December 4, 2011

 

        ON THE WAY BACK HOME

  Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
   at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 4 December 2011 
 
Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Isaiah 40: 1-11
Reading from the Gospel:                        Mark 1: 1-8

 

Two weeks ago, the liturgical calendar had us affirming the Kingship of Christ, his Lordship over the entire creation.  Manifestly this was in a very real sense an act of faith on our part.  The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that we do not yet see this Lordship established, at least in our four dimensional world of time and space.  Yet it remains our expectation that the Lord God, the Omnipotent, will, in his own good time, bring this to pass.  And in the a-dimensional realm of the Lord God, what is conceived is also perceived.  As the writer of Genesis puts it with regard to the story of Creation, when God has a thought, that thought immediately takes on reality.  If only we thought in Hebrew or Aramaic or Arabic or any other Semitic medium, we would appreciate and understand that.  But from our babyhood we were taught to think with Greek logic and Latin legalism, and so our way of thinking is restricted to thinking in concrete terms of space and time.  But in the eternal realm of God’s presence, the Kingship and Lordship of the Messiah are a reality, and not just already, but eternally.

One week ago, the liturgical calendar had us affirming the Second Coming of the Son of Man, but we saw that this was to be understood not as a return to our Earthly realm so much as a return to the serenity of the Heavenly Kingdom.  And we saw that since the throne of the Messiah is to be set up in the hearts and minds of those over whom he exercises kingship and lordship there was a need for those who would be his subjects to live our lives in the way that he would have us live them, and we also saw that this was to be achieved by heeding the so-called Second Great Commandment of loving our neighbours, whoever they might turn out to be, by treating them with justice, mercy and humility.  That had been the message of the prophets of the Lord for several hundreds of years before the Advent of Christ, and it remains the way in which the Kingdom of Heaven will be established here on Earth.

Amos and Micah and Isaiah of Jerusalem had delivered that message from the Lord God with great faithfulness, and the inestimable value of that message was handed down through the generations so that we may still hear it today, and hearing it, act upon it.  The message continues to be proclaimed, but is it heeded?  Do we really see the entire World and its races, nations and languages accepting the Lordship of God?  Do we see all people, everywhere, living lives of justice and mercy and humility?  Do we see people living lives of obedience to the Living Word of God spoken through the prophets and manifested in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth?  We all know that we do not – not even within what we call the Body of Christ, the Church.  All too often we see individuals and groups almost demanding that things should be done their way.  Most of us prefer to be the Boss, not understanding that in the Kingdom of Heaven there is only one Lord.  We forget at our peril that the only I that matters is the one in the middle, in the heart of ChrIst!

Now, let us be clear, we are not the first to arrogate unto ourselves power, dominion and authority.  We are not the first to say that things should be done in the way that I say.  Our readings from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel this morning remind us that this has been an ongoing practice among those who claim to be followers of God for millennia. 

The proclamation made by Isaiah of Babylon as recorded in Isaiah 40 is familiar and beloved.  George Frederick Handel turned the opening words of this prophecy into a magnificent aria in his “Messiah”.  The prophecy begins with the well-loved words, “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people,” says your God.  Here are words of reassurance, but they lead on into words demanding action.  The people of Israel are urged to strike out from their years of captivity in Babylon, a captivity resulting from their failure to give the Lord God the allegiance that is rightly his, as demonstrated by their ignoring the words spoken through Micah and Amos and Isaiah of Babylon that we looked at last Sunday.  Now they are encouraged to make a new start, beginning with another journey through the wilderness to the Land of Promise.  “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God!”  This is not to be a forty-year sojourn, but rather an eager rush to do the will of God.  And when the will of God is heeded, then the Glory of God is revealed.

Yet even with these words of promise and encouragement, the prophet reveals that the Lord God is fully aware of how people will behave. 

“All people are grass; their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades, when the Breath of the Lord blows upon it.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
But the Word of our God stands forever.” 

How well God knows his people!  Even when he envelops them with his mercy, with his Holy Spirit, nevertheless they will be inconstant.  They will revert to doing things in ways other than those of the will of God, and so they will wither away and their dreams and their thoughts with them. 

But the Lord will not let them go.  He will keep on visiting them, coming with great might to rule and gather them to him.  And this is where our Gospel reading comes in.  The evangelist tells us the story of the ministry of John the Baptist, and he centres his account on the words in Isaiah 40, although he misquotes them!  Instead of the highway being in the desert, Mark writes of the message being proclaimed in the desert.  John’s message is direct – repent and know forgiveness.  At least that it is how it is recorded in Mark’s Gospel.  Matthew and Luke spell out in some detail what that means, and for them it is again the message of Amos, Micah and Isaiah of Babylon.  But we have Mark’s account this morning, and so we should stick with that. 

Mark has John the Baptist speak about repentance, a word that many people, including many Church people, do not like to hear.  John’s message was for all.  Mark has John addressing people from the whole Judaean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.  Mark excludes no one, and so we should not.  When Mark writes words like “the whole” and “all”, he is including so-called saints and those whom they call sinners.  He made no exceptions, and Matthew and Luke both make it clear that there were no exceptions.  It is still true that not only those who are recognized by others as sinners but also those who are thought to be righteous still need to heed the call to repentance.  The experience of the Billy Graham campaigns was that ordinary churchgoers, of all denominations, would feel the need to repent and would go forward at the call to do so.  Still the call for repentance is addressed to all, especially to the person you see in your own bathroom mirror each morning, and certainly in your own bedroom mirror each evening. 

But what is this repentance of which so much is spoken in the Gospels and the New Testament?  All too many people have a negative impression as to its meaning, but really it is a very positive encounter with the Living Word of God.  

So many of us look into our futures and we see darkness and despair.  Many of us have no idea as to where to turn for help, be it very earthly assistance to do with our indebtedness or because of the manner in which we have been living our lives.  All too often we have craved things, or we have craved positions – in other words we have been looking out for No. 1, often at the expense of others, including members of our own family.  And that is just in the secular world.  But we see power plays in the ecclesiastical world of the Church.  Sometimes such conduct causes scandal, a Greek word meaning “stumbling block”.  We do things that cause others to stumble in their Christian lives.  And the Greeks had a word to describe a person who causes others to stumble – diabolos, from which we get diabolic, and Devil.  We see people, clergy and lay, doing things, which they may think they are advocating for the best of reasons, but that are really diabolic, the works of the Devil, to use the Biblical term.  Matthew and Luke have John the Baptist describe people who are guilty of such things, no matter how pious they regard themselves, as being nothing but a viper’s brood, children of the one who tempted Eve.  These are tough words, but they were accurate in the time of Amos and Micah and Isaiah of Jerusalem and they were true in the days of the mission of John the Baptist, and they are still true today – for all people are grass, their constancy is as the flower of the field; the grass withers and the flower fades. 

Repentance is simply a big word that is used to translate an old Hebrew thought, and it means, “Turn around”.  When we look into the future, as individuals or as a congregation or as a denomination, and the future looks dark and grim, there is only one reason for this.  We are looking into the darkness of a deep shadow, a shadow that we ourselves have created, because we have turned our backs on God and on the Word of God proclaimed by the prophets and in the life of the Living Word, Jesus our Lord.  We are walking away from the source of Light and Life and Love into a realm of Darkness, Death and diseased souls plagued by hatred.  And the deeper the shadow, the further we have travelled from Christ, who is the Way, and that shadow of darkness is our shadow, our own shadow which goes before us because we have turned our backs on the source of True Light.  And the cry to repent is simply the cry to turn around, for that is what “repent” means, to turn around and to focus our minds and hearts on the Lord God.  The Greek word is metanoia, literally “change the direction of your thinking”. 

If Christ is to rule in our hearts, if your heart, my heart is to be the throne of God, then our minds need to be focussed on God.  We are being called to change the direction of our basic thinking about life so that we place our hearts and minds under the direction of God, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, in accordance with the Word of God as that Word reveals itself to us under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Will that mean that we might have to give up some highly treasured notions about life, even about the Church?  That may well be the case.  Saul of Tarsus had to do just that and it took some very heavy persuasion to get him to see the light.  But if you want to grow into the likeness of the person Christ is calling you to be, and if you want to be a truly living part of the Church, the Body of Christ, as Christ has called you to be, then take a good look in the mirror of your life, then turn around and walk, march, run to Christ Jesus.  Repent and become the person you are meant to be, forgiven by God, filled with his Spirit and beloved of Christ Jesus, the same Jesus who on the last night of his earthly life chose to call those who walk with him, his friends.