Category Archives: Preaching

Faith & works

A homily preached on Wednesday 9 July at Holy Trinity, Brancepeth, as part of our series on the Letter of James.

James 2:14-26

Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Tonight’s message from James is challenging to us, as people who say they have the Christian faith.

We might ask ourselves, ‘Am I doing enough good works to show that I have the kind of true, living faith that James says I need to have?’

We might feel a certain pressure to do more good works or to be a better person in order to reassure ourselves that our faith is not dead, but alive.

But to react that way would be to miss the point.

After all, James doesn’t urge us to add good works to our faith.

James says that true faith and good works always go together naturally.

We’re made acceptable in God’s sight by our faith alone. But true, living faith never remains alone – it naturally produces good works, just like a living tree always yields fruit or leaves.

If we were to try to add good works to a questionable faith, that would be something like taping fake fruit to a dying tree to try to make it look alive. It would be very obviously artificial, and completely futile; and it would probably hasten the death of the tree.

So how do we know if we have this true, living faith?

We’ll always doubt if we simply focus on ourselves and try to count up all our good works. In fact, if you do that, it’s a clear sign your faith is dead – like a flower that closes in on itself and blocks the light it needs to survive.

Rather, we must open ourselves, we must focus on the One in whom we have faith, Jesus Christ Himself.

Of all the people who’ve ever lived, only Jesus had enough faith and did enough good works to be wholly righteous in God’s sight. That’s because Jesus is the Son of God and the true and perfect heir of both Abraham and Rahab – the two OT figures James mentions as examples of people made righteous by their faith along with their works.

As for you and I, if we’re honest, we have to admit that, in and of ourselves, our faith in God is weak, our good works are feeble, and our character & motivations imperfect at best.

But friends, the good news is that we don’t have faith and do good works and in and of ourselves. We have faith and do good works in and through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

James says that the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. Indeed, our faith, our works and our bodies are all spiritually dead.

But as Peter says, Jesus Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness (1 Peter 2:24).

And as Paul says, If Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you (Romans 8:10-11).

Admit that your own faith and works are dead; and trust in Jesus Christ. This is the true, living faith. All who believe this are filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to do good works in Christ’s Name. They become living, Spirit-filled members of Christ’s mystical body.

For as the body of Christ filled with the Holy Spirit is alive, so also your faith and works shall be alive in Him.

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘Cast all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you.’

The Collect for the Third Sunday after Trinity:

O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to hear us; and grant that we, to whom thou hast given an hearty desire to pray, may by thy mighty aid be defended and comforted in all dangers and adversities; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

A homily preached at Holy Communion on the Third Sunday after Trinity, Sunday 6 July A.D. 2014.

1 Peter 5:5-11; Luke 15:1-10

Introduction

Our prayer of the day is all about prayer; and it assumes that praying  is something we want and need to do – something on which we depend, something we enjoy, and something we do often.

According to this prayer – the collect for the Third Sunday after Trinity – God has ‘given us an hearty desire to pray.’

But is this really true? How much, or how deeply, or how often, do you really desire to pray? Ask yourself that question.

As a priest, prayer is my job; and even I must confess that my desire to do so is not always there; and even when it is, it’s not necessarily ‘hearty’ or strong.

So, then, is today’s collect simply wrong? Maybe it should say that God has given us, not ‘an hearty,’ but rather, an occasional desire to pray; or, a desire to pray on an as-needed basis. Wouldn’t that be more accurate?

Well, it might be more honest about our day-to-day experience; but it can’t possibly be true.

It cannot possibly be true that God would have given us a weak or defective desire to pray. Our Creator has hard-wired into our souls a deep, strong, and hearty desire to pray; the problem is that this good desire is suppressed by something bad – something that tells us we don’t really need to pray.

And that something is pride. Our pride tells us that our life is our own, that we’re in control and that we can manage it well enough on our own.

If that were really the case, then no, we would not need to pray.

But if we’re honest with ourselves – and if we think back to our past and remember the hard times we’ve been through – then I think we’ll see that we really did not and cannot manage on our own. We simply cannot deal with all the things life throws at us through our own strength and wisdom.

So then, we really do have this hard-wired, hearty desire to pray; but that desire is choked by the grip of our pride; and it’s only through suffering that our pride can be gradually chipped away throughout our lives. Only then can our soul’s hearty desire for prayer breathe again.

That’s why our prayer of the day asks God to comfort and defend us in all dangers and adversities – not from them.

Suffering is actually good for us in so far as it breaks down our pride and delusion of self-sufficiency and reminds us of our dependence on God, who, as we heard, cares for us and will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish us.

1 Peter 5:5-11; Luke 15:1-10

Those were the words of Peter from our first lesson – a lesson that encourages us in the way of humility, the very opposite of pride.

As Peter says, Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, ‘For God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’

As we said earlier, pride suppresses our desire for honest prayer – it discourages us from communicating with God. So you can see why He would oppose it:

Pride keeps us from God, who wants to be close to us.

That’s why Peter encourages us to humble ourselves […] by casting all our anxieties on Him.

To pray honestly and openly; to express our needs to God; to beseech Him mercifully to hear us; to ask that His ‘mighty aid’ would defend and comfort us ‘in all dangers and adversities’; to draw near to God and pray in this way is an act of humility – the very opposite of pride.

We see this contrast between humility and pride play out in today’s gospel  reading:

The tax collectors and sinners – who are humbled by their guilt, shame and rejection – draw near to Jesus to hear Him. Meanwhile the proud Pharisees and scribes can only grumble and condemn Jesus and His humble audience.

In response, Jesus tells two parables: the shepherd who seeks and finds his lost sheep; and the woman who seeks diligently in her house to find her lost coin.

Jesus uses both of these parables to show how God seeks out lost people (like the tax collectors and sinners) and how God rejoices when such people repent.

So Jesus says these parables are about repentance.

Normally we think of repentance as something that we must do to restore our relationship with God.

It’s about stopping and turning around from going down a path of sin; and turning back to God. That’s true; but here, in today’s readings from Peter and Luke, we learn two prior things about repentance:

First, repentance is about being humbled and turning back to God in prayer.

The first and most basic step in repentance is to humble ourselves and cast all our anxieties on God. That’s because our pride is the first and most basic sin from which we must repent.

So that’s the first point: to repent is to humble ourselves before God.

But secondly, even though Jesus says these parables are about repentance, we don’t actually see any repentance taking place on the part of the lost objects.

The sheep and the coin simply get lost. They don’t find themselves and humbly turn back to their owner. No, the shepherd and the woman, respectively, seek them out and find them. The action is all on the part of the one who’s doing the seeking.

As Jesus says, repentance involves being sought out and found by God.

And as we learn from Peter, repentance involves turning from pride and prayerfully humbling oneself under the mighty hand of God.

So it seems that there’s something of a two-step cycle to repentance: God does His part – seeking and finding us; and we humans do our part – humbling ourselves and turning back to God. You need both steps, both directions, to complete the cycle.

Friends, the gospel, the good news, is that Jesus Christ accomplishes both of these steps and completes the cycle for us.

God the Father sent Jesus, not only to find us, who were lost in pride and sin, but He sent Jesus also to humble Himself in our place.

 Jesus ‘humbled Himself under the mighty hand of God, [He] entrusted Himself radically into God’s hand, and endured shame, suffering and death, in order that in Him, we might also humble ourselves and trust God (Harink)

Our humbling, repentance, our turning back to God, happens in Christ and through Christ.

Jesus initiated this in His life of perfect humility & obedience. He completed it in His death. And now He fulfills it in us  through His Resurrection and Ascension. Jesus prays for us at the Father’s right hand in heaven; and He sends upon us His Holy Spirit to give us a new, hearty desire to pray  with a humility full of joy and thanksgiving.

Conclusion

As Peter wrote earlier in his letter: You were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of you souls (1 Pet. 2:25)

Jesus Christ is the Great Shepherd, who was sent to seek and find us who had gone astray in pride and sin.

And yet this Great Shepherd humbled Himself completely by becoming the sheep who was lost in our place – lost even to death.

Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who sacrificed Himself so that we could never be lost forever.

Friends, in just a few minutes, we will receive Holy Communion: the Lamb of God who grants us His peace by taking away the sin of the world and of our proud hearts. To receive this Communion is to turn from pride, from self-centeredness, from believing that we can manage our own lives. To receive this Lamb of God is to humble ourselves – to share in His glorious humility.

So as you prepare to do this, be sure to cast all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you.

In this Holy Communion Jesus Christ makes good on His promise to Himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you.

For that, thanks be to God. Amen.

Sources consulted

Douglas Harink, 1 & 2 Peter (Brazos, 2009), p. 126.

Entering the Passion

A homily preached on Palm Sunday, 13 April A.D. 2014.

Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 21:1-11; 27:1-54

I speak to you in the Name of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Amen.

Introduction

On Palm Sunday we read our Passion Gospel as a script, with all of us playing different parts.

Except to put it that way is not quite right, because we were not merely acting or reading lines, but rather we entered into the story in a very real way.

Or another way to say it is this: We didn’t just read the story, but as I hope we’ll see today, the story reads us, and shows us who we really are and who we must become.

That is what today and this upcoming Holy Week are all about for us: Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh (John 1:14) and the author of our salvation (Heb. 5:9) draws us into the story of His final days and give us eyes to see ourselves  as He sees us.

Indeed, this Holy Week will be meaningless to us  if we fail to see ourselves in this story. So today I’d simply like to go through some of the key people we meet in this story and take a look at what each of them shows us about ourselves.

Matthew 21:1-11; 27:1-54

We begin with the crowd of people in our Palm Gospel. As the Lord of heaven & earth rides into Jerusalem on a humble beast of burden, the crowd spreads palm branches before Him on the road. Not only would these have made for a softer ride, but in ancient Israel palm branches were used as symbols of victory and celebration.

And as they wave these branches, they shout, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ ‘Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord’ ‘Hosanna in the highest!’

This word ‘Hosanna’ means ‘Save us’ or ‘Help us now;’ And so to say ‘Hosanna in the highest’ is asking God to pull out all the stops, to use His highest and best resources to save & help us in the deepest, best  and most complete way possible.

So the crowd shows us that we here today who have come to Jesus to pray to Him often have a very strong yearning for Him to fulfill our deepest desires, to fix our biggest problems, and to heal our most painful wounds.

We may not always express this as boisterously as the crowd; we may not always know exactly what we’re asking, and we probably won’t realize at first that the real problem is within ourselves (as we’ll see), but I think we all have a hope and an expectation for God to save us and help us, or else we wouldn’t be here.

Let’s move on to our Passion Gospel. After the religious leaders hand Jesus over to the governor to be crucified, the first person we meet is Judas, His betrayer.

Does Judas show us anything about ourselves? As hard as it may be to accept, yes he does. He shows us two things: first, how we betray Jesus; and second, the unhealthy ways we deal with our guilt & shame.

First, to betray means to be disloyal; and in so far as we are all broken & imperfect and willingly give into temptation and do things we know to be harmful & wrong, we all betray something of the truth and goodness of the One who created us in His image. Simply put, we are disloyal to God, our Maker and our Master.

And when we become aware of our guilt, like Judas, we don’t always deal with it in a good way. Judas admits his wrong by saying, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ But he despairs,  presumably because he doubts the goodness and power of God to forgive him. He despairs because he fails to turn back to Jesus Himself.

But Judas is not the only one to blame for this. After all, he does go to the clergy (in the church) to confess his sin, but they are cold, uncaring and unhelpful, saying, ‘What is that to us? See to it yourself.’

The clergy fail to direct him into the loving and merciful arms of God, saying rather that it’s up to him to deal with his own guilt & shame, which of course, is something that none of us can do.

So here the message (and the warning) is not so much for you, but for me and all clergy. Religious leadership that is uncaring, harshly unforgiving, and more concerned with itself and its own power than with God, is particularly bad way to betray Jesus.

The next three people we encounter are Pontius Pilate, the governor, his wife, and Barabbas, the criminal who was freed instead of Jesus.

Pilate gives in to the murderous demands  of the crowd and the religious leaders and then proclaims his innocence. He reminds us of how we often go along with the crowd (the world) and fail to honour Jesus publicly with our words. Pilate shows us that we too try to deny our sin and stubbornly insist that we are innocent.

While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, ‘Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of Him in a dream.’

Pilate’s wife shows us that Jesus and His righteousness are relentless and inescapable. As much as we may try to get away from Him, and the right relationship with God that only He can offer, we simply cannot.

Next up is Barabbas; and I would say that of all the people on this list, he marks the turning point for us.

If Judas and the religious leaders show us our sin & betrayal; and if Pilate and his wife show us how we try to cover this up, but cannot, then Barabbas shows us very simply, that Jesus took our place and the punishment that we deserved.

Jesus, the innocent one, was condemned and killed, so that we, the guilty, could made righteous and free.

The last person in this story I want to look at is Simon of Cyrene, the one compelled to carry to cross of Jesus.

For us here today who can see and admit that like Judas, we are have betrayed Jesus; that like Pilate, we have denied this fact; that like his wife, we’ve found we cannot escape Jesus; and that finally, like Barabbas, Jesus has died for us – if we can see and admit these hard truths, then we are compelled to live the life of Christian discipleship. That is, we are compelled like Simon to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. We are compelled to carry the cross.

Earlier Jesus told His disciples, If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt 16:24-5).

To take up the cross and so lose our life for Christ’s sake means to die to our old self-centered & destructive ways some of which we mentioned earlier: sin, betrayal, denial and so on.

Friends during this Holy Week, we journey with  Jesus to the Cross on Good Friday and to His glorious Resurrection on Easter Sunday. And the purpose of that journey for us  is to be led the place in our hearts  where we can say together with St. Paul: I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live,  but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.

Now I realize that crucifixion (and death) is a strong and shocking way to describe the change and transformation that’s meant to happen to us this week (and more generally as we come to faith in Christ).

But the more we focus on Jesus dying for us on the cross, the more our old self will die away; and the more our lives will be directed & strengthened day-by-day and moment-by-moment by the One who died and rose again so that we could find new, abundant, joyous and everlasting life in Him.

For that, thanks be to God. Amen.

Passion & prayer

A homily preached at Holy Communion on the Fifth Sunday in Lent (Passion Sunday), 6 April A.D. 2014.

Hebrews 9:11-15; Psalm 143:1-10; Matthew 20:20-28.

I speak to you in the Name of Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8). Amen.

 Introduction

Today is traditionally called Passion Sunday; and the word Passion comes from the Latin word, ‘to suffer.’

So this morning I want to consider, just very briefly, how we as Christians are to pray in the midst of our own suffering; and to do that I’d like to take a look at our Psalm. Let’s go through it together verse by verse in a simple, straightforward fashion.

Psalm 143:1-10

Hear my prayer, O LORD; give ear to my pleas for mercy! / In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness!

We begin very simply by praying to the Lord and asking Him to hear us and help us. That may seem like a very obvious place to start, but so often we forget to ask and either try to fix the problem ourselves or just give up in despair.

So once we remember to ask, we make our appeal to God on the basis of His faithfulness and His righteousness. So then we pray with confidence because God if good and loving, and has promised never to forsake us.

Enter not into judgment with your servant, / for no one living is righteous before you.

The idea here is that we often feel unworthy even to pray to God and ask Him for help. But we can take comfort in knowing that everyone else is in the same boat.

For the enemy has pursued my soul; he has crushed my life to the ground; / he has made me sit in darkness like those long dead. Therefore my spirit faints within me; my heart within me is desolate.

Now, this Psalm was written by King David and he certainly had many enemies who tried to kill him. That’s how we tend to think of the word ‘enemy.’ So for that reason we will probably often feel as though we don’t have any enemies. But an enemy can be anyone with whom you are angry, anyone for whom you harbour resentment and find hard to forgive.

And actually, an enemy doesn’t even have to be a person. Paul says that our struggle is not against flesh and blood (people) but against things that may be unseen, but are no less real. I’m talking about things like addiction, depression & mental illness, or any kind of illness or injury, feelings of guilt and shame, loneliness, painful memories from the past, the various burdens we bear at home or at work, and our sinful desires. All of these things and others pursue us relentlessly, they catch us, and pull us down into the ground, making us feel as though we’re surrounded by utter darkness with no light anywhere in sight. So our spirits and hearts are exhausted and defeated.

Friends, all of us have an enemy of one kind or another. What’s yours?

I remember the days of old; I meditate on all that you have done; / I ponder the work of your hands.

And now we’ve come to the turning point in our Psalm. When we’re suffering in the ways we’ve been talking about, we really have nothing to lean on other than calling to mind and meditating on the fact that God has brought us (and others) through similar situations in before. If not for our memory of God’s work in the past, we would have no hope in the present or in the future.

I stretch out my hands to you; / my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Answer me quickly, O LORD! My spirit fails! / Hide not your face from me, lest I be like those who go down to the pit.

These are the two most important verses in the Psalm. As we said, we need to ponder the work of God’s hands and remember how He has faithfully brought us through suffering in the past.

But above all else, we must remember and meditate on the fact that only because Jesus Christ had His outstretched hands nailed to the cross, can we now stretch out our arms in prayer for mercy.

Only because Jesus Christ on the cross said, ‘I thirst’ and was given vinegar to drink and only because He gave up His spirit when He breathed His last, can we now receive the Holy Spirit as an endless fountain of living water to quench even our most parched wounds.

Only because God the Father first hid His face from Jesus, who said ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,’ can we be assured that God will never forsake us.

Only Jesus Christ went down to the pit and rose again triumphantly can we to have victory over the grave.

In these two verses, our voice amazingly becomes one with that of Jesus in His passion; and that, friends, gives us an unshakeable comfort in all our affliction and a sure hope for deliverance.

Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love, for in you I trust. / Make me know the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.

Because God the Father raised Jesus from the dead on Easter morning, we see that His love is so steadfast that it goes beyond the abandonment and pain of the Cross.

And as we saw earlier, because Jesus stands in our place and His words become one with ours, the same goes for us. We can trust God entirely and be assured of His steadfast love for us in the midst of even great suffering; and with that, we can trust that He will lead us and guide us as we continue to lift up our souls to Him in prayer.

Deliver me from my enemies, O LORD! / I have fled to you for refuge.

The power of Christ’s Resurrection working in us through the Holy Spirit is stronger than any of our enemies. In Him alone do we find refuge and protection.

And finally, Teach me to do your will, for you are my God! / Let your good Spirit lead me on level ground!  Or lead me into the land of righteousness.

The confidence we gain from Christ’s death & Resurrection – and answered prayer in our own times of suffering – inspires us to lift up our souls to God more and more. We learn to seek only His will for our lives; and we learn to depend on the Holy Spirit for guidance and to keep us upright, level and grounded in this life, until we are led through the grave to promised land of righteousness, where we shall live with Christ forever. For that, thanks be to God. Amen

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil

A sermon preached at morning prayer & Holy Communion on the First Sunday in Lent, 9 March A.D. 2014.

Hebrews 4:14-5:10; Matthew 4:1-11

Collect for Lent ILORD, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights; Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness, to thy honour and glory, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.

I speak to you in the Name of Jesus Christ, who in every way was tempted as we are, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15). Amen.

Our Gospel reading today focuses on our Lord’s temptation by Satan after His 40 days and nights of fasting in the wilderness. Jesus had just been baptized by John in the river Jordan; and immediately afterwards the Holy Spirit descended upon Him; and God the Father declared Him to be His Son, in whom He was well pleased.

So if Jesus’ baptism was the announcement of His ministry – and the moment when He was set apart and empowered for His life’s mission of service to the world –  then His time in the wilderness was His training and preparation  for this ministry.

And friends, because this happened to Jesus, the same now goes for us: our baptism was the point at which we became disciples of Jesus and were joined to Him by faith and the Holy Spirit. We were welcomed into God’s family and declared to be sons & daughters of God the Father. That means that when God looks upon you, He can say to you what He said to Jesus that day: ‘You are my beloved son or daughter, in whom I am well pleased.’

No matter what we do or have done, God hates nothing that He has made – in fact, He loves us unconditionally.

And so with that reminder of who we are (beloved children of God); and of what we do (follow Jesus in faith); and of what empowers us to do it (the Holy Spirit), let`s consider the purpose of these 40 days of Lent for us:

Simply put, this season of Lent is meant to be for us what fasting in the wilderness was for Jesus – a time of disciplining and training as children of God

Our Lenten quest is to enter into the mystery of Christ`s death and Resurrection; to have this made more real to our lives by dying to sin and growing in our likeness to Him, so to be prepared more-and-more to see the vision of His heavenly glory, when we shall finally be made like Him in His eternal & glorious kingdom on the last day. That is the purpose of this season of Lent.

And so in order for this to happen, these 40 days are meant to be for us  an opportunity to journey through the wilderness of our souls – that is, to become aware of all the ways in which we are far from God.

You and I must come to terms with how we fall prey to the very temptations that Jesus Himself resisted; and then to draw near to Him ask for His mercy and grace to help in time of need.

For, as we heard, we do not have a high priest who is unable  to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.

In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus is tempted by Satan in three different ways; and we are meant to see these as being basically the same as the temptations that we also suffer in our lives.

Note that in each case, Jesus responds with a sentence from Scripture – which shows us that, in general, the key to resisting temptation and growing in our likeness to Christ is to be rooted & grounded in the Word of God.

So then let’s take a look at each of these temptations in turn and consider how we fall prey to them in our lives:

First, we are tempted us where we are the weakest. After 40 days and nights fasting, Matthew describes Jesus as being hungry  (which is probably quite the understatement) and so Satan, preying upon this weakness, says to Jesus, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’

So basically what Satan is saying to Jesus is this: `In your baptism you were declared to be the Son of God and filled with the Holy Spirit, so prove it. I know you`re are desperately hungry and need to eat,  so prove that you are who you`re supposed to be by working a little miracle and coming up with some bread.`

But Jesus answers, `It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.`

Yes, we need food in order to live, but we also need God`s Word  for our nourishment, health and well-being. So our first task in this season of Lent is to ask ourselves how we have given in to the hunger in our hearts and the temptation to consume spiritual food other than that of God’s Word.

Where do you seek your energy, satisfaction and strength other than the simple bread & butter of the Bible? What is the fast food or the junk food or the rotten food in your spiritual diet? How is it damaging your well-being?

It could be obviously bad things (like drunkenness, fornication, greed) or it could be good things that we over-value and idolize (like family or work).

Our calling during this season of Lent is go on a diet from these things (whatever they are for you) and give ourselves a healthy helping of God’s Word, learning to feed on it like bread.

So in the first temptation, Jesus rebukes Satan with His total reliance on the Word of God, and so then Satan responds by trying to use that very Word against Him.

As we heard, Then the devil took [Jesus] to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 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.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’

I think our Lord’s response says it all: If you demand that God prove Himself to you by doing something wonderful in your life, then you’re not letting God be God. If you test in this way God, then you don’t trust Him.

So the question is,’ Do you follow God? or do you rather insist that God follow you?’ (Bruner).

Finally, we come to the third temptation.

As we heard, Then the devil took [Jesus] to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And He said to Him, ‘All these I will give to you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 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.’

There are at least a couple of ways to look at this one.

The first is similar to the second temptation: trying to use God for our own ends For example, praying to God, not simply to be in relationship with Him, but to get things from Him. They might even be good things (like health & protection), but if they’re all we’re after, then we’re trying to take advantage of God and we’re not really loving Him for who He is.

But specifically, this is the temptation is the temptation of power and control. I must confess that this is a big one for me: I need to feel as though I’m in the driver’s seat; I get very nervous and frustrated and irritable when things are out of my control. That old saying, ‘Let go and let God,’ is a tough one for me swallow.

Maybe I’m not alone: during these 40 days, consider where you have trouble letting go and letting God take control. It’s an important exercise in patience and trust in God.

So these are the three main temptations to which Christian can fall prey:

  1.  to rely on things other than God’s Word;
  2. to test God or to try to use Him for our own ends;
  3. and the temptation of power and to be in control.

In this story, Matthew shows us what the author of Hebrews tells us, that Jesus learns obedience by suffering & resisting temptation in these ways. For us, who have fallen prey to these same temptations in our lives, in this season of Lent, may we learn to put our faith & trust not in our own efforts of self-improvement, but in His obedience in our place – an obedience that lasted even to the Cross. And with that, may we lean on His strength alone – the strength of His Resurrection –  so that we may walk in newness of life and with renewed resistance to all manner of temptations that beset us.

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources

Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: a commentary.

 

True Religion

A sermon preached at morning prayer on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 9 February A.D. 2014.

Amos 8:4-14; Psalm 148; Psalm 149; John 7:14-36

Collect for Epiphany V: O LORD, we beseech thee to keep thy Church and household continually in thy true religion; that they who do lean only upon the hope of thy heavenly grace may evermore be defended by thy mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I speak to you in the Name of Jesus Christ, for from His fullness we have all received grace upon grace (John 1:16). Amen.

In our prayer of the day, we asked God that He would keep us in His true religion. True religion is something very important for us to consider as religious, church-going people, because false religion is an ever-present danger for us.

When people (be they Christian or non-Christian) use the word ‘religion’ or religious,’ I always worry that what they have in mind basically amounts to false religion. To take an example I heard recently: ‘(So-and-so) may not go to church very often, they may not be all that religious, but they’re still good people.’

Now, there are two assumptions behind this statement that I think are very common: First: to go to church is what it means to be religious; and second: religion and church are where you’ll find good people. (And so because these particular people this person had in mind are ‘good’ even though they aren’t religious, they’re something of a notable exception to the rule).

The problem with these assumptions is that church attendance and an outward display of goodness can actually either be signs of true religion or false religion.

So how do we know the difference?

Well, our Old Testament reading identifies false religion for us. We hear the prophet Amos warning the people of Israel of the coming judgment on them.

They would observe the Sabbath (which was more-or-less their equivalent of going to church on Sunday); and then as soon as it was over, they would get back to living in an unjust and ungodly way. So rather than being a day to enter into God’s rest so that they could serve Him more faithfully, their Sabbath observance had become  a religious cover-up for their evil deeds –  a way of looking good to others and to oneself; and also a way of paying off God for bad behaviour they had no intention of changing. Amos gives us a stark picture of perhaps the worst form of false religion: a nice looking cover-up for a much deeper evil.

Now that’s an extreme kind of case. But what about religious people  who genuinely try to do good and to be good? Can this still be false religion? The short answer is ‘yes.’

To see why, we need to look at Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in our Gospel reading. After the Pharisees question His educational credentials, Jesus says, My teaching is not mine, but His who sent me. If anyone’s will is to do God’s will,  he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I speak on my own authority. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.

Now here Jesus is talking about His own unique relationship with God His Father, but the same goes for us in our relationship with Him. As religious, church-going people who genuinely want to do good, it’s quite possible – and in fact all too common – to do this on our own authority and to seek our own glory. This is falsehood or false religion because it’s all about us, not God. In fact, it puts us in the place of God.

Those who are true followers of Him, Jesus says, are those who speak and act on His authority and seek to glorify Him.

This will involve not only following His commandments, but acknowledging that He’s the one who commands us to do them and that His mighty power working in us is the only reason we can do them at all.

And most importantly, it’s about our motivation for doing good: we do good not to earn our acceptance with God, because Christ has already earned that for us in His perfect life and in His death on the Cross, which took the punishment for our sin and false religion. We do good out of joy and thanksgiving for His grace.

In the words of our prayer of the day, those who are kept in God’s true religion are those who lean only upon the hope of God’s heavenly grace, not on themselves or anything or anyone else in this world.

And notice that one little word in the prayer: kept. True religion is not something we do or practice, it’s an attitude, or a mindset, or a place or a solid ground where God keeps us. As soon as we think our religion is something we must do or earn, we’ve slipped into falsehood – acting on our own authority and seeking our own glory. But to see the core or our religion as being a solid foundation on which we must be kept – Christ the true cornerstone – this is what true religion is all about.

Going to church, and living a good, moral life – these are two by-products of true-religion. They’re the effect, not the cause. They’re secondary, not primary. They can’t stand alone.

As Christians we are to have but one single support: the grace of God: a grace shown above all on the Cross of Christ and a grace given to us again-and-again through His Word and by the Holy Spirit working in our lives.

‘The only ground on which to place our weight, the only foundation strong enough to take the full burden of all we hope to become as well as all we hope to have forgiven, is God’s grace’ in our Lord & Saviour Jesus Christ.

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Presented & Purified

A homily preached at Holy Communion on the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 2 February A.D. 2014.

I speak to you in the Name of Jesus Christ,  who is able […] to present us blameless before the presence of His glory with great joy. (Jude 24). Amen.

Introduction

Whenever you see or hear of a fellow Christian failing to live in a Christ-like way, how do you react? I don’t know about you, but I often find myself  calling them a hypocrite and judging them as being a poor representative of the faith. I may even doubt whether they really believed in the first place, all the while smugly assuming  that I’m somehow better or more faithful. Which is all, of course,  to say that my reaction to their un-Christ-like behaviour, is equally, if not more, un-Christ-like. The proper reaction would be to bypass all of the judgment and go straight to the self-assessment to see the brokenness that we share in common.

All of this gets at a very important question – one that I think we ask ourselves (consciously or unconsciously) all the time: Can we believe in God and know God if we are ourselves godless in our behaviour and thoughts? Can we really claim to know the goodness, holiness and love of God, if those characteristics are not reflected in our lives?

The short answer is ‘no, we can’t.’ A person cannot claim to be a Christian if their life shows nothing of Jesus Christ.

This may be an uncomfortable truth, but it must be true, because the Gospel of Jesus Christ promises purification to those who offer & present their lives to Him.

Presentation & purification –  these two themes are at the very heart of our Christian life; and they come to the centre of our focus today.

Luke 2:22-40

Today is February 2nd,  the 40th day after Christmas; and the Church has long designated this day as the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Our reading today from Luke’s Gospel is based on these two theme as we see them in the Holy Family’s observance of two ceremonial requirements  from the Old Testament law:

First, the presentation of the child Jesus in the Temple. As a firstborn son, the Law required that He be consecrated or set apart for God.

Second, the purification of Mary. All Israelite women were considered unclean for 40 days after giving birth to a boy, after which time, the mother was required to present both a burnt-offering  of thanksgiving for her newborn son, and a sin-offering to cleanse her of the blood flow that occurred during her childbirth.

Both of these ceremonies are very foreign and strange to us.

We may be uncomfortable with the idea that our children are in some sense not our own and so have to be given up to God right from the start; and the notion that childbirth  is somehow dirty or sinful, so as to require purification, seems outdated and even offensive.

So what are we to make of all this?

Well, as all of you mothers know first-hand, childbirth is hard work, painful and even dangerous; and of course, a healthy childbirth is a miracle –  a wonderful & amazing gift of new life from God. So then childbirth shows us that our human life  is a struggle and that it’s fragile, but that ultimately, it comes from God  and is sustained by Him.

We – and all of Creation – in all of our frailty belong to God and so depend on Him completely for sustenance. As King David says, The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein (Ps. 24:1). And again, Blessed be thou Lord God of Israel, forever and ever. All that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine. All things come of thee,  And of thine own have we given thee (1 Chronicles 29:10, 11, 14)

We belong to God and depend on Him because we are His creation. But to realize this, and to know it, and to live it out –  that is what it means to be consecrated – to offer and present our entire lives to God.

But how can this offering of ourselves be acceptable in His sight? After all, deep down I think we know  that we must be changed at our very core: our hearts, souls, & minds must be purified; and this purification must show itself in changed lives: lives dedicated to God that reflect His holiness, goodness, truth & love.

We must be consecrated & purified in this way, otherwise, we’re simply left alone in our frailty to live out short & meaningless lives with nothing more than our pursuit of empty pleasures and accomplishments: vanity and striving after the wind.

So friends, here are the two questions that we need to ask ourselves today:

How am I presenting or offering my life to God? And where does my life most need to be purified so that it can be more acceptable & pleasing to Him?

Conclusion

Friends, today we remember that Mary, who bore Jesus in her womb, was purified by her offering in the Temple; and that Jesus was, at the same time, presented to God and so set apart for God’s purpose.

God’s purpose was to consecrate and purify us in Jesus, who on the Cross offered Himself for our sins, rose again, and ascended into heaven, where He presents us blameless before God.

We who now bear Jesus in our hearts by faith are purified by His abiding presence in us; our very bodies are consecrated as temples of His Holy Spirit.

This consecration and purification is really all about holiness of life made possible through the Holy Spirit, so this holiness is not, in the first place, about our own good character and works, rather it is about God coming close to us, close enough so that His glory is reflected in us.

And friends, that is exactly what will happen here in this Holy Communion. May we receive Christ’s body and blood in trust that He will purify and consecrate us to live more and more for His glory.

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources consulted

Ephraim Radner, sermon preached at St. Thomas Anglican Church, Toronto, 2 February 2012.