Lent II (A) – A Sermon

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Chatsworth, ON. An audio recording of the sermon is available here.

Texts: Numbers 21:4-8; John 3:1-20

Cloister Cross

The picture above is the Cloister Cross, an altar cross from the 12th century. It is made of walrus ivory. The image at the cross beams is of Moses raising up the bronze serpent.

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14)

I.

While John 3.16 is probably the most well-known and often-quoted Bible verse – think of that one guy in every football game holding up a John 3:16 sign – today we are going to focus on verse 14, the verse I just re-read. In last week’s sermon, we unpacked what St. Paul meant when he said that Adam was a ‘figure’ or ‘type’ of “the one to come”, which is to say Jesus (Rom. 5.14). You will recall that I described the figures or types of the Bible using the image of a typewriter – a type writer writes type. To recap, a type is a symbol that points to and represents the antitype in the same way that the type left on a sheet of paper made by a typewriter points to and represents the type bar, the metal bar that makes the type on the page. The Bible is full of types, most of which point to and represent Jesus Christ. This is an ancient way of reading the Bible called a typological or figural interpretation.

Now, perhaps some of you aren’t convinced; this way of reading the Bible seems too convenient, takes too many creative liberties, and perhaps reads too much into things. Well, if you aren’t convinced, I submit John 3:14 as evidence for my case: Jesus himself read the Hebrew Scriptures, that is to say the Old Testament, typologically. Jesus interprets the story of Moses raising the serpent on a pole in the wilderness as a type that prefigured his own crucifixion. So, if Jesus reads the Bible typologically, I think it is safe to say that we should follow his reading. As St. Augustine once remarked: “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed”. If the entirety of Holy Scripture finds its meaning and fulfilment is Jesus Christ, then we are best served if we expect Christ to meet us on every page of the Bible, revealing Himself through types and figures.

II.

In his nighttime meeting with Nicodemus, Jesus makes some remarks that would have doubtlessly struck the Pharisee as rather odd. Indeed, the text indicates as much; Nicodemus wonders at how a grown man can be reborn in the same way that he came into the world the first time (cf. Jn 3.4). Jesus seems a bit frustrated at Nicodemus’ lack of understanding: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (Jn. 3.10). So, Jesus appeals to a story that Nicodemus would certainly know: that of the wilderness wanderings of their ancestors, making a specific reference to the story of Moses making a bronze serpent to heal the people from poisonous snake bites. However, Jesus does not merely reference this story; he interprets it as a reference to his own being lifted up. Of course, as those who read this text after Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Ascension Day, we have the benefit of knowing exactly what Jesus is talking about: his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. However, during their conversation, Nicodemus certainly has no clue what Jesus is talking about. This is likewise true for those who would be reading this text of Scripture for the first time without knowing how the story ends, much less the reference to the Old Testament.

Jesus is talking about God’s judgment against a people who “loved darkness rather than light” and his redemption to eternal life for those who believe in Him (Jn. 3.19). This is heavy stuff – a matter of life and death. Although God’s judgment is real and should be taken with uttermost seriousness, Jesus also makes it clear that God the Father did not send God the Son “into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3.17). And how does Jesus save the world? Through his enactment of God’s loving judgment on the Cross. This is truly good news.

Furthermore, it was good news to Nicodemus as well, who although he did not initially understand Jesus, we have every reason to believe he did following Jesus’ crucifixion. John 19.39 tells us that Nicodemus helped to prepare Jesus’ body for burial by “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighting about a hundred pounds”. This is no small gift –as one commentator notes, the amount of spices indicates that Nicodemus sees Jesus’ burial as a “royal burial”.[1] This brings to mind the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with lavish perfume. Christian tradition venerates Nicodemus for his loving care of Jesus’ body. It is Christ’s own body lifted up on the cross, lifted up from the grave, and lifted up to be seated at the right hand of God the Father that opens the way of salvation, of re-birth through water, which is to say baptism – a baptism into Christ’s own death and resurrection – and the Spirit.

III.

To further unpack the meaning and depth of Jesus’ death on the cross, we need to read backwards, we need to turn back to the Old Testament and read it through the ‘Jesus-lens’.

Snakes are never a positive symbol in Scripture (Matt. 10.16 could be read as an exception) Already in the beginning, we see a serpent tempting humanity to doubt God’s provision and ordering of creation. In scripture, serpents are symbolic of sin and fallen powers. Just as a serpent plays an antagonistic role in the Garden in the beginning, so too a serpent is one of the primary antagonists in the end, which is to say in book of Revelation. Likewise, in today’s Old Testament reading, snakes are “a judgment upon Israel that reveals and symbolizes their sin”.[2]

But why does God send snakes? Is God merely trying to punish the perpetually complaining Israelites in creative fashion? No. God’s judgment is giving people exactly what they want. And when things get difficult, what do the Israelites want, time and again? They want to return to Egypt. God has liberated them from the bondage to Pharaoh, and yet they would much rather return to a life they knew, regardless of how awful it was, then to trust in God’s promises and provision and follow Moses’ leadership. Better to be enslaved yet rooted in one place than to be free and wandering in the wilderness. Verse 4 tells us that the people were “impatient”. The word used could also be translated as ‘discouraged’ or ‘fainthearted’. Indeed, as one commentator notes, “the souls of the people were shortened”; they lacked “the soul for enduring their long and difficult journey” (Stubbs, 167). Life with God in the wilderness was simply too hard for them; they wanted relative comfort, even if it meant living in slavery. The difficulty and risk of following God were simply too much to ask. The people’s lack of faith leads them to assume that God wants them to die. The people’s focus on the immediate gratification of their desires leads them to forget God’s provision for them. How fickle God’s people can be, over and over again.

So, God gives the people exactly what they want: snakes. Wait a minute, you’re thinking, how did the people want snakes? Egyptian religion at the time considered the god Apep as the antithesis to Ra. Apep was depicted as a snake and symbolized darkness and evil to the Egyptians. In God’s sending snakes to torment Israel, God is essentially saying: you want to go back to life in Egypt? Well, let me remind you what like is like in Egypt…

In instructing Moses to fashion a snake, God is reminding His people of his victory over Egypt. God’s people did not liberate themselves; how could they? They were powerless slaves. Rather, God alone liberated His people. The people could not feed themselves in the wilderness; they had to rely on God’s provision. Similarly, it is not the bronze snake itself that saves the people; it is the God who delivers His people, the God who does not want His people to die, but desires abundant and flourishing life for them if they would but turn to Him. Looking at the bronze snake was an act of faith because it required trusting in God’s promise that “everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live” (Num. 21:8). [3]

IV.

The snake on the pole and the cross of Jesus Christ are both about liberation and healing. Beginning with the temptation by a serpent, all of humanity is enslaved to sin. Rebelling against God’s ways and grumbling about God’s provision seems to be our default setting. In response to our rebelling and grumbling, God gives us exactly what we want, leaving us to wander in the wilderness, a place where abundant and flourish life seem to be nothing but a mirage. And yet, God does not leave us in the wilderness to die. Rather, God shows and provides us with the way to new life. However, this pathway to new life requires that we, like the Israelites in the wilderness looking at the bronze snake, look at our sin directly, that we face it head-on in repentance in order to receive rebirth. God enacted His judgment against Israel in the wilderness by exposing the sin of the Israelites through the symbol of the serpent; God enacted His judgment against humanity on the cross of Jesus Christ by exposing the lengths at which we will go to rid ourselves of God.

Yet in both stories, God’s judgment is not the end of the story; indeed, God’s judgment is simultaneously the means by which God brings healing and salvation. Just as the Israelites looked to the bronze snake to receive physical healing, we look to the cross to see the lengths at which God would go to reconcile Himself to humanity. Furthermore, it is because of the Cross that we have the assurance that despite the suffering and difficulties we experience in this life, we too will be lifted up with Christ.

Lent is a season in which we prepare for life in the wilderness by fixing our eyes on the Cross. By doing so, we are opening ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit within who will open our eyes to see signs of resurrected life, of new and abundant life, even in the wilderness. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to make peace “through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1.20).

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week

[2] David L. Stubbs, Numbers, 168.

[3] Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people kept the bronze serpent and worshipping it as an idol until King Hezekiah destroyed it (cf. 2 Kings 18.4).

Last Sunday of Epiphany: A Sermon

RCL Texts: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

As both geographical locations and symbols, mountains play an important role throughout Scripture. Growing up as a grandchild of Dutch immigrants to Southwestern Ontario, mountains were the stuff of fantasy – the big hill my siblings and I used for tobogganing was a mountain in our eyes. So, when Natalie and I moved to Japan and found ourselves living in the middle of the Japanese Alps, I discovered that what I thought was a mountain as a child did not even count as a foothill. Even for those who grew up and live around them, mountains evoke a sense of wonder and grandeur. No wonder that mountains play an important role throughout Scripture: they are the place of God’s revelation, the place where God speaks and shows Himself.

In both of today’s readings, mountains are front and centre as the place of God’s revelation. But you may have also noticed that mountains are not the only connection and similarities between these two passages. There are supernatural clouds from which God Himself speaks, the presence of God’s glory, and, strangely enough, Moses plays a central role in both passages. What is going on here? Are these parallels merely coincidental?

At this point, I must confess that I read the Bible in a very ancient way, that is to say, in the way that the early Church Fathers read the Bible. One of the best ways of summarizing this way of reading the Bible is from St. Augustine: “The Old Testament is the New concealed and the New Testament is the Old revealed”. What this means is that we read the Bible as a unified whole with Christ himself as the key to unlocking its meaning. After all, on the road to Emmaus following his resurrection, Jesus said that the entirety of the Law and the Prophets, which is to the say, the Old Testament, are about Him. Jesus speaks through every page of the Bible to those who have ears to hear.

Therefore, there are no such thing as coincidences in the Bible because God providentially orders Scripture to His own ends. In other words, when we see clear parallels and connections in the Bible, we can be sure that God is saying ‘Pay attention to this – this is really important!’ So, the parallels in today’s readings are not coincidental; God wants us to pay especially close attention to what is happening on these mountains. Mountains are the place where God most clearly reveals who He is.

In the Old Testament, Mount Sinai is the place where God makes a covenant with His chosen people, providing them with the Torah – the ordinances God’s people were required to keep, you know, the stuff that we tend to skim over when reading the Bible because it seems so dull, so historically dated and culturally backwards. It’s not – but that is a sermon series for another time. In this morning’s reading from Exodus, we are right in the middle of God giving His Law to Moses. But then, God shifts gears for a moment and tells Moses to come up to meet Him on Mount Sinai. This is reminiscent of Moses’ first encounter with God on Mount Horeb when God speaks to Moses from the burning bush and identities Himself as “I Am”. It is in this first encounter that God commissions Moses to speak to pharaoh on God’s behalf, demanding that the Hebrew people be freed from slavery. Now, Moses is once again preparing to meet God. This time God is going to give Moses the tablets of stone which contain the Law, including all the instructions for building the tabernacle. The people stand in awe at the foot of the mountain because “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain” (Ex. 24.17). Moses is standing in the midst of God’s devouring fire. After this second encounter, Moses’ face is shining “because he had been talking with God” (Ex. 34. 29).

In today’s Gospel reading, Matthew is making a clear reference to Moses’ mountaintop encounter with God. However, the Transfiguration is not “merely an episode in the story of Jesus”; it reveals something true “about the whole of who he is, of all he does”.[1] Who is Jesus? He is the one about whom Moses himself prophesied when he said “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you” (Deut. 18.15). Just as Moses called for the sacrifice of the lamb at the first Passover as God’s people prepared for their Exodus from Egypt and journey into the Promised Land, Jesus is the Lamb of God who will deliver God’s people from bondage and into the Kingdom of Heaven. Like Moses, Jesus’ face shines with the glory of God. But Jesus is more than just a prophet, a new and improved Moses; He is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets because He Himself is the glory of God the Father. Moses and Elijah stand as representative figures of the Law and Prophets, representatives of God’s covenant relationship with His people. Jesus is revealed as the promised Messiah who inaugurates the New Covenant; Jesus alone completed “the work of redemption that [Moses and Elijah] foreshadowed”.[2]

People can only know God through God’s self-revelation. Just as God revealed Himself to Moses and the Hebrew people at Mount Sinai in a cloud and a devouring fire, now God reveals Himself to Peter, James and John through Jesus, His Son. Jesus is the One of whom the Father, speaking from a cloud, says “this is beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him” (Matt. 17.5). God reveals Himself most clearly and definitively in Jesus Christ. To see Jesus is to see God (cf. Jn. 14.11). However, humans have a tendency to try to fashion God into our own image, to domesticate God. Awestruck by being in the presence of God’s glory, Peter’s impulse is to try to contain God’s glory, to keep it within easy reach. Time and again God’s people wrongly think Jesus is such another prophet and teacher and that we can somehow manage God’s glory and holiness. However, God’s glory and holiness are “God’s utter uniqueness; the majestic, undefeated freedom in which [God] is who he is”.[3] In the Transfiguration, we see that God is this one: light from light, true God from true God, the Son who took on human flesh and invites us into reconciled fellowship with God, the crucified and risen one, the one who makes it possible for us to participate in God’s glory. Like Moses, Peter, James, and John, to see God, to hear God, to be in God’s very presence is to be devoured by fire. One cannot see God or hear God’s voice and remain unscathed and unchanged.

But what about us today – how are we to see and hear God? How does God reveal Himself now? The clue to this answer lies in clouds and fire. Throughout the Bible, clouds are visible manifestations of God’s presence – shekinah – say it with me – shekinah. The same cloud that lead the Hebrews through the dessert was the same cloud that appeared on Mount Sinai was the same cloud that entered the tabernacle and, later, the Temple, is the same cloud that appeared at the Transfiguration. This cloud was almost always accompanied by holy fire – the devouring fire on the mountain, the fire that did not burn the bush, the fire that consumed Elijah’s sacrifice and altar on Mount Carmel and took him to heaven in the form of a chariot, the same fire that came with gushes of wind at Pentecost. This fire is a visible manifestation of God’s presence. This fire is the Holy Spirit, the Comforter and Advocate who empowers us to see Christ through the eyes of faith.

So, how does Christ reveal Himself today? Where can we expect to see and meet Christ?

First, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus who did not immediately recognize Jesus after his resurrection, we see Jesus in the opening of Scriptures and in the breaking of bread. We read the Scriptures with the expectation that God will speak to us and reveal Himself through Jesus Christ. The cup of blessing and the bread that we break are, in the words of St. Paul, a participation in the body and blood of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 10.16). Both Word and Sacrament are visible manifestations of God’s presence among His people. Therefore, if you want to see and meet God, go to Church. Communal worship – the opening of Scripture and the breaking of bread – is the mountain where God meets His people, feds them, and transforms them into the image and likeness of Christ through the fire of His devouring love.

Second, we, Jesus’ disciples, go into the world as Christ’s body to seek the lost and proclaim the good news of God’s reconciling love. The mission of the Church is to bear Christ’s image, to reflect the glory of God, to have our very lives shining with His light. The Church is central to how God reveals Himself to the world. Like Israel before us, we, the Church, are called to be a distinct people – a holy nation and a royal priesthood. Our distinctiveness is not about self-protection or becoming more ‘religious’ or spiritually enlightened; rather, our distinctiveness is meant to be a witness to the way of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we are called to invite anyone and everyone to come and meet Jesus, to be consumed by the refining fire of the Holy Spirit.

Third, we go into the world to seek Christ with the expectation that He will meet us in the stranger, the poor, the sick, the lonely, and yes, even our enemies. In describing what will happen upon His second coming, Jesus reminds his disciples that when we serve others, we are serving Him: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matt. 25.35-36, 40).

As God’s chosen people – holy and dearly loved – may you see and know God in Christ Jesus.

May you be completely devoured by the passionate and transforming embrace of Christ.

May the Holy Spirit empower you to see, hear, and know Jesus in the opening of Scripture and in the breaking of bread.

May your lives reflect the light of Christ to everyone you meet. And may you meet Christ in those whom you are called to serve.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] John Webster, The Grace of Truth, p. 114.

[2] Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, The Gospel of Matthew, 218.

[3] Webster, 201.

A recording of this sermon is available here

“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am Holy” (Lev. 19.2)

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48)

This is a tall order – indeed an impossible order – to fill. It seems as though in requiring perfection, God is setting up His people to fail. This hardly seems fair, after all, God better than anyone the human propensity to mess things up. How can we fallible humans be expected to be perfect?

To get at the heart of God’s demand in Leviticus, a demand directly referenced by Jesus, we need to first unpack what ‘holiness’ means in reference to God and then reflect upon what holiness means in reference to God’s people. This kind of unpacking and reflection will require that we get theological, which is to say, it means we will need to talk about God, which means things might get a bit complicated, so bear with me.

“I, the Lord your God, am Holy”.

Holiness is who God is. God is holy. We claim as much in our liturgy, echoing the song of the angelic hosts in Isaiah and Revelation: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty” (Is. 6.3; Rev. 4.8).

God does not depend on anything or anyone for His existence; God is holy because God is God. To be holy is to be singular and distinct. God’s singular existence is perfection and beauty. “God’s own holiness is the sheer uniqueness of his being”.[1] In other words, because God exists as God and not as anything else other than God, God is holy and perfect. As one theologian put it – “God is not part of the furniture of the universe”[2] – God cannot be moved around or changed or refashioned according to human tastes because God is. And because God is, God is holy. It is as simple as that.

However, in thinking of God’s holiness, there is a tendency to slip into conceiving of God as remote and inaccessible – a divine tyrant out there somewhere who is narcissistically focused on His own holiness and generally uninterested in human history, unless it serves His own ends. Indeed, there are many who argue – wrongfully I might add – that this is the God portrayed in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. If we were to leave the definition of God’s holiness as remote transcendence, then this portrayal of God would be accurate.

Except, this is not the God who meets us in Scripture. This is not the God who comes to meet us in Jesus Christ.[3]

The very fact that God meets us in Scripture and that God comes to be with us in Christ is also reflective of God’s holiness.

Holiness is not simply a matter of who God is; holiness is equally a matter of how God is. In other words, God’s holiness is “the coincidence of his very being and act”.[4]

God is Triune: God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The persons of the Trinity are mutually self-giving; they exists in a divine dance of eternal self-emptying love, or what the early church Fathers called ‘perichoresis’. So, we could say that God exists as love from Godself to Godself.

This self-emptying love of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit pours itself out to us: “God is from Himself, and from himself God gives himself”.[5] God is holy because God gives himself and brings us into fellowship – into communion – with him. God is holy because He is God, utterly transcendent and singular, but God is holy because He is the God who comes to be with us and draws us into fellowship with Him. God’s holiness is intimacy: intimacy within Godself but also intimacy with humanity. This intimacy is what makes God’s holiness upsetting; if God’s holiness were simply a matter of divine transcendence, we can easily keep God at arms’ length. However, because God’s holiness is also a matter of intimacy, we often become desperate to push God away. God is holy because God can be seen and known by humans. Moreover, it is because God is holy in this way that humans can be made holy

God makes us holy by bringing us into reconciled fellowship and communion with Him. Holiness is not something we can achieve by being ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ or ‘moral’; holiness is a gift from God. God alone makes people and things holy. This is potentially terrifying because it exposes all our presumptions and pretentions about who we are as God’s people and what God is calling us to do. “‘You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy’ is a calling uttered in love by God” (Radner, 206).

The one, holy, and Triune God elects – chooses – a particular people to be holy. God calls this people to be a “holy nation and a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2.9; cf. Ex. 19.6). Indeed, God’s holiness is exemplified in His electing first Israel and then the Church into covenantal relationship in order to enact His purpose for the world. What is God’s purpose for the world? To reconcile all things to Himself and to bless all things.

That God chooses particular people for a particular purpose is scandalous to our modern sensitivities, curved as they are toward notions such as ‘inclusivity’, whatever that might mean. Nevertheless, God is holy in His electing love, scandalous as it may seem, because God chooses the few on behalf of the whole. God’s election of a few is not about who is ultimately ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ and it is certainly not for the elect to lord over others. The holy God sets apart a holy people for a holy purpose: to worship Him and to witness to the world about His salvation.

This is exactly what the laws and rituals of Leviticus are all about. We tend to stay away from Leviticus: it only shows up once in the three-year cycle of the lectionary. It is a peculiar and bloody book, full of strange rituals and what strike us as odd fixations with various bodily fluids, dietary requirements, and sexual taboos. And yet, this strangeness is precisely the point: God called Israel to be separate from the nations. God called Israel to be strange in the eyes of the world because they worshipped this God in this way. The requirements for ritual and moral cleanliness in Leviticus are preparing and directing God’s people into the way of holiness.

You see, all the ritual and ethical requirements of the Torah in general and Leviticus specifically are God’s way of preventing God’s chosen people from falling into idolatry on the one hand and injustice on the other. The worship of un-holy gods almost certainly results in injustice; and the inverse is also true: unjust practices almost certainly result in idolatry. Idolatry and injustice create a vicious cycle that divorces people from God and creates systems of exploitation. God’s purpose for the world is to put an end to all this, to destroy that which destroys His good and beloved creation. All the sacrificial and moral requirements of Leviticus point to and anticipate the way that God will enact His purpose: through the sacrifice of the unblemished and perfect Lamb – the sacrifice to end all sacrifices – the death of God the Son, Jesus Christ.

Although Christ’s death and resurrection put an end to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, the call to holiness and perfection remains in full effect. We are called to live in renewed and reconciled fellowship with God; this fellowship is intimate and begins with my recognition that God is holy in both His simple perfection but also in His closeness and desire for communion with me and indeed with all humanity, even those who seem to be anything but holy.

We are then called to walk in His ways, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We do so not by merely imitating Jesus as a moral example, but by participating in His ongoing life and ministry. Participating in Christ requires being in fellowship with other disciples as we worship together, hearing God’s words to us in Scripture and receiving the heavenly food that are Christ’s own body and blood. Participating in Christ means creating time in our lives for prayer and silent reflection, embracing intimacy with God as Christ himself did on earth, and as he does in his ongoing ministry as our heavenly high priest. To participate in Christ is to grow into what St. Paul describes as “the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4.13).

Furthermore, “Holiness is a calling to be with God where God is and where God goes” (Radner, 204). We know where God is because we know where Jesus was when He walked the earth: hanging out with outcasts and sinners, extending to them the lavish mercy and grace of God without condemning nor condoning their sinful actions. To be God’s holy people, therefore, requires that we embody God’s heart for outsiders, for the poor and lonely, and that we are willingly to take the risk of leaving the safety of our church walls in order to seek out the lost and share with them the good news of Jesus Christ. This is the priestly ministry for which God chose us and the reason why God is making us holy: that the world may know the holy, reconciling, and transforming love of God made known to us through Jesus Christ.

As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, may you know the sheer singularity of the Triune God and may you embrace the warm intimacy of this God as you grow into the image and likeness of Christ himself so that the world may see and know the love of God.

Amen.

[1] John Webster, The Grace of Truth, 200.
[2] The full quotation is “God is not part of the metaphysical furniture of the universe”, Stanley Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe.
[3] Cf. Mk. 1.24 and Lk. 4.34 where Jesus is identified as “the Holy One of Israel”.
[4] Ephraim Radner, Leviticus, 204.
[5] John Webster, God without Measure, 19.

Advent IV (A) – A Sermon

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RCL Texts: Isaiah 7.10-16; Psalm 80.1-7, 16-18; Romans 1.1-7; Matthew 1.(1-17)18-25.

I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Mary will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1.21).

St. Matthew’s account of the Gospel does not begin with a narrative ‘bang’. In fact, there’s very little that would hook a modern reader. The Gospel begins with a genealogy, more specifically, Jesus’ genealogy through the line of his earthly father, Joseph. This long list of difficult to pronounce names is omitted from the Lectionary, and while any potential reader is breathing a sigh of relief, this list of names, regardless of length and tounge-twisitng names, remains important. So important in fact, that Matthew begins his account of the Gospel with it.

I always wondered why Matthew was the first Gospel in the New Testament. Why not Mark, which is the Gospel that was written first. Or what about John’s account, with its opening chapter that offers a profound poetic description of Jesus? Or what about Luke, the historian with an eye for detail and historical fact? So why Matthew?

The simplest answer is Matthew’s account of the gospel is the most Jewish, which is to say Matthew’s primary target audience were his fellow Jews and he therefore emphasized aspects of Jewish theology and liturgy in order to clearly identify Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah promised to God’s people. Therefore, the gospel according to St. Matthew offers a natural ‘bridge’ between the Old and New Testaments.

But why start with a genealogy?

Well, as previously stated, Matthew’s goal is to identify Jesus as the promised Messiah. What better way to confirm this than through Jesus’ family tree. Matthew wants to highlight two things: that Jesus is the son of Abraham and that Jesus is the son of David. In other words, like Abraham, Jesus is the “ideal Israelite” (Keener, 51) who will fulfill God’s promise made to Abraham that in him “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12.3). Like David, Jesus is the true heir to the throne of Israel, and therefore the rightful king.

Yes, Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage through the men. However, regardless of what our modern sensitivities might make of this, there is no controversy here; this was common practice in a patrilineal culture. What is counter-culture is Matthew’s inclusion of five women, four of whom were embroiled in sexual scandals, and two of whom were Gentiles. None of this is to suggest that the 42 men mentioned where above repute; there are some scoundrels in this crowd as well.

So, how does including ethnic outsiders and less than virtuous men and women bolster Matthew’s case that Jesus is the Messiah? Wouldn’t it be better to simply omit the family tree, especially since Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father, and get on with telling about Jesus’ life and ministry, following Mark’s straightforward approach? Perhaps. But Matthew’s point in including the genealogy is meant to underline the reality and scandal of the Incarnation – the fact that God the Son came to earth to be born of a woman – to be fully human – and to live among us. Moreover, the genealogy Matthew provides is meant to make it clear that “so much is Jesus the focal point of history that his ancestors depend on him for their meaning” (Keener, 53). Therefore, the gospel is itself proclaimed in this genealogy because it implicitly tells the story of how God is at work in the lives of ordinary men and women and through them does extraordinary things, most importantly providing a human family for Jesus, the Messiah.

And why a Messiah? Verse 21 of the Gospel reading is very interesting: “you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”. His name will be Jesus because he will save people from their sins. Jesus is an English transliteration of the Greek Iasous which is a transliteration of the Hebrew Yeshua (which is in turn transliterated into English as Joshua). Yeshua means ‘Yahweh saves’. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. Jesus is Yahweh-with-us. This is precisely why Mary and Joseph had no option in what to name their boy; their son is God the Son, the God who saves and delivers his people.

And what from what does Jesus save his people? From their sin.

Sin remains the biggest problem the world faces. Indeed, all problems on earth – wars, political turmoil, climate change, hunger and poverty – boil down to sin. The world’s greatest need remains wholeness and healing that can only come through reconciliation with God. In order to save the people from sin and to restore us to communion with God, our neighbour and creation itself, God the Son, had to come to earth as a human, to live and die as a human, to be resurrected from the dead as a human. This is the scandal of the incarnation. And this is why Christmas is really not about fluffy sheep, angelic choirs, sentimental traditions, or stockings lined in a row. Christmas is about sin. More specifically, Christmas is about how God saves his people from sin and suffering. Christmas is about God’s plan to put the worlds to rights, about God’s desire to bring healing and wholeness to the world.

God brings His healing and wholeness to the world through the most unexpected means: through an infant born to a virgin, through living and dying and rising again as a human. Jesus’ life on earth begins with a mom and a dad. But more than that, his life begins through Mary’s conception by the Holy Spirit. There are those who remain scandalized by the Virgin Birth, as though Mary herself was unware of how babies are made. Nevertheless, Matthew treats Mary’s pregnancy not as a far-flung conspiracy that needs intricate justification, but rather as simple fact. Matthew does not back up his outstanding claim with medical charts nor does he attempt to respond to cynics with careful arguments; Matthew simply backs up his claim by appealing to Scripture. Matthew is confident that the same Word who spoke through the prophet Isaiah is the same Word who created everything our of nothing who is the same Word that Mary carried in her Womb. Mary, like Matthew, accepts this Word in faith.

Not only is Mary is final name mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy, as Matthew makes it clear she is part of the fulfilment of Scripture. Indeed, the child she bears is the fulfilment of the entirety of Scripture and the culmination of human history.

For this reason, Mary is central in God’s story of salvation. Unfortunately, “Mary finds no place in many theologies”. Her faith is “reduced to an abstraction, an abstraction that doesn’t need a mother” (Ratzinger). And yet, Mary is important because Jesus is important. Mary is the Second Eve, the one through whom the Second Adam is born. St. Paul calls Jesus the ‘Second Adam’, the one in whom grace and eternal life are found. The Second Adam did not come from heaven like a lightning bolt or a divine apparition; he came as a child, born to a Virgin.

Because Mary is Jesus mother, she is our mother as well. Her faith in receiving God’s word – that she, a virgin, would have a child despite the seeming impossibility of this – is exemplary. Her “may it be so according to your word” is the essence of faith for all those whom Christ calls his brothers and sisters. In this way, Mary is the mother of our faith and therefore should have a central place in our theology. To be clear, giving a clear and central place to Mary in our theology is not the imposition of Roman Catholicism into the Anglican Church; rather, it is faithfulness to Scripture and the traditions with which we’ve been entrusted.

And what of Joseph, Jesus’ earthly step-father if you will? Joseph’s faith is also exemplary. He too receives the word of the Lord at face value and does as he is commanded. Therefore, Joseph should not be reduced to a secondary character either; his role in God’s story of salvation is central as well, and not only because of his family tree. The sheer fact that Jesus was born into a family of husband and wife is a clear indicator of the way in which God orders human relationships and does so toward human flourishing. The family unit of husband, wife, and children is central not only to the propagation of the species, but also the God’s story of salvation. Simply put, the story of Jesus’ birth makes it clear that families matter to God. It is through families that God works his plan of salvation.

Therefore, we rightly celebrate Christmas as a time for families to gather. However, for many Christmas is a time that exacerbates the sting of the loss of a beloved family member or amplifies the pain of family brokenness. For many, Christmas is not a time of joyous celebration brought on by the hustle-and-bustle of the season, but rather is a time of anguish and agony. If anything, Christmas is a season to be avoided, to stay away from others, lest the pain become overwhelming.

The sorrow experienced by so many at Christmas is evidence of the brokenness of our world, an indication that we need healing and wholeness. Indeed, we need only consider Jesus’ family tree to see that family brokenness is not a modern phenomenon. It is precisely for this reason that Jesus came into the world: to free us from our brokenness and to make the world whole once again.

Advent is a time of waiting and preparation. Today on this the fourth Sunday of Advent, our waiting and preparation is nearing an end; Christmas is almost here. And yet, amidst the brokenness of our world, our waiting and preparation remain ongoing beyond Advent. We wait and prepare for the Second Advent of Christ, the one born of a Virgin, who will come again to put the world back into its proper order.

As the sisters and brothers of Christ, those adopted into God’s household, may we as a church family embody the reconciling love of Christ by reaching out to the broken and inviting them into God’s family where they may receive forgiveness and healing.

So, come let us celebrate his coming among us as a child and come, let us longingly await his coming again that he might save us from our sins.

Amen.

Advent I – A Sermon

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Chatsworth, ON.

RCL Texts: Isaiah 2.1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13.11-14; Matthew 24.36-44

“Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matt. 24.42). These words of Jesus seem rather ominous and may strike us with a sense of fear and anxiety. Talking about the end of the world is certainly not a cheerful topic for polite conversation and thinking about the apocalypse does not typically put people in a positive frame of mind. So why begin this New Year, at least as it is on the Christian Calendar, this first Sunday of Advent on such a seemingly negative passage? After all, isn’t Advent a time to prepare for Christmas?

The context of today’s Gospel reading is similarly bleak: in the preceding and following verses, Jesus preaches parables about the coming of the Son of Man, prophesies about the destruction of the Temple, and talks about the signs of the end of the world and the judgment of the nations. Moreover, Jesus frames his words within a reference to the story of Noah, which is hardly a cute-and-cuddly tale of a floating zoo as often depicted in children’s’ picture books. These are not the kind of things we like to associate with Jesus; after all, isn’t the core of his preaching essentially ‘be nice to one another’, especially as we look forward to Christmas?

The truth of the matter is that Jesus is not trying to ratchet up the anxiety of his disciples or attempting to get them to live in fear. Indeed, Jesus is doing the exact opposite; he is telling the disciples to hold fast to God’s promises. Jesus is waking us up from our cultural slumber to face the reality of His coming again. Just as Jesus’ coming at Christmas some 2000 years ago was good news for the world, so too is Jesus’ second coming good news. However, this is precisely part of the problem: while we can pinpoint the date of Christmas, we cannot predict, despite the attempts of many self-proclaimed prophets throughout history, the date of Jesus’ second coming. And it is this unknowing that is the source of anxiety for some and complete apathy for others. Jesus is addressing both this anxiety and apathy in telling his disciples, both then and now, to be alert, to be watchful, to be ready.

Jesus is not giving his disciples good advice; he is commanding them to “keep awake”. This command is meant to open his disciples’ eyes to the reality of God’s promised future. Last week, I suggested that the beginning of the end of the world began on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. I want to expand this thought: the end of the end of the world begins with Jesus’ second coming and it is for this coming that we must be ready. The Christian calendar, which begins today, is an essential part of preparing ourselves for Christ’s return because the Christian calendar reminds us not only that human history revolves around Jesus Christ, but also that Christ holds human time – and therefore each and every one of us – in his loving hands. As we prepare for Christmas during the season of Advent, so too we are preparing for Christ’s second coming. As we prepare for Easter during the season of Lent, so too we prepare for Christ’s glorious appearance where he will restore all things. As we journey through the long period after Pentecost, we learn the virtue of patient waiting.

Patience is key to Jesus’ command to ‘keep alert’, otherwise our anxiety may lead us in facile attempts to predict the future. On the contrary, apocalyptic language and imagery is “not an invitation for [Jesus’] followers to try to predict the future, but to help his disciples to learn to live in the presence of the one who has come” (Hauerwas, Matthew, 204). Although Jesus ascended to heaven, he remains with his disciples through the Holy Spirit, a presence that is most intimately realized in the Eucharist. While we await Christ’s coming again in glory, he do not await in lonely isolation; Christ is here with us and remains with us through his earthly body, the Church. Indeed, Jesus’ disciples, “like Noah, are called to build an ark, even if it is not raining. The name given to that ark is the Church” (Hauerwas, 206).

In his time, Noah was surrounded by what one commentator calls “secular indifference to God and God’s ways” (Bruner, Matthew). This indifference was present in Jesus’ day and it remains alive and well in our time. Indifference and cultural complacency can easily work their way into the Church when that Church refuses to keep awake. Apathy abounds in a Church that does not have a clear sense of its mission. Like the ark, the Church is a protective space. However, this protection is not born of fear; the protective nature of the church is rooted in its conviction that “the words of Jesus will keep disciples alive” (Bruner, 521). The words of Jesus are the very words of Scripture; Scripture is one of the gifts given by God to the Church so that the Church will ‘keep awake’. Therefore, the Church is properly protective insofar as it is formative, which is a fancy way of saying that one of the primary purposes of the Church is the formation of disciples who are properly equipped to go into a world that is both at times hostile and indifferent in order to preach the gospel.

And what is this gospel? Christ has died for the forgiveness of sins. Christ rose again to conquer death. Christ will come again to establish his heavenly kingdom on earth. We gather as Church in order to hear this message over and over and over again so that as we are evangelized by the gospel, we may in turn share this gospel. The Church itself, in its worship and witness, is meant to give the world but a small taste of God’s promise future, a future lived in communion with God, a future where enemies become friends, where healing abounds, and where joyous praise resounds. However, both anxiety about the future and apathy about the gospel will stand in the way of our preparation and formation. Therefore, keep alert. Be ready. Be prepared.

The Church is comprised of people who “know what time it is”; we know that “now is the moment for us to wake from sleep” (Rom. 13.11). A life of discipleship is not for the “careless and clueless” (Bruner); it is not for sleepers; it is not for those content to follow the ways of the world. “Disciples are called to follow their Lord in a certain eschatological agnosticism, not knowing when the end will occur” (Bruner). Therefore, Christian discipleship requires a courage born of the assurance that whatever may transpire, whether good or ill, that ultimately God holds the future in His hands. As someone once remarked: “Christians are in sales, not management” (as quoted in Bruner, 522).

Not only are we called to be ready and waiting for Christ’s return, we are to do so in eager anticipation. Martin Luther once said “Christians should live as if Jesus has died this morning, risen this afternoon, and was coming this evening”. How we respond to this thought exercise will offer us a direct insight into the shape of our discipleship.

If our response is anxiety, the question is: why are we anxious? Are we assuming that we can and should bend history to our desires? Are we worried about a future that is out of our control?

If our response is apathy, the question is: why are we indifferent? What has captured our imaginations? What is the source of our distraction?

Noah knew what was about to happen; he heard the word of the Lord and prepared accordingly. Unlike those around him who were lulled into a sense of complacency and false assurance that everything is fine, there were no surprises for Noah.

The Church prepares for the Lords return by watching for the Lord to meet us in our neighbour, in our enemy, in the poor, and in the person who desperately needs to hear the gospel. As disciples, we prepare by living our lives not under the complacent assumption that everything is fine and dandy, but rather with the sure and certain hope that despite all appearances to the contrary, that Christ is Lord of past, present, and future and that he will come again.

Origen, a second century theologian, once said “In a sense, the end of the world has already come for the person to whom the world is crucified…And to the one who is dead to worldly things, the Day of the Lord has already arrived” (thanks to Fr. Jonathan Turtle for sharing these quotations). To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be baptized into His death and to live into the reality of resurrected life. To die to the things of the world is to live in the light of Christ’s heavenly glory. Dying to the selfish desires of self and to the lure of the world is exceedingly difficult, nay impossible; indeed this kind of dying is not something we can do through our own strength. However, through Christ, all things are possible, including the dying to self. This is exactly why Christ calls us to ‘keep alert’: it is only in fixing our eyes on Him, the author and finisher of our salvation, that we will have the strength to stay awake and prepare ourselves for his coming.

Christ may not return in during your or my lifetime or even that of my children or grandchildren. Nevertheless, even if he does not, you and I will still meet Him face to face upon our deaths. Therefore, as His disciples, we spend our lives preparing to meet Him, not with dread or uncertainty, but with joyful and hopeful anticipation. Joy and hope are contagious – they bubble out and impact everyone within reach. As a Church, joy and hope should be at the centre of our lives, both corporately and individually. When joy and hope are at the centre, neither anxiety nor apathy will gain a foothold. Joy and hope are gifts God gives to us to help us prepare for Christ’s coming precisely by sharing these gifts with the world.

This Advent, I invite you to reclaim the joy and hope of Christ and to put them at the centre of your life so that you may “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” and share his love with the world in anticipating of his coming again.

Amen.