Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is this Wednesday, March 1. We will mark the day with the Penitential Office, Blessing and Distribution of Ashes, and Holy Communion at the church starting at 7:00 pm. We will meet in the Loyal Builders’ Room behind the sanctuary. Ash Wednesday is one of the two fasting days of the year in our Church, the other being Good Friday (BCP, p. li). Jesus Himself recommended and practiced fasting (Matthew 6:16-18, Luke 4:2, Matthew 17:21, Mark 9:29), as did the early Church and faithful Christians in every generation. The general rule for Lent that has come down to us is this: Each day consists of one full meal and two smaller portions of food. Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent are days of abstinence from flesh meat. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of complete fasting. No food is eaten until sundown. Medical issues and age are reasons to moderate the fast of food.
We’re still in the Christmas season, and today, January 1st, is the Octave, or 8th day of Christmas. And while the world around us generally considers Christmas now to be officially over, and puts the Christmas trees out on the curb for trash, we Christians are still keeping the Christmas season, which is a full 12 days, beginning on Christmas Day and ending on the feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6th.
Today is the eighth day of Christmas, and as we heard in our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus was circumcised eight days after his birth.
As traditional Anglicans using the classical Book of Common Prayer, we’re among the few communities in the Christian world today who keep January 1st as the Circumcision of Christ. In many modern Anglican churches this day is kept as the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, or the 1st Sunday of Christmas, while in the Roman Catholic Church it’s kept as the Solemnity of Mary.
But I think it’s important to keep this feast of the Circumcision of Christ because it reminds us of the Jewish identity and heritage of Jesus. And it therefore reminds us as Christians of our roots in the Jewish faith of the Old Testament.
In our Gospel reading for today we heard that it was on this day, eight days after his birth, that Jesus was brought to the temple by Mary and Joseph to be circumcised. And this was done in accordance with the law of Moses, which states that every Jewish male must be circumcised on the eighth day following his birth.
Mary and Joseph were obedient parents to the law of Moses, and we learn from the Collect for today that Jesus was made obedient to the law for our sake, for the sake of mankind. The circumcision of a Jewish male baby signified that the child would grow up following the law and living in obedience to it. Now, we know from reading the Old Testament that the ancient Israelites did not always live in obedience to the law. In fact they were often quite disobedient. As St. Paul says in the Epistle to the Romans, no human being has ever managed to keep the law in its entirety. Because to keep the law in its entirety means not only to obey the 10 Commandments in our outward actions and behavior, but also, as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, to keep the Commandments in our inward thoughts, feelings, and desires as well. Who among us has not broken the Commandments through anger, lust, jealousy, the desire for revenge, and so on?
The circumcision of Jesus was the initial showing of how that he was going to be obedient to the law and perfectly obedient to the Father and live a life of sinless perfection. It was at this time of his circumcision that he was given the name Jesus. Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, and it means “the LORD (Yahweh) saves.” Names were very important in the ancient Hebrew tradition because they were thought to embody the very essence of a person and the entirety of that person’s being. The entirety of this man Jesus’ life was to be God saves.
We do a similar thing in the Christian sacrament of baptism. Just before baptizing the child or person, the priest says, “Name this child” (or “Name this person”). So once again we can see that as Christians we have a direct connection with the Hebrew tradition. Baptism is the Christian equivalent of circumcision. It is through baptism that we are brought into the covenant, the new covenant in Jesus’ blood. Just as it was through circumcision that the Jewish male was signified as being brought into the old covenant.
What does it mean for us to be obedient to God? We don’t much like the word obedience today, but it simply means to listen to God and to follow what he asks us to do.
Today is New Year’s Day, and so what resolutions, if any, have you made for the new year? What do you want to accomplish in the year A.D. 2017? What goals do you want to accomplish for yourself? What new habits do you want to practice? What bad habits do you want to put aside? What things do you want to do for God in 2017?
Just as Jesus was marked for God as a member of the old covenant community by circumcision, so we Christians are marked for God and as members of the new covenant community, the Church, by baptism. One of the things we want to have as a resolution is to grow in grace, to grow in sanctification, in the coming year We want to grow in our relationship with God. We don’t want to stagnate in our relationship with God. We’ve been given the opportunity for more life, and so we want to use that opportunity well.
In addition to thinking about how can I grow in my relationship with God in 2017, we also want to be thinking about what can I do to advance the kingdom of God; that is the reign, the presence, and the will of God on earth? What things can I do to assist God in ushering in his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven? What can I do as a coworker with God in bringing about his kingdom, his reign, his presence, and the awareness of him in my community and my job and my relationships and my family? What are some of the things that I can focus on to bring God’s rule, God’s control, God’s presence, and God’s intervention into each situation and relationship and community? What things can I do to help further God’s kingdom in 2017?
Maybe it would be a good idea to write down the things you would like to accomplish for God in 2017. We human beings are always struggling against forgetfulness, laziness, and apathy, and so we need to have some way to go back and remind ourselves of our resolutions and goals. As Christians we are people of remembrance. We are people who remember God and who remember what God has done for us. We are continually reminding ourselves and living in remembrance of him. And so if we write these things down, we can go back and reflect on them during our prayer time.
May God grant us the true circumcision of the heart and of the spirit so that in this year of grace we can grow in our relationship with him, help to expand his kingdom, and live in obedience to him.
“I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness. For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness. What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death. But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:19-23, Epistle Reading for Trinity 7)
In this tiny little portion of Romans chapter 6 that is our Epistle reading we have St. Paul’s (and hence the Holy Spirit’s) teaching about personal consecration to God. Most of us know something about the idea of various material items being consecrated in the church. Every Sunday Fr. Piotr or I pray the Prayer of Consecration over the bread and wine and our money offerings to God. During this prayer we ask God to bless and accept these offerings from us and to sanctify them by his Word and Holy Spirit so that they may become for us the body and blood of Christ. Some of us may know something about the consecration of a church building. Or we may know something about the consecration of other holy objects such as a chalice or paten or cross jewelry.
But what about personal consecration of ourselves to God? Do we know anything about this? Later in Romans, Paul writes, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1). And in 1 Corinthians 6 Paul writes that “your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own. For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
In the Bible to consecrate means “to set apart.” For example, in the Old Testament God ordered various things to be consecrated, or set apart, for him. The Israelites were to be a holy people set apart for God. The tabernacle was to be a holy place set apart exclusively for the worship of God. This got carried over to the Temple in Jerusalem, where the daily morning and evening sacrifices took place. You may recall that Jesus got very mad when he found buying and selling taking place in the Temple grounds, and he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and drove them out with whips. So much for Jesus being a totally tolerant and accepting person! He did this because the Temple was to be holy, set apart for God and these moneychangers were polluting the Temple by their transactions. Other things that were consecrated, or set apart in the Old Testament, include the first fruits, the firstborn, the Levites, the promised land, the Aaronic priesthood, and so on.
The notion that Paul is speaking about here is the idea of something being presented to a greater power and thus becoming a servant, slave, or instrument of that greater power. This includes the parts of the body, which were slaves to our evil desires and longings before we accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. But now that we have, we are servants to God. “I am using these everyday examples,” Paul says, “because in some ways you are still weak. You used to let the different parts of your body be slaves of your evil thoughts. But now you must make every part of your body serve God, so that you will belong completely to him.”
In this 6th chapter of Romans, from which we read the first part last Sunday, Paul is dealing with the issue of sin in the lives of Christian believers. He says that before we came to Christ and were baptized, we were the slaves of sin. But now that we have become Christian believers, we’re no longer in slavery to sin. “We know that the persons we used to be were nailed to the cross with Jesus. This was done, so our sinful bodies would no longer be the slaves of sin. We know sin doesn’t have power over dead people” (vv. 6-7). Because of our faith in Christ we have become as it were dead to sin but alive and God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
One of the issues hanging over this whole 6th chapter of Romans, as we saw last week, is antinomianism. This is the idea that since God freely saved us through the death of Jesus on the cross, we no longer need to follow or keep the Ten Commandments in order to be saved. In other words, because of Jesus Christ Christian believers are no longer bound to the law, as the Jews were, in order to be in a covenant relationship with God. Moreover, to continue the argument of antinomianism, since God freely rescued us and poured out his grace on us while we were still sinners, and before we ever turned to him, shouldn’t we just sin with abandon so that more of God’s grace will be poured out?
This idea, which may seem strange to us, is one that Paul’s Jewish opponents were accusing him of teaching. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, and he was adamant that Gentile Christians did not need to follow the Jewish dietary and ritual laws in order to be saved. If keeping the law in this way could make a person right with God, Paul argued, then there was no need for Jesus Christ to come into the world.
This idea, often summed up in the famous expression of Martin Luther, “sin bravely in order that grace may abound,” probably seems strange to us because we are all Gentile Christians. We were not brought up in the Jewish faith and customs, and so this mindset seems strange and foreign to us. And of course today we are dealing with the exact opposite mindset, which says that we’re all okay with God; that sin is an outdated superstition not worthy of enlightened minds. We’re all going to be saved, and no one is going to hell. In fact, hell doesn’t even exist. This mindset, so totally prevalent among people today, is called universalism. And it’s the exact opposite of the Jewish faith of the Old Testament. But universalism totally destroys any need for a Savior like Jesus Christ. If God loves everybody and we’re all going to be saved, then it doesn’t matter if you follow Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed or anyone or no one at all. It doesn’t matter if you go to church or not. It doesn’t matter if you’re a practicing Christian or not. The result will be precisely the same.
Well, both of these ideas—antinomianism and universalism—are false. And Paul did not teach that Christians don’t have to follow the moral law of God. Just the opposite. Because Christians are servants of the living God, and know that they have been put into a new relationship of grace, mercy, peace, and love with God because of Jesus, we are now servants of righteousness, which leads to holiness and eternal life.
As Christian believers we need to continually remind ourselves of this fact. We need to remember who we are in Christ and act in ways that align and comport with our new identity. As Paul writes in vv. 12-13 of this chapter: “Don’t let sin rule your body. After all, your body is bound to die, so don’t obey its desires or let any part of it become a slave of evil. Give yourselves to God, as people who have been raised from death to life. Make every part of your body a slave that pleases God.”
–Sermon for Trinity 7 (July 19) 2015
Pentecost is one the three great feasts of the Christian Year (the other two being Easter and Christmas). It celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and other disciples in the upper room of a house in Jerusalem, as recounted in today’s Epistle reading from the Book of Acts. It is also sometimes called the birthday of the Church. The Jews of the Old Testament period kept the feast of Pentecost, which was called the Feast of Booths, or Weeks, to commemorate the anniversary of God’s giving the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai as well as the spring harvest in Israel. Pentecost is a Greek word meaning “fiftieth” and referred to the fact that Pentecost always fell on the fiftieth day after Passover. For Christians, Pentecost occurs fifty days after Easter. The common English word for this feast, Whitsunday, is said to derive from “White Sunday,” so called because of the white robes worn by newly baptized Christians, as Pentecost was a popular day for baptisms in England during the Medieval period. Whitsunday may also derive from the word wit, an old word for “knowledge,” which the Apostles received on this day.
The wise men came to see Christ and to worship him. And to present him with gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh. It’s from the feast of the Epiphany that we derive our custom of giving gifts at Christmas. It’s still the practice in some countries to give gifts on Epiphany, January 6, rather than on Christmas Day. But whether it’s January 6 or December 25, the giving of gifts to other people is certainly a beautiful custom that grows out of the Christian teaching to love one another.
As we think about this wonderful Gospel account of the wise men, the question we need to ask ourselves is this: what gift do I offer to Jesus Christ? What gift can I give him that acknowledges the glory of his being among us and with me and that recognizes who he is in my life?
In the poem by Christina Rossetti that is a favorite Christmas hymn, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” the final stanza asks:
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
I will give Jesus Christ my heart. That is what Jesus wants most from each one of us. He wants that most precious and costly thing that we have, which is our love, our devotion, and our commitment.
John the Baptist, or John the Baptizer, is truly the great Advent figure. The Bible tells us that the whole function and purpose of John the Baptist was to prepare the way for the Messiah. In fact Jesus himself made reference to this function. He said that John was a prophet and more than a prophet. John was the one about whom it had been written in the Old Testament, “Behold, I send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”
What did John the Baptizer do to prepare the way for Jesus?
All four Gospels speak about this but the shortest and most direct account is Mark chapter 1. It says:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You,
Who will prepare Your way;
The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make ready the way of the Lord,
Make His paths straight.’”
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.
The way that John prepared people for the coming of Jesus was this. He preached about the need for repentance and then he baptized folks in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins.
This tells us something very important in terms of preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ. It tells us that people need to repent. Why did and do people need to repent? Well, so that they can receive the forgiveness of their sins.
What does it mean to repent? Contrary to what you might think, to repent doesn’t mean to beat ourselves up or to wallow in guilt. To repent means to turn: to turn away from one way of life, one set of habits and dispositions and frame of mind, and to turn toward God. It means to change direction. You’re going down the road in a certain direction, and now all of a sudden you’re turning a different way and going in a different direction. That’s what to repent means.
Baptism is designed to be the occasion when this kind of repentance takes place. But obviously this can only occur in the case of adults who are baptized. They can and should be prepared for baptism over a period of time with teaching about the need for repentance and opportunity for the confession of sin. In the case of infants and young children who because of their tender age cannot understand repentance, the Church must teach them about repentance at a later time. This is typically done as part of confirmation teaching and preparation for first Holy Communion.
So how do we prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ? By repentance, confession, and baptism.
But repentance is not a one-time affair for Christian believers. That’s because sin does not automatically and completely disappear from a person’s life following baptism. Or at least I haven’t ever known anyone for whom this happened. Maybe you have, but I have not! So, then, there’s clearly a need for each and every one of us to repent for the sins we commit after baptism.
The Church provides for this need sacramentally by means of private confession and absolution by a priest. In the traditional Anglican expression of the Catholic Christian Faith, we do not mandate that people make a private confession, but we do encourage it.
And by the way, the importance of repentance, confession, and absolution has always been recognized in the Anglican expression of the Catholic Christian Faith. This is why we have a provision for a General Confession and Absolution in our liturgical services: in both Holy Communion and Morning and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. And even in the Family Prayer section of the Prayer Book, at the very back of the book, Confession is provided for.
So whether you engage in private confession and absolution with a priest or simply confess your sins privately to God, the fact remains that as a Christian you and I have the duty of repentance and confessing our sins to the Lord. I say it’s a duty, but it’s really a privilege and a joy. There’s nothing worse than going around with the burden of sin on our conscience, and God doesn’t want us to be burdened but to be free. That’s why he sent his Son, Jesus, into the world: so that we could be set free.
So what are you doing to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, of Jesus at Christmas? How are you going to celebrate this event?
Well, we know how the world around us is preparing for Christmas, and sad to say, we ourselves often fall into the same pattern.
The world prepares for Christmas by frenetic shopping. How many billions will be spent this year on presents for people who already have more than enough?.
The world also prepares for the celebration of the coming of Jesus at Christmas by going to parties and festivities with lots of eating and drinking and self-indulgence.
But how does the Church, the Bible, and our Christian faith tell us to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Savior?
If the example of John the Baptist is any indication, then we have to say, it is through repentance, confession, and the forgiveness of our sins.
I can think of at least three good ways each one of us can prepare ourselves for the coming of the Savior, Jesus Christ at Christmas.
The first is by repentance and confession of our sins. We need to take some time to be with the Lord and really make a good examination of our conscience, and then confess our sins and ask God for forgiveness. I heartily recommend the General Confession at Morning and Evening Prayer as a wonderful prayer to use for this purpose.
A second way each one of us can prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus at Christmas is by coming to recognize one or more of our besetting sins and asking God to help us overcome it. All of us have certain sins that we find ourselves drawn to and practicing on a regular basis. We need to bravely face up to at least one of these and and ask God to help us cease and desist in this sin.
A third way each one of us can prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus at Christmas is by forgiving another person some wrong or slight he or she has done to us. Recall the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Forgiveness is at the heart and center of our Christian faith. And just as we ask God to forgive us our sins, so we must be willing to forgive other people for their sins against us.
By doing these things, we can truly prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus our Savior–his coming as a baby some 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, which we celebrate every Christmas; his coming again in glory at the end of time when he will judge all human beings who have ever lived; and his coming to us individually, in ways both small and great, each and every day and moment of our lives.
Sunday, November 29 begins the season of Advent, which lasts until the feast of Christmas. The word advent is from two Latin words meaning “coming to,” and during Advent the Church remembers the two great “coming to us’s” of Christ: his first coming to us as a baby in a manger in Bethlehem, and his second coming to us as the Judge and King of the universe at the end of time. The latter is one of the reasons that judgment is a recurring Advent theme. While not a truly penitential season like Lent, Advent is a time of muted joy and expectation; hence the purple vestments and church hangings, the omission of the Gloria in excelsis from the Liturgy, and our use of the Merbecke setting of the Kyrie eleison and the Sanctus and Benedictus, which is more solemn than the Willan setting we use for most of the year.
I’m finally getting around to posting audio files and PDFs of some of my previous sermons preached at St. John’s. Please consult the Sermons page if you’d like to listen to or read them.
He destroyed Hades when He descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh. Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with. It was in an uproar because it is mocked. It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed. It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated. It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive. Hell took a body, and discovered God. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see. O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory? Christ is Risen, and you, O death, are annihilated! Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is Risen, and life is liberated! Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.—from an Easter Sermon by St. John Chrysostom