Monday, December 5, 2016

No One Greater!

THE READING for the Third Sunday of Advent comes from the writings we find in the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. In this lesson we learn the answer given to those who wished to know the true identity of Jesus, about whether he was the one who would deliver us in spite of our attempts at self-justifying deeds and signs …

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?" 
 And Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me." 
 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? 
 Why then did you go out? To see a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings' houses. 
 Why then did you go out…? To see a prophet?
 Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, 'Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.'  Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.  (Matthew 11:4-10)

Second Guessing?
As imprisoned sinners, we today rightly grasp the concerns of John. While languishing in a prison according to the pleasure of political world powers, he seemed to wonder whether his predictions were proven correct? Was he prophetically right about the identity of the Christ?
 You see, John had accepted and seemingly relished the task of confronting worldly powers. In scriptural record we know that he took Herod’s family and the whole of Jewish society, to task morally. Here we now read the account of how he suffered  consequences for his words. Hard pressed by sinfully confining walls, it’s likely that he wondered, "Why, if Jesus is the Christ… does He not now take the reign of the kingdom from these false powers?”
 We wonder concerning that John may have considered his own condition? “Why does Jesus, the Messiah not deliver me? Have I been mistaken?" John is prophetically revealed by our gospel writer as a man wanting not to be counted as forsaken by God. Some biblical scholars think that John sent this inquiry to Jesus for his own reasons and not so Jesus would be revealed. Certainly, experience teaches us that even when true faith exists, there may be a sinful mixture of unbelief. As both sinners and saints, second thoughts often call us to question important truths whenever we live under pressure. Indeed, John may have considered whether he had done enough to earn eternal reward?
  Did John’s work stop short? Other biblical authorities contend that John sent his disciples to Christ, not for his own benefit, but for their future in ministry. Many believe that he pointed them correctly beyond himself to Jesus, knowing that his own ministry was coming to an end.
 In considering these questions, I offer that we may turn to the witness history of the Christian communities for answer. Both the Matthean church in Antioch and the Lukan church of Asia Minor include this text from a common source. With only scant few phrases omitted in the Matthean text, we find that the account read in Luke with great similarities.
 However, with due note we see that the telling of this was not found in the earlier written gospel of Mark. We may wonder why this is so? Might we ask what relevance does this later account have for the established communities in the late first century? What relevance made them take up precious parchment space?
 I may offer that similar to the followers of John the Baptist, the penchant for taking repentance as a “work” or “merit” still crept into the communities of faith. If so, doing good deeds challenged that faith alone which is needed for salvation. This undercurrent may have been problematic for the early community. In the early church at large, the theological “let’s do it!”currents of the Sadducees and the Pharisees were still obviously pressing hard upon the principles of free grace through Christ..
 What Christ said in answer to John… and concerning John… was then not simply for the praise of the John’s work. The words were included by the gospel writers for the believer's profit. Indeed, those who rely upon their work in the world would be called to give an account. Though in the eyes of divine judgment, John was a surely self denying man and an outstanding prophet. Multitudes were gathered by the ministry of John and became his disciples. But those in the early church, and yet in our own communities, often find ourselves striving like John in hours of darkness… looking for self-justification… needing to be right. Do we look to count our deeds? We may look out of our own imprisoned lives and burdens and ask like John and his followers, “Have I done enough?’ Are we afraid of hearing a negative response?

By Grace Alone…
To this plea of the imprisoned, Jesus gave answer to those who will hear. We are not stuck in the impossibilities of our prisons. We receive from Jesus the Christ, grace upon grace… though we have no rights to these according to our works. We are given high standing in the heavenly kingdom though found wanting. This was made possible by Christ’s coming into the world and his deeds upon the cross. In our sinfulness, the church populace earns no rights, nor title to the kingdom. But forgiven for the sake of Christ, the perfect sacrifice of God, we have a sure and certain hope. Jesus gave answer to John and to us. Jesus provided us with prophetic sign. He told John that he came into this world providing sight for the blind, healing for the afflicted, hearing for the deaf, and eternal life for those who believe. This good news was declared to the disciples of John, to the churches of Matthew and Luke, and so also to us.
 As for those of us who would erroneously lean on works for a place in the kingdom of heaven, cast them aside and be glad. Jesus, the Messiah, revealed, “… blessed is he who takes no offense at me." Accept the grace of salvation given through Christ our Lord, for it is to him that prophets like John pointed. Jesus is and was the Christ, born into this world for our salvation. In him alone do we find freedom.
 Now the question may rise, “Should we cease works?” I say, “Heaven forbid!”
 Let us continue the work of John in doing the proclamation of God’s grace. During the approaching holiday season and beyond, let us know that we are called to continue the works of both John and Jesus, thus doing greater things than John. Let us point beyond ourselves to Christ. In His Name let us heal the sick, feed the poor, baptize in the Spirit for cleansing and empowerment, and boldly preach good news to all who now want for true freedom.



Monday, November 28, 2016

Cold Hard Futures!

OUR GOSPEL reading for the Second Sunday of Advent is found in the writings of Saint Matthew. Within this text, we hear of deliverance preparations made by God and announced through his prophetic servant, John the Baptist,,,

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight."
 Now John wore a garment of camel's hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 
 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 
 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."  (Matthew 3:1-12)

Repentance and Hope
The scribes of this gospel, like those similar counterparts that we may find in Luke’s community, began to further fill out and emphasize the prophetic message of John. John the Baptizer, though having his own band of followers, pointed beyond himself to Jesus. His message described Jesus’ mission in the world. Both early church communities further developed this mission as they wrote during the latter decades of the first century. Using additional information available, they began to flesh out the somewhat barren descriptive portrait of John found in Mark.
 At first, in this reading, John retains the “wilderness” character that Mark had heralded as a sign his prophetic station. Mark had given an initial word portrait of a rather boisterous man who ate the earthen fare of locusts and wild honey, staples in the diet of the rural poor. The image passed to the reader was of the bitter and the sweet of God’s Word. As readers today, we are thus staged for those who would write this later great witness. From John’s words come the bitter taste of sin that rolls sour to many persons through his call to repentance. In particular it puckers the face of the comfortable, so then to comfort those who bow low.
 “Brood of Vipers!” comes out boldly amid the heated discourse, gleaned likely from the common “Q” or “quelle” source. Therefore both Matthew and Luke’s churches show evidence that they contained Pharisees and Sadduccees, either of who would likely be afflicted by the harsh words spoken. Both particular adherents of these castes tightly clung each to their religious heritage.
 For example, the Pharisees pointed for their justification in that they worked diligently in forming and adhering to the “Law”. In that way, they were rightfully living the good life. These claimed tribal purity in that they had grasped tightly to austere lives as expressed in the historical five books of Moses. John rightly pointed to both Pharisees and Sadduccees, however, and the failures of either party to completely adhere to the divine Law.
 “Repent” declared John. He said to “turn around and bow low” before our Creator... and you shall be delivered. He called them to abandon any claims of genealogical and historical justification… or tout salvation in their family trees for those had not borne good fruit.
John stated pointedly that while he was baptizing, he was only cleaning them up to restore in them an attitude of servant recipiency… rather than embracing their deservedness. Only a lowly servant, a servant bearing the “good fruit” of repentance would be one who receives the fullness of God’s love.

Hope through Christ
Possibly to dissuade any thoughts for his own followers to make too much of him, John is recorded as pointing them all to the greater Prophet, Priest and King. Therefore, his words ring out to us across the centuries through these words of scripture. Of Jesus, the one true Messiah, John said…

“… he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

In this way John made it very, very clear that cleansing fire is in our forecast. We shall all endure heat treatment! Does this statement issue a prophetic statement that some shall be spared the heat of condemnation? I think not. All persons... all shall be burned with recognition of their sinfulness, but those lowly servants who are repentant shall be rescued even though undeserving.
 Now, most certainly… some persons shall accept only surface hardening. Others will be tempered to the core. The wild lowly who eat of locust and honey shall be gathered by the Holy Spirit and the fire of faith. These I think are surely a reflection of Matthew and Luke’s churches in their own day, who looked back upon the past time of Pentecost.
 Subsequently, the unfolding history of the time revealed to them that not all persons shall bear fruit, and not all shall survive the refining fire of our Savior. As we approach the celebration of our Lord’s Nativity we are reminded of persons in our midst who are yet trying to establish themselves for either this life or the next, through their own works. We are thus warned by John’s words of the futility in using such for our salvation.
 We need to remember that he said all shall be burned! Yet some are tempered rightly by the saving strength of the Holy Spirit poured out upon them. Others will be only case-hardened for the moment. and some made brittle, and are consumed by human foolishness and frailty.
 Consequently, we hear the warning words of John, a mountainous man whose call reached across the centuries to we who may become lost in today’s wilderness. We must be the church adhering to a rightful interpretation of the scriptures to shall withstand burnished toughness. John told us all plainly and somewhat uncomfortably. God approaches… so hear the call to repent and be ready to hear again the good news.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Some Taken; Some Left!

Looking for the Perfect holiday gift? We present you with an online opportunity to view key portions of our worship experience. We offer this to you for the sake of those who are home bound, or temporarily cannot attend a worship celebration at their home church. In no way should this be taken as a replacement for regular Christian worship in a traditional faith community... for there you rightly worship God, are supported and offer the love of God to others.
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May the Peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding... keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.  AMEN!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

One Taken; One Left!

OUR study for the First Sunday in Advent within this new liturgical year comes to us from the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. We read the prophetic words of our Lord that were spoken to his disciples as they walked to the Garden of Gethsemane. Continuing his earlier conversation begun on the steps of the temple concerning the approaching “end time”, our Lord here stressed the coming division to be found in the church and human society…

 “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man.
 Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left. Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
 But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Matthew 24:36-44)

Last Call?
Spoken by Jesus just before his arrest and crucifixion, we read these words of warning as a call for faithful discipleship. The words told a prophecy of the coming “end time”. Therefore, given the importance of the text and its meaning for both the disciples and the church today, we need to carefully study the historical context surrounding the teaching.
 As we recall from our earlier study, Jesus left the temple after His words had burdened authorities with judgment. At that time he had expressed a call for repentance. Both ardent priests and the vested interests found in Israel’s sacrificial system were deeply affected. These quickly became embroiled in political intrigue over his words. However, subversive and clandestine powers within the temple had already begun the mechanism needed for our Lord’s arrest through connections with the apostle Judas.
 From this historical context these words were recorded from the “Q” document. They were passed to later the church by both Matthew and Luke. The witness thus revealed the future forecast for churches within of the latter part of the first century. The pattern would continue for those immediate decades... and yet persist even to this very day. In illustration, we see that during the earlier reign of Caligula and other Roman Emperors, the fury had already descended earlier upon the faithful followers of Jesus. That era etched these words into the emerging mosaic of the future church.
 You see, for decades it had been revealed that the result of Jesus’ crucifixion and Resurrection was indeed that the penalty for human sin had been paid for those who believed. Eternal life was available to those who would believe. As a result, within decades that Resurrection faith had spawned the embryonic church into being. As the Word spread the church grew. However, in answer to this grace, swords of punishment laid heavily upon the infant Christians churches. Blades of persecution were wielded by Roman political powers suspicious of the new Christiana faith expression. Jealousies from the dispersed Jewish communities intensified this effect for Christians, used as scapegoats after the fall of Jerusalem (65-70A.D.)
 The social dynamic became such that the early church populace was dividing within the early church. A person who belonged to a church under persecution would either return to the synagogue or temple, or hold tightly to the faith given to them through baptism into Jesus Christ as Savior. We can easily see… as it was then, so it is yet in many places… with no middle ground existing. If someone chose to remain as Christian, both legal and social persecutions fell upon them.
 As our scripture reading revealed, Jesus had stressed this scene to his disciples. Our Lord said that this would come upon us with suddenness. Our Lord said that the effect would occur amid everyday happenings. The outcome would be similar to that recorded before the days of Noah. A person would either be in the nave of the faithful boat or miss it entirely. Scripture had illustrated that this had occurred when judgment rained quickly upon the ark. Therefore, Jesus told us that it would be so as well at the coming of the Son of Man. Through the waters of baptism into Christ Jesus, one person would be taken into Christ and remain… and another would not remain.
 We must note that the hour was a point of social examination and confession, or occurred upon the occasion of a person’s death. The text clearly and universally stated warning. In any case and at any time… the instruction from our Lord was for the Christian to “be ready”. The call was therefore given for persons of the church to be baptized and remain faithful. This is the call we too receive as witnesses to this grace given.

Hear the Echo?
 As any faithful participant in a Christian faith community can relate, however, being and staying ready is not something a participant can do independently. At any given moment we may asked to give answer to the faith that is within us. We are not to worry about how we shall answer! We are to trust and obey. Answer shall be given to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, at any moment an “end time” may occur for us, whether in our next breath or our last. This truth is historically recorded in that Christians within the early church gave us an enduring example of this behavior. It has now been left to disciples today to follow in their footsteps. Together, as in earlier days, we need pray for the power to repeat again the gospel message.
 You see, brothers and sisters in the faith, the last days were already upon the church even as Matthew penned his vivid account. Now these words echo once again to us in this Advent season. They come to us from across the centuries as we kneel in wonder. We as Christians… find that we are surely living as witnesses in the “end times”.