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.

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 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.