord, and help us to listen.
Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus.”

Our Scripture reading this morning was the familiar story of Christmas that Luke tells. This is one of the world’s most beautiful and beloved texts, but I’ve got lots of ministerial colleagues who would strongly disapprove of us looking at it here this morning.  If they were here, they would tell you in no uncertain terms that we’re jumping the gun, that it’s not Christmas yet!  Today is just the first day of Advent.  Christmas isn’t for another 27 days, and they would argue that there should be no Christmas until then!  No Christmas carols. No Christmas cards. No creche scenes. No special decorations. No Christmas cheer. There’s time for all that later.  Christmas will get 12 days beginning on December the 25th.  But that’s then. This is now, and now it’s Advent, so act like it!  Needless to say, I don’t agree with them.

I subscribe to the wisdom of the great theologian Yogi Berra instead.  “If you don’t know where you are going,” he said, “then you might wind up somewhere else.”  Fr. Alexander  Schmemann, another one of the theological minds of the 20th century, said the same thing, only differently – “When a man leaves on a journey, he must know where he is going.”  Well, Christmas is where we are going, and Advent is the how we get there.  That needs to be said, here, today, on the first Sunday of Advent, just as loudly and clearly as we can.  And so, we read the Christmas story here this morning.

I don’t know about you, but I never begin a trip without first studying the maps and reading everything I possibly can about what’s on the road between here and there, and what about what I’ll see and so when I get there.  I’m a big fan of beginning every trip with a clear understanding of where it’s leading before it starts so that I don’t get lost along the way.  Today begins our annual trip to Bethlehem.  We’ll get there in just about a month, and the Christmas story describes what we’ll find when we arrive.

The verse from this morning’s Scripture reading that I really want us to focus on here this morning is the 15th one – “When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’”  In some ways, Brueghel’s painting is a kind of visual sermon on the meaning of this verse.  It tells us that we can do what Luke 2:15 tells us to do, we can go and see, and still completely miss what’s there.  We can lose the point in the clutter and the clatter of the scene, and the season.

At roughly the same time that Brueghel the Elder was painting his painting of Bethlehem, an Italian Franciscan priest named Giocondo wrote a letter to a dear friend of his on Christmas Eve, and what he wrote was so beautiful that it was saved, and in some circles is read to family and friends on Christmas Day –

“No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant. Take peace!  The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see. And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look!”

Advent is the church’s way of saying this to us each year during the weeks before Christmas – “I beseech you to look.”  This is necessary to say each year because we have this astonishing capacity as human brings to get distracted.  And so, long before the great holy-days of our faith get started, the church builds in some time for us to get ready, Lent before Easter and Advent before Christmas.  The church does this because the church understands that so much of the spiritual life consists of us just paying attention, of going with the shepherds to see what the Lord has done for us.

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I made a little trip down to Fredericksburg, San Antonio, Houston, and Galveston.  On our way back to Dallas from the Gulf Coast we decided to drive backroad two lane highways, and as the miles passed, I began to detect a pattern to them. The posted speed limit between towns was 70, and in some places, even 75 miles an hour!  But you always knew that there was a town coming up around the next bend or over the next rise when the posted speed limit began to drop.  It would go from 75 to 65, and then from 65 to 55, and then from 55 to 45, and then from 45 to 35, and a time or two, even to 25 over a mile or two stretch of road.  And in every little town, sitting on the side of the road there was a police car with an officer in it with a radar gun, begging for a reason to stop and write a ticket for anyone who failed to see or neglected to heed the signs.

Consider today, the first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Hope, the first one of those signs on the highway telling us to reduce our speed. There’s something coming up ahead, and so today we tap the brakes and slow from 75 to 65. Next Sunday, the second Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Peace, is the second speed limit sign taking us from 65 to 55.  The Sunday after that, the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Joy, is the third speed limit sign taking us from 55 to 45. The fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Love, is the fourth speed limit sign taking us down from 45 to 35.  And Christmas Eve, the Day of the coming of Christ, is the traffic light in town that makes us stop.  That’s what Advent is supposed to do.  It’s supposed to slow us down so that we can finally stop to see what the Lord has done for us come Christmas Day.

There’s a hymn I love to sing called “Come and Find the Quiet Center.”   It’s not an Advent hymn, but I really think it should be. It begins –

“Come and find the quiet center in the crowded life we lead,
find the room for hope to enter, find the frame where we are freed:
clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes, that we can see
all the things that really matter, be at peace, and simply be.”

Advent is an invitation to see, but as Brueghel’s painting illustrates, it’s a special kind of seeing that’s going to be required of us.  Ephesians 1:18 is part of a prayer that asks God to “open the eyes of our hearts.”   Did you know that your heart had eyes?  The little prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s book of that same name did.  He said, “Here is my secret.  It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

As you know, one of the things that Jesus did throughout the days of His public ministry was to give sight to the blind.  This was one of the things that people expected the Messiah to do when He came (Luke 4:18/Isaiah 61:1), and significantly, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke each shift from telling us about the things that Jesus did in the days of His public ministry to the saving events of Holy Week by telling the same miracle story, the story of blind Bartimaeus being given his sight by Jesus. Sitting by the side of the road, waiting for Jesus to pass by, Bartimaeus cried out – “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And when Jesus asked him what he wanted, Bartimaeus said, “Master, let me receive my sight” (Mark 10:51).

It was Bartimaeus’ physical eyes that were blind and that needed to be opened, but many commentators have pointed out that the Gospels use this story as the doorway through which we pass into the story of the Passion – the story of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that’s because we need our eyes opened too, not our physical eyes like Bartimaeus, but our spiritual eyes, the eyes of our hearts, if we are going to be able to see where God is and what God is doing in the things that happen to Jesus in Jerusalem during His final week. With Bartimaeus, our prayer must be – “Master, let me receive my sight!”

Because God is God, we expect Him to show up in big, bold, unmistakable sorts of ways, in “earthquake, wind, and fire.”  But instead, He slips into town completely unnoticed in the womb of a virgin on the back of a donkey to be born in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn.  We expect Him to defeat our enemies like a warrior on the back of a stallion leading his army into battle, but instead, He gets betrayed by a friend with a kiss, He gets condemned by a chiseling little bureaucrat, He dies on a cross, and winds up buried in a borrowed tomb.  God speaks and acts in Jesus Christ, to be sure, but He does so, at least for now, only in whispers and shadows, so that if we aren’t paying attention, we will pass Him by.

It may be the most devastating thing that Jesus Christ ever said to His disciples. After investing in them deeply with His time and by His effort, and they seemed no closer to understanding who He was or what He was about than when He first called them, an exasperated Jesus asked His disciples, “Having eyes, do you not see? Having ears, do you not hear?” (Mark 8:18). These four weeks of Advent before Christmas are the church’s way of keeping us from making this same mistake.

The gloom of this world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see. And to see, we have only to look.

I beseech you to look!”

Let’s pray…

LORD, we come into this season each year with high expectations and overcrowded schedules. We want the perfect Christmas, and don’t seem to understand that it’s already happened, that we’ve already got it.  So, LORD, start now to open the eyes of our hearts on this first Sunday of Advent so that we will be able to see you then, on Christmas Eve, in that little baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

Open the eyes of our hearts, LORD, to see the prophets and to hear the promises that you made through them in preparation for the coming of the Christ.

Open the eyes of our hearts, LORD, to see the hopes and fears of the world that the Christ came to touch.

Open the eyes of our hearts, LORD, to see the Christ’s continuing presence in the distress and the disguise of the poor and needy.

Open the eyes of our hearts, LORD, to see the people right beside us who are struggling with life, especially during the holidays, and who need a friendly smile, or a helping hand, or a loving companion. 

And open the eyes of our hearts, LORD, to see the wounds we have – our own hopes and fears, where we’re poor and needy, how we’re struggling – and help us to know that the promise of a Savior is meant for us too.

As we go know now to the Lord’s Table to celebrate with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ whose birth we are now preparing to celebrate, make this season more than just a matter of shopping, decorating, cooking, and partying by anchoring us to the creche and the cross.  Be present to us in the bread we break, in the cup we bless, and in the manger into which we peer.

Open the eyes of our hearts, Lord, we want to see Jesus. Amen.

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Thanksgiving Hymns – “Now Thank We All Our God”

Pastor Jack Hayford is a first-class musician. He’s sung in choirs and been part of vocal groups and worship teams his whole life long.  He’s been a music director, leading choirs at Christian colleges and in local churches.  And he’s a composer. He’s written a number of hymns, many of which are sung every Sunday in churches all over the country and all around the world, including “Majesty.” But when he first got to the little church in Southern California that has now become a megachurch, he says that nothing he did helped him build up its choir. 

Three times he says that he tried to get a choir started there, and three times he says it ended in dismal failure.  And so, Pastor Hayford says that he finally decided to change his whole approach.  He started asking the whole congregation – every man, woman, boy, and girl who was there each Sunday morning – to become the church’s choir.  He based this idea on Scripture.  He showed them how in the book of Revelation everybody in heaven and on earth joins their voices together in the praise to God, and so he just started inviting people to become part of that cosmic eternal choir.

Today it’s not uncommon for Pastor Hayford to begin a worship service at his church by saying – “As we begin worship here this morning, I want to invite the choir to stand and join me in the praise of God.”  With a wave of his hand, Pastor Hayford says that he tries to make it clear that by “choir” he means everybody who’s there with him in worship that day.  But just in case someone still doesn’t get it, he always adds – “All of us, everyone who’s here, is part of our church’s choir, so please join right in.  We’re not an exclusive group, in fact some of us have really terrible voices, but that doesn’t stop us from making a joyful noise!” 

Pastor Hayford will tell you that one of the keys to his church’s numerical growth and spiritual health is that they are a church that sings, and this isn’t something that he alone believes.  The first Methodists were sometimes called “Ranters” because of their loud and enthusiastic singing.  Charles Wesley wrote 600 hymns – 13 of them are in our hymnal – because he understood that there were few spiritual practices with greater impact on the spiritual well-being of an individual Christian, or on the vitality of a church, than singing, and that’s because a good hymn will inform the mind with truth, and touch the heart with passion, and move the hand to act in faith with purpose and compassion. The standard Thanksgiving hymn “Now Thank We All Our God” certainly does this for me.

I’ve read that “Now Thank We All Our God” is the second most frequently sung Protestant hymn in Germany.  Only Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” gets sung more often.   “Now Thank We All Our God” is a stately hymn.  It has a rich liturgical feel to it, which explains why it hasn’t gotten much traction in Bible, Baptist, and Independent Evangelical and Charismatic churches.  This is a hymn that Episcopalians, and Lutherans, Methodists, and Disciples are much more likely to know and sing.

In structure and content “Now Thank We All our God” begins with a thoughtful recollection on what God has done for His people in the past. The first stanza says –

“Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”

The second stanza is a humble request for this faithful God to continue to provide for the needs of His people, both in the present moment and in all of the days to come –

“O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us full of grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!”

“Now Thank We All Our God” is sometimes called the “German Gloria Patri” because of its third stanza.  This is a fully developed Trinitarian chorus of praise –

“All praise and thanks to God, our Father and our Mother;
To Christ and to the One Who binds us to each other;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.”

“Now Thank We All Our God” is a pretty straightforward hymn of praise and thanksgiving, perfect for our annual celebration of God’s faithfulness on Thanksgiving Day.  But the real story of this hymn gets told by the citation its author – Martin Rinkart, and by the date of its composition – 1636.

1636 was just about the midway point of the Thirty Years War in Central Europe. Even counting WW 1 and WW 2, the Thirty Years War was the deadliest and most destructive war ever fought in Europe.  It started out as a religious war between the new Protestant states that were breaking away from the Holy Roman Empire, and the Catholic states that were intent on remaining loyal to it. Later on, it degenerated into a prolonged power struggle between Europe’s royal dynasties and their mercenary armies for political dominance. 

Martin Rinkart was a Lutheran Pastor in the German city of Eilenburg, a fortified city in the middle of the contested territory of the Thirty Years War.  Thinking it safe because of its walls, Eilenburg became a favorite place of refuge for people who were displaced by the fighting.  Crowded with all those extra people, starvation and disease soon became rampant in Eilenburg, and Martin Rinkart as a pastor did what he could to take care of the afflicted.  When the plague broke out in Eilenberg, Martin Rinkart spent every waking moment tending to the sick and burying the dead. It’s said that he performed 5000 funerals in those days, sometimes as many as 30 in a day.  Eventually Martin Rinkrat buried every other pastor in Eilenberg, leaving him as the only minister left in the city.  And then his own wife died, and it was left to him alone to bury her.

Martin Rinkart wrote “Now Thank We All Our God” in 1636.  That would have been right in the middle of all of this chaos, suffering, and loss.

“Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”

In the midst of all the terrible things that were going on in his life, and in his world, what could possibly have prompted Martin Rinkart to write this hymn about “joyful hearts” and “blessed peace”?  Some say that he had I Thessalonians 5:18 in mind and heart as he wrote “Now Thank We All Our God” – “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Needless to say, this has been a rather confusing verse for lots of Christians through the years.  I’ve heard sermons and read books on it that have argued that what it’s telling us is that every circumstance in our lives is exactly what God wants for us, and that we have no choice but to thank God for them.  You get cancer, and you are supposed to say “thank you God.”  You lose your job, and you are supposed to say “thank-you God.” You experience the painful ending of a meaningful relationship, and you are supposed to say “thank-you God.”  You get wiped out by an earthquake, or a flood, or a storm, and you are supposed to say “thank-you God.” This seems like such cruel advice to me.

I think it’s significant that Paul told the Thessalonians to give thanks “in all circumstances” and not “for all circumstances.”  In fact, I don’t think that the “will of God” in this verse refers to our circumstances at all, but rather to the act of giving thanks, and this dramatically shifts the conversation, at least in my mind.  No longer am I left struggling with the monstrous idea that every circumstance in my life is God’s will for me for which I must be thankful, but instead I am invited into a reflective process of prayerfully looking for what it is in each circumstance for which I can be thankful.   This is the spiritual silver-linings approach to our circumstances that says that there’s always something for which we can give God thanks, even in the worst of situations.

Now, what I hear from lots and lots of people when they do this is that no matter how difficult things might be for them, that things “could always be worse.”  This is the old “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet” argument.  Matthew Henry, the famous 17th century Bible Commentator, wins the prize for this kind of reasoning.  He got robbed late one night in London after preaching, and here’s the prayer of thanksgiving he prayed when he got home –

Lord, I thank Thee first because I was never robbed before; and second, because although they took my purse, they did not take my life; and third, because although they took everything I had, it was not very much; and fourth, because it was I who was robbed, and not I who robbed.”

Maybe this was all he could muster in the moment, but I’ve got to believe that there’s more than just – “It could have been worse” – when we’re trying to give thanks to God in every circumstance. 

Fr. Louis Evely liked to say that every moment of our lives is “an occasion for grace, a proposal, a call from God, a call to believe and love whatever happens.”  And that sounds a whole lot more like Martin Rinkart’s experience in Eilenburg that prompted him to write “Now Thank We All Our God” in 1636, than it does Matthew Henry’s prayer after his bad night on a London street.  I don’t know what it was exactly that Pastor Martin Rinkart discovered in those dark and difficult days of his ministry in Eilenburg during the Thirty Years War to give thanks to God for, but his enduring hymn “Now Thank We Now Our God” is proof that he did.  And if he could then, surely we can now.

Pastor Jack Hayford tells his congregation in Southern California that because of the redemption that God provides for us in Jesus Christ from all that threatens to destroy and diminish us, that there are always four things for which we as Christians can give thanks –

(1) We can always thank God for His great love for us, proven to us by what Jesus Christ did on the cross;

(2) We can always thank God for his great forgiveness of us, and for the assurance that forgiveness gives us that we are in fact accepted by God;

(3) We can always thank God for His great purpose for us, and for all of creation, a purpose that will not be defeated and that cannot be denied; and

(4) We can always thank God for the great promises that He has made to us, the promise that one day death, and sadness, and suffering, and loss will be no more, and the promise that until that day comes, that death, and sadness, and suffering, and loss cannot separate us from His love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I don’t know what the circumstances are that you are facing in your life as we come into Thanksgiving week this year, but whatever they are, what I do know is that if you look close enough what you’ll find is God’s great love for you in Jesus Christ, and God’s great forgiveness that is available to you in Jesus Christ, and God’s great purpose for you in Jesus Christ, and God’s great promises made to you in Jesus Christ.  These are the things that enable us to sing, and Pastor Rinkart’s words from the first half of the 17th century might just be the perfect ones to use.

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My Sin Problem

It’s funny how our theologies write and then rewrite hymns. For instance, I was raised singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” with the last line of the first and third stanza as – “Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity!” But the first time I sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” in a Disciples church using “Christian Worship: A Hymnal” (1953), the last line of the first and third stanza read – “Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, God over all, and blessed eternally.” In the 1950’s when we were still interested in emphasizing the particularities of our life and faith as a church, the things that made us different from other churches, it was important to change the words of this standard hymn to better reflect one of the “peculiarities of our plea.” Here’s how that “peculiarity” was classically explained –

“While accepting fully and unequivocally the Scripture statements concerning what is usually called the trinity of persons in the Godhead, we repudiate alike the philosophical and theological speculations of Trinitarians and Unitarians, and all unauthorized forms of speech on a question which transcends human reason, and on which it becomes us to speak “in words which the Holy Spirit teaches.” Seeing how many needless and ruinous strifes have been kindled among sincere believers by attempts to define the indefinable, and to make tests of fellowship of human forms of speech which lack divine authority, we have determined to eschew all such mischievous speculations and arbitrary terms of fellowship, and to insist only on the ‘form of sound words,’ given to us in the Scriptures concerning the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (From: “Our Position” by Isaac Errett – 1880)

Because the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible, our 1953 hymnal changed the words of “Holy, Holy, Holy” so that we wouldn’t have to sing it.  But in 1995 when the “Chalice Hymnal” was published and we were more interested in emphasizing what we had in common with other Christians, how we were like other churches, the last line of the first and third stanza of “Holy, Holy, Holy” reverted to the original “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”

I’ve been thinking about this recently after singing that grand old (it was written in 1743) Charles Wesley hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” (#517 in the “Chalice Hymnal”).  In its second stanza, we Disciples ask God to “Breathe, O Breathe Thy loving Spirit into every troubled breast,” with the expectation that when this fresh infusion of grace occurs that it will “take away our love of sinning.”  But in the Methodist Hymnal (and the original Charles Wesley version of this hymn) it asks God to “take away our bent to sinning.” Now, I think we can agree that there’s a difference between a “love of sinning” and a “bent to sinning,” and that distinction is theological.

Those parts of the church that are comfortable talking about “original sin” are the parts of the church that are most likely to sing about our “bent to sinning” as human beings. They believe that the entrance of sin into the equation at the headwaters of the human story has contaminated everything that comes downstream and has corrupted who we are as human beings. We now have a “bent to sinning.” It’s easier for us to sin than it is not to sin. Those churches that teach this like to point out that when the dust from the story of the fall finally settled, that the book of Genesis makes a frank statement about God’s regret for and grief over the creation of humanity – “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humanity was great in the earth and that every imagination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). That’s the “bent to sinning.

Churches that emphasize the spiritual freedom and moral accountability that is intrinsic to our humanity are the ones that are most likely to sing about our “love of sinning” rather than our “bent to sinning.” We choose to sin because we love what it does for us, at least in the short term. Sinning is what we choose to do because it promotes our sense of control, serves our self-interests, and satisfies our appetites for pleasure, power, and possessions.

So, which is it? Is sin a problem for us because we love what it does for us, or because we are bent in its direction? I think it’s both.

After the Bible, the most important book in my spiritual formation has been the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, the 1928 version.  I have prayed its words my whole life. One of the things that I have wrestled with in its use is the frequency of the confessions of sin that it calls for.  There is a solemn call for the confession of our sins, a prayer of “General Confession” that is the standard for prayers of confession if you ask me, and 2 versions – the long and the short of it – of “The Declaration of Absolution, or Remission of Sins.”  At the end of each day, it is good to examine what you’ve thought, said, and done that is contrary to what God wants, and to confess those sins. What always confused me was that the next morning, presumably after a night of sleep, in the order of Morning Prayer, you did it all over again, using exactly the same words!  I don’t sin much — or at all — when I’m asleep, so I always wondered why the Book of Common Prayer thought it necessary for me to begin the day with the same prayers of confession that I end the day with after a constant struggle with sin? I finally understood the reason for this when I read “The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary” by Massey Hamilton Shepherd, Jr. (Oxford University Press – 1950). He explained –

“To confess one’s sins and seek God’s pardon at the close of the day’s work is perhaps more natural than to do so when one has just arisen from refreshing sleep. There is always in us the disposition to sin, but at the end of the day we could more readily make up a lengthy list of the times we have given in to this disposition during our waking hours.”

In terms of the versions of Charles Wesley’s hymn that we sing, what this means is that the Disciple version – “take away our love of sinning” – is appropriate for Evening Prayer while the Methodist version – “take away our bent to sinning” – is appropriate to Morning Prayer. Using both versions help me understand that my problem with sin is both a matter of what I do and of who I am.  This idea finds expression in the Biblical witness by the use of both the singular “sin” in places like Romans 6:6, 7:7-25, and I John 1:8, and the plural “sins” in places like Matthew 26:28, Acts 2:38, and I Corinthians 15:3.   Tom Smith explains – “’Sin’ singular refers to the powerful nature of sin within us.  It’s like a tree that produces its fruit – ‘sins.’ It follows then that ‘sins’ plural refers to countless acts of sinning as the fruits of this sinful nature within is.”  As the prayer of General Confession in the Book of Common Prayer puts it –

“I have erred, and strayed from Thy ways like a lost sheep.

I have followed too much the devices and desires of my own heart.

I have offended against Thy holy laws.

I have left undone those things which I ought to have done;

And I have done those things which I ought not to have done.”

Sins are what I do. My sins are “manifold.” But there’s more to it than just my record of bad behavior.  As the prayer of General Confession in the Book of Common Prayer goes on to admit – “there is no health (wholeness) within me.” Sin is also bound up with who I am as well.  Theologian Michael Bird explains this reality well –

“All people sin. All people imitate sin. All people have a propensity to sin. All people are guilty of sin. That human beings sin, transgress, break laws, violate rights, and commit immoral deeds is self-evident to everyone. I have to confess that one of the things that amazed me as a parent was that I never had to teach my children how to lie. They picked it up quite naturally. The mess that one child makes he or she will instinctively blame on another child, preferably the younger one, who cannot yet speak for themselves. Greed, violence, and selfishness seem like the default setting that they are born with. I sincerely believe that crying babies would throw their own mothers under a truck if it would get them what they want. Experience has also taught me that raising toddlers is like working for Caligula and Charlie Sheen combined. A house run by teenage boys has about the same degree of law and order as lunatics running an asylum. A colony of minors stranded on an island would not resemble Peter Pan’s paradisiac Never Never Land, but would descend immediately into violence and terror more akin to William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies where the strongest ruled the weakest with merciless spite. If you ever want to see what people are like, what they are truly like, see what they do when they think no one is watching them. …Anonymously on the internet, that is when you see what evil desires and what dark proclivities lurk within the hearts of men and women.”  (

Fortunately, neither sins (plural) nor sin (singular) is the point of the story that the Bible tells or the focus of the truth that it teaches. If I had to point to just one passage in Scripture as expressive of the essence of the Gospel, it would be John 1:29-34.  This is the story of John the Baptist’s witness to Jesus Christ at the beginning of His public ministry. This text opens with John announcing that Jesus is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (1:29), and it closes with John explaining that Jesus is the Promised One who will “baptize with the Holy Spirit” (1:33). Forgiveness through Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sins is how God deals with the problem my sinful behavior, and regeneration through the transforming work of the Spirit in my heart is how God deals with the problem of my sinful nature.  And so, when I sing “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” I pray that both my “love of sinning” (behavior) and my “bent to sinning” (nature) might be addressed by a fresh infusion of grace.

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Thanksgiving Hymns – “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come”

On the interior walls of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. there are quotes from some of the things that he wrote through the years.  Most of them are what you would expect from the man who gave us the Declaration of Independence. But on the Northeast wall of the Memorial there is a rather unexpected quote from Jefferson – “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

 “Tremble” — that’s not a word we use very often, is it?  In fact, right off the top of my head I could only come up with one familiar reference to “trembling” – the hymn “Were You There?” with its refrain – “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”  So I went to my concordance, and I looked up every reference to “trembling” that I could find in the Bible. And what I discovered was that while “tremble” is much more of an Old Testament word than it is a New Testament word, that whenever it shows up in the Bible, “tremble” is a word that describes the visceral response that a person makes when they come into the presence of the living God. Isaiah 66:2 is a representative text of what the Bible says about trembling – “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”  There’s a church that took its name from this idea of trembling at God’s word?

“The word ‘Quaker’ was originally an insult spoken by King George of England to William Penn, who would not take his hat off in deference to his majesty. Penn told the King that instead of worrying about a silly thing like his hat, what he really should be doing was ‘Quaking in the fear of the Lord.’ And the King responded, ‘Get this Quaker out of here!’”

So, have you ever quaked?  Have you ever trembled before the Lord?  Preacher John Piper says that – “If you know God – really know God – who he is in the greatness of his holiness and… his grace, then you will tremble in his presence.”  But what if you don’t tremble, what does that say about your knowledge of God?  Could it be that we don’t tremble because our knowledge of God has gotten skewed?  Thomas Jefferson said that he trembled for his country when he reflected on the fact that God is just.  So, is this the problem?  Have we lost sight of the fact that God is just?  One of the Thanksgiving hymns we sing this time of year suggests that we may have.

For many of us “Come, Ye Thankful People Come” is part of the soundtrack of our Thanksgivings.  Henry Alford (1810-1871), a 19th century Anglican priest wrote this hymn to be sung on the day of the English equivalent to our American Thanksgiving Day, something known as “Harvest Home.”  This is when a portion of the fall harvest would be brought into parish churches as an offering to God.  It would be blessed.  Prayers of thanksgiving would be offered over it, and then a portion of it would be shared with the poor and needy.   This is what Henry Alford’s hymn celebrates in its first stanza –

Come, ye thankful people, come, Raise the song of harvest home;
All is safely gathered in, Ere the winter storms begin.
God our Maker doth provide For our wants to be supplied;
Come to God’s own temple, come, Raise the song of harvest home.

It’s at this point that the version of “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” which appears in our hymnal takes an interesting turn.  You see, the rest of this hymn in our hymnal is not the hymn that Henry Alford wrote.  The second and third verses of “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” we usually sing were written by another hymn writer altogether, a woman named Anna Barbauld (1743-1825). 

Anna Barbauld was an important figure in the history of Christian hymnody in her own right; one of the very few women in her day to write and publish hymns. And you can see why her work was popular by looking at the second and third stanzas of “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” that we are accustomed to singing. Anna Barbauld’s version of the hymn, continues with the familiar Thanksgiving themes of bounty and blessing, harvest and gratitude. The words are beautiful, entirely appropriate for Thanksgiving.  Theologically there’s nothing objectionable about them at all, and frankly, that’s why they wound up replacing Henry Alford’s words. Henry Alford’s original words for “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” were objectionable, at least to some people.  You may have a memory of singing these words.  It’s the version of the hymn as it appeared in earlier Disciples’ hymnals. 

After celebrating the harvest of the fall’s crops in the first stanza, in the rest of the hymn that Henry Alford wrote, he explored the final harvest that awaits us.  The way that he originally wrote it, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” was Henry Alford’s meditation on the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, Matthew 13: 24-30, our Scripture Lesson this morning –

“All the world is God’s own field, fruit unto His praise to yield;
Wheat and tares together sown unto joy or sorrow grown.
First the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be.

For the Lord our God shall come, and shall take His harvest home;
From His field shall in that day all offenses purge away,
Giving angels charge at last in the fire the tares to cast;
But the fruitful ears to store in His garner evermore.

Even so, Lord, quickly come, bring Thy final harvest home;
Gather Thou Thy people in, free from sorrow, free from sin,
There, forever purified, in Thy garner to abide;
Come, with all Thine angels come, raise the glorious harvest home.”

Throughout Scripture the annual harvest was taken as a timely reminder of the fact that spiritually there is a harvest waiting for us as well.  And so, in the book of Revelation, the Final Judgement begins with the words: “Put in your sharp sickle and reap… because the harvest of the earth is ripe” (14:15).  This is a constant theme in Scripture. There’s not a story that the Bible tells that that doesn’t include an element of judgement.  You’re just not paying attention if you can read the Bible and not conclude that the God whose story it tells is holy and just, or that we live in a universe that is framed by right and wrong with very real choices to be made at every turn, or that there will be a final reckoning by God of the choices that we do make.  Trembling is a perfectly appropriate response to these facts, but, as it turns out, these are the very facts that are most at risk in the church today.

Theologian David Wells calls it the “weightlessness” of God in our lives.   80% of people surveyed will tell you that they believe in God and that they consider themselves to be “spiritual.”  But the real question in David Well’s mind is – “What weight does this belief have?”  He says that the evidence all points in the direction of our cultural belief in God being “a bit skinny.”  It doesn’t have “the weight to define how we think about life, or on how we actually go about living.”  Our God is a cheerleader who shouts encouragement to us from the sidelines, not a God who makes moral demands on us, or who takes personal offense at what we say and do. We’re on easy terms with God, and we fully expect, no matter what we do, to live with Him happily ever after.

Back in 1964 Erik Routley, an eminent church musician, reflecting this kind of thinking, said that he was deeply “offended” by the original words of Henry Alford’s hymn “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.”  He thought it “extremely doubtful” that the idea of God’s judgement was meaningful to Christians, or to anyone anymore!  And in our very next hymnal, the words were changed. Gone were all those references to judgement, accountability, and consequences, and taking their place were references to sunny skies, bountiful gardens, and smiling fields.

Now, without a doubt, there have been times when we Christians have spoken way too fast, and way too much, and way too rashly about the judgement of God.  I first read Jonathan Edward’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of Angry God” when I was a High School Junior, and I can remember thinking, even back then, that it wasn’t a very good description of the way that I myself had experienced God in Jesus Christ.  But then again, neither were the soft and sentimental ways that I was hearing God being popularly described in lots of the churches that I was visiting back in those days, “a saccharine God… a God who demanded nothing, who never criticized anybody for anything, who accepted everyone and everything, a God who did nothing but affirm us” (Echeverra).

I’m not a hellfire and brimstone preacher; I never have been.  But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that God is holy, or that our choices don’t matter, or that there’s not going to be a judgement in the end.  I believe that God is love, but I don’t believe that God is only love.  It was St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the 12th century mystical theologian, who said that the God we find in the Bible is a God who stands on two feet – a foot of justice, and a foot of mercy – and that neither foot can be neglected without serious damage being done to our understanding of God.

Neglect God’s foot of justice, force God to stand on his foot of love alone, and we have “no serious Word for a world which is racked by evil” (Wells).  Without God’s solid foot of justice, we’ve got nothing to say about racism.  We’ve got nothing to say about sexual abuse. We’ve got nothing to say about greed.  We’ve got nothing to say about gun violence. We’ve got nothing to say about the exclusion of the “other.”  But neglect God’s other foot, the foot of mercy, force God to stand on His foot of justice alone, and we will wind up in despair for we all leave undone things that we ought to have done, and we all do things that we ought not to have done.  

We all fall short of the standards of God’s justice. The Psalmist got it exactly right when he asked – “Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who could escape being condemned by you?” (130:3). That’s the perfect response to a God who stands only on His foot of justice.  But the Psalmist wasn’t finished.  In the very next verse, he prayed – “But there is forgiveness with you, and so we stand in awe of you” (130:4).  And that’s the response that we make to the God who also stands on a foot of mercy.  And where we see this most clearly as Christians, where we see God standing on both feet – His foot of justice, and His foot of mercy – is at the cross.

If God were only merciful and not just, then the cross would have been completely unnecessary.  “God could have just breezily said ‘forget it’ instead of ‘forgiving it’” (Peter Kreeft).  And if God were only just and not merciful, then the cross would have been completely unthinkable. God would have had to sternly say “forget it” instead of “forgiving it.” But as it is, God says, “I forgive it,” and that “forgiveness is costly.”

It’s God’s justice and God’s mercy that make Calvary necessary, and remarkable. Just the thought of this kind of forgiveness made the psalmist “stand in awe” of God. And for those of us who have actually experienced it — what should be our response?

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?                                                                       Were you there when they crucified my Lord?                                                     Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.                            Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

We should tremble whenever we see a cross. We should tremble when we remember that God is just. We should tremble when we realize that we deserve judgement. We should tremble when we remember that God is merciful. And we should tremble when are told that we have been forgiven.        

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Thanksgiving Hymns – “We Gather Together”

I have bought thousands of books in my lifetime, and it all started with two. The first two books that I bought after my spiritual awakening when I was in Junior High School was a Bible, the King James Version, and a hymnal.  I got the Bible because I wanted to be able to hear what God was saying to me, and I got the hymnal because I wanted to be able to say some things back to God, and I had discovered, quite by accident, that hymns were a good way for me to be able to do this. 

We sang Gospel hymns during “Religious Release” time when I was in elementary school – “The Old Rugged Cross,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Blessed Assurance,” “How Great Thou Art.” These hymns were not part of my hymnody repertoire as a high church Episcopalian when I was growing up, but when I sang them with all of the other Protestant kids from Glenoaks Elementary School who went down the street to the chapel at the Adventist hospital for cookies, Bible stories and Gospel songs every Tuesday afternoon, they connected with something deep in me.  And so later when I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior, I found myself returning to these familiar songs about Jesus and how He saved me to help me express what had happened in me, and to me.

It’s said that the Biblical religions are singing faiths.  Miriam sang of God’s deliverance at the Red Sea, and Hannah sang of God’s faithfulness to her on the occasion of the birth of her son Samuel.    David wrote Psalms and sang them both in Bethlehem’s fields and Jerusalem’s courts.  The birth of Jesus was bathed in the songs of mortals and angels, and we’re told that Jesus went out to the cross from the Upper Room singing.  Paul and Silas sang in the night from their Philippian jail cell.  And the church in heaven and on earth in the book of Revelation sings to, and about, the Lamb of God who saves us.  The people in the Bible sang.  They sang a lot.

Psalm 100:1-2, says – “Make a joyful noise to the Lord… Come into his presence with singing!”  This verse tells us to come into God’s presence singing because we know who He is: “the Lord who made us” – and because we know what He does for us: “the Lord is good and His steadfast love endures forever.”  Theology and Doxology intersect here, just as they do in all of the best hymns we sing.  They teach us about God (theology), and then they provide us with a way to actually connect with that God in prayer and praise (doxology).

There are some of these good hymns that we sing seasonally – “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” during Advent, Silent Night” at Christmas, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” at Easter, “Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart” on Pentecost, and “God of the Ages, Whose Almighty Hand” on the Fourth of July.  And there are three of these hymns that we sing at Thanksgiving time – “We Gather Together,” Come Ye Thankful People Come,” and “Now Thank We all our God.”   When we sing these hymns will are informing and expressing what’s in our hearts for this season of Thanksgiving.

“We Gather Together” is not in “Thanksgiving” section of the Chalice Hymnal.  Hymns #714 – #719 are designated as the “Thanksgiving” hymns in the Chalice Hymnal, and that’s not where “We Gather Together” lives.  Where you’ll find it is back on page #276 in the “The Church at Worship” section of our hymnal.  I did some checking in the other hymnals that I own, and the only other one that doesn’t put “We Gather Together” in with the Thanksgiving hymns is the Methodist hymnal.  They put it in the “God” section of their hymnal as one of 17 hymns under the heading – “Providence.” 

Flipping through the “Providence” section of the Methodist hymnal, I came across great hymns like – “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,” “He Leadeth Me, O Blessed Thought,” “God Will Take Care of You,” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” and “On Eagle’s Wings.”  If I didn’t know what God’s “Providence” was, then I’d certainly get some sense of its meaning from singing these hymns. 

The English root of the word “Providence” is the word “provide,” and the word “provide” comes from a combination of the Latin prefix “pro” which means “ahead,” and the Latin verb “videre” which means “to see.”  To “provide” literally means to “look ahead, to prepare, to supply, to act with foresight,” and the word “Providence” is how we as Christians have traditionally thought and talked about the way that the God of the Bible does this for His people. 

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matthew 6:31-32).  And if you ask me, this is the perfect description of what the Bible means when it talks about God’s Providence. God knows what we need before even we tell Him, and God has every intention of providing for those needs even before we ask Him. 

This is generally true in the sense that God has structured the universe in ways that are designed to sustain our lives and promote our physical well-being as human beings, and it’s particularly true in the way that God pays special attention and takes specific care of those who belong to Him by faith.  As Romans 8:28 famously assures Christians – We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” 

John Stott used to say that the Biblical doctrine of God’s Providence is the “pillow on which the head of faith rests,” and what he meant by this was that no matter what might be happening to us or in our world, as Christians we can trust that God has hold of us and isn’t letting go.  And our Methodist brothers and sisters, by putting “We Gather Together” in the “Providence” section of their hymnal together with hymns like “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and “God will Take Care of You,” rather than in its “Thanksgiving” section are telling us that this hymn is not about a specific day on the calendar to be celebrated each year but is rather about a God who can be trusted to provide for His people as part of His essential nature. 

As familiar and beloved a part of our Thanksgiving tradition the singing of “We Gather Together” has become for us, the fact of the matter is that this hymn wasn’t written with Pilgrims, or the Mayflower, or a fall harvest feast, or Plymouth Rock in mind.  In fact, “We Gather Together” is not even an American hymn!  It wasn’t included in the hymnals of most American churches until the early 1900’s, and it’s still not in the hymnals of either the Lutheran or the Moravian churches. 

“We Gather Together” is a Dutch hymn that was written to celebrate the national liberation of Protestant Holland from the harsh grasp of Catholic Spain in 1597.  This explains the militaristic phrases in the hymn like “the wicked oppressing now cease from distressing,” and “from the beginning the fight we were winning; thou, Lord wast at our side, all glory be thine,” and “let thy congregation escape tribulation,” and “Thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!” 

What elevates this hymn from its original narrow nationalistic setting is its grand affirmation of the God “who chastens and hastens His will to make known.”  The God who is “beside us to guide us… ordaining, maintaining his kingdom divine.”  The God who “still our defender wilt be.”  This is the God of “Providence,” the God who knows what we need and who has every intention of actually supplying those needs. 

What this means is that I don’t have to know the religious and political history of Holland at the end of the 16th century in order to sing “We Gather Together” with understanding and conviction.  But I do need to know that the God who is there is a God who can be trusted, and deserves to be thanked.  This is the God of “We Gather Together,” and our Methodist friends got it exactly right by putting “We Gather Together” in the “Providence” section of their hymnal.  When we sing “We Gather Together” it’s thanks for all of the different ways that God is taking care of us right now that ought to fill our heads and hearts. 

Daniel Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great 20th century British preacher, said that in different places and at different moments in the long history of the church that different Biblical teachings have assumed greater importance and required greater attention.  He said that the doctrine of the person of Christ was this Biblical idea in the first few centuries of the church’s life, and that the doctrine of justification by faith was it during the Reformation, and that the doctrine of the inspiration and authority of Scripture was it at the beginning of the modern era.  And Dr. Lloyd-Jones said that in our day “the most important doctrine, in many ways, is the doctrine of providence” (141). 

All the time people are saying – “You tell me that God is a God of love and care, but look at the world, look at all the bad the things that are happening.  Where’s God? What’s He doing?  How can you possibly believe in a God of love and care when people get gunned down in church and run over by trucks on bike paths?”  And I’ll admit it, personally and pastorally, that my confidence in the providential love and care of God gets shaken every time something bad happens – when I see people being ravaged by disease, brutalized by violence, crushed by circumstance, and abandoned by help and hope.  But rather than giving into despair in those moments, I find that it’s precisely “when all around my soul gives way,” as an old hymn puts it, that I make the discovery once again that “He alone is my hope and stay.” 

My peace and patience, my strength and hope as a Christian come from knowing that God is neither absent nor indifferent.  In the vagaries of my own life, and our whole history in this world as human beings, I truly believe that God is always at work in hidden and mysterious ways, and that when the dust finally settles, that what will finally become clear are the ways that God is present in every circumstance, no matter how difficult and confusing it might be in the present moment. As they say – “It’s difficult to see what’s going on when you’re in the absolute middle of something. It’s only with hindsight that we can see things for what they are” (S.J. Watson). 

And so, my belief in the Providence of God is not a demand that everything make perfect sense to me or make me completely happy right now, but rather, that one day it all will. “Faith is not saying: ‘I understand,’ but that: ‘I believe that I will understand.’ Faith is not declaring: “Oh, I’ve got it, I see what this all means,’ but that: ‘I believe there is going to be a meaning” (Louis Evely).  And so I keep a little piece of paper tucked between the pages of my Bible with this quote from St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) carefully written on it –

Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life; Rather look to them with full hope that as they arise, God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things; And when you cannot stand, God will carry you in His arms. [So] do not fear what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow, and in every day to come. Either He will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to be able to bear it. So, be at peace and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.

That’s what confidence in God’s providence sounds like to me, and so does the hymn “We Gather Together.”

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Called to be Saints (I Corinthians 1:1-9)

Happy Halloween!

Today is Halloween because tomorrow, November 1, is “All Hallows Day” on the church calendar.  We don’t use that word “hallow” very often, do we? Oh, sometimes we’ll talk about the “hallowed halls” of a cherished institution like a school.  Abraham Lincoln talked about how they could not “hallow” the sacred fields of Gettysburg because the soldiers who died there already had. J.K. Rowling named the last book in her Harry Potter series “The Deathly Hallows.” And every Sunday morning here in church we pray to the God whose name is “hallowed.” But I can’t think of many other ways that we use or hear that word “hallow.”

“Hallow” is the Old English word for “holy.”  Something is “holy” when it is consecrated, devoted, set apart, or dedicated to the service of a higher power.  We call holy or “hallowed” men and women “saints” because the Latin word for “holy” is “sanctus.”  Saints are people who have been “sanctus-ed.” They’ve been “sanctified,” or “saint-ified,” and for a thousand years now the church has used the first day of November to remember them. “All Hallows’ Day” is “All Saint’s Day” on the church calendar, and today is its “eve.” It’s “Halloween” – “All Hallows’ Eve.”

The church’s traditional prayer for “All Saints Day” is a pretty good primer on what the church means by sainthood.  It thanks God for that part of the church that’s already in heaven with Him, and it asks God to let the memory of their goodness and faithfulness inspire our own journeys into His nearer presence. Saints are those Christians have kept the faith, finished the course, and left us examples to follow. We’re accustomed to thinking of the church’s saints as Christianity’s Hall of Fame. 

Just recently I got to fulfill a lifelong dream of mine to visit the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. I’ve got pictures on my cell phone of the busts of every Cowboy enshrined there as well as those of my favorite players from other teams from across the years – Earl Campbell, LaDanian Tomlinson, Dan Fouts.   Anybody who wants to can play football in the park or on a beach. Those that love to play football can join an organized team in school. Good high school football players get recruited to play football in college. Great college football players get drafted to play football professionally in the NFL.  And the very best football players of all wind up in the Hall of Fame. 

We think of the “saints” as the very best Christians of all. They’re the spiritual “All Stars.” But it’s important to understand that this isn’t how the Bible uses the word “saint.” Consider our Scripture lesson this morning, I Corinthians 1:1-9. The church at Corinth was Paul’s problem child.  I Corinthians reads like an encyclopedia of the kind of mistakes that immature Christians make.  There was nothing exemplary about them, nothing to point at and say, “that’s what we should all aspire to.”  If anything, the Christians in Corinth were examples of what not to do and who not be as followers of Christ. And yet, twice in the second verse, Paul called the Corinthians “saints.” 

Speaking in the past tense, as something already settled, Paul said that the Corinthians were “sanctified in Christ Jesus.”  To be “sanctified” is to be made holy.  To be “sanctified” is to be a saint, and Paul told the Corinthians, the least “holy” bunch of Christians in the whole New Testament, that because they were “in Christ Jesus,” that they were already “sanctified” – “saint-ified.” According to the first half of I Corinthians 1:2, if you are a Christian by grace through faith, then you are sanctified; you are already a saint.  It’s a done deal.

Then, with his very next breath, Paul told the Corinthians in the second half of I Corinthians 1:2 that because they were already “sanctified in Christ Jesus” that it was time for them to start acting like it because they were “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  One of my teachers along the way said that the best way to understand what it is that we are supposed to be doing as Christians according to the New Testament is to “become what we are,” and that’s what Paul is telling us in I Corinthians 1:2.

He’s telling us that something has already happened. We were sanctified – made saints – in Christ Jesus the moment we first believed. He claimed us.  He gathered us to Himself.  He separated us from the herd. He marked us as His own.  And it’s because all of that has already happened, that there is now something happening in us right now. We are gradually becoming saints. We are slowly becoming holy in our behavior. Our sanctification is a work in progress.

Peter Gillquist called the Christian life “a marathon we are meant to win.”  He ran cross country in high school, and he said that the only thing his coach ever asked him to do was to finish the race.  “If you don’t plan on finishing,” he told Peter, “then I don’t want you to start.” I’ve always been impressed with the runners who finish a marathon first.  What amazing athletes they are!  But the runners who move me are the stragglers, the runners who drag themselves across the finish line last, long after the cheering crowds have left, and the cameras have been turned off, and there’s nobody around except for sanitation workers who are sweeping-up the streamers and confetti from the street where hours before the race had been decided. Their bodies are spent, their minds “scream ‘quit,’” but there they are, still running, finishing the race.  What amazing human beings they are!

Peter Gillquist said that it was his experience as a long-distance runner in high school that gave him his keenest insight as a pastor into what the Christian life entails -“In any race there are three basic and essential components: the start, the race itself, and the finish. And you need all three to win. You can have the fastest exit from the starting blocks known to man, but if you are slow on the turn, or sloppy in the stretch, your record start will not be sufficient for victory. Or, you can be unbeatable on the open track, but if you drop out fifty yards short of the goal, the rest of the effort is for naught.”

God’s saving work in our lives has these same three “basic and essential components.” There are the starting blocks.  Scripture talks about this component of our salvation as “justification.”  It happens in an instant, as the old hymn we love to sing puts it, “how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.” This is how the Christian life begins.  We freely take by faith what it is that God is offering us in Jesus Christ, and in that instant, we are saved.  This is what Paul meant in the first half of I Corinthians 1:2 when he told the Corinthians that they were already “saints,” “sanctified” in Christ Jesus.

And there’s a finish line.  We call this component of our salvation “glorification.” In verses 7 and 8 of our Scripture reading this morning Paul talked about the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,” “the end,” and “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  You see, the race of faith does not go on forever.  There will be a moment out there, some say it’s when we die, others say it’s when Christ returns, but either way, there will be a time in the future when the race of faith ends and we enter into a new phase of our relationship with God in Christ, that time when – “The home of God will be among mortals, and God will dwell with us; When we will be God’s people, when God Himself will be with us to wipe away every tear from our eyes. When death will be no more; when mourning and crying and pain will be no more because the first things will have passed away.” (Revelation 21) This too happens in an instant, in the “twinkling of an eye” (I Corinthians 15:52).  God’s Kingdom will come. God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven, and we will finally be face to face with God where we shall understand fully even as we have been fully understood (I Corinthians 13:12).

And in-between those starting blocks and that finish line, there is the long course of the race itself.  Scripture talks about this component of our salvation as “sanctification.” In the second half of I Corinthians 1:2, when Paul told the Corinthians that they were “called to be saints” together with everyone who “call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” to be saved, he was alerting them, and us, to the fact that there is this long process of becoming more and more Christ-like in our behavior that’s involved in being a Christian.  

Scripture speaks of this gradual process of our transformation in a rich variety of ways – we are to grow up in every way into Christ (Ephesians 4:15); we are being conformed to the image of God’s Son (Romans 8:29); we put on Christ (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:12-17); Christ is being formed in us (Galatians 4:19); we are to follow in the steps of Christ who is our example for living (I Peter 2:21).  They’re all saying the same thing. Once we have accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, crossed the starting-line and stepped into the race of faith, there begins a lifelong process of becoming more and more Christlike in our attitudes and actions with every passing day. 

There’s this remarkable statement in Acts 4:13. Peter and John had been arrested in Jerusalem for preaching Christ and ministering to peoples’ needs in His name.  The religious authorities before whom they appeared were about to dismiss them as “uneducated, common men,” when they heard them speak with “boldness,” and “recognized that they had been with Jesus” (4:13). That’s it! That’s what this process of sanctification/ saintifiocation does.  That’s what it means to be a “saint.” People begin to recognize that we have “been with Jesus.”  He shows up in how we think.  He shows up in what we say. He shows up in what we do. He shows up in who we are becoming. 

One of my very first professors in seminary had been a missionary in Nigeria. While the other missionaries lived safely in compounds behind security walls, my professor lived in the village right beside the people he had been called to serve. While the other missionaries ate familiar foods from home, my professor ate the food of his neighbors. While the other missionaries maintained a professional distance from the people, my professor joined in the daily life of the village. Eventually the other missionaries complained about my professor’s unconventional ways, and the missionary society that sent him to Nigeria recalled him.

As he was leaving, the head of the village where he had gone to share Christ told my professor that he had become Christ to them, not in the sense that he had become a substitute for Christ and His saving work, but rather in the sense that he had lived with them in such a way that they had been able to see Christ in Him and had been drawn to Christ through him as a result.

In our Scripture lesson this morning, Paul told the Corinthians that by the grace of God they had been enriched by Christ in every way with all speech and all knowledge (1:4-5).  They were already sanctified in Christ Jesus. His light had shone on them, but what remained was for that light to start shining through them. They were called to be saints, so are we, and the words of a prayer from old hymn just may be clearest explanation of just exactly how this works – “Fill with Thy Spirit till all shall see, Christ only, always living in me.”

Tomorrow is All Saints’ Day, and just so we’re clear about who’s day it is, I want you to take a good look around here this morning. Go ahead, I want you too seer the faces of the people seated beside you and around you this morning.  This is the communion of the saints, at least that part of it that we can see.  It’s because of what Jesus Christ has already done for us that we are saints sitting here this morning.  And it’s because of what Jesus Christ is still doing in us that we who are seated here this morning are in the process of becoming saints.  It’s Christ in us that makes us saints, and Christ showing through us is how we become saints. So, on this Halloween, on this All Hallows’ Eve Sunday, let Him show. Let His light so shine through who we are and what we do so that the world can see Him clearly, and know that He wants to “saint-ify” them too.

Let’s pray –

LORD it’s because of what you have done for is us in Christ that we are here this morning redeemed, reconciled, renewed and restored. You came and sought us when we had lost our way and wandered far away. We are grateful and amazed, LORD, and we want to grow in that grace by which you saved us. By your Spirit continue the work of remaking us into your own image. John the Baptist realized that he must decrease in order for Christ to increase in his life and in his world.  Bring us to that same realization, LORD, and “finish then Thy new creation, pure and spotless may we be.”

LORD, we recognize that we’re not the first or the only ones that you have done this for. Today as the world celebrates Halloween, we here in church are thinking about All Saints’ Day. We sit in a community of saints right here and now in church, LORD, and we understand that we do because there were people who sat here before us, men and women, boys and girls who were claimed by your grace and transformed by your presence.  Thank you for all of those who came before, all those on whose shoulders we stand and from whom we received the treasure of faith. Inspire us by their examples, LORD, and deepen our own confidence in your promises by the ways that you have fulfilled those promises in them.

LORD, you called us the light of the world, reflections of the light of Christ. Shine in us and shine through us. Fill us anew here this morning with your love and power through the Word, in the bread and cup, by the prayer and praise, because of the fellowship of the saints, that when we leave, just like Moses whose face shown for all to see that he had been with you, that we would shine with your glory and grace.  Let people hear the things we say, see the things we do, experience the ways that our hearts and hands are open to them, and find you in the love, acceptance, and forgiveness in which we live and by which we operate in the world, we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Savior. Amen.

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“Christmas Christian” – A Meditation in Honor of Kurt Gruver

Scripture – The Birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-6)

2 1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. 21 This was the first enrollment, when Quirin′i-us was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. 7 And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.


I bet you weren’t expecting to hear the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke here this afternoon. First of all, it’s October, even the earliest of early Christmas celebrators wait until Halloween’s over. And then there’s the whole question of suitability. We’re accustomed to hearing certain biblical texts read at certain events – I Corinthians 13 at weddings; “Let the little children come unto me” at baptisms; the 23rd Psalm at funerals. Death and Christmas just don’t go together. It’s plaids and stripes, dark suits and brown shoes, white shoes after Labor Day, straw cowboy hats in winter and felt cowboy hats in summer. It’s off, but we did it.
The last time I was with Kurt, he played me some Christmas music that he’d been archiving on his iPhone. You heard some of it here this afternoon. Because it was Kurt, it wasn’t the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing carols, or the New York Philharmonic playing the Christmas classics. No, it was the Bare-Naked Ladies singing “Little Drummer Boy,” and a 6-foot 8 clown in sad-face make-up with a voice Tom Jones singing “Silent Night, “O Holy Night,” and “What Child is This?”

You see, Kurt had every expectation of making it to Christmas. In fact, Kurt made some medical decisions and even underwent a medical procedure to improve his chances of getting one more Christmas. This was important to Kurt, and I’m sure there were lots of reasons why. It’s “the most wonderful time time of the year” after all, as the old song puts it –

“There’ll be parties for hosting,

Marshmallows for toasting,

And caroling out in the snow…

With the kids jingle belling,

And everyone telling you be of good cheer…

There’ll be much mistltoeing,

And hearts will be glowing,

When loved ones are near…

It’s the hap-happiest season of all.”

For many of us, our best memories involve Christmas. At Christmastime we think of family, and laughter, and favorite foods, and special gifts, and cherished traditions, and beautiful decorations, and tender moments. I know that one of the reasons why Kurt loved Christmas so much was because it meant he got to make the annual Santa Run with his Harley buddies. He loved gathering up those presents and delivering them. I’m sure there were lots of reasons why Kurt loved Christmas, and I have no doubt that one of them was his faith. You see, Kurt was a “Christmas Christian.”

David Bosch was a South African theologian who taught that the Gospel entails six saving events. He said that Jesus Christ is our Savior because of what He did on Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Ascension Thursday, Pentecost Sunday, and at the Second Coming. When we say “Jesus saves,” what we’re saying is that Jesus Christ became flesh and dwelt among us (Christmas), that He died for our sins (Good Friday), that He was raised so that we can walk in newness of life (Easter Sunday), that He sat down at the right hand of God the Father in victory over sin and death (Ascension Thursday), that He sent the Holy Spirit to indwell and empower us (Pentecost Sunday), and that He will come again in glory to establish His kingdom without end (The Second Coming). All six of these Gospel events are involved in God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. And we all need all six of them, however, David Bosch pointed out, most of us tend to emphasize one of them more than the others. For instance, I’m a Good Friday Christian. An Anglican minister once told Brennan Manning on a train trip across Canada that he often slipped into Catholic churches just to look at the crosses with the figure of Christ nailed on them. “There I find the essential fact of Christianity,” that Anglican minister told Brennan Manning, and so do I. I’m the kind of Christian who doesn’t feel like I’ve been to church if there’s not a communion service where the broken bread and the poured-out cup point me to the way that Christ’s body was broken and His blood was shed out of His great love for us. But in saying this, I’m acknowledging that there are Second Coming Christians, and Pentecost Christians, and Ascension Christians, and Easter Christians, and Christmas Christians too.
It’s my hunch that Kurt was a Christmas Christian. Christmas is about the Incarnation, how the eternal, invisible, and majestic God, the maker of the heavens and the earth, became small, and visible, and vulnerable in that little baby born in a manger in Bethlehem because there was no room for them in the inn as Luke told us in that passage that I read as I began.

Christmas is the blue-collar Christ event. There was nothing fancy about it. Christmas is the story of an unwed teenage pregnancy and a workman with calloused hands who could barely make the ends meet. Christmas is the smell of livestock in a dirty barn, and the sounds of a hard delivery in the middle of a dark, cold night. Christmas is about a run for the border with the authorities fast on the trail, and life as a refugee, a stranger in a strange land.

One of the books I read in seminary that stuck was written by a man named Tex Sample who was a Professor of Church and Society at a Methodist Seminary in Kansas City. He wanted people like me who were reading long books and thinking big thoughts at expensive schools to understand that most of the people we were going to be ministering to one day weren’t like that. And so Tex Sample argued that the Gospel’s most natural habitat was a honky-tonk where hard-living people gather with their friends and country music can be heard in the background. The Gospel plays there, Tex Sample said, because that’s the world into which Christ came.

I had a poster on the wall of my dorm room wall when I was in Christian College with the words of a Scottish churchman named George Macleod written on it. It said –

“I simply argue that the cross be raised again, at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on a town garbage heap; at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek …at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that’s where He died, and that’s what He died about. And that’s where Christ’s own ought to be, and that’s what church people ought to be about.”

Christmas Christians understand this. God isn’t fancy or fussy. Christmas is about how Jesus Christ is Emmanuel, “God-with-us.” Christmas is about how God meets us where we are and loves us just as He finds us.

I have a print of a painting by a 16th century Flemish hanging on a wall at home. It’s a Christmas painting but set in the context of a 16th century Flemish village rather than a first century Judean one. It shows an ordinary day in the life of an insignificant little town. A butcher slaughters a pig. A woodman pulls a load of firewood on a sled. Children skate on a frozen pond. An old woman gathers eggs. A carpenter frames a house. A young man flirts with a young woman. A couple of drunks scuffle in the street. A government official sits a table and there’s a line of people waiting to pay their taxes. And in the center of the painting, a very pregnant woman sits on the back on a donkey being led by an anxious-looking man into town. It’s Mary and Joseph. It’s Bethlehem. It’s Emmanuel.

This God was in Kurt’s life. I know. I saw Him there. You did too. And that God didn’t go away when the diagnosis of cancer came, and the decline began. This God was there last weekend when things took their turn for the worse, and this God stayed there with Kurt on Monday when the last words and gestures of love were made, and Kurt took his leave of us. This God has been around all week long, perhaps hidden just like Mary and Joseph in that painting, lost in the jumble of demands and details, but there. And in the days of sadness and healing to come, God will be there too.

It’s Christmas that tells us this. It’s because God became flesh in Jesus Christ and dwelt among us that we know God will never forsake or abandon us, and that nothing, not even death, has the power to separate us from the love of God. Kurt knew this. He was a Christmas Christian. And that’s why the Christmas story had to be read at his service here today. This Christmas, every time you hear it — think of Kurt, and give thanks to the God who is with us. Let’s pray…

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The Way of the Cross (Mark 10:35-45)

You may remember Daniel Berrigan as the Catholic priest who was up front and center in so many of the protests against the Vietnam War in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  Above all else, Daniel Berrigan was a pastor. It was while he was teaching a class on the pastoral care of the dying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City that Daniel Berrigan met Mel Hollander.

Mel wasn’t taking that class because he was preparing for ministry but rather because he was preparing to die. You see, Mel Hollander had terminal cancer.  He didn’t want to talk about it, but what with his unhealthy skin color and sunken eyes, it showed. Jim Forest, a friend of both Daniel Berrigan and Mel Hollander, wrote about what happened.

“During the period of silence with which Dan started each class, his eye fell on Mel and stayed there. At last Dan broke the quiet with a question to Mel, ‘What’s the matter?’ Mel said, ‘I’m dying.’ Dan, without batting an eye, replied, ‘That must be very exciting.’”

In Zen Buddhism there is the tradition of a teacher whispering a word into the ear of a student to produce a sudden flash of insight, and Daniel Berrigan’s word to Mel Hollander in class that day – “That must be very exciting” – had that effect on him. It was jarring.  It was completely unexpected. It was just on the verge of inappropriate. It didn’t follow “the script.”

When somebody tells you that they’re dying you’re supposed to voice sorrow or concern, not excitement.  And if you are a Christian, when somebody tells you that they’re facing the prospect of an early and painful death, it may even precipitate something of a crisis of faith. This is not how things are supposed to go.  I suspect that accounts for some of the discomfort you felt when I told you about what Daniel Berrigan said to Mel Hollander that day in class. It’s unsettling, and that’s because we’ve bought this idea that if we are Christians then our lives are going to be “blessed,” which we have defined as being perpetually happy and easy.  That’s the script.

I was evangelized by someone reading from that script who assured me that God loved me and “had a wonderful plan for my life.”  Now, to my adolescent ears that sounded like an offer that I just couldn’t refuse. And so, I asked Jesus Christ into my heart as my Savior and thought that by this single act of faith that all my problems would thereby be solved, that I was going to experience the spiritual high of an exalted mood without any defeat or disappointment.

Vernon Grounds, for so many years the President of Denver Seminary, said that American Christians, people like you and me, that we have been conditioned to think of ourselves as Christ’s little lambs who are to be “petted and protected.”  Our Christianity has been infected with a success mindset and is driven by a happiness motivation.  We don’t expect the river to rise, and should it ever, well then, we look for God to swoop in and “whisk us out of the flood in His heavenly helicopter.” That’s what Vernon Grounds said, and I detect a little bit of this mindset in John and James in our Scripture lesson this morning. 

Right before asking Jesus to give them the seats of honor in glory, Jesus had been talking with them about going to the cross (Mark 10:32-34).  One of the most important things that Jesus ever said about why He came is Mark 10:45 – “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  Jesus was talking about the cross here.  Jesus was on His way to the cross. But Jesus’ disciples were thinking and talking about other things, about their power their glory, and their place in the Kingdom. When Jesus talked about how He as the Christ had to go to Jerusalem to be betrayed, beaten, and crucified on a bloody cross, His disciples were shamelessly scrambling for privilege and prestige. 

Now, let me be clear. There is glory involved in what the Gospel promises and provides, just not yet, at least in its fullness.  Paul told the Roman Christians that in this world “subjected to futility” and in “bondage to decay,” that we who are Christians will ache “for the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18-25).  Things are not how they are supposed to be, and I have felt it acutely at every hospital bedside and cemetery graveside that I have stood beside in 48 years of ministry. In words that I read at every Christian funeral from the book of Revelation, there’s a new heaven and a new earth coming, a time when God will “wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death will be no more, and neither will there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (21:1-4).  That’s the glory that’s coming, but it’s not here yet. 

The reason why Jesus taught us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” is because the work of salvation that He began in His first coming will not be finished until His second coming. It’s still future. There’s more to come. The cross was at the center of Christ’s first coming. The glory of the Kingdom will be at the center of Christ’s second coming.  But for now, we’re in-between. Right now, our salvation is incomplete.  Oh, with Paul I’m absolutely sure that “He who began this good work in us will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6), we will know that glory, just not yet.

If we don’t know this, then we’re going to have a real crisis of faith whenever trouble comes, whenever the way becomes steep, and the days become difficult. If we’re expecting glory, when the crosses come (and  crosses always come, don’t they?), we’re going to be left wondering who’s failed?  We’re going to think that either we’re being punished for something we’ve done, or worse, that Jesus Christ has somehow broken His promise to never abandon or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5/Deuteronomy 31:6; Matthew 28:20). We’re going to be left in that agonizing place of wondering where God is when it hurts. 

If like John and James we’re so focused on the glory to come that we’re surprised by the crosses that show up in our lives, then we’re going to think that God has gone missing at the precise moments when we need Him most, and when, ironically, it’s the exact opposite that’s true.  You see, God is never more fully present to us than when we’re given crosses to bear, the outward crosses of the difficult circumstances of our lives, or the inward crosses of the struggles of our souls.

 “I simply argue that the cross be raised again, at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on a town garbage heap; at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek …at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that’s where He died, and that’s what He died about. And that’s where Christ’s own ought to be, and that’s what church people ought to be about.”

Back in the 1980’s I went to see Frank Mabee, my Area Minister, when I was serving a church down in Houston that was going through some hard times.  I was discouraged and was feeling more spiritually empty with every passing day.  In words that I have never forgotten, Frank told me that what I really needed to do that day was to go out and find a good crucifixion – somewhere in the larger community where people we’re being overwhelmed by their difficult circumstances – because that’s where God was and where God was at work! This is the wisdom of George Macleod, Founder of the Iona Community in Scotland, who wrote –

I can’t help but think that it was something like this that Daniel Berrigan had in mind when he told Mel Hollander that his impending death must be “very exciting.” Mel Hollander said that it was this word that awakened him spiritually. As he later explained to a friend –

“No medicine he was taking, no book he had read had did much good for him as those five words. They were a kind of lightning flash. In the light of that flash was the resurrection of Jesus, as real as the streets of New York. Mel knew at once that he was in the midst of the most remarkable experience of his life. Nose to nose with death, he had never felt more alive.”

And nowhere was God more fully present. That’s what Jesus wanted John and James to know in our Scripture lesson this morning.  When they were thinking about glory, Jesus redirected them to the cross. Following Jesus doesn’t mean that we are going to get easy lives without struggle, but rather that we are going to be asked to walk the same path of sacrifice and service that He did.  You see, as Christians we don’t just believe in what Jesus did on the cross to save us, we are also called to take up our crosses to follow Him.  Our lives as Christians and as a church are going to be cruciform – cross-shaped.

Are you familiar with the tradition of “Quo Vadis”?  It’s a story that’s told about Peter from the early church. In the days of Nero’s persecution, it’s said that the Christians in Rome begged Peter to leave. He reluctantly consented, but on his way out of the city, the story goes, Peter had a vision of Jesus Christ heading into the city.  Falling to his knees, Peter asked His Lord, “Quo Vadis,” which is Latin for – “Where are you going?” And Christ answered, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” and with that Peter got up, turned around, and went back into the city saying, “Lord, I will return to follow Thee.”

I have a “Quo Vadis” moment every Sunday.  I think that’s what church is supposed to be for us.  When Jesus answered John and James’ request for glory in our Scripture lesson this morning, He talked about a cup to be drunk and a baptism with which to be baptized.  Jesus used the language of the cup and baptism to talk about His cross, and to tell John and James that there would be crosses for them too before the glory.  And every Sunday in the waters of baptism and at the Lord’s Table in the bread and cup, the cross is deliberately and emphatically put in front of us.  The water, bread, and wine – the staples of Sundays in church – are witnesses of what it is that Jesus Christ did for us on the cross, and reminders of the crosses that are waiting for those who will follow Him.

Somewhere I’ve read that whenever George Tyrell, a 19th century English Jesuit, grew weary in his work of trying to change the way that his church thought and acted in the world, and he found himself tempted to give up the struggle, that he would stop and look at the crucifix hanging on his wall, and “always the figure of that strange man hanging on the cross sent him back to my tasks again.”  In the hardest moments of our lives, in the most discouraging circumstances, on the most demanding days, we have not been forgotten or forsaken by God, we are where God is most fully present and active. I know this because of Christ’s cross.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta had a crucifix put on the front wall of the chapel of every chapter house of her Missionaries of Charity around the world, and she insisted that every day begin with all of them sitting under that cross for a communion service.  She believed that beginning each day’s work with this kind of sustained reflection on Christ’s suffering would help them to recognize Christ’s presence in the suffering of the people they would serve, and that by accepting Christ’s sacrifice for them that they would be better prepared to make sacrifices for others in Christ’s name, following Christ’s example.

In just a moment now we will go to the Lord’s Table to break bread, pour a cup, and take our place beneath the cross of Jesus once again.  We do this because we believe in the cross — in the One who went to the cross not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. And then, when we’ve taken communion, we who believe in the cross will be challenged to take up the cross to follow Him who goes before us, and with us.

“Must Jesus bear the cross alone, and all the world go free? No, there’s a cross for everyone, and there’s a cross for me.”

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