Sunday, March 01, 2020

On the First Sunday in Lent -- Walking the Via Christi

From the pulpit of All Saint's Anglican Church this morning:

Five days ago, many followers of Christ set off on their Lenten journey, but this wasn’t always the case for the Church.  In the earliest days of the Church, Lent would have started tomorrow. This observance existed until the sixth century, when in the west, the start of lent shifted backwards to the preceding Wednesday. In this, Lent would consist of forty weekdays.  Interestingly, our Eastern brothers and sisters continue to begin their “great Lent” tomorrow. Much has changed in the millennia following its inception.  Today, for the irreligious, Lent has become the fodder for crass jokes and banal humor. For much of Western Evangelicalism, Lent is dismissed outright as something “Catholics do”.  Mockers will continue to mock this season of Lent.  Yet for all of those who name Jesus as their redeemer, in their dismissal of the Lenten season, rob themselves of a great blessing.  This season of Lent is integral to our spiritual lives as Anglicans, allowing to take forty days of intentional devotion to our Lord.  Within our Prayer Books, we see an unambiguous call to this proactive consideration to a Call to a Holy Lent.  In this, we read of the purposeful activities that the greater Church engaged herself with.  It was a time when Catechumens, those desiring to become children of the Almighty, received instruction in the faith they were preparing to profess.  While others, those who had committed grievous sin, underwent church discipline and awaited reconciliation as they bore fruits of true repentance.

I have, in years past, set out with the best intentions of pursuing a holy lent only to see those intentions cater off the edge of the runway.  This can be laid at the feet of attempting the Spiritual through the agency of the Flesh. Being a slow learner, I’d dust myself off and try again next Lent.  Now, given a popular definition of insanity, that being repeatedly following the same steps while expecting different results on the next go, I was doomed to failure.  Yet, what if we were to consider something novel, something that has been right in front of us all these years? What if in following the example of Christ Jesus in his forty days in the desert, we could see that in that example, he blazed a path, a Via Christie of sorts, where we might also reap the fruits of a Holy Lent. Its from this than I’ve titled these thoughts, “The Via Christi”.

Led by the Spirit.  Jesus was led by the Spirit into the Desert for a forty day Fast.  Scripture speaks to the purpose of this type of fasting, so even though scripture is silent in this case, we can confidently believe that this fast was a time that allowed him to set self aside for the purpose of hearing from God the Father. There is scriptural precedent to believe this was a period of Divine Communion as witnessed in the life of Moses captured in the Book of the Exodus:

[Exo 34:28 ESV] 28 So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

I accept the Scriptures intentional silence of what occurred on those hot days and cold nights in the Judean wastelands.  We can glean that he was exposed to cold nights as whatever warmth from the day disappeared under clear desert skies.  In this primitive setting, Jesus waited, watched, and prayed.  At the end of forty days, Jesus was hungry.   Though there’s an impulse to consider this an understatement, I believe its quite the opposite, pointing to the absolute humanity of Jesus the Nazarene.

Its in this moment that we can hear our call to enter into our call to a holy lent.  While the call to pick up our cross and follow Christ is a Daily one, the Lenten season creates an intentional space for us to do this, both as individuals, but to do so in community.  Families, small groups, and the entire parish is called into this season.  Its also reinforcement in the notion that looks at the walk of faith as an “communal event”.  While its absolute truth that we come to the faith as individuals, we’re called to live out that same faith in community.  Some faith communities, the NALC in particular, has the practice of coming together for “Lenten Soup Suppers”, a time for a modest meal, worship and prayer.  But this is just one of many examples of saints answering that Call to a Holy Lent.

The Temptation of the Expedient.  As westerners, we’ve been historically (until rather recently), taught to not sit around idly waiting for something to happen, but to dive in and take care of whatever obstacle besets us.  We learned this at a tender age when learning of Franklin’s Epistle to the Yankees where the sage declared that the “Lord helps those who help themselves.”  There were no apparent limitations that would have prevented Jesus to command the stones to become warm nourishing loaves.  Recall how at Cana, he changed dishwater into a fine wine.  Twice along the shoreline, he fed a total of 9,000 with baskets to spare.  A hot loaf of bread would have been nothing at all. Now, I did earlier say that there was No Apparent reason but the reason becomes clear in Christ’s first response to the Tempter.  As Christ was experiencing this stomach-chewing hunger, he was identifying with Israel and the hunger they experienced in the Sinai as they learned to trust Yahweh in his speaking manna into existence.  This truth was contained in his response:

[Mat 4:4 ESV] 4 But he answered, "It is written, "'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"  

Like Moses, Jesus had been in the presence of the Almighty for nearly a month and a half, all the while being preserved from starvation.  Like Abraham before him, he knew his Father as Jehovah Jireh, the God who provides.  With his will in complete submission to his Father’s, there was the perfect bond of trust that when it was time to eat, the Father would ring the dinner bell.

While clearly, not all expediency is sinful.  Yet we must always strive to avoid sinful expediency. The mindset that would say, “I got this Lord” can potentially lead to spiritual disasters.  Just in the same manner that we’re called to be faithful in small matters, we’re called to trust God in all things, including the “small stuff”. In our call to a Holy Lent, we too are called to fast as one of the six disciplines cited which include self-examination, repentance, prayer, acts of mercy, reading, and meditating upon the Word of God.  Each of these allow us to not only encounter the mind of God through the reading, meditating, and “inwardly digesting” His word, but to become His heart and hands extended to the world around us.  Too, in these, we’re learning greater trust in the one who redeemed us.

The Temptation of the Presumptuous. The tempter spoke a second time to Jesus with a more complex proposition:

[Mat 4:5-7 ESV] 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, "'He will command his angels concerning you,' and "'On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'”

Christ finds himself now seated on the highest point of the Temple.  Far below him might be Priests, Levites, and the faithful.  R.G. Tasker suggested that this may have occurred at the time of the evening sacrifice where one may not have been as visible as in the daytime.  From the standpoint of a mortal, this was a precarious point where one misstep would result in a quick plummet to a certain death.  

This wasn’t as simplistic a temptation as the previous one as now, reminiscent of the temptation of Eve, the adversary adds a flourish in inserting the words of the Psalmist, though wildly wrenching them out of context.  The implication was clear.  Surely, if Jesus were indeed the Christ of God, then God would be obliged to intervene and save him from peril, even dispatching the Holy Angels to fly swift to his aid.

Once more, Jesus offers a swift rebuke as he “Quotes Deuteronomy to the Devil”:

7 Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

Christ would have no part in anything that would force the Father’s hand in intervening to “clean up” an act of willful disobedience. The fact that the Father had promised divine protection for the Messiah was not only a matter of Old Testament prophecy, it was seen played out in the Nazarene.  As a small child, he was supernaturally protected from the megalomaniacal Herod as he dispatched a detail to murder, not only the Christ Child, but all the toddler boys of Bethlehem.  Early in Christ’s public ministry, Saint Luke recorded an instance of this divine protection in a moment that has some interesting similarities to this moment on the Temple pinnacle:

[Luk 4:29-30 ESV] 29 And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 30 But passing through their midst, he went away.

While proclaiming the words of Isaiah on a Nazareth Sabbath, an enraged mob sought to throw Jesus down to the bottom of a cliff. Yet he simply walked through them and onto his next appointed stop in Capernaum.  This was according to the Father’s will, a will that will never be thwarted.

In our forty day pursuit gives an opportunity to pause in reflection and self-examination, asking have we acted presumptuously in the presence of God?  Do we find ourselves grumbling over unanswered prayers or unmet expectations? We must understand this; unchecked presumption spawns unchecked entitlement. Unchecked entitlement places us in a spiritually precarious position.  If through self-examination we find we’ve slipped into this rut, we can through repentance and prayer, make a right beginning.

The Temptation to override Divine Decree.  The Adversary, in the last in this round of temptation, presents a vision of all the kingdoms of humanity in a moment.  My mind boggles considering the possibilities of what all Jesus saw at that moment.  Satan offers a “modest proposal”; take a knee and I will and them over to you. In another temptation steeped in utilitarianism, the Word of God, the one who saw Lucifer fall from heaven is now asked “bow”.  If ever the end justified the means?  No pain or suffering, no humiliation or dying like a common criminal. But at what cost?

Had Jesus buckled under temptation and took a knee, the cost would have been devastating, going far beyond the loss of Divine honor, it would have resulted in the loss of His Bride the church.  In other words, had Jesus taken the easy way out, we would be left without a redeemer; and without hope of redemption. It was at this moment that Jesus delivered a withering rebuke, once again paraphrasing the words of Deuteronomy:

[Mat 4:10 ESV] 10 Then Jesus said to him, "Be gone, Satan! For it is written, "'You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'"

As the echo of that rebuke reverberated in the Judean wilderness, the Devil departed and at once, Christ was attended to by His holy angels.

I can promise you; as you endeavor to keep a Holy Lent, our adversary will do his level best to throw out distractions, squirrels and shiny objects in an effort to take our minds off of Christ and the Via Christi.  When this happens, we’re called to stand up and prayerfully press on. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

The First Sunday after Epiphany (2) -- To Fulfill All Righteousess

From The Gospel. according to Saint Matthew: 
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."Mat 3:13-17 (ESV)
I wanted to share the audio from last Sunday's homily.  

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The First Sunday after Epiphany -- The Baptism of Jesus

I was blessed to deliver this morning's Homily for the First Sunday in Epiphany, the day the Western Church remembers the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River at the hands of John the Baptist.

Thesis:  Christ’s Baptism was far more significant that what was caught by the mortal eye.

The Father’s Direct Will

Today is the first Sunday within the season of Epiphany, and the Sunday on which the Western Church recalls Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan and the launch of his public ministry which would ultimately culminate outside of Jerusalem on a hill called “The Skull”.  In the three years between the moment that John proclaimed the Nazarene as the Lamb of God and Pilate rightly named Him “The King of the Jews”, Jesus would light Judea, Samaria, and Galilee ablaze with proclamation of the Love of God the Father, and how all who would embrace the Good News of Kingdom, Jew or Gentile, might become children of the Most High.  

Those of us who grew up in Church, learned of Jesus’ Baptism through Ditto papers, coloring sheets, or on flannel graphs.  Yet, for far too many, the understanding of this event has not been expanded beyond what they learned at those tender ages. I could easily number myself among those, until I began a serious study of Scripture. After I did begin this endeavor, it was a portion of the dialog between Jesus and John that left me perplexed; this being where Christ exhorted John to continue, as it was fitting for them to continue in order to “Fulfill all Righteous”. Let’s, over the next few moments, consider just what being said at this moment.

Saint Mark tells us in the opening words of his Gospel, how Saint John the Baptizer “appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.  While not normative in the Jewish experience, Baptism existed first existed in the realm of types and shadows in pre-exilic Israel, then in practice in the inter-testamental period. In Psalm 51, David conveyed the desire to be washed and cleansed after his falling into transgression with Bathsheba. Centuries later we learn how the Essene community of Qumran incorporated the rite for those converting to Judaism.  On the seventh day following their circumcision, the convert underwent a ritual baptism which marked their entry into the community of Israel. A number of scholars believe that John, at the very least was well acquainted with the Qumran community.  Regardless, the Lord in His grand design, used John and a Baptism of repentance to prepare hearts for the coming of Messiah. John would prove to be that one voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”. Yet for the beauty of this awakening there were certain priests, who were scandalized by John’s ministry, and went down to the river to discern what was occurring. John set aside all small talk, and exposed their motive. It was there in the midst of the showdown between Sadducee and Nazarite, that the Nazarene entered the story. 

Saint Matthew records the moment:

“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" Matt 3:13-14

The Baptizer spoke to his hearers and disciples about the one who was to come. He had no illusions of being a ministry partner or peer to him. As to this coming one, John considered himself not even worthy to serve at the level of a lowly house servant, like the ones who’d remove their master’s sandals to wash their feet upon their returning home. But as he described his low estate, he also spoke of the mighty Baptism that he’d offer.  While John baptized with water, the Christ would baptize with “Fire, and the Holy Spirit”.  At some moment as the two locked eyes, John became acutely aware for the Fact that he was encountering Deity.  This wasn’t the first time he’d encountered the Son of God; thirty years prior, he’d experienced an epiphany in-utero, when encountering the babe in Mary’s womb.  And now, ust as Isaiah proclaimed “woe is me”, and as Daniel fell as a dead man, John was acutely aware of his unworthiness to stand in the Lord’s presence, let alone baptize the one who without sin.  It was here where Jesus said:

 "Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. Matt 3:15

It was in this moment of John’s reluctance to baptize his Savior, Jesus counters in urging John to Baptize him as a fulfillment of all righteousness. I have to admit that this was a puzzle on multiple levels.  John’s mission and ministry was to offer a Baptism as a sign of repentance to the contrite.  Yet, the one who knew no sin stepped forward to receive this Baptism.  The key to understanding this paradox is rooted in understanding the “righteousness” which Christ spoke of in this moment.

The term Jesus uses here, speaking to fulfilling all righteousness, speaks to being in perfect submission to the requirements of God the Father.  So, in a more direct manner of speaking, “John, you WILL baptize me because my Father and your God demands and expects nothing less.”
Christ’s Baptism is intrinsically linked to His Death on the Cross

On that day, Christ’s Baptism served to identify him with those he came to redeem.  While those who went under the waters of Jordan, confessing their sins, Jesus had no sin of which to repent of. Christ was now identifying with all humanity and all the sin they were capable of. Yet, He who knew no sin, bore our sin and the sin of all humanity. 

John, perhaps not fully apprehending all of this, was to be the obedient participant in this great move of God. He plunged his cousin, the very expression of the Godhead into the turbid waters of the Jordan. I suspect scant few gave this moment any additional scrutiny.  Yet when Jesus rose from the waters, everything changed.  Mathew notes:

“And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." Matt 3:16-17

Now, for the second time in the life of Jesus, the firewall between the Eternal, and the realm of time and space was rent as the Holy Spirit, in the image and form of a Dove descended upon Jesus.  Then, perhaps like a sonic boom tearing the very fiber of our atmosphere reverberated with the voice of God Almighty proclaiming:  "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."

Given the atmospheric properties of air moving through a valley, I suspect there where none that day who missed the voice of God, leaving all without an excuse.

So, this leaves us with questions with Eternal weight.  Christ Jesus shattered the barrier between Time and Eternity to identify with us in His Baptism, that he might be an Appropriation for our sins.  Have we identified with him in the waters of Baptism? 
Baptism isn’t only for Children.  If you’ve given yourself to the Almighty but have never underwent the waters of Baptism, that is a treatable condition.