Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Feast of The Transfiguration of Our Lord

Transfiguration

(Audio)

Matthew 17:1-9; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Exodus 34:29-35

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

What we are blessed to see in the Transfiguration of Our Lord is a small glimpse and preview of the fullness of God’s glory which is located in the person of His Son Jesus Christ. But, though Jesus’ face and clothes shined with unborrowed light, He was the same man Jesus. That is to say that He was the same man Jesus who had first called Peter, James, and John to follow Him. He was the same man Jesus whom they had witnessed turn water into wine, cleanse a leper, and heal a paralytic. He was the same man Jesus whom Peter had boldly and truthfully confessed to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Only now, for a brief moment, they were blessed to see the glory of God that had been there with Him, and in Him, though veiled, all along.

He was the same man Jesus. God’s glory had been with Him and in Him all along. Therefore, what we have heard and seen in the Word of God this Epiphantide were but small manifestations, or epiphanies, of that glory in Jesus’ Words and deeds. But, the man Jesus, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, the Word made flesh, dwelling amongst us, was, and is, and ever shall be the fullness of God’s glory. The light now shining from Jesus’ face and clothes in the Transfiguration does not make Him more glorious than when He laid as a helpless infant in a feeding trough for animals. That light had always been there, though veiled, for indeed, Jesus is the very Light of the World. He is the Light which shined in the darkness before the creation of sun, moon, or stars. Jesus is the Light in the darkness of our world of sin and death in which we still live. And, Jesus is the Light of heaven in which the Saints bask and dwell in eternity with no need for either lamp or sun. Jesus has always been this Light and, though His glorious Light was hidden for a while beneath the veil of His humanity, Peter, James, and John were permitted a brief unveiling to prepare them, and to strengthen them, to embrace the fullness of God’s glory that would soon be revealed in the suffering and death of the man Jesus upon the cross.

It was a glorious, mountaintop experience, to be sure, to behold Jesus in brilliant, blinding light. But then, two men appeared with Jesus, Moses and Elijah, talking with Him. St. Luke informs us that they were talking to Jesus about His departure, or, in Luke’s Greek, His exodus, which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. Imagine that, Moses, God’s chosen leader of Israel in their exodus out of bondage and slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt speaking with Jesus, the New Moses, about the exodus He was about to make to free God’s people from bondage and slavery to sin, death, and Satan through His bodily suffering and death on the cross in Jerusalem, leading them into the Promised Land of eternal life with God in heaven. And then, to see Jesus speaking too with Elijah, the Great Prophet of Israel. Both of these men had served the LORD in their lives, preaching, teaching, and confessing their faith in God and in His covenant promise to send a Messiah and Redeemer to forgive the people of their sins. And, both of these men had died trusting in the LORD’s faithfulness to keep His promise, yet, behold, there they are alive, standing in God’s glory shining forth from Jesus, talking to Him, talking about Him, as they once did on earth, about His exodus which He was soon to accomplish in Jerusalem. Moses represented the Law of God given in the Ten Commandments and in the sacrificial system of the people of Israel, and Elijah represented the prophetic Word of God given through the mouths of the prophets to rebuke the people of their sins, to turn them in repentance, and to proclaim to them God’s abundant mercy, grace, and forgiveness in providing for them a Messiah, Redeemer, and Savior. For, all of the Law and the Prophets, all of the Hebrew Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament, served to convey this message, this Gospel, this Christ who was about to accomplish and finish all things necessary to restore men to righteousness before God. Moses’ and Elijah’s presence with Jesus in glory are the living proof of God’s promise kept and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, given as a preview of a greater glory still.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that Peter wanted to enshrine that glory. Peter wanted to stay on that mountaintop in the glorious Light of God’s glory and build shrines for St. Moses, for St. Elijah, and for the Son of God Jesus Christ. Who could blame him? People would come from every tribe and every nation on earth to worship God at this shrine; there was no doubt about it. Every knee would bow on earth before this clear, obvious, and convincing glory, confessing that God is LORD of all and that Jesus Christ is His only-begotten Son. It’s reasonable to think that Peter had only the best of intentions, that people would confess the one, true God and worship Jesus as Messiah and Lord. But, he didn’t know what he was saying. He hadn’t understood and believed what Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, had said. And, he hadn’t understood and believed what Jesus Himself had repeatedly said, that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

Thus, while Peter was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. God the Father had said these same Words before at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, but this time He added the Words “Listen to Him”. Not only is God the Father fully pleased with humankind in His Son Jesus Christ, but Jesus is the very Word of God in human flesh. The Words that proceed from Jesus’ mouth are the living and creative Word of God by which all things were made and are sustained. The disciples are to listen to Jesus’ Words and teaching as authoritative even as they have so viewed the words and teachings of Moses and the Prophets, the Holy Scriptures. Thus, as Jesus will now have Words for them that are difficult to hear, to receive, and to believe, they must trust Jesus and His Words as they must trust God the Father Himself.

But then, Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And now they have come full circle, for, the glory of God was always present and located in the person of Jesus. In the incarnation, the Glory of God took up residence in the womb of the Virgin Mary, making her the new Ark of the Covenant and her womb the Holy of Holies. In Jesus’ life and ministry He manifested His glory through wondrous signs and deeds. On the Mount of Transfiguration the veil was removed temporarily so that the primordial Light of God’s Glory shone from its source in Jesus’ face and clothing. But then, when the Light, and the cloud, and the voice had gone away, when Moses and Elijah disappeared from their presence, the disciples saw Jesus alone – the Glory of God still with Him and in Him, veiled in humanity – as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

For, the man Jesus is the Glory of God. Or, as the second century church Father Irenaeus once wrote, “the Glory of God is a man fully alive.” And the fullest expression of God’s Glory as a man is not to be worshiped and adored on a mountain top in shining light and thunderous Words from heaven, but the fullest expression of God’s Glory as a man was when Jesus willingly laid down His life unto death on the cross to redeem all humankind from sin, and death, and Satan. Jesus taught His disciples that greater love was not possible than that a man should die for his friends. And, Jesus revealed the fullness of God’s Glory when He willingly suffered and died for all men, even those who hated Him, whom He counted as His friends and as brothers.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” God’s glory shining in and through Jesus is a secret. It was given to the three disciples to prepare them and to encourage them for what was to come. For, Jesus knew that they would stumble over His cross, over His suffering and death, but, by showing them in advance His hidden glory, they would remember and understand after His resurrection on the third day. For, it was not sufficient that men should worship Jesus on a mountaintop, as glorious as that might truly be, for apart from Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are still in our sins and are consigned to death and hell. But, the Glory of God is a man fully alive, a man who has died to sin and who now lives to God, the True Man in whom all men have life, Jesus Christ. It was necessary for Jesus to suffer and die and to be raised again on the third day, and thus, the fullness of God’s Glory is revealed in the Son of God, Jesus, dead upon the cross. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the sun failed to shine that day when the Son of God, its source and the Light of the World, died upon the cross.

It is no cleverly devised myth, as enemies of the faith are want to say, that 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. Jesus was a real man, flesh and blood, just like you and me. He was conceived and born of a human mother, raised in an average household, matured and grew in stature and wisdom before God and men. He was a respected rabbi, a faithful friend, who called people to repentance and to realign themselves with God’s Word in the Holy Scriptures. And, for this, He was hated by some and was arrested, tried, convicted, and crucified unto death. But, all the while, He was fullness of God’s Glory, veiled and hidden in humanity. And, when He died, all of creation confessed His glory. And, when He rose, men remembered what He had said, what Moses and the Prophets had said, what had always been said, and that it was all true: God Himself has provided the Passover Lamb that has taken away the sins of the world. The fullness of the Glory of God has been revealed in His self-offering unto death for the life of the world. Alleluia!

And so today we begin our descent from the Mount of Transfiguration glory to follow Jesus to the cross. Today we say farewell to Alleluia, anticipating its joyful resurrection on Easter Sunday. But, we do not leave behind one glory to seek another, for the mountaintop glory of Transfiguration is the same glory that is located in Jesus’ humility and that is seen and confessed in its fullness on the mountaintop of Calvary in Jesus’ death on the cross. For, the glory of God is a man fully alive, and Jesus becomes that man, and we become that man, only through Jesus’ death upon the cross.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Homily for The Third Sunday after the Epiphany

(Audio)

Matthew 8:1-13; Romans 12:1621; 1 Kings 5:1-15a

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

We talk a lot about faith in the Church, that’s true. But, do you truly understand what faith is? Do you know what faith looks like? Do you recognize faith when you see it, or hear it? I suspect, probably not as much as you think. Interestingly, Jesus didn’t talk about faith all that much. Most of the faith-talk in the New Testament comes from St. Paul. In fact, Jesus only used the word faith twelve times in Matthew’s Gospel, five times in Mark’s, and twelve times in Luke’s. He didn’t use the word at all in John’s Gospel! And of the average 7.25 times Jesus used the word faith in the Gospels, over half of those times He was remarking about how little, how small, or how weak the faith of His disciples was. Sometimes the Gospels say that Jesus “saw their faith” and responded by granting what they had asked. Sometimes Jesus said that a believer’s “faith has made them well.” And, a few times Jesus even said to someone “Great is your faith.” But, what is faith? What does faith look like? It is clear from Jesus’ teaching alone that faith is something that you have, or that you do not have, that it can be weak or strong, and that it can encourage and strengthen you and even heal you if you have it. And yet, there is much confusion within the Church about the nature of faith. But still, we Christians talk a lot about faith. Therefore, you should pay special attention to Jesus’ words to you today, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

Jesus spoke these words concerning the faith exhibited by a Roman centurion. The Gentile military commander of eighty to one hundred men sought out Jesus to ask him to heal his servant who was lying at home paralyzed and suffering terribly. Jesus at once replied that He would come to the centurion’s home and heal the servant immediately. But then, in great and unexpected humility, the centurion responded, “Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” It was then that Jesus said, not to the centurion, but to His disciples and the crowds that had followed Him from the Mount of the Beatitudes, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

What prompted this response from Jesus? What was it about the centurion’s words that exhibited great faith to Jesus? I think that we are too quick to say that it was the centurion’s humility before Jesus. For, indeed, it was quite unexpected that a powerful and respected Roman military commander would request anything of a Jew, even a rabbi like Jesus, let alone declare his unworthiness that a Jew should enter his own home. And, if it were the centurion’s humility that impressed Jesus, then surely He would have said “with no one in Israel have I found such humility.” But, Jesus didn’t say humility, He said faith. The centurion was humble, to be sure, but humility is not faith, but it is a fruit of faith. So, what then was the faith of the centurion that Jesus so extolled? The centurion believed and trusted in Jesus’ goodness and the power of His Word so that it was not necessary that Jesus should even come to his home, but Jesus’ need only speak His Word and the centurion believed and trusted that his servant would be healed. The faith that caused the centurion to believe that Jesus could heal his servant by the power of His Word without actually being present was the same faith that caused the centurion to be humble enough to approach a Jewish rabbi with a request in the first place. Further, the centurion’s faith bore evident fruit in that he was selfless and self-unassuming, concerned not with his own honor and reputation, but only with Jesus’ honor and with his servant’s need. And, further still, the centurion confessed that, as he himself was a man under authority – namely, Caesar’s authority – who had command over other men under him, so his faith informed him that Jesus was a man under authority – God’s authority – and that He had command over all creation, and that whatever He commanded would most certainly be done.

What the centurion had faith in was the authority of God located in the person of Jesus and in His Word and in God’s good will toward men enfleshed in Jesus. And, when your faith is in the God who created the heavens and the earth and all things in them by the creative power of His Word, who has penetrated His creation to make all things new again, then all other things, all fleshly things and all worldly things in which you might place your fear, your love, and your trust must necessarily fall away. That is the kind of faith that the centurion represents for us, a faith that had become exceedingly rare amongst the chosen people of Israel. For, particularly in Jesus’ day, the teachers of Israel despised the Gentiles and considered them unclean, beneath them, and unworthy. So, likewise, did they consider Samaritans, lepers, and countless others to be outcasts and unclean. There was little humility and repentance to be found amongst the religious leaders of Israel, and so there was little mercy, charity, kindness, or pity to be found either.

It’s no coincidence that St. Matthew couples and precedes the account of the faithful centurion with the account of a faithful Jewish leper. For, the leper too exhibits great faith in Jesus and particularly in the good will of Jesus and in His power. Kneeling before Jesus, the leper pleaded, “Lord, if You will, You can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. In many ways, the leper is the complete opposite of the faithful centurion. The leprous man was a Jew, while the centurion was a Gentile. The leprous man was an outcast, cut off from society, cut off from the temple and the synagogue, while the centurion was a respected and honored man who was the benefactor and builder of the synagogue and who likely attended synagogue and listened to the preaching and teaching of Rabbi Jesus. Like the centurion, however, the leper exhibited great faith in approaching Jesus, for a leper was expected to remain at a distance from other people and to cry out “Unclean! Unclean!” whenever someone drew near, and yet, this leper came directly up to Jesus and knelt down before him. Though he was bold to come before Jesus, he was not filled with pride, but with great humility, for, he was all but dead, cut off from family, community, and temple – he literally had nothing to lose. The leper’s appeal to Jesus was based upon His faith in Jesus’ good will and in His power to heal in accordance with His good will. Thus, he pleaded, “Lord, if You will, You can make me clean.” Then Jesus did the unexpected, He reached out and touched the leprous, unclean man, and He said to Him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Like the centurion, the leper exhibited great faith in the authority of God located in the person of Jesus and in His Word and in God’s good will toward men enfleshed in Jesus. Perhaps the reason that the centurion received Jesus’ acclamation was because, while the Jewish leper sought healing for himself from Jesus, the Gentile centurion sought the healing of his servant. Though both men had great faith, it was the centurion who, though he was great, made himself nothing for the sake of one who, in comparison, was nothing, his servant, – it was the centurion who best reflected the love, mercy, grace, and compassion of Jesus to others.

In contrast to both the Jewish leper and the Gentile centurion stands Naaman in our Old Testament Lesson today. Naaman was a Gentile military commander with great authority, honor, and prestige like the Roman centurion, but he was also a leper like the man who approached Jesus. However, Naaman was anything but humble, and he was neither a Jew nor a God-fearing Gentile. When Naaman heard that there was a prophet in Israel who could cure his leprosy, Naaman set off with a letter from the king of Syria in hand, a trunk load of gold and silver, and an escort of horses and chariots to find this prophet and to acquire his services by either money or force. When Elisha the prophet gave Naaman specific instruction in what he must do to be healed, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean,” Naaman was offended and angered that Elisha would not come to him himself and that he was expected to wash in the lowly waters of Israel which he believed to be beneath him.

How often does your reason and wisdom, your desires and expectations, interfere with your faith and keep you from receiving all that Jesus died for you to have? Do you come before Jesus with conditions for trusting Him or with demands about what He must do for you to believe? Are you offended and scandalized by the ways in which your heavenly Father chooses to heal you? Will you not believe God when He says to you that the water of Holy Baptism now saves you? Will you not believe Jesus when He says to you that those sins which His pastors forgive are indeed forgiven? Will you not believe Jesus when He says to you that this bread is His body and that this wine is His blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins? Will you not believe Jesus when He promises you that through these means He will be with you always, until the very end of the age?

Naaman refused to believe. He refused to humble himself and to trust in the Word of God spoken by His prophet. Only when his servants appealed to him that it was a “great Word” that the prophet had spoken to him did he finally, still in unbelief, submit to being washed in the Jordan River. Naaman didn’t believe. He refused to believe. But, nevertheless, when he submitted to being washed in the Jordan according to the Word of God, he was cleansed of his leprosy and was healed so that his flesh was like that of a newborn child, for the Word of God delivers what it says, always, because the LORD is good and He is willing to heal your sin-sickness unto death. Naaman didn’t believe, but still he received – forgiveness, healing, and faith in the LORD, the God of Israel. So too in Holy Baptism, by the power and the promise of God’s Word alone, were you cleansed of all sin, forgiven, reborn and restored in faith in God the Father, through His Son Jesus Christ, in His most Holy Spirit.

No, you are not worthy that the Lord should enter under your roof. But, He is willing. In Jesus, God has entered under your roof, for He has entered into your flesh and has made His dwelling amongst you. And still today, even now, He is present with you to enter into your mouth and to dwell and abide in and with you, to strengthen and preserve you in faith, and to forgive you anew in His holy, precious, and innocent shed blood. Come, let it be done for you as you have believed.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Eulogy for Michele Bonk

(Audio)

I do not typically say a Eulogy at funerals, but I was asked to prepare one for parishioner who had suffered a very long time with a terrible, debilitative disease and whose life and faith made a great impact upon many people. I was happy to do it.

On July 7, 2012, it will be ten years that I have been ordained as a pastor. All ten of those years will have been served right here, at The Lutheran Church of Christ the King, my first and only call. Though these words are to be, and will be, about Michele Ann Bonk, I believe that it is important to establish why I was asked to share these words about her.

Michele attended my ordination service here at Christ the King on July 7, 2002. I remember that clearly and profoundly, for, as my eyes scanned over the faces of strangers, whose immortal souls I was being placed in sacred stewardship of, one person stood ought particularly – that person was Michele. Michele came to Holy Communion that day; she walked on her own two legs, supported on either side by her mother and father. I was privileged and blessed to serve to her the precious body and the holy blood of her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for the first time.

Pastor Harry Schenkel of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Sayville, NY – where I had served as Vicar in 2000 and 2001 – preached the sermon at my ordination. Peter Bonk has remarked on several occasions over the past years how impressed he was with Pastor Schenkel and his words that day. Well, about a week after my ordination, I had lunch with Pastor Schenkel out in Sayville to talk about my new assignment. I’m pretty sure that I never told Peter and Paulette this, but Pastor Schenkel had shared some prophetic words with me today, prophetic words that have surely been fulfilled. He said, “That young woman who was helped to communion by her parents…, that family is going to be a defining part of your ministry in that place.” I can attest to you that he was so very right, in so many ways.

Through ministering to Michele and Peter and Paulette, I have gotten to know them in a deeper way than many others --- that’s the natural result of being with people who are suffering and hurting. I’ve been privileged to see their faith and their core values, because these things were under attack, they still are. I believe that the value that most defines the Bonks is family – mutual commitment, sacrifice, the bond of love, and with faith as its core. This is, after all, how God created us to live saying, “And the man shall be joined to His wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” When God’s institution of marriage is upheld, life won’t be trouble-free, but there will be fortitude and strength to persevere and ward off the fiery darts of the Enemy.

After ten years of blessed marriage, Peter and Paulette received the gift and blessing of a daughter when Michele was born to them on August 19, 1978. She was baptized, confirmed, and received her first communion all right here at Christ the King. Another value of the Bonk family, related to that of family and faith, was education. It was important that Michele be educated in a way that was consistent, and not contradictory, to her faith and values. Thus, Peter and Paulette sacrificed much to see Michele through Catholic parochial schools: St. James the Apostle in Carmel and School of the Holy Child in Rye. Throughout her school years, Michele showed a love for sports, especially basketball, track, and hockey. At Holy Child, Michele ran both cross country and the mile sprint. She also played hockey with the Pawling Youth Hockey League, Bantam team. Though she was the only girl playing at the time, Coach Reed was very impressed with her will, determination, and toughness. Michele also sang in the chorus and became adept at public speaking. She delivered the eulogy at her grandmother’s funeral and, on vacation at Fire Island, she read the lessons at the small Catholic Church there. Michele even delivered a few children’s sermons here at Christ the King. Michele was a beautiful, smart, kind, caring, and loving young woman whose future everyone figured to promising, hopeful, and bright.

But, already, in her junior year at Holy Child, things were beginning to change. What began seemingly as a sinus infection and strep throat, ended with seizures, coma, and hospitalization for over a month. Though Michele recovered enough to attend school again, her life from that time forward was interrupted by periodic seizures and fear of their onset. Michele’s health stabilized enough that she desired to go away to college. So, off she went to Concordia University in Mequon, Wisconsin. It was in 2001, while she was away at college, that Michele’s condition took the turn for the worse that has lead us to this point today.

The past ten years have been, needless to say, horrible. I’m no doctor and I’m certain that I do not understand completely what exactly Michele suffered, but from what I’ve heard from Peter and Paulette, and from what I’ve observed with my own eyes, Leukodystrophy is one of the most horrible diseases you can imagine. I felt, and likely you did to, that Michele was slowly stolen, piece by piece. Though she could walk with assistance on July 7, 2002, within a few weeks Michele was permanently confined to a wheelchair. And, when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. This was Michele’s life for ten years. This was Peter and Paulette’s life for ten years. And, on several occasions in the ICU or the Emergency Room, they were told that Michele would not make it. And yet, she did.

And that brings us to the unique and wonderful part of Michele’s story and life. Even after the terrible disease set in, God granted Michele ten more years of life through which He preserved her and kept her, according to His wisdom, through suffering. As I talked about in the sermon, there are a lot of “Why?” questions to be sure. But, despite the suffering, Michele’s suffering, but also the suffering of all who loved her, Peter and Paulette were, and are, thankful for those ten beautiful years.

Perhaps you’re asking silently, where’s the beauty in such suffering? It’s a fair question. The beauty in suffering in found in faith in the Beautiful One, Jesus, who has suffered for us, and who suffers with us, and who sustains and keeps us through suffering, through death which He has defeated, and into His life which He gives to us as a free and perfect gift.

Throughout her life, Michele lived in joy, giving thanks for the good blessings she received, and never complaining , but remaining strong in faith through difficulty and suffering. She knew blessing in life and health and in sickness and death. Michele reflected the light of Christ in this world of sin, death, and darkness. Well done, good and faithful servant. Now she dwells in light, where there is no lamp or sun, for the Lamb upon His throne, Jesus Christ, is her light. Though we miss her, we cannot wish her back, but only that we could be with her in joy and peace, in light and life. We will be there, one day, through faith in Christ. And until then, we can be with her in the Communion of Saints, where heaven meets earth; where, in receiving Jesus’ body and blood, we gather with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven – yes, Michele is now in that company – singing, “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth; heav’n and earth are full of Thy glory.”

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Christian Funeral for Michele Ann Bonk

(Audio)

Matthew 5:1-12; Revelation 7:9-17; Lamentations 3:22-33

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

Peter and Paulette, family and friends of our departed sister in Christ, Michele, dearly beloved of our Lord and God – I know the unspoken question pressing against the backs of your teeth, screaming to be shouted to the heavens. I know the bowel-churning question that wells up in your throats and escapes as an empty, dry-heave of wordless emotion. I know the question that threatens to isolate you and imprison you and devour you from the inside out. I know that question, for I have swallowed it, I have eaten it, I have vomited it, and I have internally screamed that question too. That question is, “Why?”

Why do people suffer? Why do the wicked so often seem to prosper while the good and the innocent suffer and die? Why do bad things happen to good people? These are all really the same question, and we’ve all asked them from time to time. But, today, gathered here as we are to remember Michele, and to console each other, and to receive consolation from the Words and the Gifts of our Lord and God, I know that we’re all asking the same question. “Why? Oh my God, why?” Why must a healthy, vibrant, kind and loving young woman be stricken with such a rare, horrible, and utterly debilitating disease? Why must a faithful Christian girl, smart and beautiful, with so much promise and a full and rich life ahead of her gradually disintegrate before our very eyes? Why was she spared death so many times over a decade only to be taken from us in the end, smashing our hopes and making us ask these unanswerable questions? I know that you have asked these questions, and I know that you are asking them now. I know that I have asked these questions too. And, our God knows that we have asked, and He knows that we are asking, “Why?”

Well, there actually are answers to your questions, but, situated as we are somewhere in the middle between the beginning of all things and the end, the answers are often not very satisfying to human reason and wisdom. For instance, we must remember that suffering is the result of our sin, which in turn is the result of evil in this world, evil injected into this world like a poison by Satan. That is to say, God doesn’t cause suffering, sin does, men who sin do. But, please understand, however, that I am not suggesting that it was Michele’s sin that caused her to become ill, for it was no more Michele’s sin than it was my sin, or your sin, or our First Parent’s sin, but it is simply sin that is the cause of suffering and death, sin that we each are conceived and born in and with, sin that we all share in common. As St. Paul has written, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and “there is not one righteous, not even one.” Thus, the answer to the question “Why suffering?” is not that “God causes suffering,” for, suffering is only and always the result of sin.

However, there is another answer to your questions that may be even harder to understand from our human perspective, and that is that, while God is not the source and efficient cause of suffering, nevertheless, He does willingly and actively permit and allow suffering to befall us. Now, to exhibit this truth, we need only to consider the afflictions and suffering God permitted Satan to bring upon righteous Job. When Satan challenged God by saying that Job only loved Him because He had so richly blessed him, God permitted Satan to take Job’s wealth, to kill his children, and to afflict Job’s own body with horrendous and torturous suffering that His righteousness might be proven true. Indeed, when all of Job’s friends and even his own wife exhorted him to curse God and die, Job’s response was simply, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the Name of the Lord.” Eventually, Job’s sufferings became so great that he began to ask the same question that you are asking. The answer that the LORD provided Job can be summed up in this way, “When you’re God, then you can demand an answer.”

Yes, God willingly permits and allows suffering to befall us, but He has never permitted anything that He was not willing to suffer for us and to sanctify through the sufferings and death of His only-begotten Son, Jesus. The Prophet Isaiah says of the LORD’s Suffering Servant, “It was the will of the LORD to crush Him; He has put Him to grief.” Likewise, St. Paul writes of the suffering God permitted to come upon Jesus saying, “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” I think that we tend to make much too lightly of the suffering and anguish that Jesus experienced in Gethsemane the night He was betrayed, for there He prayed like no man has ever prayed that His Father would provide another way and remove the burden of suffering from Him. But though He prayed so fervently, in horrible anguish of body and soul, three times petitioning His Father, He ended each time of prayer saying, “LORD, not my will, but your will be done.”

It was the LORD’s will to crush Him. God willingly sent His Son to the cross to suffer and to die for the sins of the entire world. Jesus prayed fervently, He prayed like no man has ever prayed before, that God would remove the cup of suffering from Him. But, in faith and trust in the goodness and love and wisdom of God, Jesus submitted His own will to that of His Father. And, I ask you, what did Jesus cry out in anguish and agony and suffering on the cross as He died? “Why?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Quoting Psalm 22, Jesus identified Himself with every person who has ever been devastated by untimely loss. No one was ever more innocent, yet no one ever suffered more severely both the attacks of Satan and the divine justice of God. The greatest miscarriage of justice was also its highest expression, for in the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Christ, we are forgiven and invited to become citizens of the heavenly kingdom.

Simply knowing that God knows best and that all things work out for good doesn’t take away our pain. But the pain Jesus felt sanctifies and gives purpose to our suffering. Believing in the resurrection doesn’t immediately call the dead to life, but it guarantees that the dead in Christ will rise. The Christian still asks, “Why pain, suffering, and death?” God still answers, “Because I love you and desire to make My strength perfect in your weakness.” He weakens our own strength through tragedy that He might strengthen us for life everlasting.

Death is a reality we all must face, for it is the wages of the sin that we all bear and continue to commit. But it was the LORD’s will to crush Jesus in death, and Jesus willingly submitted to that suffering and death in perfect fear, love, and trust in God His Father and in perfect, selfless, sacrificial love for you His neighbor and brother. Your God desires that you place your fear, love, and trust in Him too, and so, He permits you to suffer and to be weakened that He might be your strength, for His strength is made perfect in weakness, and when you are weak, then you are strong with the grace, mercy, love, peace, and forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ.

Think about it, is that not what Jesus is calling you to in the Beatitudes? Is He not calling you to suffer with Him in poverty of spirit, in mourning, in meekness, and in hunger and thirst? Is He not calling you to suffer with Him by being merciful, pure in heart, and peaceful even while men persecute you, revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you because of Him? Is He not calling you to share in the sufferings that He has sanctified by His own innocent blood shed for you to purchase you from sin and death? The Beatitudes are not a checklist of things you must do to be obedient to Christ, but they are the very description of Christ Himself. Likewise, they are the description of those who are in Christ, His disciples, who share in His sacrificial sufferings for others even as He has suffered for them and has sanctified their sufferings.

Why did Michele have to suffer and die? I can’t answer that question. In fact, I’m asking that question right along with you. But, I can tell you that God permitted it to happen for a reason that may only ever be known to Him. And, as horrible as it was and is, God has promised to work it for good. And, though it may be hard to accept, I believe He already has. As Michele’s lifeless body laid in the Emergency Room, there was a steady stream of nurses who came with hugs and tears in their eyes to share their sorrow and grief and condolences with Peter and Paulette. I’ve never seen anything like it before. These strangers who, in their profession, see hundreds and hundreds of patients, many of whom suffer and die, were somehow touched by Michele and by Peter and Paulette. They felt a connection to them, one that I wholeheartedly believe comes from the witness God made of them as they loved Michele and cared for her and ministered to her over these past ten years. Those nurses could see that love, that sacrifice, that suffering that Peter and Paulette showered upon Michele, and it was unique and special. They could see that love and it was a testimony to their faith and to their God. Even though God had allowed them to be reduced to terrible weakness and suffering, in their weakness He filled them with His strength. And, it wasn’t just the day Michele died, but it was over the entire ten year course of her affliction. How many people, how many lives were impacted by the powerful example of faith, love, trust, and sacrifice exhibited by Peter and Paulette and the rest of the family as they attended to Michele? God only knows.

But, that’s what it means to baptized into Jesus Christ, “For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.” We are called to die to ourselves and to live to God in Christ Jesus. Jesus teaches that, to be His disciples, you must take up your cross and follow Him through death and into life. Peter, Paulette, dear family and friends of our sister in Christ Michele, I know what you’ve been waiting for, what you’ve been hoping for – you’ve been waiting and hoping and praying for a miracle, for Michele to get better. I’m sorry that she didn’t get better and that her long, degenerative disease finally took her from you. But, I want you to know that God keeps His promises. He has heard your prayers. He has seen your suffering and your love. And, He has kept His promise to His precious, dear child Michele. For, He has taken her out of this great tribulation and she is before His throne this very moment. He who sits on the throne will shelter her with His presence. She shall hunger no more, and thirst no more. The sun shall not strike her, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne is her Shepherd, and He has guided her to springs of living water, and God Himself has wiped away every tear from her eyes. For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though He cause grief, He will have compassion according to the abundance of His steadfast love; for He does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Homily for The Second Sunday after Epiphany

H-19  Epiphany 2 (Jn 2.1-11)

(Audio not available)

John 2:1-11; Romans 12:6-16; Exodus 33:12-23

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

Most of us are not in a very good position to appreciate and to understand the Gospel Lesson appointed for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany. The reason for this is that, from our modern and western perspective, we have very different understandings of marriage and wedding celebrations and their meanings, both symbolic and practical, than did the people of middle-eastern culture in first century Israel. That’s likely at least part of the reason so many of us enjoy movies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Fiddler on the Roof, and even The Godfather, for such movies depict weddings that are richly steeped in cultural, ethnic, and religious traditions. Such weddings are huge, elaborate events, often lasting for days, and the marriages in these movies are clearly much more than the contractual agreement between two consenting adults, but they are the unions of families, the joining of cultures, customs, and traditions, even the forming of villages and communities.

So, for us to truly understand the Gospel account of the Wedding at Cana, it is necessary for us to embrace the rich cultural meaning of marriage and the wedding celebration in Jesus’ day. Weddings in Jesus’ day were massive feasts for the entire village. A wedding party could last an entire week, put everything else in the town on hold, and be the most important local event of the entire year. Somewhat parallel to our modern customs, there were many folkways and mores attached to the ancient village wedding: A contract between families, cut by mutual agreement over a sip of wine; A betrothal period of about one year in length when the bride prepared the home for the couple; And then the arrival of the groom, the procession to the wedding hall, and a grand feast. To neglect the invitation was to send a message that you did not want to be a part of the village. To accept the invitation was a show of friendship and loyalty. In some eastern cultures it was expected, and still is today, that the entire town or village would be invited and that each guest would be given a gift! This understanding is necessary for us to comprehend the magnitude of the disaster that almost befell the Wedding in Cana because they had run out of wine.

All this to-do about wine? Unfortunately, our American culture, largely shaped by puritanical pietism in its prudish restrictiveness and in its rebellious indulgence, has demonized the drinking of wine and of all beverages containing alcohol. Therefore, we miss out on the importance of wine in ancient world and of the goodness, joy, and blessing that it symbolized for people. Wine was understood as a good gift of God. It was a symbol of joy and happiness and of God’s blessing. Throughout the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testaments, wine was used and extolled in this manner, its use even being commanded by Jesus in the Last Supper. The bride’s family was responsible for providing the wine for the wedding. As much as a year before the wedding they would have been preparing the wine for the feast, from tending the grapes to their pressing, and then, they would have hired a wine steward to manage the wine to last throughout the entire wedding celebration, serving the good wine first, while the guest’s palettes were sharp, and then the less expensive wine when their tastes were less discerning. However you slice it, the chief job of the wine steward was to make certain that they didn’t run out of wine and cause a social disaster for the families of the bride and the groom. But in the story, that’s exactly what happened.

Now, I know that it’s hard for us to get our brains around this today, but running out of wine at a first century middle-eastern wedding was about the worst thing that could possibly happen. It would have meant humiliating shame for the entire family in the presence of the entire town or village. It would have meant the loss of respectability and even livelihood. This was the situation that Jesus was in midst of and was called upon by His mother to remedy. Mary said to Him, “They have no wine.” She might as well have said the bride is dead, as this was a seemingly hopeless situation that no man had the ability to resolve. But, Jesus response to her, similar to last Sunday’s Gospel account of the twelve year old Jesus in the temple, seems out of place, almost disrespectful. Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”

Well, to understand Jesus’ words, it is necessary that we remember that this account was recorded by the Apostle John, who was present at the wedding and was an eye witness. John uses the words “my hour” in his Gospel as code words for the Passion of Jesus: His crucifixion, suffering, and death. Thus, what Jesus was communicating to His mother was that it wasn’t yet time for Him to be manifested as the fullness of God’s glory by laying down His life in sacrifice for the sins of all mankind. Nevertheless, Jesus did respond to His mother’s concern that they had no wine. They had no wine; they had no joy; and they were helpless to restore joy to this otherwise festive occasion. The family was going to be humiliated. The marriage had a black mark on it before it even began. Though it was not yet the hour of Jesus’ Passion, nevertheless, Jesus did have compassion upon the people beloved by His Father in heaven and He acted to restore their joy and their relationships and their honor, and He acted to glorify His Father in this first of His signs recorded for us in the Holy Scriptures.

Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. The jars represented the Law of God. They represented His holiness and man’s uncleanness, for it was necessary for the guests to be ceremonially purified before they could partake of the wedding feast. Jesus commanded that these jars be refilled with water, to the very brim. This was to indicate that when Jesus would fully manifest Himself and glorify His Father by laying down His life unto death, His death would be for every sin ever committed and for every man, woman, and child who would ever live and die. When He commanded that the wine be taken to the master of the feast and he tasted it, He had to confess that the water in the jars was not water at all, but that it was the finest of wines. For, not only would Jesus fulfill the Law for us completely in the hour of His Passion, but He now offers us rich and abundant grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness freely through faith in Him.

This is why in one prominent cathedral in Manhattan the inscription around the baptismal font reads “This, the first of His signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested His glory; and his disciples believed in Him.” As the wedding at Cana was the first of Jesus’ signs, so Holy Baptism is His first sign among us. Baptism is a sacramental miracle, an even greater sign than turning water into wine. The words inscribed near that font remind us that Jesus is still manifesting Himself to us every time we gather around font, pulpit, and altar.

The master of the feast was stunned and he remarked, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Indeed, when Jesus makes everything new, the new is even better than the old, even before the old became corrupted! Likewise, when Moses asked to see the Father’s glory, he was permitted to see only His backside, for no man can see the face of God and live. And yet, in the resurrection on the Last Day, we will all behold Him face to face. And so, even now, Jesus is present with us, though He remains veiled in Word and water, bread, and wine, but then, then we shall see Him face to face.

Thus, today we remember how Jesus restored to joy to a community of people and how the wine they enjoyed then was even better than what they began with. And by remembering this first of Jesus’ signs He performed through which He manifested His glory, we are brought to remember the many other ways Jesus manifested His glory amongst us, demonstrating that He was Emmanuel, God with us, then, now, and unto all eternity.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Homily for Epiphany Walk 2012

(Audio)

Isaiah 11:1-9

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

It is an election year. Even now men are jetting and motoring across this vast nation vying to win the support of the masses, telling them much less what they believe than what the polls inform them that they want to hear, taking jabs at their opponents at every opportunity, digging up dirt from their past while spending millions to bury and hide their own skeletons. They judge by what their eyes see and decide disputes by what their ears hear, for there is none righteous, not even one.

How different is the governance of our LORD and God than the governance of men. “It is obviously different from that of an earthly kingdom,” wrote Martin Luther, “where an assembly of people is provided with a king. In this case the King is born first, and then He gathers a people for Himself.” Yes, Jesus was born to be our King – He was born to be our true King: A King anointed by the Holy Spirit of God, who judges, not by what He sees with His eyes and hears with His ears, but with righteousness; a Servant King who defends and protects His people, even laying down His life in death to save them; the result of whose rule being, not the building of a nation according to the values of men, but the restoration of a world in peaceful communion as it once existed, but so much better still for the communing of God in and with men.

For, the kings of men had left His creation in ruin: blackened, burnt earth ravaged by the fire of war, stumps for trees in the wake of advancing armies, rivers of blood and mountains of bodies of men and women and children. When man’s hope had been extinguished, when man’s might had been proven helplessness, when the world was cold, still, dark, and dead with no hope, no life, and no expectation left in it, that was when God enacted His mighty deliverance: From the dead, dry stump of the father of the great king came forth a shoot of new life, a new King from our True and Only Father. Once again, out of the nothingness God produced life, this time by entering His creation Himself.

While the world continues in its deathward course, now there is another way, the Way of Life. And, while the world continues to look to men for wisdom and understanding, counsel and might and knowledge, now these may be found in one person, one Word, one King. And, while the world continues to wage war, to kill, and to destroy, a life that cannot die is available to all who are willing to die to themselves, to the passions of the flesh, and to this world – a life that cannot die, a life that never ends in the Prince and King of Peace, Jesus Christ.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Homily for The First Sunday after the Epiphany

(Audio)

Luke 2:41-52; Romans 1:1-5; 1 Kings 8:6-13

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

If you are like me, most evenings you watch the 10 o’clock news on FOX 5 New York. And, if you are like me, you watch FOX 5 news, not because it is better than other news programs on other channels, but simply because it is on an hour earlier than the 11 o’clock news, and you’re tired and you want to go to bed. And, if you watch the 10 o’clock news, then you have undoubtedly heard these famous words which serve as a public service announcement at the beginning of the news program each evening: “It’s 10:00 pm, do you know where your children are?”

In mental response to that question, I often find myself answering, “Yes I do. I do know where my children are. In fact, they’re in bed asleep, right above me, right now.” Now, it may seem a bit simple, but there’s no small amount of comfort to be had in answering the question, “Do you know where your children are?” in the affirmative: “Yes, I know where my children are. I’ve done at least something right as a parent. Tonight, right now, my children are all safe, asleep in their beds. Of that much I’m certain. They’re not lost.”

However, standing in stark contrast to my 10 o’clock parental reassurance is the story in our Gospel lesson today about the Holy Family’s visit to Jerusalem for Passover when Jesus was twelve years old. Mary and Joseph lost their child. They did not know where their child was, even a full day’s journey from Jerusalem on their way back home to Nazareth. Yes, that’s correct, they had traveled a full day’s walking distance before they even began to look for Him amongst their relatives and acquaintances. However, you shouldn’t be too shocked by that particular detail. After all, it wasn’t too many years ago that children roamed the neighborhood from home to home from dawn to dusk. That’s how it was for me growing up; on the weekends or when school was out, I left the house in the morning after breakfast and I didn’t return home until dinner time. And, when I was older, I am certain that I came back well after 10:00 pm. But the world was different then, wasn’t it? Somehow, safer? Or, were we just na├»ve? Anyway, in first century Judea, families and clans of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins would travel together along with other families and clans from the same town. The children moved freely from family to family and nobody feared for their safety, knowing they were among relatives and acquaintances.

Nonetheless, you should take note that the stories in the Bible always have a bit of an edge, even the ones about Jesus and the Holy Family. We tend to sanitize them and to remember them and the characters in them as holy, perfect, and beyond reproach. But, consider the lies and deceptions, the treacheries, adulteries and fornications, denials and betrayals of such important figures as Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses, and David, and Peter and Thomas, not to mention Paul. These people all made mistakes, disbelieved, and showed their weakness and frailty, and yet they are heroes of the faith and they examples for us of humility and repentance and of God’s grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness poured out upon them through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. Likewise, the Bible is filled with sinners and outcasts in need of God’s grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness: prostitutes and tax collectors, adulterers, lepers, the sick, the dead, and the unclean.

And thus, you should take note of the edgy details of today’s account of the Holy Family, for they literally beg you to examine them and to dig a little deeper. For instance, it should surprise you that Joseph and Mary lost their child and did not know where He was. It should surprise you that Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem without His parent’s knowledge. It should surprise you that He was lost for three days before they finally found Him. It should surprise you that Joseph and Mary seem not to understand whose Son Jesus truly is. It should surprise you that Jesus answers His concerned and astonished parents with perplexing questions of His own. It should surprise you that they seemingly still didn’t understand who He was and what He must do. It should surprise you that He then became submissive to them and returned home to Nazareth where He seemingly lived as a normal young adult until He was approximately thirty years of age. It should surprise you that His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And, it should surprise you that Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. What does this mean?

Indeed, this well known and beloved story of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple is so filled with unexpected and perplexing details that it literally invites you, even begs you, to probe deeper into its mystery. For, it is a mystery, a mystery concerning the identity of Jesus, a mystery concerning the epiphany or manifestation of His divinity, then veiled in human flesh, breaking through in such a way so as to draw you closer to Him and deeper into Him, that you may treasure all these things in your heart.

Yet, it is often said that the devil is in the details. And, indeed, the devil has worked much mischief and harm by tempting the faithful to get caught in a web of symbolic interpretations of details in the Holy Scriptures. Thus, let us not consider foremost the details, but the One who lies beneath the details, and what is manifested for us through the revelation of the mystery of God in the flesh. That it was Passover when the Holy Family visited Jerusalem is an important detail. The Holy Family was in Jerusalem to make a sacrifice and to eat the Passover as commanded by the Law of God. Most families would have either brought a sacrificial lamb with them or they would have purchased one in Jerusalem. The Holy Family brought Jesus. That Jesus was twelve years old is also an important detail because that was the age of spiritual adulthood for a Hebrew male, the year of his Bar Mitzvah making him a Son of the Commandment. This age indicates that Jesus was now recognized as an adult who could make decisions for Himself. Thus, the Word of God made flesh, Jesus, circumcised on the eighth day of His newborn life to fulfill the Law and Command of God, now recognized by men as having achieved spiritual maturity and adulthood, presents Himself as the unblemished Passover Lamb of God in a foreshadowing of the self-sacrifice that He would make in Jerusalem during the Passover twenty-one years later.

Likewise, it is an important detail that Jesus willingly stayed behind in the temple and that He demonstrated there His wisdom and knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. For, He did not merely demonstrate that He understood the Word of God, but He permitted the teachers in the temple and you a small glimpse and epiphany that He is the Word of God in their midst, and in your midst, by the questions that He asked and the answers that He gave. And, that Jesus was seemingly lost for three days is also an important detail, for, in the Holy Scriptures, and particularly in the parables of Jesus, being lost is likened to having died, and being found is likened to being made alive again. Indeed, even the question Jesus asked of His parents when they finally discovered Him in the temple seems a portent of the question asked by the angel at Jesus’ tomb when the women came expecting to find His dead body: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” and “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

It is an important detail that Joseph and Mary did not understand what Jesus meant. For, how could they not understand? Both of them were visited by angels proclaiming who their child was. They had heard Simeon’s and Anna’s prophecies concerning the child. They heard the testimonies of Zechariah and Elizabeth as well, not to mention their own faith, knowledge, and trust in words of the Prophets. Certainly, they believed and knew that their son Jesus was the very Son of God. Then why, why did they not understand Jesus’ meaning that He must be in His Father’s house? And, why was that not the first place that they looked once they came to realize that He was not amongst their relatives and acquaintances? Perhaps their confusion was precisely because they did believe and know who He was. That is to say, perhaps Joseph and Mary so believed and trusted in Simeon’s prophecy that their son would be for the rising and falling of many in Israel and for a word spoken against that the first place they ventured to look was not the temple, but the morgue! Perhaps they believed so strongly that their son was destined to die as God’s Passover Lamb for the sins of the world that they, like Eve, who believed that her first born son was the one promised to crush the serpent’s head, were anticipating the fulfillment of His destiny now, even at His young age. But, whatever it was that they did not understand, nevertheless, Jesus submitted to their parental authority, honored and obeyed Joseph and Mary, and returned home with them to Nazareth. And, from that point on, until He formally began His ministry at the age of thirty, the Scriptures are silent, indicating that Jesus lived and grew as a son and as a man, increasing in wisdom and in stature and in favor with both God and men.

Jesus’ very first words are misunderstood, a theme for His entire life. As Simeon had prophesied, Jesus was destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel; were Joseph and Mary the first to stumble over Jesus and the cross? It is a mystery! That is exactly the point. A mystery draws you in deeper. You, children of God, you Christians, are Mary during this Epiphany season, invited to ponder the mystery of Jesus in your heart. Why did the Magi present an infant boy with gifts fit for a prophets, priests, and kings? What was the significance of Jesus’ changing water into the finest of wines at the wedding in Cana? What does it mean for you that God is pleased with the man Jesus and that to Him heaven has opened and that upon Him God’s Spirit has rested and remains? What does it mean that creation continues to respond to and obey His Word as it once did in the beginning? These are but some of the questions for you to ponder during Epiphantide that you may grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ.

In the Word made flesh Jesus Christ, God has returned to His temple. As in the tabernacle of old, so in the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple, so now in the flesh and blood of Jesus, God dwells amongst His people to bless them and keep them in Holy Communion with Him until the resurrection of all flesh on the Last Day.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Feast of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus

F-6 Circumcision and Name  (Lu 2.21)

(Audio)

Luke 2:21; Galatians 3:23-29; Numbers 6:22-27

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

A few years ago, that great poet laureate of boats, bars, ballads, and beaches, Jimmy Buffett, wrote a song about the things people sometimes do on an impulse which, nevertheless, have lasting implications. He titled the song “Permanent Reminder of a Temporary Feeling.” In the first verse of the song, Jimmy tells the story of a young woman who woke up the next morning to find a tattoo of an Indian chief on her back. She attempted to explain to her shocked and disbelieving parents that “a tattoo is a badge of validation.” But, Jimmy sings, “the truth of the matter is far more revealing, it’s a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.”

If you’ve visited the mall, the beach, the Dutchess County Fair, or even a PTA meeting, especially in the Summer, then you have no doubt seen that a good number of people today, both men and women, and even teenagers, have tattoos. The prevalence of inked flesh has caused me to wonder just how many Americans are tattooed today. It seemed to me that it had to be something close to half, though I found that difficult to believe. Well, in fact, a Pew Research Poll conducted in 2006 says that about 40% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 40 have at least one tattoo. Additionally, about 27% of the same age group has at least one piercing other than an ear lobe. These surprising, if not shocking, statistics beg the question, “Why?” Why are so many people today attracted to marking their bodies in such a permanent way?

To be sure, while some inked flesh is the result of an impulsive moment of indiscretion, like the young woman in Mr. Buffett’s song, for many, the permanence of the tattoo or the body modification is itself the attraction. People get tattoos and piercings to mark important events in their lives, to reclaim their bodies when they feel that they have been wrongly evaluated by others, to identify with something transcendent to themselves as a family clan, tribe, or ideology, or even as a spiritual brand marking their connection with their god, goddess, spirit, or whatever in their very own flesh. Indeed, tattoos and piercings are permanent reminders to the one so marked in their own flesh as they are to all around them who can view them.

Given this quality of permanence which belongs to tattoos, piercings, and body modifications, it shouldn’t be surprising that the One who created our bodies has something to say about the matter. Indeed, in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, God spoke through Moses saying, “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD.” Now, to be sure, the LORD prohibited the Israelites from many other things as well – the wearing of dyed, woolen fabrics for instance. What, then, was God’s purpose in such prohibitions, and what meaning have they for the children of God today? God’s purpose for the children of Israel, the same as for His children today, was that they be set apart, holy, that is, that they not be like the pagans who surrounded them. Since the pagans surrounding the children of Israel cut their flesh for the dead and tattooed themselves, the LORD forbade His people to do the same. Likewise, as the pagans drank blood in the belief that they would acquire the strength, might, and courage of the animal whose blood they consumed, the LORD forbade His people to do the same. Such Old Testament prohibitions served to mark the children of Israel as holy and belonging to the LORD. Similarly, St. Paul teaches us in the New Testament, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

However, whereas the LORD forbade tattooing and cutting the flesh in the manner of the pagans, there was a cutting of the flesh and still another marking that the LORD would command of His people, namely Circumcision and Holy Baptism respectively. When the LORD made a covenant with Abram that He would bless all nations of the world through an heir of his own flesh, He commanded that Abram and all males be circumcised as a sign of the covenant in their flesh. From that time on, all Hebrew males were circumcised on the eighth day as a permanent sign and reminder of God’s covenant with Abram. But this was not merely a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling, but circumcision was a permanent mark in the flesh, at the very source of human life, of a permanent covenant and promise that would not be broken, but that would be kept by the LORD despite the wayward and weak faith of men.

The LORD kept His covenant with Abram in sending His only-begotten Son into the flesh. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit of God as the Word passed through the ear and planted itself within the womb of the Virgin Mary and became flesh. He was born as all men are and He was laid in a manger in Bethlehem. And, on the eighth day of His newborn life, He was circumcised according the Law, and He was named Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. Though He was innocent, He was marked as one under the Law and in need of God’s covenant of grace. Thus, He was not circumcised for His own benefit, but for ours. He suffered and shed His first blood, not for His sins, but for ours. In the incarnation, our Lord Jesus began the redemption of our flesh by taking our place under the knife, by shedding His blood, and by suffering our death. And, He received the Name of God’s covenant of Grace, Jesus, God is Salvation.

In our flesh and blood, Jesus lived His life for all of us under the Law, fulfilling it in perfect obedience, humility, and love towards His Father. In our flesh and blood He submitted to baptism by John in the Jordan River, sanctifying all water to be a lavish washing of regeneration for the forgiveness of sins. Then, in our flesh, He submitted to the whips, nails, and spear of men and became God’s Lamb of Sacrifice for the sins of the entire world. He suffered, died and was buried, and on the third day He was raised from the dead in our flesh, never to die again. He ascended to the right hand of God the Father in heaven, from whence He will come again to judge the living and the dead. Until then, and ever after, He is and remains the Lamb standing though slain, a permanent reminder of a promise kept and fulfilled for all eternity.

Now there is no need to be circumcised in the flesh, for the LORD’s covenant of grace has been kept and fulfilled, there is no longer a need for that sign of the promise. Now the LORD desires that you circumcise your hearts and return to Him in repentance. And, as a sign of this turning and of His forgiveness in Jesus, He has given you Holy Baptism which now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Though He does not command you to be tattooed in the flesh, your LORD and your God does give you a mark and sign and a Name: I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Your Holy Baptism, in which the Name of the Holy Triune God, the sign of the cross of Jesus Christ His Son, and ordinary water are applied upon your forehead and upon your heart is a permanent reminder of the LORD’s permanent grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness poured out upon you in His Holy Spirit. Your Holy Baptism is a baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection. These works of your Lord in your flesh benefit you, for, if you have died with Jesus in a death like His, then you will also be raised with Jesus in a resurrection like His.

And now, for the time in which we await His return on the Last Day, your LORD has provided for you a source of strength and comfort and life in the blood of His Son which He gives you to drink that you might share in His life. Previously you were forbidden to drink the blood, for the life of a being is in its blood, but now you are invited and commanded to drink that you might commune with Jesus and have His life in you. For, you have been marked with His Name, sealed in His Spirit, and you eat and drink His flesh and blood for the forgiveness of your sins, the strengthening of your faith, and as a permanent reminder of the eternal life that you live in and with Him.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.