Friday, February 24, 2017

Sermon: Matthew 5:38-48, Psalms 140, 142

Preached at TSM Chapel 2/24/2017

Our readings from the Gospel and from the Psalms strike quite a contrast today: in one, we hear that we are to “love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us and pray for those who spitefully use us” (5:44), in the other we cry out, “let the evil of their lips cover them; let burning coals fall upon them; let them be cast into the fire, into deep pits, that they rise not up again” (140:9-10). It would be easy, I think, to brush off the Psalm reading as “oh, that’s the Old Testament” so we don’t have to hear its witness or instruction. Or we could go the opposite direction and say, “Jesus didn’t really mean that -- it's just Semitic hyperbole.” Both options, I think, are precipices off the same ridge, one on either side. We must, instead, seek the narrow gate and the difficult way.

It would be helpful, at this point, to enlist St Paul as our interpretive guide. When speaking to the Corinthians believers, he interprets the wandering in the wilderness as both a lesson about Christ and, therefore, a lesson of how they should live. “Now all these things happened to them as types, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11). While he here confines his examples to the Pentateuch, elsewhere he draws the Psalms and the Prophets in that orbit, as does our Lord Himself when He says, “all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (Lk. 24:44). Can we hear the voice of our Lord praying these Psalms? Is there an Enemy He came to overthrow? One perhaps for whom “an everlasting fire” has been prepared? It certainly was not the Romans, nor even His countrymen who would rise up and crucify Him. No, even these He prays for, saying, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). Instead, He tells us, the “fire, the deep pit” from which none can arise is“prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41).

No man, no matter what they may do to our bodies or even our minds, is the object of the Psalmists’ approbation as we pray the Psalm with and in Christ. Instead, “God our Savior desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3-3) and so we lift up “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks for all men” (2:1), or as our Lord put it, “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). The imprecations, though, are reserved for those angels who have not “kept their proper domain, but left their own abode” (Jude 6), who even Michael the archangel does not “bring against a reviling accusation, but says, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’” (V. 9). These Psalms give us the words to follow Michael in asking for God’s judgment, which has already been prepared for them, to come against the demons who inspire and instigate the Great War against Christ and His saints (Rev. 12:13-17), the War that has made injustice our world’s default and has made our souls languish in shame and guilt. And what, in the end, shall we cry? “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living...deliver me from my persecutors, for they are stronger than I. Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise Your Name” (Ps. 142:5-7).

The Lord Christ, by His Cross, has conquered death and so shattered the power of the devil and his angels, as the author of Hebrews has said, “through death Christ might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15). Who is it that has been subject? “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin” (Jn. 8:34) and “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23): all were subject to the cruel bondage of sin and the fear of death, for “the stinger of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the Law” (1 Cor. 15:56), but, thanks be to God, Christ has destroyed the power of the devil and assured his ultimate destruction -- now we can let go of our hatred, and jealousy, and fear of others, for these are whom Christ has come to save. Let us, with the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us, pour that love out on our neighbors and enemies alike by seeking their salvation from sin, death, and the devil. “Therefore, you shall be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Amen.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sermon: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Given at First Presbyterian in Beaver Falls

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Deut 30:15-20: Love Fulfills the Law

Brothers and sisters, I beg your indulgence. Today’s sermon will be treating on many of the same themes and ideas I brought to you two weeks ago. It seems that we need to hear these things from the Lord; I know I certainly do.

Both our readings from Deuteronomy and Psalm 119 today are tough for us. We know that more often than not, we choose death: we sin, intentionally or not, and so fall again and again from the promised blessedness of these scriptures. For many of us, then, the upcoming season of Lent is met with at least some trepidation. 40 days of guilt! 40 days of being reminded, evenly more keenly than usual, of our failures to do and to be what God has called us to. We live out St Paul’s lament in Romans 7:
“For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do...for I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find...O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (vs. 15, 18, 24)
It is what St Paul calls “sin producing death” (v. 13) and “sin dwelling in me” (17) and “evil present in me” (21) that causes us to hear the words of the Law and shudder. But just before our passage today in Deuteronomy we read this:
“For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend into heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it” (vs. 11-14).
We have sin dwelling in us, but we also have the Word in our mouths and in our hearts, where the Holy Spirit Himself is “pouring out the love of God” (Rom. 5:5). This is why there is the war in our members, this is why the Lord calls us to choose “life and good, or death and evil” (Deut. 30:15). Still, we find no power in ourselves to do what the Lord commands. But read verse 14 of this chapter again: “the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.” We have no power arising out of ourselves, true, but there is a Power in us greater than any other power: the Word of God, who is Jesus the Christ.

As our Lord says, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer! I have overcome the world!” (Jn. 16:33) The Lord Christ, by His incarnation, His death, and His resurrection has defeated sin, death, and the devil. Even more, though, He has taken His seat on the throne of God’s right hand (Acts 1) and, paradoxically, rules from within our hearts. As St Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Christ is in you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do and be what God has called us to. We can say with Paul, “I thank God -- through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:25) for there is “now therefore no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). Sin has, in God’s strange providence, been put to death in the death of Christ (8:3). We can “walk in newness of life” (6:4), “knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin” (6:6). Brothers and sisters, in Christ we are free!

With this in our minds, let us return to Deuteronomy 30.

God has set before the Israelites a sign of what is accomplished in Christ: there is life and good or there is death and evil. This is the point of the whole Law, in one sense: so that sin “might appear to be sin,” that is, so we could see what it is and how it breaks communion with God and with neighbor. The Law is a reminder that the world, including we ourselves, is not right -- there is a parasite on it. Seeing our state, where we were slaves to death and evil, and our inability to do the good even when we choose it, God sent His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to condemn sin in that flesh and raise us up free to do what God has commanded. And what has He commanded?

“To love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments” (v. 16).

It is important here to see that the first thing God has commanded is love. He has not first given us a list of dos and don’ts. Rather, He has called us into relationship. He freed the Israelites from their captivity to Pharaoh, showing forth His love of their fathers and His justice in keeping the promises He had made to them. Now He invites the reciprocation: love Me as I have loved you. It is the same for us, only we have been freed from a more dreadful power than any earthly ruler could ever be. Love God as He has loved us: “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us...In this the love of God was manifested towards us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 3:16; 4:9-10). St John ends this passage saying, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Loving God leads to the keeping of His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, which can all be summed up as “love your neighbor as yourself” for “love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law” (Rom. 13:10). Loving God, then, which leads to the love of neighbor and enemy alike, is walking in His ways and fulfilling our Lord’s prophecy when He said, “You shall be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

It may strike us as strange, though, that to not reciprocate God’s love is to court judgment and death. “If your heart turns away so that you do not hear, and are drawn away, and worship other gods and serve them, I announce to you today that you shall surely perish” (Deut. 30:17-18). If such a thing was said in a human relationship, we would immediately recognize it as unhealthy and unloving, if not outright abusive. And there are plenty of conceptions of God that will understand the passage in this way, and we must call them what they are: idols. What these interpretations miss, though, is the proclamation in verse 20: “He is your life.” God is life -- nothing in creation has life in itself -- so to have communion with Him is to have life; to be broken off from Him is to be in death. In the Garden, the Lord says this very thing to Adam, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat,” including, we must understand, the Tree of Life, “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). The tree itself was not poison, for all that God had made was very good (1:31), but to break the communion of trust and love with God would lead to man’s separation from God, which is the definition of death: this is not a threat, but a warning plea to the beloved. It is the same in Deuteronomy: God has brought the Israelites into His life, but they must know they have the freedom of Adam, the freedom to turn away and fall into the same misery as he did. The difference is that Adam had never seen death and so fell ignorantly; Israel knew death and had seen that their deliverance was only accomplished by death, the death of the firstborn. We know that our salvation, our participation in God, was as well only accomplished by the firstborn dying so that death itself might be defeated. God desires to share His Life with all (1 Tim. 2:4) and desires not the death of a sinner (Ezek. 33:11), but issues stern warnings about the abuse of our freedom: do not fall again under the spell and control of sin! Choose life and good!

God is not a pagan deity, looking for us to slip up, to mess up, so that He might condemn us and “satisfy His wrath” [a phrase, curiously, that doesn't appear in the Scriptures].  Rather, He is the God who is love, warning us of all that might “so easily ensnare us” (Heb. 12:1), so that we might partake of that love and so love all that He has made. Then, as that love is “poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5), we can say with the Psalmist, “Blessed are those who keep His testimonies, who seek Him with the whole heart!...I will praise You with uprightness of heart, when I learn your righteous judgments” (119:2, 7). It is this Love, which has brought us to Life, that compels us -- not with guilt or shame, but with joy and gratitude -- “to cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1), as St Paul says. Why would we want the old ways, the ways that lead to death and misery and pain? Instead, knowing “that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is,” we, in hope, purify ourselves, “just as He is pure” (1 Jn. 3:2-3).

This brings us back to the upcoming season of Lent. This is not a time of self-loathing and crippling guilt; it is a time to bask in the love of God, the love that has freed us from sin through death, and so become new. It is time, as St Paul says in Colossians 3, to “set your mind on things above,” where Christ is, “not things on the earth,” by which he means whatever turns us away from God. “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. Therefore, put to death your members which are on the earth,” and here he does not mean your God-given bodies, but rather, “fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry...anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.” Instead, he continues, “put on,” as if a garment, a beautiful adornment, a priestly robe, “tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering, bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another...but above all things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.” Lent is a time of remembering and living out our crucifixion with Christ, where all our sin, our unruly passions, and “members which are on the earth” were put to death. Christ, our life, has come, so choose life and good and loudly proclaim the praises of the One who has called us from darkness into His marvellous light (1 Pt. 2:9), for “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Col. 1:13). Amen.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Sermon: Micah 6:1-8

Preached at First Presbyterian in Beaver Falls on 1/29/2017

Micah 6:1-8: What is Good

In the passage from Micah today, the Lord brings a lawsuit against His people. They have questioned His justice, especially as He has prophesied through Micah judgment against their abandonment of His Law. The Lord calls the mountains and the hills to witness to His defense: “I have delivered you from the power of Egyptian slavery, I have sent you prophets to guide you, and I have turned those who sought to curse you into a blessing.” How can they question the Lord’s righteousness? Has He not been for His people, tenderly caring for them, healing them, disciplining them in love? Yet they turn away from Him. We wonder, looking at systemic injustice, looking at current events both at home and abroad, looking at the tragic moments of our own lives: where is God? Where is He amidst the pain that we see and feel everyday? Where is the fulfillment of His promises? Where is His justice that we “hunger and thirst” for (Matt. 5:6)?

And He responds with the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Look upon it and marvel at the strange righteousness of God: “God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us...For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Rom. 5:8, 10). God’s justice is not strict judgment according to merit, to what is deserved: His justice is in saving, in freeing, in justifying those who were enemies. Out of love for the fathers, not for anything they had done, did God free the Israelites from Pharaoh; out of love for us, not for anything we have done, did God free us from sin, death, and the devil. What both Paul and Micah are saying is, God’s righteousness is His love “poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (5:5).

And how do we respond? Don’t we, caught up in the emotion of His salvation, try to offer the extravagant, try to outdo God? In Micah’s day, it was no different: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression? The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (vv. 6-7) How does the Lord respond? “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that Day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your Name, cast out demons in Your Name, and done many wonders in Your Name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matt. 7:21-23) The Lord, in response to His salvation and justice, does not want our sacrifices, does not want our firstborn, does not even want us to do mighty works: He wants us to know Him, to do the will of His Father in Heaven. What is that will?

“He has shown you, o mortal, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

This is the essence of all our Lord’s commands, which can be summed up, “Love the Lord your God will all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength...and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:30-31). In the end, there is then only one command through which all other commands are brought to completion: love. “For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law” (Rom. 13:8-10). The will of the Father in Heaven is to love.

Love is a light that exposes darkness in our hearts, calling us out of the condemnation of our deeds: “this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (Jn. 3:19-20). We long for the Day of Lord, when all things will be set right, but we fear it too: for our own lovelessness will be revealed. We find it hard, near impossible, to love: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. Who will be able to stand in that Day? Who may abide in the tabernacle? Who may dwell in the Holy Hill? (Ps. 15:1) We cannot obey the commands out of our own power and so we are tempted to despair, tempted to hope for some other way of life: maybe prophecy, maybe casting out demons, maybe offering our firstborns for our sins.

But God has already offered another way: the Lord Jesus Christ.

“In this the love of God was manifested towards us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 9-10). And this love, this love that is Christ, “has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5). Once that love has been poured out (and it will never cease), we will be filled past the brim, filled to overflowing, so that as we turn to God in love, we will be able to fulfill His commands to love, for love will cover all our actions, become all our thoughts, guide our whole lives, for “without [Christ], you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5), but we “can do all things through Christ who strengthens” us (Phil. 4:13). As we are filled with the love of God, we will find no room for hate, no room for pride, no room for anxiety, or shame, or control of others: the love of God is freedom, for “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17). And this freedom will be to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God”; this liberty will be to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the refugee, clothe the naked, visit and comfort the prisoner and the sick (Matt. 25:37-39); this love will be doing the will of the Father in Heaven, who “sends rain upon the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). God is love (1 Jn. 4:8) and wants us to be “perfect as [He] is perfect” (Matt. 5:48): God wants us to become love.

“By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us” (1 Jn. 3:16) -- let us not think, even for a moment, that the love of God is like the love of the world; this is no emotion, focused on getting something for one’s own self. Divine love is self-emptying (Php. 2:7), it pours itself out (Is. 53:12), even unto death, for the sake of the other. To love as God loves is to “deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow Christ” (Lk. 9:23). For us who still fear death, this is a terrifying thought. But, be of good comfort, Christ has trod this road before us, He calls us to do nothing that He Himself has not already done. And notice, when He is carrying His Cross to Golgotha, that God doesn’t do it alone: Simon of Cyrene carries it for Him. God knows our weakness, and knows that “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18) and so He gives to us His Bride, the Church -- all of us who are in Christ -- to bear us up as we seek to “grow up in all things into Him who is the Head -- Christ -- from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Eph. 4:15-16). We pour out God’s love in our hearts to one another and so build up each other to love God and love our neighbors: we deeply need each other, as each part of the body depends on the other. We will not be able to sustain love by ourselves in isolation: a hand cannot survive long if it is no longer attached to its arm. Look around, this is your body, the parts you depend on, now look to Christ, the Head, who has joined this Body together. He did not do it haphazardly, but called each of you for a purpose: to love, according to how He has gifted you in the Spirit.

The end of this is life, for that is what the outpouring of love in the Cross, and in our hearts, always leads to: resurrection. Every act of love, from prayer to tangible intercession for the weak and marginalized, is an act of being crucified with Christ, but it is also an act of being raised with Him, where we see in a glimpse what God has planned for us: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now life in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who love me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20), so “beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:11).

Now, what shall we do? We know that all our lives are to be love, are to be the Way of the Cross: what steps shall we take to grow in love? First, friends, we must pray, we must pray as St Paul commends us: “without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Our communion with God in prayer, not just in private, but as families, as neighborhoods, and especially as the Church, is our conduit of His grace. Second, we must take a hard look at our lives: what does the Way of the Cross look like as citizens? Christ tells us that, while going to the nations, we are to teach them all He has commanded: He has commanded healing of the sick, care of the poor, the refugee, the widowed, the orphaned; He has commanded forgiveness of the enemies and doing good to those who have done you wrong. The Church, sojourning here in the United States, has this prophetic role. It will not be easy, it will be the Cross.

We must also ask, what does love look like in our “private” lives? When we get our paycheck, we must bathe it in prayer, asking, “Lord, show us how we might become like Christ in this gift You have given us.” We must trust him, not our economic productivity, for all things: the paycheck is a means for us to further become like Him. It will not be easy, it will be the Cross.

And we will find, as we take on this larger understanding of repentance, that we will be freed from the weeds, the cares of the world, that daily choke us and cause us to think only of ourselves, our ease, our comfort, our tribes. The weeds will, by Christ’s hand, be pulled and we will find ourselves in that liberty of the Spirit where to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” is our true delight and will be the life of the world. Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Future Perfection

Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect (NIV)

You therefore must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect (ESV)

Ἔσεσθε οὖν ὑμεῖς τέλειοι ὡς ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ οὐράνιος τέλειός ἐστιν. -- Matt. 5:48

Today in church we read selected verses from the Sermon on the Mount.  As we were doing so, I found myself puzzled.  As noted above, the ESV translates Matt. 5:48 as an imperative, as does the NIV.  However, the verb (Ἔσεσθε) is not an imperative, but a future.  So, any translation that makes the verb imperative misses the mark grammatically.  It should be translated as "You will be perfect...," with a textual note that it is future, as the English "will be" can be understood as a command (oh, English...).  Preferably, the translation should read "You shall become..."

Translating as an imperative, though, has greater than grammatical problems.  It changes the tenor of the passage entirely.  In the ESV and NIV, the discussion of loving one's enemies becomes an impossible standard, for who can attain to the measure of the Father?  Since a common Protestant understanding of what "works" do in the human life is to underscore our will's inability, and therefore the impossibility of attaining to the divine standard, it is understandable why the passage would be mistranslated such.  However, if this is the reason behind using an imperatival form, it is the tail (Protestant theology) wagging the dog (the translation of the text).  Since we are to read Scripture through the Apostolic Deposit (regula fidei), this isn't necessarily a bad thing.  However, in this case, it verges on it.

Read with a proper translation, the passage has a beautiful promise contained within it.  If we love our enemies, we may (subjunctive) be sons of our Father in heaven (v. 45).  To be a son is to be like the father.  So, by loving our enemies, we open up the possibility (subjunctive) of being divine sons.  However, our Lord is not content to leave us with the possibility.  Instead, if we love our enemies, we will become (future) complete, mature, perfect, as the Father already is.  Not only is the possibility opened up to us, but, as we practice love of enemies, we are transformed more and more into the Image of the Father.  This promise of God-likeness (1 John 3:2-3, etc.) comes from the Lord Himself, so it is assured.  In other words, love your enemies for in doing so you show that you are sons of the heavenly Father and are participating in His perfection, bit by bit, little by little, as the Spirit empowers us so to do.

If we want to remember the effects of sin on our lives and the difficulty of attaining to God's standards, it is better to use passages such as John 15:5: "without Me [Jesus] you can do nothing."

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Tsaarat



Preparing for my Leviticus Sunday School class (audio of previous weeks available here), I came across a passage that grabbed my eye:

“When you have come into the land of Canaan, which I give you as a possession, and I put the leprous plague in a house in the land of your possession...” (14:34)

It seemed strange to me that God, the Holy One in whom there is no uncleanness, should put the tsaarat (translated “leprosy” in the NKJV, rather unhelpfully) in His land. This strangeness propelled me further into the text, giving me a new understanding of what the tsaarat is all about. The word translated “plague” is relatively rare before the tsaarat regulations in Lev. 13-14, occurring only two times in the Torah previously. Most of the time after the Levitical legislation, it has the semantic range of some sort of “strike.” The two places before Leviticus, though, are pregnant with meaning: Gen. 12:17 and Ex. 11:1.

In Gen. 12, Abram has just been told by God that this land of Canaan shall be given to him as a possession, so that he might become a blessing to all the families of the earth. Afterwards, at some point, the land gets hit with a severe famine, forcing Abram to flee to Egypt (the breadbasket of the ancient Mediterranean world) with Sarai, his wife. While there, Abraham poses as her brother (long story) and Sarai is taken into Pharaoh’s harem. “But the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife” (v. 17).

In Ex. 11:1, YHWH is telling Moses about the final blow against Egypt, the death of the firstborn: “I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt. Afterwards he will let you go from here. When he lets you go, he will surely drive you out of here altogether.” Curiously, this is the first time the word “plague” has been used to reference what we normally call the Ten Plagues. Before this they were called “signs,” “wonders,” and “strikes/blows” against Egypt. As mentioned before, the word “plague” most often has an intensified sense of “strike,” so this isn’t necessarily surprising.

By the time we get to Leviticus and the discussion of the tsaarat, the only instances of the plague-terminology have been directed against Egypt, both times concerning -- at some remove in the case of the Genesis story -- the inheritance of Canaan. This helps, I think, to explain what tsaarat is, and why it comes upon the people when it does (which is rare -- only Miriam, Joab’s family by curse, Naaman the Syrian, some random lepers in 2 Kings, and Uzziah the king are recorded to have it in the OT). To have tsaarat is to be under the curse of the Egyptians (Ex. 15:16; Deut. 7:15), which is one of the final stages of covenant disinheritance (Deut. 28:60). Tsaarat is a powerful sign of the corruption of death in the world, a literal rotting, that is a sign of broken communion between God and His creatures. For Israel to be afflicted with tsaarat is a sign of great judgment, as they are to be the beacons of God’s purposes to the world: they are to show the proper divisions of the primordial creation, not the confusions of the world’s corruption under mankind (hence the food laws being divided by land creatures, sea creatures, and air creatures -- each ‘clean’ kind needing locomotion appropriate to where they live). For this reason, all leprous clothes must be burned, all leprous buildings must be torn down, and all leprous persons must be placed outside of the holy camp -- cut off from all society and required to announce the judgment upon them. (While it would take more time than I have to explore it, it is curious that many of the instances of tsaarat in the OT -- Miriam, Joab, Uzziah -- occur because of hubris.) Tsaarat, then, is a sign that should be paid close attention to when it occurs: it is evocative of everything wrong with the creation since the Fall and a means, therefore, of God’s cleansing judgment. It is not the ultimate uncleanness, death, but acts in a similar fashion: anything or anyone who touches a tsaarat-infected thing becomes unclean themselves. There is no cure listed.

When we reach the New Testament, tsaarat seems to be rampant. Yet, there is a difference. Jesus is easily able to clean the lepers He encounters; yet He adjures that they still follow the Levitical protocol: “go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them” (Matt. 8:4). What, exactly, is this testimony? It is that the Lord has come among them; they have been afflicted with the Egyptian curse, they have been in exile even in their own land, but now God has come, bringing cleansing and hope to the hopelessness of creation’s corruption by sin and death. The judgment is coming to an end, if they will repent and believe the Gospel of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sermon: Psalm 81:1, 1016 -- "Honey from the Rock"

Delivered at First Presbyterian Church in Beaver Falls, among whom I always receive a warm welcome.
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Thank you for the many opportunities I’ve been given this Summer to worship with you and open up God’s Word in your midst. The last two sermons I’ve given have been hard to preach, and, I’m sure, hard to hear: but anyone called to proclaim must proclaim what the Lord has laid on their hearts through His Word and Spirit, and must then proclaim it with boldness. Today’s sermon will, I think, be no less bold; but this text gives us much reason to rejoice -- even in hard and dark times.

The psalm starts on this note of rejoicing: “Sing for joy to God our strength; shout aloud to the God of Jacob!” (v. 1), which is very similar to St Paul’s command to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!” Why do the Psalmist and the Apostle issue this missive? We don’t have enough time to rehearse all the wonderful works of the Lord! In this Psalm, the focus is on the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah, the Law, to His people. We have, in that story, the burning bush and the plagues, the wonders before Pharaoh and the parting of the waters, the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, the horse and its rider cast into the sea. We have the descent of deep gloom on the mountain top and the carving of stone tablets joining God to man and man to God, that He might bless them and, through that, Israel might become a blessing to the entire world. “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now, therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:4-5). What a privilege! What a calling! By dint of your birth as an Israelite, bearing in your flesh the mark of God’s covenant, and your training in the ways of righteousness, you were a priest bearing forth prayers and sacrifices for the whole world! “Therefore,” says the author to the Hebrews, “through Jesus, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (13:15-16). “Sing for joy to God...shout aloud to God” the Psalmist enjoins us: take up your mantle as priest for the sake of the world. Heed St Paul when he says, “I exhort first of all the supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings, and all who are in authority: that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the Truth” (1 Tim. 2:1-4). Our singing, our shouting aloud, our priestly sacrifice of praise, brings all -- men and women, adults and children -- to Christ our God.

What if, though, we find ourselves unable to praise God? What is tragedy, or horror, or inadequacy have struck us? What if we find ourselves speechless before the evil, open or hidden, in this world? The Lord responds: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt: open your mouth wide and I will fill it!” (v. 10) Even in the midst of pain, or terror, or dumbfoundedness, we can open our mouths -- silently -- and the Lord will supply our voice. If we find that we cannot even go that far, we can pray in our minds, “Open my lips, o Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim Your praise” (Ps. 51:15). As He said to Moses, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the Lord? Now, therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say” (Ex. 4:11-12). If the Lord can heal the man born blind (Jn. 9), He can certainly teach us to sing and give us the words to say!

Let us learn from Israel, though, who witnessed these wonders. St Paul tell us that, “Now all these things [of the Old Testament] happened to them as types, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:10). For our sake God says, “But my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices” (v. 11). Listening and obeying are closely connected in the Scriptures, which means they are forms of trust, of faith, in God. Israel would not open their mouths in praise, even though many miracles had been accomplished for them and in front of them. Instead, they went after other gods and other lords, both spiritual and political, for their security and their safety. Time after time, the Lord called them back by His servants the prophets, and time and again they turned them away. So, He gave them over to those they idolized: to the Ba’als, to the Assyrians, to the Babylonians, to their true enemies and the enemies of us all, the demons, that they might learn repentance so that “the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). Or, as St Paul puts it, “God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Rom. 1:24-25). The wrath of God is not anger from on high like Zeus; no, it is the prodigal Father who divides his inheritance to his two sons after the one wishes him dead (Lk. 15:12). The younger son, who realizes his deed, returns and finds his father eagerly awaiting with no residual rage -- he responds with a festival, for that which was dead was brought back to him living. The longsuffering of God, who is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9) and who “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the Truth” (1 Tim. 2:4), trumps the wrath that allows us to send ourselves in exile. He longs for us to turn towards Him, to forsake our sin, and run towards Him as He already runs towards us in Christ: “therefore, we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the Cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2). Let us consider that image: Jesus Christ is at the finish line of our race, and the joy set before Him, then, is us, the runners, whether we are at the beginning, in the middle, or nearing the end.

In the Psalm, the Lord says it like this: “If my people would only listen to me, if Israel would only follow my ways, how quickly I would subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes!” (v. 13-14). The connection between listening and obedience is again here put in parallel, and it is a powerful parallel: trusting God and so acting leads to God subduing our enemies and pitting Himself against them in battle! But who are our enemies? This is a very tricky question: for, I imagine, if you are like me, various images of those we know to be our enemies pop into our minds. It might be an image of a brother or sister, who has taken a toy from us earlier in the day; or it might be the parent that has not given you full freedom to stay out late on Saturday night. It might be a co-worker, or a spouse who has wronged you. It may be a foreign nation, or terrorist cell, or adherents to another religion or another sexuality. And we find ourselves praying, “Lord, I thank you that I’m not like…”, rarely realizing that we have taken the role of the Pharisee, not the truly repentant tax-collector (Lk. 18:9-14). Our enemies are not, in the end, those around us -- they are the demons who ply on our own passions and weaknesses to seduce us to hate, to malign, and to sin. As St James says, “each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (1:14). The Garden of Eden imagery here is pronounced: Adam and Eve were so tempted by the Serpent plying on their desires. So we must “walk in the Spirit,” the Spirit of Christ, “and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh,” the flesh inherited from Adam, who was drawn away by our enemy. In what way? St Paul tell us, “Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like” (Gal. 5:16, 19-21). If, though, we “listen to God and follow His ways,” that is, live and walk according to the Spirit, He would subdue our enemies under us -- “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (5:24), for “he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin” (1 Pt. 4:1), therefore “reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:11). By the Cross, which we share with Christ by faith in baptism (Rom. 6:3), so that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20), our enemy has been defeated for “[Christ] Himself likewise shared [in flesh and blood] that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to slavery” (Heb. 2:14-15). God’s Exodus is fulfilled and repeated in the work of Christ on the Cross, which we share: who else shall we listen to, who else shall we obey? He is Lord, the victorious one over sin, death, and the devil -- and He calls out to us to join Him in His victory!

We know, however, that even though “the prince of this world is cast out” (Jn. 12:31), he “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pt. 5:8). We need not fear, for even our Lord saw this, as it says in the Psalm: “Those who hate the LORD would cringe before him, and their punishment would last forever” (v. 15). The NKJV has it more strikingly: “The haters of the Lord would pretend submission to Him, but their fate will endure forever.” Our enemy has been defeated, he has been cast out, he has been destroyed; but he is looking to take as many others as he can with him. What can we do? The author to the Hebrews tells us: “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?’ Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:1-8). This is what it means to “walk in the Spirit”! This is the grace-filled life, the life of Christ Himself, who is the “same yesterday and today and forever”!

And what is the outcome of all of this? As we seek to live “according to the Spirit,” listening to and obeying God’s good commands to become love like He Himself is love, “you would be fed with the finest of wheat; with honey from the rock I would satisfy you” (v. 16). What is this “finest of wheat” but the Lord’s own body that He gives us in the breaking of bread? “Take eat, this is My body broken for you” (1 Cor. 11:24). In the Lord’s self-giving, by which He defeats the enemies, He gives us His Life as our nourishment, as a medicine of immortality: receive it with gratitude in your hearts, singing his praises: “open wide your mouth and I will fill it” as He said before (v. 10). What is this “honey from the rock” with which He will satisfy us? The Rock is Christ (1 Cor. 10:4), who gave the Israelites pure water as they crossed the desert, but gives us now honey, His Word, as the Psalmist says elsewhere: “The law of the Lord is perfect...the testimony of the Lord is sure...the statutes of the Lord are right...the commandment of the Lord is clean...the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold; yes, than much fine gold. Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Ps. 19:7-10). “Taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man who trusts in Him!” (Ps. 34:8) Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sermon: Luke 12:49-56

Luke 12:49-56 -- Prince of Peace?

Today’s Gospel Lesson is deeply unsettling.  Our understanding of the work of Christ centers on peace.  Isn’t He the prophesied “Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:6)?  Did He not “break down the middle wall of separation...so making peace” (Eph. 2:14-15)?  Did His Apostle not command us “as much as possible, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18)?  What can He mean when He says “I came to send fire on the earth” and “Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth?  I tell you not at all, but rather division”?  Doesn’t this go against His first acclamation as King by the heavenly armies of angels, who announced: “Glory to God in the highest/and on earth peace/goodwill toward men” (Lk. 2:14)?

We want our Lord Jesus to be about peace.  In our fractured and fracturing world, we desire peace, but all we see is division: republican and democrat, liberal and conservative, white and black, female and male.  We wonder, sometimes quite vocally, where God is in all of this.  We long for utopia, for a comfortable middle-class existence, a world in which we don’t see all the injustices that our way of life entails.  We forget that Christ has not called us to comfort, or to wealth, or to ease: He has called us to faith.  The passages directly before this one tell us this.  He starts this particular discourse by warning of hypocrisy, of play-acting, of the act that is the essence of unbelief.  Then He counsels us to fear only God, who values us more than “many sparrows.”  He calls on us to honor Him and the Holy Spirit before men.  The parable of the rich fool drives the point of faithfulness to God home.  When the rich man dies, it is said to him, “‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you: then whose will those things be which you have provided?’  So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God” (v. 21).  God knows, He continues, that we need the things of the body: we have children to feed and clothe and educate; we have a God-given desire for beauty; we need some measure of security.  “For all these things the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knows you need these things.  But seek the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you.  Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.  Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys” (vv. 30-33).  He then concludes with many parables about being ready, by which He means being active in faith.  Here we see the fire that our Lord is kindling!  Our Faith, which calls us to integrity, to fear only God in trust, to give up our desires for advancement, for wealth, for ease of life, and urges us to be ready in action, is a fire the burns hotly.  It is a fire that brings great division.  It strikes like a sword, “piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).

St Paul knew this reality of the Faith well.  He says in Romans 7: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.  If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good.  But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.  For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find.  For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.  Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.  I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good.  For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man.  But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.”  Here is the soul divided by the call of Christ, the soul that can only call out “O wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death!”  But St Paul knows, for he has been baptized into Christ and so has died with Him (Rom. 6:3), that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).  The Faith which is a fire is a baptism, just as our Lord said (Lk. 12:50), it is a summons to our death in Adam, that we might live in Christ.  This new Life, this eternal Life of knowing and so participating in God Himself, makes all things new, including our family life.  We do not see this as much in our context, so a little history might be revelatory for us.

In the first-century Jewish world, family mattered a great deal.  From your family came your status, your identity, and your inheritance of the land which God had given to father Abraham.  To be divided against them was a great evil.  In the Roman world, which would have received St Luke’s account of the Gospel, the father was supreme in all things, including life and death, as the pater familias.  To be divided from a father was a great evil.  To lose your family, especially your father, in the ancient world was to lose everything.  For Jesus to suggest that He is bringing division into the tight world of family would have been shocking and distressing to His followers.  Yet, this is exactly what God has always done.  Let us remember the story of Abram’s calling in the early chapters of Genesis: “Get out of your country/from your family/and from your father’s house/to a land that I will show you” (12:1).  Here Abram is being separated from all the social support networks that were established through the ancient world, which is why God promises him land, descendents, and a great name.  

God has set up fatherhood, and families, to be a reflection of the care and generosity and protection that He offers us; we, however, often turn this created reality into something that precludes God.  It does not stop with the family, though; we do the same thing with our work, with our hobbies, our political inclinations, and our country.  Christ brings division, brings the fire of His Faith, into all these human relationships, not because they are bad or unnecessary, but because they need healing.  They have been broken, warped, twisted by sin and by death: they must be set right, but that can only happen as God destroys death by death, rising from the grave.  All our marriages, our parenting, our politics, our work, must go through the crucible -- the purgation -- of the Cross; they must be baptized and, in so doing, be released from bondage to sin, death, and Satan, so that they might be avenues of Christ’s Spirit here and now.  There is no utopia, but there is the Kingdom.  There is the life of repentance in all things, of putting all things to death so that they might be received in new life with thankfulness, that transcends any earthly peace: it is a peace that conquers divisions, in which there is no longer “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).  This peace, though, does not come without divisions: for all that is in Adam must be put to death -- all things must go through the Cross.

Consider our Lord’s words when He speaks about discipleship: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.  For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Lk. 9:23-24).  Or consider the words of St Paul, “Now if we died with Christ...reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts.  And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness of God” (Rom. 6:8a, 11-13).  Our whole life, with all its attendant bonds, is to be considered crucified with Christ, freed from sin, so that we might live resurrected lives in the here-and-now.

This brings us to Christ’s words to the multitudes, where He chastises them for not knowing what time it is.  While He stood in front of them, about to divide the world “in Adam” or “in Christ” by His Cross and resurrection, He asked them if they knew the time.  We live after this event of salvation, but do we know the time?  St Paul says, “And do this” that is, fulfilling the Law through loving another, “knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed.  The night is far spent, the day is at hand.  Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.  Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” (Rom. 13:11-14).  Now is the day to seek after Christ, now is the day for the fire of His Spirit to descend upon us, now is the day, as the Prophet Elijah said, to cast off trying to serve two masters, “How long will you falter between two opinions?  If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Ba’al, follow him” (1 Kgs. 18:21).  For the fire is kindled, the waters of baptism are prepared, and the judgment of God which leads to salvation has appeared to all men.  Amen.