Saturday, June 6, 2020

Don't get too distracted!

Don't get too distracted!

The lectionary reading this past week has included Paul's second letter to Timothy. So long ago the Holy Spirit gave inspiration to help us hold steady:
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people.
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.
What the Church has taught and Scripture has affirmed for almost 2000 years is what we are to focus on and hold to tightly in spite of all the perverted thinking and activity that cannot see beyond what appears to so important at the moment.
Spend more time in Scripture and prayer instead of letting daily "news" create a distraction from the Kingdom that will endure beyond all that seems so important in this world that is passing away.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday –– Amazing Love!

Good Friday –– Amazing Love!
April 10, 2020

With arms spread wide on the cross, Jesus shows us an incredible contrast….

The suffering and death is a picture of what sin––turning away from God––means. The cross shows what sin is in the eyes of God’s holiness and justice. Jesus on the cross is us, because all of us are guilty of choosing our own way instead of God’s perfect love.

And yet that is exactly the paradox and contrast of the cross. The cross shows us God’s love. Instead of allowing the repercussion of sin to fall on us, God chose to take it upon himself. Jesus suffered and died for me…. and for you…. and for the injustices of the whole world.

God himself….. taking my place…. loving me so much that he took the ridicule, the shame, the pain, and death itself so I can freely enter into His incredible love.

One hymn writer asks, What Wondrous Love Is This?

While it’s beyond our comprehension, it is right for us to reflect so that we can immerse ourselves in God’s love as much as possible.

Perhaps my favorite hymn writer is Charles Wesley. In one of his masterpieces he has penned these words:

’Tis mystery all! The immortal dies!
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries to sound the depths of love divine;
’Tis mercy all! let earth adore;
Let angel minds inquire no more.

Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?!

Amazing love! How can it be

That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?!


Sunday, April 5, 2020

Going to Jerusalem

I first developed this sermon in the early 1980s when I was Associate Pastor of the Grantham Brethren in Christ Church, the campus congregation at Messiah College. Over the years I have used it again, and as you will see at the end, I have "tweaked" it to bring it a bit more up to date with what God has done in my life since the early 80s. I offer this today, Palm Sunday 2020, in these days of seclusion and recognizing that as we follow Jesus in his death we do not know until the day of our physical death where that will lead. May the Lord give us the grace to follow him to the very end.

GOING TO JERUSALEM
John 12:12–33

On Palm Sunday the Church begins to follow her Lord on his path to the cross in Jerusalem. This is not just a story of something that happened in the life of one man so many years ago. Neither is it only an integral part of the Church’s doctrine. The message of the gospel is also a method that must be incarnated — fleshed out in the lives of those who take it seriously. The message that comes to us from Jesus Christ is not only an offer of forgiveness and a gift of salvation, it is a call to obedience. I invite us to consider what going to Jerusalem means.

The first thing to consider is what going to Jerusalem meant for Jesus himself. It is important enough to be included in all four gospels. Holy Week begins with the acclaim that Jesus received from the people as he rode into the city. But he did not go into Jerusalem to hear the shouts of Hosanna or even to test the waters of the people's affections. The first thing we can see in this event of Jesus' life is its parallel to his teaching. Jesus is coming face to face with a theme that occurs time and again throughout the gospels, and John has Jesus saying it here in connection with this going to Jerusalem. It's in vs24,25:

I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Those who love their life lose it, while those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

Those were not mere words rolling off the lips of Jesus so people would say, "What a profound thinker!"  This was no intellectual concept to be understood, but kept at arm's length.  Jesus knew it was the truth about the way things are, and that every human life in the world had to face the implication of that truth — even he himself.

It has always been that way. About 2,000 years before Jesus said these words, God came to Abraham:  "Abraham! How about that life you hold so dear? Do you still love me? Even more than Isaac? Offer him as a sacrifice!" Now here is Jesus, going to Jerusalem knowing he is God the Father's Isaac.

It is here that we see the second thing that going to Jerusalem meant for Jesus: it was a test of obedience to the Father. Think of how the cross must have loomed on the horizon of Jesus' consciousness. How much did the boy Jesus understand when he stated at 12 years of age, "I must pursue the things of my Father," to those men steeped in the Scriptures? Most biblical scholars agree that by the time of his baptism, Jesus knew what lay ahead. In the first three gospels, Jesus’ temptation occurs right after his baptism, and already Satan tries to dissuade Jesus from the path of the cross. As John opens his story of Jesus' ministry, there is a calamitous wedding. Jesus' mother comes to him for help and gets a reply that shows the shadow that was already falling on him: "Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time has not yet come" (2:4).

Over half of Luke's account is devoted to Jesus going to Jerusalem. It all starts at 9:51— As the time approached…. Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. By the time Luke’s Gospel gets to 18:31, Jesus and his disciples are nearing Jerusalem.  Again, Jesus is aware of what lies ahead. Luke records:
Jesus took the twelve aside and told them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him (18:31,32).

So what did going to Jerusalem mean for Jesus? It meant that his teaching on life / death and giving / keeping were real life issues. It was not enough to talk about them. They had to be acted upon. It also meant that Jesus must persevere to the end in his obedience to the Father. The question was before him as he faced Jerusalem — as it had been at the other instances in his ministry. What was his answer to be? At v27 we hear him ask the question of himself and give the answer: Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father save me from this hour?' No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour." For Jesus, going to Jerusalem meant death.

A second question to ask is what Jesus going to Jerusalem meant for the world. I raise that because of v31,32, where there are three obvious things: (1) judgment on the world, (2) freedom for the world, and (3) an invitation to the people of the world.

Here is the essence of the gospel. God always responds to sin with judgment, but in sending his Son he has chosen to put on Jesus the punishment of our sins. But it's not only our sinfulness that's at stake; the whole world is in the power of the evil one (1Jn 5:19). Satan must be defeated, and that is what Jesus is doing by going to Jerusalem.

Do you remember the parable of the strong man? You can find it in Matthew 12. Jesus asked the question: "How can anyone enter a strong man's house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he robs his house" (v29). That is right after he had spoken the words, But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. You see, by going to Jerusalem, Jesus was entering the strong man's house.  He was making his move to take the rule of earth away from Satan. And the word here in v31 is, Now the prince of this world will be driven out.

The context for this is v32: Jesus is to be "lifted up" — crucified. That crucifixion is the seed going into the ground. It is the full incarnation of what it means to not try to save one's own life. It is the way judgment has been turned to mercy and bondage to freedom. Jesus' going to Jerusalem means we are invited to come to God knowing that our sins are forgiven, and the prince of this world has no further claim on us. Paul put it this way when he wrote to the Corinthians: All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ. God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them (2 Cor 5:18,19). For the world, Jesus going to Jerusalem meant salvation.

The third question I want to ask, though, is this: What does Jesus going to Jerusalem mean for the believer? It is here that we need to pause and reflect as we journey through Lent. This is where God has something fresh to say to each of us. Here we find the watershed that delineates people who only know the story from people who understand the implications of the story and truly follow Jesus. Notice v26: Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

How do we follow Jesus to Jerusalem? There is a sense in which, if we are believers in Jesus Christ, we have already followed Jesus to Jerusalem. We are in him, as Paul says so often. When Jesus went to Jerusalem, he went there for me and for each one of you. That is the gospel — he took our place.

This is the teaching that comes to us in the epistles as they interpret this great thing God did in sending his Son to the cross. Consider a chapter like Romans 6. Think about what Paul is saying there:
Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (v3).

If we have been united with him in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection (v5).

For we know that our old self was crucified with him... (v6).

Now if we died with Christ we believe that we will also live with him (v8).
That is part of one chapter from one epistle. The fact that we died with Christ is basic to everything else in personal salvation. It is the basis of God's forgiveness and it is the basis of our response. Consider the argument for holy living in Colossians 3, where we are reminded that there is a fundamental truth which dictates one's behavior — For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God (v3). It has already happened. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem to die, he carried with him all who would believe. That is the first way, then, that we follow Jesus.

But there is a second way. Two verses later in the Colossian text, there is this command: Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature (3:5). This time the verb is not indicative of something that is already true; instead it's imperative — a command — to experience what God has already decreed. That is the part which is so easy to avoid. There is comfort in hearing that Jesus went to the cross for us, but the words take up your cross and follow me seldom elicits the same enthusiasm.

Jeremy Taylor was a 17th century man of God who lived in England and wrote a book, The Rules and Exercises of Holy Living. In it he said, "Men are apt to prefer a prosperous error before an afflicted truth." I know that is my natural inclination. I had much rather think I can embrace mentally the doctrine of salvation and yet not be personally inconvenienced. And considering our culture with its self-indulgence and narcissism, that seems to be the condition upon which people will hear the gospel — if at all. We want a religion that will make us happy, not one that calls us to come and die.

It is so easy to shirk the spiritual fight. It is so easy to presume on grace instead of battling to the death those things in Colossians 3 — the sexual immorality, impurity, evil desires and greed; the anger, filthy language and lying. We cringe to hear of Christian service that might call for inconvenience and discomfort, much less physical danger.

That is not the way the Scriptures portray following Jesus. Listen to Paul as he wrote his second letter to Corinth:

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake (4:8-11).

That is what Jesus meant when he said, Whoever serves me must follow me (v26). Just as he came to live out the truth that he taught, so he calls his disciples. The message and the method are one. The message is Jesus and him crucified. The method for those who would continue the message is also to know of that crucifixion working in them. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer so eloquently put it: “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Jesus said, no servant is greater than his master (Jn. 13:16; 15:20). Any perversion of Christianity that would spare the believer a cross must be seen as a deception having its origin in Satan himself. As we get ready for Holy Week, let us not forget that there was no resurrection without the crucifixion; no elevation to glory without the obedience. When John shows Jesus going to Jerusalem, he has him going to his death. Here is the question for today: Are we truly following Jesus? Where is our Jerusalem? What death is the Lord wanting to work into you in order to transform your life?

I look back on my life and realize much of my ministry was spent declaring “truth” that I had —blindly — allowed to become disconnected to where my heart truly was. I was committed to the truth of the gospel. I took the Scriptures seriously. Many of my years in pastoral ministry were given to a passionate declaration of God’s truth, and yet I was not giving myself fully in following Jesus in death. I gave myself to priorities that, while not “wrong” things, were wrong in my life because of the place they took. I cycled over and over with internal moral battles, not seeing (or being willing to see) that I was hedging on a basic issue of following Jesus into his death in those areas of my life where I wanted to keep some control.

In his mercy, the Lord did not allow me to be satisfied with that level of commitment. During my Sabbatical in 2002 I began an intentional process of repentance. I needed to repent of the place some sporting activities had come to have in my life. I needed to repent of how easily I pleased myself in the ways I spent time and money.

In that process I began to experience how the life of Jesus is only free to work in us as we die to the things that insulate us from the real work of salvation. Death is not really death when the Lord lets us see the reality of his life at work in our lives. There is no way I would have been ready emotionally to face cancer a few years later without the Lord having already led me into the truth about dying — in some practical ways — in order to live. We cannot truly live for Jesus until we are ready to die.
   

I have no idea what particular way the Lord may want to work this into each of your lives. That is between you and him. I do know, though, that our Lord calls us to come and die. It is the way he gives us his life.

God wants us to know him. Jesus wants us to follow him, but that only comes by the way of the cross. We have to follow Jesus to Jerusalem. The cross is more than an experience Jesus had to face. The cross is more than the general place of the world's salvation. The cross is God's method of bringing his very life into our lives. The Son of God went to Jerusalem, and he died there.  Each person who would be faithful to him must follow him there, too.



Dr. David L. Hall

Heart for God

Sunday, March 8, 2020

A BRIEF PICTURE OF REALITY

This homily began as a personal journal entry. It was before my diaconate ordination; it was possibly before my entry into the Church (I haven’t looked to see the exact date). The impetus was a Mass I attended when the Gospel was the Transfiguration text. Unfortunately, the homily that day was a totally wasted opportunity (it was not a Diocese of Harrisburg priest). As I sat in agony over what could have been proclaimed, a “what could have been” thought developed in my mind. Later at home, I made the journal entry.

Some years later, after my ordination, the Transfiguration text was the Gospel on a Sunday I was preaching. I went back to my journal and worked my thoughts from that earlier day into a homily. I have used the essence of this several times, and the Lord keeps nudging me to give it again.

This year I had developed another homily using the Epistle reading. On Saturday night, as I began to prepare my mind and heart to proclaim God’s Word, I sensed that what I had written for this weekend was not what I was to give. I looked again at the Transfiguration homily and the Spirit gave affirmation. So, here is a previously preached sermon––but the truth is ever new. May the Lord give us spiritual eyes to see…..


March 8, 2020 –– 2nd Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12:1–4a / 2 Timothy 1:8b–10 / Matthew 17:1–9
A BRIEF PICTURE OF REALITY

What if we could go back in time and see Jesus when he was on earth! What did people see when they looked at Jesus? They saw…. a man. Sometimes they saw him do some amazing things, but he was still a man who dressed like them, ate like them, walked the roads and paths like them.... a man who the Scriptures and the Church confess to be fully human.

Those looking at him during those earthly years would have asked (if they had been told this Man was God): What? How? Jesus seemed—even though he was engaging, puzzling, commanding, divisive and exasperating—to be just another man.

But one day—one time on one particular day—Peter, James and John saw Jesus in his glory: he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And so John wrote later in his Gospel: we have seen his glory. The writer to the Hebrews says that the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. The glory that covered Adam and Eve at the beginning, the glory that came down on Mt. Sinai and caused Moses’ face to shine, the glory that inhabited the Tabernacle and the Temple, and the glory promised by Isaiah and Ezekiel came into our world in the person of Jesus Christ.

Yet God does not overwhelm us. God wants us to trust him. So Jesus let three of his disciples see his glory once during those ministry days. It was enough to pave the way for a Faith that would change the world. We can believe today because there is a credible eyewitness record that has been established by the Apostles. Peter and John both wrote that they saw.... and they testified that these things are true.... and then they lived––in such a contrasting way to who they previously were—so that people looking at them took notice that they had been with Jesus.

What do you “see” when you come to church? Do we limit our vision to the human side of the liturgy? Do we ever wonder: If Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, why isn’t there an obvious and overwhelming glory? The Transfiguration calls us—warmly and powerfully invites us—to “see” the glory of God beyond what is considered normal and natural in the world around us. Without faith we do not see beyond outward appearance, but Jesus came to show us what is real.

As Christians, we live in the hope of glory. Our destiny is to be like Jesus. As we journey through these days of Lent, let’s not forget the bigger picture. Jesus gave this early glimpse of his glory so that his disciples (and that includes us) could have a brief picture of reality. The truth of Jesus… his presence in the Eucharist… the transformation he is doing in us…. it’s all right here.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Being the Light of the World

February 9, 2020 –– 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 58:7–10 / Psalm 112 / 1 Corinthian 2:1–5 / Matthew 5:13–16
Being the Light of the World

There’s something both glorious and intimidating in this Gospel: Jesus says, “You (referring to those who follow him) are the light of the world.”

Almost instinctively we know that Christians should be exemplary. Yet, if we’re honest, we cry out, “How can I possibly live up to such an expectation?!”

Isaiah tells us some of what it means: share, shelter, clothe….and do not turn your back on the hungry, the oppressed, the homeless, the naked. That comes with a promise: then light shall rise for you in the darkness…. But again, if we’re honest, we say, “How can I possibly live up to such a challenge?!”

Information technology makes us aware of needs that go beyond our comprehension. There  is heartbreaking human pain which almost forces us to turn away because it is too overwhelming; answers seem hopelessly complex and immense.

Mother Teresa was exemplary in so many ways, and one notable observation particularly applies here. She said, “I never look at the masses as my responsibility; I look at the individual. I can only love one person at a time––just one, one, one. So you begin. I began––I picked up one person. Maybe if I didn't pick up that one person, I wouldn't have picked up forty-two thousand…. The same thing goes for you, the same thing in your family, the same thing in your church, your community. Just begin––one, one, one.”

Everyone who follows Jesus is to make a difference. There are many ways to do that, and not all of us will have the same focus. That is good. That is what gives breadth to Christian witness. What matters is making a difference for Jesus’s sake. It’s a big world with many issues and even more needy people.

Yet even as I say this, it’s not that easy. We live in a world that entices us to be selfish. Of course, it’s not expressed that way. We are inundated with advertising that constantly offers us more, bigger, and better. We are offered innumerable rationalizations of why we deserve to focus on ourselves and excuse ourselves from getting too involved with others’ needs.

It helps to understand that even as Jesus calls us to be the light of the world, he has also provided the way for us to do it. It’s not merely up to us. Even more, it doesn’t make sense unless we embrace the gift of faith.

Giving and doing for others in a way that is inconvenient and even costly to us doesn’t make sense in a world of self-indulgence. St Paul wants the Corinthians (and us) to know that faith [does] not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God. It is when we see and believe that God has loved the world through Jesus Christ and him crucified that we understand that God wants to do the same thing in and through us. When we “die” to what is easiest and most profitable for ourselves in order to give and serve––to love––others, we are joined with Jesus. It is then we can be the light of the world, or at least contribute our individual one-candle-power.

What if each of you hearing this would reach out in the coming days and weeks to look for one way each day to serve or express a kindness to someone as you go about your routines? And if that someone notices, simply say, “The Lord bless you.” That connects the action explicitly to our faith. Just though our parish we could be touching over a thousand people ever week!

Every day we have opportunities to love in the name of Jesus and be, as Paul expressed it, a demonstration of Spirit and power. Sometimes a few of us may do something that looks “big” as the world looks at things, but usually the ways we show selfless love will be very common (and often personally inconvenient or costly).

There is a story from a generation ago about an incident that changed a man’s life. A group of salesmen who went to a week-long sales convention had assured their wives they would be home in time for Friday dinner. Running behind on Friday afternoon, and in a rush at the airport, one of the men hit a table which held a display of apples, which flew everywhere. Without stopping or looking back, they all charged ahead to reach their plane which was already boarding. That is, all charged ahead but one. He paused and looked back, then exhaled a deep breath of compassion for a girl whose apple stand had been overturned. He yelled for his buddies to go on, telling one of them to give his wife the message that he was taking a later flight (this was before cell phones, and when airports were considerably more inviting). Then he fully turned to see apples all over the terminal aisle.

Looking more closely, he saw a girl in her teens who was blind. She was crying tears of frustration and at the same time helplessly groping for the spilled apples as the crowd passed by with no one stopping. The salesman knelt on the floor with her, gathered up the apples, put them back on the table and helped reorganize her display. As he did this, he noticed that some of the apples had become bruised. He pulled out his wallet and said to the girl, "Here, please take this $40 for the damage. Are you okay?” She nodded through her tears as the salesman started to walk away. Suddenly the girl, still in semi-shock, called out to him, "Mister...." He paused, turned and said, “Yes?” She asked, “Mister, are you Jesus?” That moment became a milestone in his life.

You are light of the world. When we understand that we become light as we embrace the cross, this identify can be quite intimidating. So we pray for grace and strength.


One way the grace and strength come to us is when we open our eyes to see not just the intimidation but the glory––you are the light of world. It’s not because of who we are in ourselves; it is because God has invited us to be partakers of his grace. Think of this: the life of Jesus Christ can live in you and be expressed through you. Imagine someone seeing Jesus in you! That is why Jesus tells those who follow him: You are the light of the world.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Fullness of Faith

January 19, 2020 –– 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 49:3, 5–6 / Psalm 40 / 1 Corinthians 1:1–3 /  John 1:29–34
Fullness of Faith

Properly understood, every facet of Christian faith interfaces with the others. I became more aware of this in my journey into the Catholic Church; one of the authors who influenced me referred to Catholicism as “a seamless garment.” I became persuaded that the Catholic Church is the “fullness of the Faith” in a tangible form.

What does this have to do with today’s readings? Consider St John’s account of the Baptism of Jesus. It is significant that all four Gospels give an account of the Baptism of Jesus. There is no way to unpack the Baptism of Jesus in one homily (or even a reasonable-length book!). Jesus’ Baptism is the gateway into all that God’s salvation means––one of those “seamless garment” threads.

One facet of God’s salvation (and again, everything interfaces) comes into focus through the second reading in St Paul’s opening words of his first Corinthian letter. There is a key word (usually translated one of two ways from the Greek, hagios): holy or saints. We are called to be holy (or saints). One way to understand the reason for Jesus’ Baptism and one key point that Paul is making in this letter is that God’s intention for us is to be holy––to be saints.

This is not easily assimilated by many people and is one way to see why the fulness of the Church is so important. The default popular understanding of saint in the Catholic tradition is a person who has been canonically sanctioned as having fully completed the transformation of being made holy. This, in turn, affects the way many Catholics often respond (or react) to the word holy––they think it is unapproachable. But being a saint is broader than the declaration of canonical perfection; there is an application of being holy that it is for every one of us.

As Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians he reinforces their identity and formation. Something has happened to them to make them who they are: the gathered people of God. Paul says he is writing to the church of God that is in Corinth. He is not writing to all the people in Corinth. There is a distinctive demarcation. It is rooted in Christian identity. How do we see ourselves? Is our connection with God the most significant part of our self-understanding? Beyond anything else, we are Christians. This is where Paul begins his letter.

How is it that these people were part of God's church? The remainder of the letter shows they are far from having arrived at holiness in their present setting. But…. they have been sanctified. This essentially means they have been “set apart”––they now belong to God.

Paul, speaking through the Holy Spirit, also tells the Corinthians (and us!) they were called to be holy (or to be saints). Here it is good to see that holy means "different." One way to be holy is to be distinctive––different for Jesus’ sake.

How is such a thing possible? There is another thing about the Christians Paul addresses: they have a foundation. They have been sanctified in Christ Jesus. They are among others from all over who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. God's grace has been given to them in Christ Jesus. Christianity is Jesus Christ.

Jesus always has the priority. We did not choose him; he chose us. That is always the starting point for the way we understand ourselves and the Church. No individual person nor single congregation stands alone before God. There is a wonderful prayer in the Liturgy that draws us into this mystery of holiness as we prepare to receive the Eucharist. After we pray the Our Father the priest intercedes with these words: look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church…. The Church is a people who are called of God and in Jesus Christ into the great work of salvation that God is doing through his people. Jesus’ Baptism was the initiating expression of that.

We are being called into identity with Jesus. What he did––his Baptism, Passion, Death, and Resurrection––he did for us. And when we follow him into those things we are sanctified––set apart, belonging to God. That, in turn, makes us holy.

Some years ago the Army had a commercial that was so good I wish they had not used it. It should belong to the Church. You may remember it: Be all that you can be. In the Church, whether it was in Corinth so long ago or whether it’s here in our own parish, being all we can be is a lot because it is not all up to us. It is up to the one who calls us.... who sets us apart.... who helps us to be different.... who gives us his gifts.... who promises us his kingdom. 


Remember who you are. You who have followed Jesus in Baptism have been sanctified in Christ Jesus. You are called to be holy––a saint. Believe it, and invite the power of the Holy Spirit to make you be all that you can be.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

A Sign From God

December 22, 2019 –– Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7:10–14 / Psalm 24 / Romans 1:1–7 / Matthew 1:18–24
A Sign From God

If we’re honest, we will admit that we would like for God to work on our preferred timetable and to do things in a way that it’s easy for us to understand and obey. Yet the general message we find in Scripture is that God is mysterious and we need to trust him.

When we see trouble on the horizon––whether it’s large scale like global or national, or up-close and personal––we want God to “fix it” so that we aren’t threatened or discomforted. King Ahaz was facing an attack from neighboring kingdoms who had formed a coalition against him. Isaiah told him not to be afraid, that God was at work. Then Isaiah told Ahaz he could even ask God for a sign! (How often do we hope, deep in our hearts, that the Lord will give us a clear sign?!)

Ahaz declined! Maybe he did what is so easy for anyone to do when God does come close––panic and run (that seems to be an inherited response from Adam and Eve). But God also did what he always does––God acts for what is good. The sign was still given: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.

At the time, the sign was unclear. It was rather general and in veiled language. On the other hand, it is an example of something that happens repeatedly in Scripture. The Old Testament especially is full of what biblical scholars call sensus plenior, a Latin phrase that means "fuller sense" to describe a deeper meaning intended by God, but beyond the human author’s intention at the time of writing.

So we do not know exactly how Isaiah understood what he was saying at the time. Yet this in itself has something to say to us. How often are we unsure what God is doing in our own lives and the things going on around us? Our faith may not readily perceive that God is at work in any up-close and personal way. Or we may, indeed, sense that God is truly up to something––yet not understand what it is. Through all the years of salvation history, this is not unusual. Do not be discouraged if you can’t see or aren’t sure of God’s immediate activity. That doesn’t mean God is not at work! 

The reality of this is magnified in the very event when God was finally making plain what he had said through Isaiah. It came 700 years later! And even then Matthew’s story shows that Joseph didn’t understand what was going on. At first he thought what everyone else would come to assume––Mary had done something she shouldn’t have done (this was part of God coming to us in humility). But Joseph had one thing going for him at the start: he was able to discern the voice of God.

Now, I don’t think we should be looking for a particular revelation when we have a vivid dream or when some unusual thought impresses itself in our minds, but…. we should have spiritual ears which are regularly listening for what God might say, and be open. (I would add to that a readiness to seek spiritual counsel if something seems unusual.) What I’m saying is that God wants to be in a relationship with us. I  say this because the fulfillment of God’s message to Isaiah and the outcome of God’s word to Joseph was exactly that: God is with us.

Today we do know what God was saying through Isaiah. The fulfillment of the virgin shall conceive and bear a son is Mary receiving the physical life of God in her womb and giving birth to Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary. This is not mere myth; “myth” implies an essential truth. The Virgin Birth is not figurative. This is God at work for our salvation.

We may wonder: why don’t I see God working in big ways like this, “up-close and personal” in my life? The big things are “sprinkled” across the span of salvation history. Scripture is selective. The people and stories which are so familiar come out of centuries of events. C.S. Lewis once observed: “They come on great occasions…. that spiritual history which cannot be fully known by men. If your own life does not happen to be near one of those ganglions, how should you expect to see [it]?”  (from Miracles)

As we celebrate another Christmas I want to remind us of three big things from our readings today. First, God is at work for our salvation even if we don’t understand every detail around us. Second, God did a one-time thing through Mary. Third, because of what did God in and through Mary by sending his Son, God is with us, and he wants us to know him.

The way we do that is to believe, to trust, and to listen.


Are you listening?

 
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