Sunday, December 26, 2010

Homily for the Feast of St. Stephen, First Martyr

(Audio)

Matthew 23:34-39; Acts 6:8 – 7:2a, 51-60; 2 Chronicles 24:17-22

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The Church in Her wisdom has chosen the three days following the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, Christmas, to commemorate three martyrs for the Lord: St. Stephen, Saint John, and the Holy Innocents. On the heels of perhaps the second-most joyous day of the Church Year after the Feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, Easter Sunday, with hymns and carols still in the air and upon our lips, with lively evergreens and cheery poinsettias decking our halls and walls and rooms, we are caused this morning to focus upon blood, sacrifice, and death.

The greatest gift of all, the gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation that He brings was, sadly, not received by all. Still today, many reject Him and refuse to believe. It was because of their belief in the Son of God made man and their confession of their faith before men that the martyrs died. Indeed, martyrs still die today for this same confession of faith.

St. Stephen was a young and vital man and one of the first seven deacons appointed to help the Apostle’s in their ministry. St. John was one of Christ’s first disciples and an Apostle as well as the writer of the Gospel that bears his name, three letters to the Church, and the Revelation of Jesus Christ. Though John lived to be quite old and likely died of natural causes, he spent considerable time in exile for his faith and confession, a different kind of martyrdom. Then there are the Holy Innocents. These were the Jewish boys of Bethlehem and the surrounding vicinity, two years of age and younger, that were massacred by Herod in his brutal attempt to destroy the prophesied Messiah that the Magi had traveled to see. These infant boys were martyred for no other reason than hatred and jealousy of Jesus. Thus, we see in the martyrdoms of these three how the entire life of faith in Christ, from infancy through adulthood into elderliness, is marked by the cross and hostility from the world and unbelievers. The Name of Jesus continues to be a Name that is spoken against.

He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. The history of God’s people is a history of rejection, hatred, and persecution by the world and unbelievers. This is what Stephen recounted before the council. His speech spanned the history of Israel from the days of Abraham. He told how God’s chosen witnesses were always misunderstood, always outcasts. Abraham was forced to leave his family and country, only to live for a promise he never saw fulfilled. Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers. Moses was rejected by the people he was chosen to deliver out of bondage. Jesus met the same destiny!

That is the way God works in the world, for now. God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God has chosen what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are. God’s strength and power are made perfect in weakness. Ironically, those words were written by a man who looked on approvingly as St. Stephen was being stoned to death.

Jesus was born to bring the joy and peace of reconciliation with God into the world. This is the light that He brings into a world of darkness, sin, and death. But, so many refuse to have their eyes opened by the Word made flesh. These choose to remain in darkness, though the light was given to them as well. In St. Stephen we have an example of one whose eyes had been opened by the Light of the Word, Jesus Christ. In the midst of persecution, and even as the stones began to fly, Stephen trusted, believed in his heart, and confessed with his mouth what he saw with his eyes, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” This was no hallucinogenic vision, but the very reality of the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus accomplished. Heaven is opened to all mankind through Jesus Christ. Jesus is near and He stands at the right hand of God as the guarantor of life beyond death. The glory of Jesus in heaven is strength for all His witnesses on earth, His martyrs. Though now we see through the mirrors of the divine Word and the Holy Sacraments, then we shall see face to face.

But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. Jesus Himself said that those He sends in His Name, even you, will be persecuted, flogged, stoned, crucified, and killed. But Jesus promises you, even as the name Stephen means, a crown of life, saying, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

The incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ means that you are never alone. The one who has assumed your flesh, who has suffered and died and defeated death reigns victorious and glorious for you. This vision is right before your eyes, especially when you need His strength to persevere. Because of your faith and confession, the world and men desire to harm you; at times, you will be tempted to do others harm. Yesterday Christ was born in the world, so that today Stephen, and you, would be born in heaven. Heaven is opened and Jesus stands at the right hand of God. In this assurance and peace you can face martyrdom with the face of an angel and you can release those who sin against you. And when your eyelids close in death, it will be as falling asleep.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Homily for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord–Christmas Day

(Audio)

John 1:1-18; Titus 3:4-7; Exodus 40:17-21; 34-38

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

That the Word became flesh and made His dwelling amongst us is a cause of offense to Gnostics, Enthusiasts, Post-Modernists, and to even some High Calvinists. Nothing could be more reprehensible to those striving to escape the trappings of fleshliness, its desires and impulses, its weakness and mutability, than the thought that the pure, spiritual Divine Word would take on the form of a decomposing meat sack like us. Whether they believe that the flesh is evil or simply that the finite is not capable of the infinite, having spent all their time and energy mortifying their flesh, depriving themselves of food, alcohol, sex, and dancing, they have nothing to show for it, for God was pleased to take on a human, flesh and blood body, with all its needs and weaknesses, desires and deficiencies, to be born in blood and uncleanness in a barn for livestock, and to be laid in a feeding trough for animals.

To make such a distinction between spirit and flesh is surely the result of sin, for in the beginning God created both the spiritual heavens and the fleshly earth, and there is nothing before the beginning. God made all things in the beginning, which means that God is the source of all things, spiritual things and fleshly things alike. God made man in His image, male and female He created them, and He took pleasure in walking and talking with His flesh and spirit creatures in the world that he had made. They were the ones who inexplicably shook their angry fists at their Creator in rebellion and sent it all to hell, not God. Their eyes became open to know both good and evil, which is to know God’s will in opposition to their own will, and to choose the latter and die.

Indeed, man’s desire to free his spirit from his derelict flesh is as much the result of sin as is his derelict flesh. God has never viewed humanity that way. God who created the heavens and the earth in a beautiful unity would not allow for it to be ripped apart. And, since finite, sinful man could not approach the infinite, holy God, God assumed the flesh and blood of man to restore the unity of things spiritual and things fleshly. Or, as St. Athanasius put it, God became man so that man might become God.

God prepared His people for the Incarnation, the enfleshment of His spiritual Word, in many ways, but principally through the tabernacle and, later, through the temple where His shekinah glory was present, though veiled, in the midst of His people in the Holy of Holies. But, when the time was right, God’s glorious presence transferred to the womb of the Virgin Mary when the Holy Spirit of God came upon her and she conceived through the very Word the Archangel Gabriel spoke. Thus, our hymn has it correct: Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate Deity! Pleased as Man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel!

So it is that Christmas is what follows the Fall in Genesis three. Man’s sin and rebellion, the uncleanness and corruption of the flesh does not prompt the Creator to destroy His creation, but He is moved, by His own mercy and love, to restore His creation. God restores His creation, not by leveling it and rebuilding, or by wadding it all up into an unformed ball of clay to begin anew, but He, Himself, in His holiness and spiritual purity, stepped right into the muck and mire, the blood and the filth, the uncleanness, pain, suffering, and death of humanity to redeem it and to make it holy. For, God is not corrupted by taking on human flesh, but, rather, human flesh is made to be holy by its union with the incorruptible God. This truth we confess in the Athanasian Creed saying: Although He is God and man, He is not two, but one Christ – one, however, not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh, but by the assumption of the humanity into God.

Further, the union of divinity and flesh was not just for a time that has now passed and the two are now separate, but Christ remains the God-Man for all eternity, seated now at the right hand of the Father that He might fill all things, but soon, coming again in glory to raise our perishable bodies to be like His imperishable body. Thus, though our flesh is still corrupted, though we still sin and though we still die, we are not unclean, for our flesh has been sanctified in the flesh and blood of Christ. We have been given a second birth, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. In believing this you are God’s children.

The Incarnation of the Word of God, the Son of God made man, has changed everything. He was like a seed planted in dry ground, unlikely to flourish, but whose shoots have branched out in every direction far and wide bringing the earth into fruitfulness. The Incarnation means that God has assumed all of human existence into Himself in the very condition of its rebellion and opposition to Him. God loves sinful man in his sinfulness! The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. Reflect then, dearly beloved, and in the light of the Holy Spirit carefully turn your mind to perceive, Who it is that has received us into Himself, and Whom have we received within us; for since the Lord Jesus Christ by being born has become our flesh, we also, by being reborn, have become His Body.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Homily for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord–Christmas Eve

(Audio)

Luke 2:1-20; Titus 2:11-14; Isaiah 9:2-7

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

It is dark, and it is cold. There were many reasons for you to stay at home and to not venture out tonight, many did. It’s been a tough year. Some of you are out of work, most of you are living paycheck to paycheck. You are anxious about having enough money. You are anxious about war and terror. You are anxious about your health and the health of those you love. You are anxious about your children. You are anxious about your marriage. It is dark, and it is cold. It would be easy to stay at home and be warm and safe, many did. You have a lot of expectations about this night – what you will hear, what you will see, what you will feel, what you will sing, who you will see and who you won’t see. Most of you will be disappointed. For He grew up before Him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.

It wasn’t all that different, the night that Jesus was born. The earth turned round on its axis. The silent stars went by. People watched their p’s and q’s around the Roman occupiers. They made their ways to their ancestral home towns to be registered in a census so they could pay their taxes. Shepherds went about their shepherding, the hotels were full, and a young woman, pregnant outside of wedlock, was about to give birth. How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.

But, it wasn’t Mary alone who was great with child. All of humanity, all of human history, all of God’s creation had been waiting for this moment, groaning in the pains of childbirth. For, creation and all human history were not so unlike a virgin womb or virgin soil, lifeless, with no ability to produce life on its own. When all was still, and it was midnight, Your almighty Word, O Lord, descended from the royal throne.

For, when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. What a marvelous image, time being full. It gives us the impression that time had been filling, well, for some time. Yes, that’s it precisely! Just as from the moment of conception the child begins to grow and the mother begins to grow, so too, from the moment of the conception of the universe, when God spoke His creative Word into the virgin nothingness, His plan of salvation began to grow and time began progressing towards ever greater fullness. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.

He by whom all things were made was made one of all things. The Son of God by the Father without a mother became the Son of man by a mother without a father. The Word who is God before all time became flesh at the appointed time. The maker of the sun was made under the sun. He who fills the world lay in a manger, great in the form of God but tiny in the form of a servant; this was in such a way that neither was His greatness diminished by His tininess, nor was His tininess overcome by His greatness.

In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. In the hour of man’s deepest darkness, in the deadness of human hope and possibility, once again, into virgin space, virgin womb, and virgin heart, God’s Word is spoken, “Let there be light.” And there was light. Silent night, holy night! Son of God, love’s pure light radiant beams from Thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His Name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. O God, You make this most holy night to shine with the brightness of the True Light.

In Jesus, the Lion and the Lamb lie down together, perfect God and perfect Man. And, this Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world for you. Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed, so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned--every one--to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you. But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed.

It is dark, and it is cold. Today was difficult, tomorrow is uncertain. Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Yes, He was born unto you, He was born for you. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased! Yes, He is pleased with you. He assumed your flesh. He took your sins upon Himself. He suffered your stripes. He died your death. For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. Thus, there is joy in this world, and there is peace on this earth. God and man are reconciled.

While the nations rage and people plot in vain, while the kings of the earth set themselves and rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His anointed, He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” When all was still, and it was midnight, Your almighty Word, O Lord, descended from the royal throne. Behold the Lord’s holy hill. Behold His Zion. Behold your King who is present for you in flesh and blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins, for life, and for eternal salvation. This is the Christ Mass. O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Word Becoming Flesh Meditations on the Incarnation of the Son of God from the Unique Perspectives of the Four Evangelists

Advent Evening Prayer (Week of Advent 4)

St. John

(Audio)

John 1:1-14; 1 John 1:1-10; Isaiah 42:1-9

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The iconographic image for St. John the Evangelist is an eagle. No doubt this image was selected to represent John because his Gospel seems to view the life and ministry of Jesus from a different and higher, though complimentary, perspective than do the synoptic Gospels. Indeed, some of the qualities that are unique to eagles and to other large birds of prey do seem especially appropriate in comparison to John’s Gospel. For instance, an eagle flies high above the earth and with keen vision spots its prey far below. So too, John offers a high and exalted view of Jesus’ life and ministry in that John’s Gospel is very interested in the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in and with Jesus and also demonstrates that Jesus is in full control throughout His ministry, only submitting Himself, when the time had come, to the authorities who would arrest, try, condemn, and execute Him. Also, it is said that an eagle can look directly into the sun without harm and still see clearly. So too, John presents to us a Jesus who claims to be at once in the Father, with the Father, the glory of the Father, and one with the Father. Thus, to behold Jesus is to behold the fullness of the glory of God hidden in human flesh. In these ways, John, amongst the other Gospels, opens to us a high theology and mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God, the very Word of creation made flesh and dwelling amongst us.

John’s Gospel begins in a most surprising and unique way and with words that immediately take the hearer back to the opening words of Genesis, “In the beginning….” This is absolutely intentional. John wants his hearers to make the connection between God, the creator of the universe, and the Word of God’s creation that has become flesh in the person of Jesus. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” It was that Word, the Word that was with God, the Word that was God, the Word by which all things were made, that John says “became flesh and dwelt among us.” In that one sentence, that one verse, John states what Matthew and Luke labor much more over and what Mark does not mention at all – the child conceived in Mary’s virgin womb and that was born in Bethlehem is none other than God in human flesh. In Jesus, God has visited His people to redeem them. Jesus is “Emmanuel, God with us,” and that has changed everything!

In John’s Gospel, Jesus uses the Divine Name of God given to Moses through the burning bush, “I AM WHO I AM,” seven times in reference to Himself. Each of these statements is descriptive of Jesus not merely as a guide to salvation, such as a rabbi or a prophet, but as the very means of salvation in Himself: I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world; I am the door; I am the good shepherd; I am the resurrection and the life; I am the way, the truth, and the life; I am the true vine. Jesus locates life and salvation in Himself, even saying to His disciples “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” In the incarnation, the unapproachable God has become approachable, the invisible God has become visible, and the untouchable God has become touchable. Jesus invites all humanity to an intimate relationship and a holy communion with God.

The purpose of John’s Gospel, like Luke’s, is catechetical. John’s Gospel seems to be written to a Greek speaking Jewish Christian audience, likely in the middle of the first century prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. John’s Gospel is deeply spiritual, demonstrating how, through the incarnation of God, spiritual life has been resurrected – now – even as we dwell in a world that is wrecked by sin and death. In John’s Gospel, Jesus continually speaks of a fullness that is available right now through faith. Jesus offers His disciples water that they may never thirst again, food that they may never hunger again, light that they may never walk in darkness again, and life that they may never die – and these, Jesus says, are available to you now through faith in Him. It follows, then, that it is in John’s Gospel that we hear the words of Jesus, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John explains the purpose of his Gospel plainly saying, “These [words] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

In his Gospel, John repeatedly refers to himself as “the one whom Jesus loved.” This is not a boast, but rather an expression of John’s selflessness and humility. John knew personally the breadth and depth of God’s love in Jesus shown to him and to all humanity. John’s designation is not a boast, but rather a confession of his faith in Jesus’ love for him. In the letters that he wrote to the churches, John speaks at length about God’s love for men, even saying “God is love.” It is in John’s Gospel that Jesus defines what the love of God is like saying, “Greater love has no one than this, that he would lay down his life for his friends.” John the Evangelist and Apostle points us to the love of God incarnate, Jesus Christ, whose self-sacrifice was the fullest expression of God’s love for us. For this reason did God become flesh and dwell amongst us, that He might die for us and redeem us from sin and death.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Homily for Rorate Coeli – The Fourth Sunday in Advent

(Audio)

John 1:19-28; Philippians 4:4-7; Deuteronomy 18:15-19

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

“Who are you?” – That was the question the priests and Levites asked John. It was a legitimate question. Moses had relayed God’s promise to the people of Israel that He would raise up another Prophet like himself. John flatly denied that he was that Prophet, the Messiah, the Christ of God. Then Malachi had prophesied in the closing words of the Old Testament that God would send Elijah the prophet before the coming of the Messiah. John denied that he was Elijah too, though Jesus would later teach His disciples that John was indeed the prophesied Elijah come to prepare the way before Him.

“Who are you?” “By what authority do you preach and baptize if you are neither the Christ nor Elijah the Prophet?” – John replied “I am a voice” and that’s all. John was a voice sent to cry out in the wilderness “Make straight the way of the Lord.” This was not John’s message, he was just the voice, but this was God’s message, the Word of the Lord, “Prepare the way for the coming of the Lord by repentance and humility. Repent, that your mountainous pride may be leveled and that the valleys of your hopeless despair might be filled, that, when the Lord comes, He might find a straight and level path.” John was a voice, a prophet, a mouthpiece for the Lord sent to prepare His way by preaching repentance and by baptizing, an outward sign of repentance. And John was sent to point the way to the Lord who was at hand saying “Among you stands one you do not know,” and then, the very next day, Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

“Among you stands one you do not know.” To think that the prophesied Messiah, the one to whom all patriarchs and prophets pointed, the Son of God become the Son of Man, born of the Virgin and dwelling in the midst of men who had searched the Scriptures and studied the prophecies, who had watched and waited for His coming – to think that the Messiah could come amongst them and not be known by them is amazing and discomforting to say the least. How could this be? How could they be so blind?

The answer is plain enough: sin. From the moment their eyes were opened to know good and evil in the Garden of Eden, through patriarchs, judges, kings, and prophets, men’s hearts became hard, their ears became stopped, and their eyes became dim as the fruits of sin so that hearing they did not hear and seeing they did not see. The prophets were silent for four hundred years before the coming of John the Baptist – four hundred years not unlike the four days Lazareth lay dead in the tomb. The people of the world were spiritually dead, they stinketh. And, the dead don’t raise themselves anymore than the earth plows itself; hard soil must be broken and worked just as hardened hearts. Only the powerful Word of God, the Word that once brought everything out of nothing could change the situation of men’s hearts.

Thus God sent forth Elijah, John the Baptist to prepare the way by preaching repentance, to break up the hardness of men’s hearts that the Word of God could penetrate and begin to grow and bear fruit. But, spiritual death and physical death are not the same thing – yet. Men were still quite alive to pursuing men’s ways, thoughts, and deeds. Men had dreamt up their own ideas for what the Messiah would be like and what He would do – men’s ideas, not God’s, men’s values and expectations, not God’s. So, when the Messiah came, men did not recognize Him, for He did not come in the ways and appearance that they expected. Unless men are turned, unless they repent, they cannot see Jesus for who He is, they cannot receive Him, for they reject Him because He doesn’t meet their expectations.

What about you today? Do you see and hear the one who is present, who stands amongst you now with His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation? Or, do you insist on having it your way, believing that Christ cannot be present unless you feel a certain way, unless we sing your favorite songs, or unless people flock to this church so that we don’t have room to seat them? Who do you think this Jesus is whose birth we are about to celebrate? Is He merely a concept, an icon of Peace and Love that we should emulate? Is He but a wise sage from ancient times who had some good ideas about being kind and charitable toward each other? Is He your spiritual friend and buddy, kind of like Santa Claus for the Church, who’s always looking out for you though you can never see Him or touch Him? Then I will be a voice crying out in your wilderness, “Among you stands one you do not know! – Repent. The Lord is at hand.”

Why did John preach? To point to the one who was present, whom men did not know, the Lord who was at hand. Why did John baptize? To point to the one who was present to baptize with the Holy Spirit and to the Lamb of God who was taking away the sins of the world. John is still preparing the way for the coming of the Lord through the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and through baptism, but these have become vehicles, means for the work of the one who is in our midst, Jesus the Christ. His Word opens the ears of the deaf and the eyes of the blind, releases those in prison in sin and death, and proclaims to the poor in spirit the Good News of redemption. And, John the Baptist still points to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world as we sing with him and kneel before our Lord who is present amongst us with His body and His blood that we may know Him as He is and live in Him and He in us to the glory of God the Father in His most Holy Spirit.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Word Becoming Flesh - Meditations on the Incarnation of the Son of God from the Unique Perspectives of the Four Evangelists

Advent Evening Prayer (Week of Advent 3)

St. Luke

(Audio)

Luke 1:26-38; Hebrews 2:5-18; Isaiah 53:1-5

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel according to St. Luke is the last of the synoptics in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called synoptic Gospels because they share, as the word synoptic means, the “same eye” on the life and ministry of Jesus the Christ. The synoptic Gospels share many of the same stories, teachings, events, and miracles in the life of Jesus while the Gospel according to St. John, which we will discuss next week, both adds and omits significant material.

St. Luke, the “good physician” and companion of St. Paul, is with little doubt the author of the Gospel that bears his name as well as its second volume known as The Acts of the Apostles. Luke’s Gospel was likely composed in the middle of the first century prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Luke, alone of the four evangelists, names the audience of his Gospel, “most excellent Theophilus”, a man of distinction in the society who most likely was the benefactor of Luke’s writing. Writing in high literary Greek, Luke establishes the purpose of his Gospel, stating, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” Thus, Luke’s Gospel is primarily a catechetical, or, a teaching Gospel intended to fill in the details for Gentile Christian catechumens who are already somewhat familiar with the narrative and are already believers.

Luke was undoubtedly writing to a Greek speaking audience and his style of writing is comparable with high Greek literature and philosophy of the time. Luke is also the longest book of the New Testament, containing longer and more detailed accounts of synoptic narratives with the unique addition of extensive birth narratives for both John the Baptist and Jesus. In addition, Luke continued well beyond the work of the other evangelists by writing a second volume, The Acts of the Apostles, which gives the account of the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ, the Church – a work that continues amongst us today.

Luke’s Gospel emphasizes the absoluteness and the fullness of the forgiving grace which came into the world in the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Luke portrays Jesus as the compassionate Servant of the Lord who brings good news to the poor, sight to the blind, liberty to the oppressed, and who brings the Jubilee Year of the Lord, the divinely appointed amnesty for all mankind. Jesus is the Son of Man who came to seek and to save the lost. In His ministry He reaches out to the outcasts of society, sinners, and the unclean. He is the Seeker of the lost and the Savior of the lowly. His birth is announced to lowly shepherds. He is branded in Israel as one who “receives sinners and eats with them.” He pays special attention to women, not highly regarded in Judaism or in the ancient world generally. The infancy story is Mary’s story, not Joseph’s story as in Matthew’s Gospel. Mary and Martha figure prominently in Luke’s Gospel along with other women: The widow at Nain; the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet; the women on the via dolorosa; and the woman in the Parable of the Lost Coin.

Like the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Luke includes Jesus’ genealogy in his Gospel. However, where Matthew places the genealogy at the beginning of his Gospel, Luke places it in chapter three at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, thirty years after the birth narrative and at a time when John the Baptist’s ministry was in full swing. Further, rather than stopping with Abraham, the Father of the Jews, Luke continues Jesus’ genealogy all the way back to Adam, the Father of all Mankind, and ends with God the Father. The result is, still, as with Matthew’s genealogy, Jesus is the promised Messiah and the Savior of all humanity.

Luke takes great pains to set Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection in a verifiable historical context. Luke frequently mentions time, place, and persons of historical import. The names of Augustus and Tiberius appear only in Luke’s Gospel.

Luke also emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit in the life and ministries of John the Baptist and of Jesus. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit as she hails the mother of the Lord. Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied over the child of his old age. The Holy Spirit was upon Simeon and, inspired by the Spirit, he hailed the Child in his arms as God’s salvation in person. The Messiah’s gift will be the baptism with the Spirit; His disciples have the promise of the Spirit for their witness to the world. The Holy Spirit is the heavenly Father’s best gift to His own. Luke continued to write of the work of the Holy Spirit after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension in The Acts of the Apostles, also sometimes referred to as The Gospel of the Holy Spirit.

If Matthew’s Gospel is at once the most austere and the most compelling of the Gospels, if Mark’s is the most vivid and dramatic recital of the deeds of the Christ, Luke’s is the warmest and most winning story of them all. It is Luke who has filled the church with the moving music of the New Testament canticles (The Benedictus, The Magnificat, The Gloria in Excelsis, and The Nunc Dimittis); it is Luke’s Nativity story that has most decisively shaped the church’s Christmas celebration. And the church’s teaching has been immeasurably enriched by the warmth and pathos of such Lucan narratives as those of the widow of Nain, Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, the look of Jesus that called Peter to repentance, Jesus’ words to the weeping daughters of Jerusalem, and the story of the walk to Emmaus.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Way Beyond Atheism

In this essay, Paul Wallace observes that most Atheists are committed to mere inversions of some brand or another of Christianity that they, in truth, know only on a superficial level. Wallace goes on to explain Christian apophatic theology (or, negation theology) which attempts to describe God by negation, to speak only in terms of what may not be said about God.

Wallace was inspired by an essay written by Denys Turner, a Professor of Theology at Yale in which Turner wrote "The atheisms of most committed, principled atheists are often not more than mirror images—inversions—of the theisms they negate.” “Atheists reject too little,” Turner writes, “This is why their atheisms lack theological interest. The routine principled atheist has but tinkered with religion.”

Wallace goes on to unpack Turner’s statements in the rest of his essay, challenging Atheists to be as honest as Christians in challenging their assumptions:

Most principled atheists do not go beyond the second level of thought, that of simple denial. They refuse to go further, to seriously question the ground beneath their feet. And, by holding on, consciously or not, to their unjustified assumptions, they end up rejecting far too little.

Most atheists reject far too little. They only have to be one kind of atheist: The atheist who stands against some kind of ridiculous super-object in the sky, who stands against a child’s theology. Christians, who, like Jews, are commanded to have no gods before God, do not have the luxury of disbelieving in so few things. In Turner’s words, “In order to deny every kind of idolatry possible, a Christian must be every kind of atheist possible.” We are required to have faith in no thing at all; only then will our faith have any chance of finding its true home in God.

An outstanding and provocative essay. Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Homily for Gaudete – The Third Sunday in Advent

(Audio)

Matthew 11:2-11; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Isaiah 40:1-11

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Our lessons today are less about the preaching of John the Baptist and his imprisonment or the promised comfort and peace that the Messiah brings than they are about the mysteries of God and what it means to be a steward and manager of those mysteries, that is, a pastor. This topic Paul takes up in his letter to the Church in Corinth: This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Thus, pastors are not to be regarded as bosses over the congregation, but neither are they to be regarded as employees of the congregation. Pastors are servants of Christ, and a pastor serves Christ by serving the Good Shepherd’s flock as an undershepherd. The pastor has been given stewardship, that is, management, of the mysteries of God. These mysteries are the preaching of the Gospel, the administration of the Sacraments, and the remitting and the retaining of sins through the Office of the Keys in Confession and Absolution. These mysteries do not belong to the pastor, but they belong to Christ who has given His pastors their stewardship.

Thus, the pastor is not to be judged according to worldly measures of success – quantitative growth, financial growth, other statistics, or even the development of properties or other capital – but the pastor is to be judged according to his trustworthiness, his faithfulness in his stewardship of the mysteries. For, to this stewardship alone has he been called. It is not uncommon that faithful preaching and teaching and the administration of the sacraments fails to satisfy the bottom line, but this is not the failure of the mysteries of God nor even of the pastor, the steward of those mysteries, for the Holy Spirit works where and when He pleases just as the wind blows here and there and men have no control and no ability to direct its course.

But, even stewards of God’s mysteries have moments when they get caught up in worldly measures of success and growth. It’s all too easy see your congregation merely maintaining and not perceivably growing and conclude that the mysteries aren’t working and that something needs to change – change the message to make it more appealing and practical; change the music to make it more contemporary and emotional; throw out the repetitive, predictable liturgy and replace it with a constantly changing, evolving, and emerging format that’s always fresh, always different, always new. So, you see, it comes down to faith, doesn’t it? Do you trust God to do what He has said He will do, even if our eyes do not see the effectiveness? The faithful pastor and the faithful congregation must answer “Yes!”

Was John the Baptist having such a moment of doubt when he, from prison, sent disciples to ask Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Perhaps; it would be, after all, only human. John was in prison, knowing that he was going to die, it’s quite plausible that he began to wonder “How can this be happening? I faithfully carried out my stewardship of the mysteries of God, preaching repentance before the coming of the Son of God, and what has it gotten me, but imprisonment and a death sentence?” Was John having a moment of disillusionment, hopelessness, and despair? Maybe. Of course, maybe he, knowing that his time was soon up, was commending his disciples unto Jesus so that they could hear with their own ears and see with their own eyes that He was the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy.

Either way, Jesus directs them, and John, to the mysteries of God: 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. Perhaps the disciples had witnessed some of these things first hand, but many they simply had to believe by hearing. The Gospels are filled with such miraculous accounts, still many eye witnesses refused to believe. Men will be men, determining for ourselves the conditions by which we will believe. Repent.

What did you come to church to see? An inspiring motivational speaker with practical advice for how to manage your finances, deal with your co-workers, handle your rebellious child, or rekindle the flame in your marriage? What did you come to church to hear? Music like on your favorite radio station or a stroll down memory lane of your early adulthood? What did you come to church to do? The good work of your presence so that you can feel better about yourself, that at least you go to church while many of your family, friends, and neighbors do not? What did you come to church for? Motivational speakers are on the lecture circuit. They proclaim a message that is dictated by the whims and felt needs of men to make a profit. Musical tastes are fickle and subjective and are often powerfully connected to worldly pleasures and vices; these come and go, here today, gone tomorrow, while the Word of the Lord alone remains forever. If you come to church to do something for God, then you might as well stay home in bed. God needs nothing from you and, on your own, you can do nothing for God. The only reason to come to church is to receive from God His mysteries: faith, forgiveness, life, and salvation.

For this purpose, it is my privilege to stand before you today as a servant of Christ and as a steward of the mysteries of God. In fact, my standing here itself is a mystery, for I claim no worthiness, no right, or special piety to do so, but I trust in the Lord who has called me, through you, to this stewardship to do what He has said He will do: To convict your hearts of sin by the preaching of His Law to turn you in repentance to Him that He might shower you with His grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness in the preaching of His Gospel. That He might create faith in the hearts of infants and adults through Holy Baptism and that He might return you to your baptismal purity through your confession of sins and holy absolution. That He might feed, nourish, and strengthen your faith as He communes with you in His holy body and His precious blood in the supper that He died to give to you. All this, that you might be preserved and kept in faith throughout your life, through your death, into life eternal with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom alone be all glory and praise, now and forever.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Word Becoming Flesh Meditations on the Incarnation of the Son of God from the Unique Perspectives of the Four Evangelists

Advent Evening Prayer (Weeks of Advent 1 & Advent 2)

St. Matthew & St. Mark

(Audio)

Matthew 1:18-25; Hebrews 1:1-14; Isaiah 7:10-17

[The church was without power on December 1 and there was no Evening Prayer, so this homily represents an attempt to combine two into one.]

8 December 2010

Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ.

Our doctrine of verbal inspiration has its sedes in 2 Peter 1:21, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” This is to say that the men who wrote the Holy Scriptures, though they were influenced by their own cultures and family upbringings, though they had different gifts and styles in speaking and in writing, and though they were writing to different audiences at different times and in different places, nevertheless they spoke and they wrote by the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit so that what was written was what God willed to be written and was, in fact, God’s Word, and not man’s word.

During these midweek services in Advent, we will reflect upon God’s unique Word regarding the incarnation of His Son Jesus Christ as He caused it to be inspired through His evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These four men were very different in culture and capacity. Further, their audiences and intents were also very different. Thus, their Gospels reflect their unique perspectives on the incarnation of the Son of God. Tonight, we consider St. Matthew, the son of Alpheus and St. Mark, the young interpreter of St. Peter.

Matthew, also known as Levi, was a tax collector before Jesus called him to be a disciple and an apostle. Though a Jew, Matthew was considered to be unclean and an outcast because he collected taxes for the Roman occupiers. The Pharisees and the Scribes would have been particularly hostile to Matthew, judging him not only to be unclean, but also a traitor and a thief. But, it was men and women such as Matthew that Jesus came to save: sinners. Jesus called Matthew away from his occupation and his wealth to become a disciple. Not only did Matthew become a disciple of Jesus, but he was also called and sent as one of the Lord’s twelve apostles. Later, Matthew became the evangelist whose inspired record of the Gospel was granted first place in the ordering of the New Testament.

Matthew’s unique perspective on the incarnation of the Son of God served to convince his primarily Jewish audience that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Thus, Matthew begins his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus Christ, His ancestors. Matthew makes no effort to hide sinners and scandals within Jesus’ genealogy, instead, he highlights them. Jesus’ ancestors include prostitutes, adulterers, violent men, and other sinners of all descriptions. Though this might surprise us, the truth is that there were no people other than sinners to make up His genealogy. Jesus’ ancestors needed a Savior just as much as we do! Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, was descended from sinners and was just like every man or woman who had ever lived, with the exception that He had no sin. Jesus is, literally, the fulfillment of all humanity. There can be no genealogy of Jesus’ descendants, for history has reached its goal in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Matthew demonstrates that Jesus is the son of David and the son of Abraham: He is a descendant of King David, from whose family the Messiah was prophesied to come, and He is a descendant of Abraham, the father of the Israelites, through whom all nations were to be blessed according to God’s covenant. By emphasizing Jesus’ descent from both David and Abraham, Matthew proclaimed to his audience that Jesus was the fulfillment of Jewish Messianic hope. Jesus is the prophesied Messiah of King David’s royal lineage and He is the Savior of the nations promised to come from the seed of Abraham.

After establishing Jesus’ ancestral credentials in the genealogy, Matthew launches straightway into the birth of Jesus. Matthew is deliberate in showing that the circumstances of Jesus’ birth fulfill Old Testament Messianic prophecies concerning the conception by the Holy Spirit, the virgin birth, the Davidic ancestry of Joseph, and even the Messiah’s name, Jesus, Immanuel, God with us.

Then, extending the Messianic role of Jesus to the Gentiles, Matthew records the visit of the Magi from the east, an account that is unique to Matthew’s Gospel. This Jesus was to be the Savior of all people in all times and in all places.

Also unique to Matthew’s Gospel is the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt to escape the murderous King Herod who sought to kill the infant Jesus. This account, Matthew is sure to mention, was also to fulfill the Messianic prophecy, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Even the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem served to fulfill the prophecy spoken by Jeremiah. Further, Jesus’ hometown residence of Nazareth was also in fulfillment of prophecy, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

These are but a few examples of St. Matthew’s efforts to proclaim to the Jews, the Gentiles, and to you, that the Son of God, the promised Messiah of prophecy, has come amongst us as our brother to be our Kinsman Redeemer and to set us free from the bondage of sin and death. He is the very Word by which the heavens and the earth were made, become flesh and dwelling amongst us. This truth about Jesus is depicted in the iconographic image for St. Matthew and the Gospel bearing his name, a human male with angel’s wings – the Son of God and the Son of Man.

But, if Matthew’s chief concern was to show that Jesus was the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, St. Mark has written a Gospel of action emphasizing the Words and the deeds of Jesus.

Mark was but a young man during Jesus’ ministry, he was not yet born at the time of Jesus’ birth. Uniquely, Mark’s Gospel does not include a birth narrative but it begins with the preaching of John the Baptist preparing the way for the coming of the Christ by preaching repentance. Mark, also known as John or John Mark, was an interpreter for St. Peter and accompanied Peter and Barnabus on some of their journeys. It is believed that much of his Gospel he received personally from Peter. Mark’s audience were Gentile Christians at the Church in Rome. His writing style is short and fast-paced, perhaps catering to a Roman preference.

While Mark does not emphasize Jesus as the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, like Matthew, he does emphasize the authority of Jesus as the Son of God and the creative power of His Word. In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples respond to Jesus’ authority, the demons fear it, and all creation obeys Him. Thus, the iconographic symbol for St. Mark and the Gospel bearing his name is a Lion – strong, fierce, and powerful, commanding fear and respect. The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is the prophesied Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

However, though Mark clearly presents Jesus as the Son of God who has power over demons, heals the sick, and forgives sins, this Jesus also possesses a full humanity and has come to serve and to give His life for many. Mark’s Jesus is the suffering servant Messiah of Isaiah’s prophecy. The demons He casts out and the people He heals are commanded to keep silent until Jesus reveals Himself before the Sanhedrin. In Mark’s Gospel, Peter confesses Jesus only as “the Christ”, and only after the resurrection do His followers recognize Him as God. Mark also clearly defines the life of a disciple of Christ as one who follows Him through suffering and even death saying, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

In the first two Gospels we see the revealing of the Word of God made flesh. Jesus is the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, hope and expectation, and He is the Son of Man and the Son of God, become flesh to suffer and die that men might be released from the bondage of their sins and live.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Homily for Populus Zion–The Second Sunday in Advent

(Audio)

Luke 21:25-36; Romans 15:4-13; Malachi 4:1-6

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

In Advent, when we speak of the three-fold coming of Jesus – that He came as the Babe of Bethlehem; that He is coming as Lord, King, and Judge; and, that He comes to us now in Word and Sacrament – we must remember that we are dealing first and foremost with a great mystery. Thus, we understand the three-fold coming of Jesus incorrectly, or, at least, incompletely, if we understand His coming as three unique and unrelated events. For, the Son of God did not come into being only upon His incarnation in the conception and birth of Jesus, but He has always been with God, in the beginning, begotten of the Father before all worlds; and He was God before the incarnation, and He is God still after becoming a man, having died and having been raised. Likewise, His death and resurrection did not happen merely in Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago, but He is the Lamb of God that was slain from the very foundation of the world. Further, to say that Christ is coming again, a second time, is not to make Him to be a liar when He says, “I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.”

Thus, when we consider Jesus’ teaching concerning the end times and His parousia – a word commonly translated as second coming, but which literally means presence – we must submit our reason and our linear conception of time and events and, with ears to hear, listen to the Word of God in faith. For, what Jesus is teaching us is that His kingdom, which is coming, is in fact, already near and already present.

Jesus spoke the Words of our Gospel lesson to His disciples just two days before His crucifixion and death on Good Friday. He spoke of signs in the sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. These signs, Jesus says, indicate that the Son of Man is coming and that redemption is drawing near. Now, the common interpretation of these words of Jesus is that these signs of celestial and earthly turmoil will come at some time in the future before the second coming of the Lord in glory. And, yes, that is certainly a part of Jesus’ meaning. However, at the same time, we cannot help but observe that these signs are present in our world today: Wars and rumors of wars, the threat of global warming, tsunamis, earthquakes, terrorism, the economic crash, etc. Further, such signs have been common to every age. Are we then to conclude that our Jesus is a liar? That He has failed to come? By no means! For, listen to His Word and what He truly says: Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place.

Jesus’ Word to His disciples, that very generation, was that all these things would happen within their lifetime – and they most certainly did! Within thirty years the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, surrounding the city and forbidding the carrying in of food and other necessities and the carrying out of refuse. Within a few weeks, hunger, disease, and death began to ravage the population so that the people resorted to the abandonment of children and even cannibalism. Surely, for the people then, it must have seemed like the end of the world. However, such signs are common to every generation at all times and in all places.

Thus, Jesus compares these signs to that of common flora – the fig tree: Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Each year, decade after decade, century after century, millennia after millennia, the trees bud out, leaf, bear fruit, and wither, and then the cycle continues: this has happened in the past, it is happening now, and it will continue to happen until the Last Day. In a similar way comes the kingdom of God: the kingdom of God has come, it is coming now, and it will come. Therefore, we can watch the signs and be prepared, for the signs are as obvious as those of the fig tree and of all trees. The kingdom of God is already, even now, present, in hidden and veiled forms to sustain and keep you in the faith. Even now, you stand in the kingdom of God as you live in this generation, thus you have nothing to fear from what is coming on the world.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. This is the three-fold mystery of faith. For, you too have died with Christ and have risen with Him through baptism into His death and resurrection. For you, to live is Christ and to die is gain. The life you now live you live to God, and nothing can separate you from Him but yourself. Now, the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh will tempt you to not believe this, thus you must remain vigilant and watchful for the signs of the Lord’s parousia, His coming, His presence. Those signs are in heaven and they are in earth, for Christ fills all things. Those signs are in His death and in the death of all things, and those signs are in His resurrection and the resurrection of all things. And those signs are in His Word, preached and taught in its truth and purity. Those signs are in the water by the power of His Word and Spirit. And those signs are in the bread which is His body, and the wine which is His blood – because He has spoken so by his Word – for the forgiveness of your sins, for the strengthening of your faith, and for life everlasting – past, present, and future.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.