Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sermon: Luke 2:22-40

The text of a sermon given at First Presbyterian Church of Beaver Falls this Sunday.  I'm thankful for their warm hospitality.

“After the Feast”

We’ve just come out of the great celebration of our God and Savior’s nativity.  The stockings have been emptied, the packages unwrapped, the tinsel is in various states of decay.  Our bellies may still be smarting from the feasts we’ve had in the last month or so: worry not, January 1 starts our national two week diet, where we foreswear anything rich and vow to visit the gym.  Many of us have spent the last month reflecting on some aspect of the Incarnation, that event – still ongoing – in which God takes human nature to Himself and is born of a Virgin.  And so we celebrate Christmas.  However, once all is said and done, we don’t really know what to do with ourselves until Easter.  Jesus Christ, the old trope goes, came to do three days’ work.  His whole mission, we are told, is to die and rise again.

While there is truth in those sayings, they miss some very important things about the Incarnation that can only be seen if we slow down, read the texts, and pray for their application to our hearts.  With that in mind, we turn to our passage in Luke’s account of the Gospel.  Here we see what, to our eyes, looks like an odd scene: Jesus being presented in the Temple, His Mother going through the purificatory rites outlined in Leviticus 12.  The point that St Luke seems to be making, one he will make again, is that this Jesus has fulfilled the Law of Moses.  Not just some parts, but all.  The reason that the Law was given, as the Lord will say later on, is that it pointed to Him and prepared the world for His arrival: “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (24:44).  Christ fulfills the Law, not so that we can ignore it and neglect it, but to bring about the purposes for which is was given – the point, or the end, of the Law, as St Paul calls Christ in the Epistle to the Romans: “For Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:4).

In fulfilling the Torah of Moses, our Lord also supercedes it: it is the shadow, He is the reality.  There is, then, a bit of irony in the passage: the most pure Lord, holiness Himself, who cannot dwell in uncleanness, is brought to the Temple by His Mother, Mary, in whom He dwelled, for her purification.  The sacrifices here, then, show themselves to be types that are passing away: the blood of pigeons and doves is no longer necessary as the presence of God Himself in her womb, plus the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit at the conception, renders her clean.  By bringing the Lord and the sacrifices to the Temple, the old system has been brought to completion and, as the author to the Hebrews tells us, “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete.  Now what is obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (8:13).

This might, though, lead us astray into thinking that, really, for all practical intents and purposes, the Law can be neglected.  To do so, though, would mean that we miss what the Law was actually about.  Why did God spend so much time in Exodus giving the plans for the Tabernacle and then repeat them, almost word for word, when it was constructed?  Why so much space detailing the sacrifices and holy days and procedures for priests and laity in Leviticus and Deuteronomy?  If He was just going to fulfill it and cast it aside, why have it in our Bibles?  Take a second and consider the word “fulfill.”  What does it mean?  If you have a glass of water, and you “fulfill” it, you do two actions: you bring it to its intended point (to hold liquid) and to its fullness – you fill it full.  For Christ to fulfill the Law and the Prophets does not mean He abolishes them, according to His own teaching in Matthew’s account (5:17); no, it means He invests them with the fullness of their purpose and brings them to completion.  In the case of the Temple, and the sacrifices, and cultic regulations, consider the great OT promise: “I will be their God, and they shall be My people, and I will dwell among them” (Ex. 29:45; Ez. 37:26, 27).  God, St John tells us, has come to dwell among us in Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:14); St Paul tells us that “for in [Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Deity in bodily form” (Col. 2:9).  We can extend this, though: from whence did Christ receive this Temple that is His Body?  From Mary.  She has become a Temple of the Lord, in which He dwelt.  And who is Christ’s Body?  The Church.  All the OT provisions, and teaching, and regulations about Temple, sacrifice, cultus, priesthood speak of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and because they speak of Him, they speak of us who are joined to Him by faith and baptism.  When you read the OT, certainly you are reading about the history of Israel, but more urgently you are reading about the life in Christ.  You are reading about God’s purposes for the world, to make His whole human creation a clean and spotless dwelling place.  A place free of sin and corruption and death; a place of holiness and righteousness; a place where His glory might shine out to all the world, as St Paul says, “Do all things without complaining and arguing, that you might become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philip. 2:15).

Christ’s mission, which of course will culminate in His death and resurrection, is so much more than we’ve allowed ourselves to imagine: He came to construct the Temple of God, we the stones and He the substance.  How, though, shall we become the holy stones of God’s cosmic Temple, the pure Body of Christ?  How can we, different in ages and vocations, temperaments and abilities, join together with one heart and one mind to be built upon the one foundation of “the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20)?  Let us turn to the end of our Gospel reading for today.  It is another one of those curious moments that make us scratch our heads: “And the Child grew and become strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him” (2:40).  Why, if Jesus is “the fullness of the Deity in bodily form,” does He need the grace of God to be upon Him?  How can He become strong in spirit?  Whatever the Lord does, let us remember, He does for the sake of those He is remaking in His Image.  It is not because His divine nature is limited by the flesh that He grows and so on, but for our sake.  He becomes what we are – including going through all our stages of life – so that we might become what He is, as St Irenaeus of Lyons tells us.  All our earthly existence is taken up by our Savior so that we might, in the midst of our earthly life, take up His heavenly existence.  If you are a child, do not fret that you cannot be holy, cannot know God, until you are an adult.  No, Christ was an infant in perfect communion with His Father, Christ was a child who knew His God intimately, Christ was a teenager able to be filled with wisdom, an adult who did His Father’s will.  He has done this for us, but more He has taken the great limitations of our current existence, sin and death, and has defeated them on the Cross.  What is stopping us from becoming like Him?  You have, as the Epistle reading for today declared, “received adoption as children” and so “God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:5-6).  You are a son of God because He is the Son of God: you have died to your sins and to death itself because He has died for our sins and trampled down death by His death.  Now, instead of cowering at the dread judgment of God which will come upon all those who “suppress the Truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18) leading to their share in the “everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41), you will instead cry out “Abba! Father!” and, in the words of today’s Psalm, “Praise the Lord!”

We have, like Simeon, seen the Lord’s salvation.  We must go a step further, though; as members of His Body, we have a part, a share, in that salvation.  The world is saved by Christ through us.  Shall we not then say, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch” (62:1)?  The book of Revelation speaks of this.  The seer, John, is shown a vision by one of the attendant angels who says, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the Lamb’s wife.”  “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God.”  Note, here, that St John expands our understanding of the OT once again: not only is the Church the fulfillment of the Temple, but she is also the fulfillment of Jerusalem.  When we read that Zion is “the apple of [God’s] eye” in Zechariah 2:8, it is speaking of us.  Read Psalm 48 and “Walk about Zion, and go all around her.  Count her towers; mark well her bulwarks; consider her palaces; that you may tell it to the generation following.  For this is God, our God, forever and ever.”  More than this, though, her destiny, to be filled with glory of God so that she “shines out like the dawn,” leads to “the nations of those who are saved shall walk in its light, and the kings of the earth bring their glory and honor into it.  Its gates shall not be shut at all by day (there shall be no night there).  And they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it.  But there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life” (Rev. 22:9-10, 24-27).

The last verse given returns us to the question posed at the beginning: now that the Feast of Christ’s Nativity is over, what shall we do?  We shall seek to be indwelt by Christ, to shine out His glory, and to be purified from all unrighteousness, as St Paul admonishes us, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).  Christ’s coming among us, His birth and His growing through all the stages of human life, is a great gift from our God and Savior, but it is a high calling as well.  All our lives are to have the aroma of Christ, the scent of His sacrifice on the Cross, so that we, becoming conformed unto His death, might share in His resurrection life for the life of the whole world.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Brief Thoughts on Christian Ethics

The point of the Christian life is not to become a better, more moral person.  The end, the telos, is to become Christ: not just to be like Him, but to participate in His Life and His Body.  If we think about this, though, this precludes all moral striving.  No matter how hard we work, we will never be filled with the Holy Spirit and so share in the divine nature.  Hence the necessity of faith, not just as rational (or even moral) assent, but coming under the authority and obedience of the King who offers the grace (Himself) so to do.  To become Christ is the goal: who is Christ?  He is the theandros, the God-Man, one who in His Person as the Word indivisably and unconfusedly unites the divine and the human natures.  How are we in any way to attain to Him?  We are human persons, who through faith in baptism are filled with the Holy Spirit who shares His nature with us.  This is why the Spirit rested on Christ in His baptism; this is why our Lord did nothing without the Spirit in His sojourn; so that we might, as sons of God remade in the pattern of the Son of God, might be joined with the Spirit for our salvation.  To acquire the Spirit, then, is the goal of the Christian life.  To acquire the Spirit is to become Christ; to become Christ is to become divine, glorified, theotic.  Here is where the central importance of the Tabernacle cultus and liturgy, detailed in the middle of the Torah, becomes so key: the Law was never about becoming moral, it was about becoming a Temple: pure, undefiled, holy.  A place for God to dwell.  The whole point of the commandments of God is not to make Him happy, as if our Lord needs that emotion (the One God dwells in blessedness of which happiness is but a pale shadow), no, the point of the commands is to be prepared for God's residence within us.  But, just as the unclean always threatened the sanctity of the holy courts, so sin, death, Satan, and the disordered passions threaten Christ's Holy Temple, His Body, the Church.  This makes the Law not about ascent to God to curry favor, but about guarding sacred ground: ethics, then, is priestly work.

This is why St Silouan the Athonite's dictum that "My brother is my life" is so important: the priests are not doing an individual task, but the collective work of protection and sanctification of the Church.  I cannot do my work as a priestly guardian without reference to my brothers and sisters, nor without their constant aid and intercession so for strength and forgiveness of sins (which, to digress briefly, is why the communion of saints is so vital).  All are saved together, none are saved alone.

It is worth noting that in the cultic regulation there are two categories of defilement: sin and symbols of death.  Sin is, in Levitical terms, the conscious breaking of the Torah, which leads to death (whether as a consequence of the action, i.e. murder or the death penalty, or on the social level, i.e. adultery shredding families apart).  The symbols, though, are those things that are not inherently sinful, but still reference death, especially as inherited through Adam.  An example would be the regulations concerning childbearing (Lev. 12): after a woman gives birth, she must go through a period of ritual purification after the flow of blood dams.  Then she must, if she is to readmitted to the Temple, offer a "sin offering."  Why?  Has she sinned?  No, rather the term is better understood as "purification offering" (cf. Milgrom's commentary on Leviticus): since Eve, childbearing has been a sign of both hope ("your Seed shall crush the serpent's head...") and the consequences of death ("greatly will I increase your pains in childbearing").  A birth symbolizes the curse on Eve, but it is not insurmountable: there will come One who will save all women through being born by a virgin.  This second category, the symbols of death, are fully dealt with by the destruction of death through the Resurrection.  No longer do menstruations or child bearings make women unclean and disallowed from worship of the true God (one has only to reach in faith for the fringes of the Lord's garment to be fully healed!).  Sin, however, remains as a defiling agent; here is why St Paul, for example, speaks of various actions, attitudes, and lifestyles as defiling or polluting the people of God.

To return to the main point, we know that the power of sin is strong enough, compelling enough (why else would our first parents even countenance the serpent?), and pervasive enough that we cannot resist it.  Here is where our brothers and sisters come in, especially those who have had their passions healed and purified ("saints"): they can offer us forgiveness.  Now, some might say, only God can forgive sins!  True!  God is the only One who forgives sins and He deigns to do it through the intercessions, through the rebukes, through the gentle and stern corrections of others.  The root of forgiveness, which is often lost in our overly legal culture, is release: the Church, as the Body of the Christ, undoes the bonds that hold us tight.  And the Lord promises (and warns) that if we forgive the trespasses of our brother and sister, our own trespasses are forgiven as well.  We are set free as we set others free.  This is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of the world.  This is, not morals and ethics, but entering the Cross, actualizing baptism, becoming the body, sharing the One Loaf, salvation.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A True Horror of Death

James Baldwin calls death "our inescapable fact."

It is in the midst of this that I think the modern world has failed...and that monumentally.  We seek to push death to the side, as death -- and the human necessities of caring for the dying and honoring the dead -- is not economically efficient (at the same time, however, death is particularly efficient as it clears out those who have become "obsolete," an insight brought to us with particular tragic clarity by Steve Jobs).  Death shows up our industrial and informational economy for what it is: a mask that, as Paschal said, we place before our faces to stop us seeing the Abyss we are running into.

A good friend and teacher died this week.  In the midst of grading and term endings, of preparing for Christmas, it is hard to find time to mourn.  But, at the same time, in the face of one of the most solemn moments in a human's history, how can grading and shopping be important?  No, there is a necessity to attend to the dead one, not as a "memory" but as an Image-Bearer, a proto-Icon, who now awaits resurrection with her Lord.  Her death, actualized in her physical body this week, was accomplished on the Cross and participated in with her baptism.  Her union with Christ, far from making her body a "shell" or some such, makes it a holy object: something that tangibly will rise on the Last Day, fully sharing in the Glory, the Eternal Life, of God Himself.  Her death becomes a testament, not to death's power, but to its futility: Death, thou shalt die.

In the meantime, though, we see the power of death, futile though it ultimately may be, to drive us to despair.  I was playing with my youngest daughter moments before I learned of my friend's death.  As we sat there, building blocks, I saw her as she truly is: an instantiation of love from my wife and I.  She is the outpouring of shared love.  I'm speaking ontologically, she is the natural hypostatization of our marital love.  This goes beyond symbolic gestures to something iconic: to truly see her is to see the Image of God, who with His Father and Spirit, is love.  Here is why death is such a terror.  Love shares His nature with us: eternal and at peace.  Death breaks asunder that bond and consigns love to the void.  It is the most unnatural of things, for it seeks to break apart that which is our very nature.  If Death can do that, what hope have we?

"Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down Death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing Life."

Hallelujah.  Here is the love as strong as death, as jealous as the grave.  No, in fact we must go beyond the Song and say here is the love stronger than death, more jealous than the grave, the One who will conquer Death and Hades for us and with us.


My dear friend, Martha, rest in peace until the Day of Resurrection.

Monday, December 08, 2014

"Is Born This Day"

Below is my homily from Chapel PCA's Advent Service, to which I was graciously invited by Pastor John Gardner.  The Incarnation changes everything.


When God the Father fashioned the mud into the likeness of the Image of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, He honored His creation in its physicality, in its separateness from Himself.  There is a distinction, which can never be confused, between the Uncreated God and created man.  God could, by His grace, unite Himself to that creation and thereby glorify it, which St Paul in the book of Romans says it our ultimate end (5:2, 8:30, etc.).  Man, through Adam and Eve, added a further distinction, though, a tragic one: through sin they broke the communion between God and themselves, introducing death into the world.  They who were to partake of the Glory of God, which is His eternal Life, instead began to sup with death, corrupting not only their minds and souls, but their bodies as well.  The constant refrain of the book of Genesis is “and so he died.”  God is Life, Existence, Being Himself, in whom dwells no death.  He is Holy.  And so God instituted, first through types and symbols, His redemption of His creation by becoming human so that He “might taste death for everyone” and that “through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:9, 14).  The advent of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ, is for us the beginning of holiness, the holiness that is our salvation.

There is a wonderful scene in Luke’s Gospel in which our Lord is traveling to raise a young girl from the dead.  As he passes through the crowds, He feels power go out from Him.  It turns out a woman with an unstoppable blood flow had reached out and touched His garments.  For the crowds, this would have been horrifying: ritual pollution, the effect of both death and sin, would pass from the unclean and make any who were clean desecrated.  Such is what had been revealed in the Law of Moses.  However, in this case, the reverse happened: the blood flow was dammed and Christ remained clean.  The Holy One was cleansing the whole world of sin and death and their corruptive effects by His coming among us.  His taking on of physical human nature, body, mind, will, activity, brought the purgation of our sins and of death itself.  The implications of this were not unknown to the early teachers of the Church:

He therefore passed through every age becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise, He was an elder for elders, that he might be a perfect master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards that age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also and becoming likewise an example to them. Then, at the last, He came unto death itself, that he might be the firstborn of the dead, that in all things he might have the preeminence, “the Prince of Life,” existing before all and going before all (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 2, Chapter 22, Section 4).

All stages of life “under the sun” have been remade through Christ’s presence in the flesh.  Through His virginal conception and birth, He has sanctified marriage, motherhood, and virginity.  Through His infancy and childhood, His adolescence and adulthood, He has sanctified those and shown us how to live “soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Tit. 2:11).  He has sanctified water at His baptism, bread and wine in His offering of Himself to us, and all the “trees of the Lord” (Ps. 104:16) have been blessed by His crucifixion.  Most of all, though, He has harrowed and hallowed death by His sinless residence and resurrection from there.  Now He, who knew no sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and therefore was not under the dominion of death, has risen with His flesh for our salvation.  We can, St Paul tell us, partake of this holiness, this freedom from death, through faith exercised in baptism: “Or do you not know that as many of us were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?  Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the Glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4).

Christ’s birth, the Uncreated as the created, the divine as the human, is the fulfillment of Zechariah’s great prophecy: “In that day, HOLINESS TO THE LORD shall be engraved on the bells of the horses.  The pots in the Lord’s house shall be like the bowls before the altar.  Yes, every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be HOLINESS TO THE LORD OF HOSTS.  Everyone who sacrifices shall come and take them and cook in them.  In that day there shall no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the Lord of Hosts” (14:20-21).  If the Lord makes the pots and pans and horse bells holy, how much more us, who with great expectation celebrate His coming among us to liberate us from death and sin, the cosmic Canaanites?  Praise God for His honoring and blessing of all created reality in the enfleshing nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ!  Amen.

Friday, December 05, 2014

The Tale of Arius and St Nick

Here is, as far as I'm able today, the Tale of Arius and St Nick.

I will be reading it for Geneva's "12 Hours of Christmas" today.

Merry Christmas, one and all!


Gather 'round children for a tale rarely told
of how Christmas was 'bout lost
save for one saint who was bold.
It all happened at the council called Nice
where they were debating long and hard
about the substance of Christ.
Was he man or God in the flesh
or some other angelic creature
caught up in human mesh?
The bishops and priests down Egypt way
had stirred up this controversy
and the Emperor wanted a say.
"Who cares," ol' Constantine said,
"innit enough that he was born, suffered,
and been raised from the dead?"
But Alexander and Arius had come to blows
for something greater was at stake here
greater than many would suppose.
For if Christ weren't God, how could he save
us sinful, fragile mortals
e'er bound for the grave?

So a council was called and some 300 drew near
to debate and to explicate
what had become so unclear.
Arius, the bad guy in this story,
stood up to recite his poem,
and deprive the Lord of His glory.
But, lo and behold, who should appear,
but Ol St Nick, episcopally vested
(he had no tiny reindeer).
And, oh it makes me want to clap,
he planted on Arius' blasphemous mouth
not a kiss, but a fine, resounding slap.
"No heresy from you today,"
that angelic bishop
only managed to say.
No sooner had he started to speak
but the King jailed him up,
his regal scruples far too weak.
"No symbols of office for that,
no, no staff and no cloak
and no bishop's hat!"
The small beam of light carried by a punch
seemed extinguished so quickly
with Dino's mind out to lunch.
No bells would ever ring, no stockings hung with care,
Christ was no longer a savior,
as Arius triumphed without St Nicholas there.

But, o Virginia, don't you let yourself cry,
for that night in his cell,
did our saint a wonder espie!
"Merry Christmas," Christ and His Mother did shout,
"here's all your episcopal fine
and from that cell come thee out!"
A miracle the wonder cannot be told
as St Nick walked back to the council
to applause a hundred-fold!
Airy did shirk, and Constantine did shudder
as Nicholas came back
to steer that ship's rudder!
"Ho ho homoousias!  One essence with the Father!
Christ is very God and very man,
Otherwise why bother?"
The Emperor, upon seeing, they do say,
changed his mind and his heart
grew two sizes that day.
So now, from atop his golden throne,
he championed that bishop,
and true orthodoxy alone!

And that, dear children, is the story true
of how one Saint Nicholas of Myra
saved Christmas for me...and for you.