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Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.  2 He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness;  3 and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.  4 And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.  5 So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”;  6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”

7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  8 Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered;  9 and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,  10 having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. – Hebrews 5:1-10

23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office;  24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.  25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.  27 Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.  28 For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. – Hebrews 7:23-28

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Today we pick up essentially where we left off a couple of weeks ago. Even though we’ve skipped a couple chapters, the author of Hebrews is still on the same subject. He has been explaining to the first generation of Christians why faith in Jesus is better than the Old Testament system of high priests and temple sacrifices.

Today the writer basically focuses on the difference between clergy back then and clergy now.  And as he builds his case, he also works in the Good News of salvation through Jesus – which we will find in chapter seven – and because the Gospel is a part of this passage, what starts out as yet another history lesson ends up being exactly what people in every time and every place need to hear, including our own.

high-priest

Hebrews 5 starts out talking about what priests in the Old Testament were to do: they were to offer sacrifices for sins and make other goodwill offerings to God from the people.  The high priests in the Old Testament were chosen from among people, so they were no different than anyone else. (BTW the same is true for pastors today.) The priests in the Old Testament were “put in charge of the things pertaining to God” (verse 1) – not because they were better people but because they were called to do the job. In the Old Testament the descendants of Aaron were born to be priests: and this was the same Aaron who made the golden calf after the Exodus! So it’s entirely possible for priests in the Old Testament to make huge mistakes and even fall from the faith at times. And the same thing is true of clergy throughout history.

The priesthood, then as now, was a position of great responsibility. The job of a priest was not to be a ruler but in a sense to be an ambassador between God and God’s people: to bring God’s word to the people and to bring the people’s prayers and sacrifices to God.

Today, we pastors also bring God’s word to the congregation but we are no longer the only place the congregation can find God’s word. Every person now has direct access to God’s word. We have the amazing privilege of holding the words of the King of Heaven and Earth in our hands and reading it to our hearts’ content.  Most of the people who have lived on this planet before us didn’t have that privilege. Men and women down through the centuries have given their lives so that we could read God’s word, in our hands, in our own language. Praise God for this!

We no longer need a go-between to read God’s word to us or to pray for us.  And whenever we do feel a need for a go-between, Jesus has become our go-between. Jesus has become the ambassador between God and God’s people.

The key point the writer of Hebrews is making is that being a priest back in the old days meant making sacrifices in the temple for the sins of the people. But we no longer need to make sacrifices. When we give offerings, or when we serve the church in some way, we do it out of love for God, not because we’re required to, and not because we need to make sacrifices.

Today, repentance and forgiveness are offered to us freely by Jesus. When we hear Jesus’ word and trust in him, when we look at the cross and see that by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, we become part of God’s family. We remember what Jesus did for us in our sacraments of communion and baptism, but we don’t re-create the sacrifice. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was once for all, and no further sacrifice is needed.

In addition, the writer of Hebrews shows us that Jesus sets an example for priests and pastors under this new covenant. In verse two, he says pastors are “able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward since we ourselves are subject to weakness.” In other words, clergy are sinners too. We need forgiveness just as much as anybody else. Any minister or church leader who claims to have reached perfect holiness is a liar. We’re all human.

I stress this because too often today (and back in Bible days as well) pastors and priests sometimes forget that God gives us gifts for the sake of God’s people. Too often we see clergy lining their pockets, or using their position to gain power, or betraying the innocent – any number of evil things – and the stories in the news come far too often.

This is NEVER what God intended when God created priesthood. Priests back in Bible days had to offer sacrifices for their own sins as well as the sins of the people. Today, we clergy need to say prayers of confession right along with our congregations. We need to confess our sins to God daily just like everybody else.  The difference is that now, you and I have a high priest, Jesus, who lives forever and always prays on our behalf.

Verse four adds, speaking of the priesthood: “one does not presume to take this honor”. Have you ever wondered how people get to be pastors? For the most part, God’s service is kind of like being drafted. It’s similar for many of you who have been ‘drafted’ to serve on church boards. Essentially we are all called by God, just as Aaron was, and just as other spiritual leaders are.

The writer of Hebrews goes on to say that Jesus also was chosen – appointed by God, but in a different way. God said to Jesus, “You are my son, today have I begotten you.”

And then in verse six God says something about Jesus being “a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” For those of you who were at Bible Study this past Wednesday, we read about Melchizedek. He is one of my favorite characters in the Old Testament – he is both great and a bit mysterious.  Melchizedek was a different kind of priest. He wasn’t a descendant of Aaron. He shows up in the Bible long before Aaron and Moses appear: he shows up in the days of Abraham.

Melchizedek

Melchizedek was both a priest and a king. His name is Hebrew for “king of righteousness” or “king of justice”.  He just sort of pops up out of nowhere after Abraham rescues his nephew Lot from captivity in Sodom. (This is also long before Sodom got rained on by burning sulfur.)

Melchizedek was the king of a country called Salem, which in Hebrew means “peace” (related to the word “shalom”). Melchizedek blesses Abraham, and prophecies over him, and Abraham gives Melchizedek ten percent of all the spoils – which is a tithe, but again this is long before the tithe is ever mentioned in the Bible. So here’s this scene described in detail in the middle of Genesis, and then Melchizedek disappears – leaving the reader to wonder “what was that all about??”

Then, just as mysteriously, Melchizedek’s name pops up almost a thousand years later in a Psalm that predicts the coming of the Messiah. In Psalm 110, a psalm written by King David, God says to the Messiah: “you are priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

In other words, Jesus is our high priest but he doesn’t come from the priestly tribe of Aaron. He does not descend from professional clergy. Jesus is not, and never was, part of the religious establishment. Jesus comes from an order of priests that is both eternal and royal. He descends from – and has become – the King of Righteousness, the Prince of Peace.

And just in case any of Jesus’ disciples, or the Pharisees for that matter, missed the reference, Jesus quotes Psalm 110 in Matthew 22:44 when he says, “The Lord said to my Lord ‘sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” When Jesus quoted this, Matthew comments, “the Pharisees didn’t dare to ask him any more questions.” They clearly made the connection: Jesus fulfills in every way the promises God gave to Abraham through Melchizedek.

For us, as Christians in the 21st century, we also are called to follow the Prince of Peace, the King of Righteousness, the high priest after the order of Melchizedek. We are called to give our loyalty to a country – not the one we were born in, but a country still in the making, where Jesus is king and where peace reigns.

Jesus has entered into this kingdom and is already our high priest. And having also been human, Jesus can identify with us. Jesus has been where we are. Jesus has been tempted the same way we have. Jesus has lived through what we live through, so Jesus is able to save anyone who comes to him. Jesus isn’t sitting around heaven eating bonbons and waiting for us to show up! Jesus is at this very moment praying for us, interceding for us, forgiving every mistake we make and every sin we commit. Jesus does for us what no human priest or clergy could ever do.

Jesus sacrificed himself for us, once for all, on the cross. As the writer of Hebrews says in verse eight, he ‘learned obedience’ by his death on the cross for us. Jesus didn’t need to die – because he didn’t sin. But Jesus made us his brothers and sisters, and gave his life for us: which was what God asked of him, and Jesus loved us enough to say ‘yes’.

Which brings us to Hebrews 7:27 and 28. We human pastors are subject to weakness like everyone else.  But Jesus the Son has been made perfect forever. And believing in him, and trusting him, is the one and only way to enter the kingdom.

When we are honest with ourselves, we realize that even if we’re good people, we are still sinners, and we will die someday. Nobody can save us from that. Nobody can change it. Going to church doesn’t change things, giving money to good causes doesn’t change things, not even giving our lives in service to other people will change things. No matter what we do we don’t have the power to control sin or death. And this makes life crazy; it makes the world unmanageable.

But Jesus has power over both sin and death because he is our great high priest. Jesus gives us the ability to believe in something greater than ourselves and the powers of this world: and that is the undying love of God. Therefore when we trust in Jesus and choose to follow and obey him, our lives change, our vision clears, and we begin to learn how to live as God intended.

The apostle Paul says in Romans 3:10: “there is no one righteous, no, not one.” But the apostle John reminds us in John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that all who believe in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” And in John 14:15, Jesus says: “if you love me, keep my commandments.”

So what does obedience to Jesus look like? I think that’s something we all need to work out between ourselves and God. For me, the best answer I’ve been able to come up with is I Corinthians 13:

“love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous or boastful or arrogant or rude; love does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful, does not rejoice in the wrong but rejoices in the truth; love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. And in the end only three things remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest is love.”

That’s the essence of the message of Hebrews. For this reason we need to keep on keeping on with Jesus. Sometimes the best we can manage is to say “Lord I believe – help my unbelief.” If that’s the case we wouldn’t be the first people to say it. But in God’s kingdom, it’s enough.  AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven UMC and Spencer UMC, October 24 2021

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Hebrews 1

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,  2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.  3 He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,  4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. 

5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”?  6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.”  7 Of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.” 

8 But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.  9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”  10 And, “In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands;  11 they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like clothing;  12 like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end.”  13 But to which of the angels has he ever said, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?  14 Are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?

Hebrews 2

Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.  2 For if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty,  3 how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him,  4 while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will. 

5 Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels.  6 But someone has testified somewhere, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?  7 You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor,  8 subjecting all things under their feet.” Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them,  9 but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. 

10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.  11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters,  12 saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”  13 And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.” 

14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,  15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.  16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.  17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.  18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

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Hebrews

Today we’ll be looking at our reading from Hebrews. The book of Hebrews needs a little bit of background, mostly because (at least in my experience) we hardly ever hear it preached – which is unfortunate because the book is beautifully written. Our lectionary for October includes bits and pieces of Hebrews, scattered throughout the month, and I’m not sure how much of it we’ll be hearing over the next few weeks, but I wanted to lay a solid foundation for the book just in case.

Hebrews is probably one of the oldest books in the New Testament. It’s hard to know an exact date because the book is so old, but the context and the language of the letter seem to place it somewhere around 60AD –around 20-40 years after Jesus’ resurrection. This is extremely old by New Testament standards. And we don’t know who wrote Hebrews, although there have been many educated guesses. Whoever it was, was well educated and had a deep knowledge of both the Greek language and the Jewish faith.

The reason I’m going into all this detail is because, when reading Hebrews, we need to understand where the writer is coming from and why he is writing. The reason for the letter was to encourage the early believers – who were mostly Jewish – to keep on hanging in there with the faith.

In the first century after Jesus’ life, most believers in Jesus were Jewish; and becoming a believer in Jesus didn’t change the fact that they were Jewish. Today, Jewish believers in Jesus are called ‘Messianic Jews’; but back then there was no such thing as ‘messianic Judaism’. There was just the Jewish faith, and some members of the synagogue believed Jesus was the Messiah and some didn’t.

What happened, though, later in the century, was that the Jewish people who believed in Jesus began being persecuted: from the Romans on one side; and on the other side, to a lesser degree, by their Jewish neighbors who wanted to see them return to ‘good old-fashioned Judaism’.

So the author of Hebrews is writing to encourage the believers in Jesus, and he does it by showing them how the Old Testament – which was the Bible of the Jewish people – supports faith in Jesus: in other words, how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament.

Why is this important to us in the 21st century? First, because Hebrews gives us a rock-solid foundation for our faith, using the Old Testament as a resource – which is what the Old Testament is meant to be and to do. Second, Hebrews gives us a fresh approach to our own faith. It doesn’t approach Christianity the way most 21st century preachers do, so it sounds very new to us in a lot of ways. And third, it adds richness and meaning to a faith we’ve kind of ‘gotten used to’ over the years.

One other thing I need to mention: in our lectionary, Hebrews gets chopped up a bit. Today’s reading, for example, is actually in two separate pieces: one from chapter 1 and one from chapter 2. I’m going to be putting the missing parts back in (both chapters are quoted in full at the top of this article).

So starting in verse 1, the author of Hebrews begins by saying: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors…”

When I hear these words I can almost hear in my mind some wise old man saying “ah yes… the old ones… the wise ones… the ones who brought us here… yess, God spoke to them also…” It almost sounds like something out of Star Wars!

How often do we think about God in terms of “talking to our ancestors”? Some of us have memories of grandparents who loved God and brought us to church; some of us didn’t. But have we ever stopped to think that our grandparents had grandparents who took them to church? And on and on back into history. The Christian faith has been around for over 2000 years. Most of our family names haven’t been around that long, but we have ancestors that stretch back to that time, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

If we ever find any way of finding information about the faith of our ancestors, I think it’s time well spent to do so. I know for example, I have been to the grave of my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather over in Europe. I have been inside the church he attended. The church is still there, and the people in his old neighborhood today still worship the same God in the same place. It strengthens my faith to know that hundreds of years ago my ancestors loved and worshiped God. So I encourage learning whatever we can about the faith histories of our families.

The writer of Hebrews continues: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets…” In this case, the author of Hebrews can remember his ancestors listening to the words of the Old Testament prophets. Maybe his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather knew a prophet or two! God’s word has been with God’s people for as far back as anyone can remember: for thousands and thousands of years, God has been communicating with God’s people.

“But” – the writer of Hebrews says – “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, [and] through whom he also created the worlds.”

The author of Hebrews is taking us back to when the universe was created. Not just our world, but all the worlds. All the stars, all the galaxies, created through Jesus, the Son of God. “Without him was not anything made that was made.” Apart from Jesus, nothing exists. Without Jesus, Genesis never happened. Hebrews is written, in part, to tell us a little bit about what Jesus was doing before he came to earth to be one of us.

In verse 3, it says Jesus is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” Like a face on a coin, Jesus shows us God exactly. When we listen to Jesus’ words, we hear the word of God. If we want to know God, we need to know Jesus. And Hebrews says, “Jesus sustains all things by his powerful word”.  Everything exists – and continues to exist – by the command of Jesus.

This kind of power can be a bit overwhelming. We live in a world where power is frequently misused: political power, media power, celebrity power, corporate power. We tend to be a little suspicious of too much power, and for good reason. If it were not for the fact that Jesus is gentle and good, and on our side, we’d be in trouble. But Jesus gave himself for us. As Hebrews says, “When he had made purification for sins…”  Jesus gave his life for us, before we even knew who he was. And then “he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” (vss 3-4)

guardian angels

OK, so… why is the writer of Hebrews bringing up angels? In order to help us out with the history.

In the beginning Jesus was with God the Father. As John says at the beginning of his gospel: “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and Word was God.” So in the beginning, God says to Jesus (vss 8 & 9 of ch 1):

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.  You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”

Some of you may recognize these words as coming from Psalm 45, which was read here in church a few weeks ago. Psalm 45 was written for the royal wedding of King Solomon but it is also a Messianic prophecy.

The writer of Hebrews quotes this to explain who Jesus was before He came to earth.

Then in Hebrews ch 2 vss 5-7 we hear a piece of Psalm 8 that says:

“what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor…”

This speaks of Jesus coming to earth and being made “a little lower than the heavenly beings” (that is, the angels). But when Jesus had done all he came to do, Hebrews says in ch 2 v 9 – Jesus was then raised and is “now crowned with glory and honor” because he was willing to suffer death for all of us. Verse 10 says: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation (that is, Jesus) perfect through sufferings.”

Then in the end of chapter 1, verse 14 explains that angels have been given a job to do. It says: “Are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” In other words, the angels are sent by God to serve for our sakes, because we are the ones who will inherit salvation!  The angels are in God’s service, looking after us. ‘Guardian angels’ are not a myth, they’re for real – though I can guarantee you angels are not cute little things that pin to your clothing. People who meet angels in the Bible usually pass out – it’s not wise to mess with an angel! But God sends angels into our world to look after us. Isn’t that good news?

So what does all this talk of angels and ancient history mean to us today?

Hebrews answers that question in chapter 2, verse 1: “Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard.”  We need to be on our toes!  We need to be careful not to drift away from the truth – as the ancient Hebrews were tempted to do, and as many people in our time are doing. If a message given by angels is true, how much more true is a message given by God’s own Son?

The good news of Jesus Christ – and the proof that he is the Messiah – has been given to us first by God, and then by the prophets, and then by Jesus, then by the angels, then by the miracles Jesus performed, then by the Holy Spirit. How many more witnesses do we need?

Then we come to chapter 2 verse 10 –

“It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”  Why is this? Why did Jesus have to leave heaven to suffer on earth?

Because God is Jesus’ Father, and God is also our Father (as we’ve been taught to pray, “Our Father…”). Therefore we are Jesus’ brothers and sisters. The miracle of Jesus’ birth makes this real. Jesus, the Son of God, through whom the universe was made, is our brother.

Hebrews 2:11-13: “For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”  And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”

We are so loved! And we are so secure in Jesus’ love!

But Hebrews doesn’t end there. Jumping to v 14:

“Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, [Jesus] himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)

This verse calls all of us slaves – did you catch that? We are held captive by the fear of death. We are slaves, not to death itself, but to fear – the fear of dying. Otherwise we could look at death as merely a passage, or a transformation. But because the evil one makes us doubt God, we fall into fear and we become afraid of death. Once we know God – once we know Jesus – we know the one who has power over death; and we are set free, not from death (because all living beings die once) but we are set free from the FEAR of death.

Safe

We can now live fearlessly.  Jesus has become like us so that we can become like him. Our destiny is to be higher than the angels one day – did you know that? Paul says in I Corinthians 6:3: “Do you not know that we will judge angels?”

All of this good news leads us beautifully to the communion table today.  For now I’d like to close with something C.S. Lewis wrote, which I think helps give a vision of this gospel reality:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you can talk to… may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship… or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities… that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” – C.S. Lewis

As children of Jesus, it’s up to us to share these truths, and live these truths, in every way we can. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 10/3/21

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The prophet Isaiah writes: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.  The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” – Isaiah 61:10 – 62:5

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The Apostle Paul writes: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” – Galatians 4:4-7

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Luke writes: “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

“And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

“There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

“When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” – Luke 2:22-40

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Merry Christmas! 

Yes, I know Christmas was two days ago. But like the old song says, there are twelve days in Christmas, and my plan is to celebrate all twelve.

And today’s sermon is part of that.

For the past month here at the Partnership we have been holding an online study group called “Lessons From Carols” and on one of the evenings someone mentioned it felt like Advent and Lent have some common ground – which was a great observation.  Both Advent and Lent look forward to history-changing events: Advent looks forward to Christmas – the birth of Jesus; and Lent looks forward to Easter – the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Fact is, if Jesus hadn’t died on the cross and then walked out of the grave alive on that first Easter, we wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas. If Jesus is still dead then Easter is pointless and so is our faith. But the truth is Jesus IS alive, and because he lives we too will live. The good news of Christmas is that the King of Kings, our Saviour, has been born. And because he is here we have hope and a future.

But I’m getting way ahead of our scripture readings for today!

I’d like to start with our reading from Isaiah, who gives us a thought to keep in mind: Christmas – or as Isaiah understood it, the coming of the Messiah – is about God’s gifts to us. We give gifts to each other at Christmastime because God first gave to us. We show our love for others because God first loved us. With that in mind, let’s listen to the words of Isaiah:

“I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”

God’s first Christmas gift to us is a robe of righteousness. Clothing. But not physical clothing: clothing that covers our imperfections and our weaknesses and our faults. The robe of righteousness is not self-righteousness because we don’t earn it or deserve it. God gives it.

Robes1

When we talk about God’s righteousness we understand this is not a narrow concept but a very broad one. The Hebrew word for righteousness (tsedek) includes both the religious obligation to do what is morally right and the religious obligation to do what is just.

In the Jewish world, righteousness and justice are bound together: two sides of the same coin. And there’s a third aspect: generosity – giving to those in need – no matter how rich or how poor we may be. Remember Jesus’ words about the widow’s mite: the woman who gave two pennies, who – Jesus said – gave more than anyone else because she gave all she had. No matter how much or how little we have, we can always share what we have with others.

Scripture tells us there will be a day of reckoning, when everything we’ve ever said or done will be made known. I don’t know about you but that makes me a bit nervous to say the least. I am not the holiest person in the world by a long shot, and I sometimes find myself hoping God will grade on a curve, or that God will believe me if I tell Him the cat ate my homework. But I know that’s not going to happen. If my eternal future depends on me, then I’m in trouble.

The good news of Christmas is that my eternal future – all of our eternal futures – don’t depend on us. God has given us a robe of righteousness and garments of salvation. God says: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication (which is the same thing as righteousness, it’s the same word in the Hebrew) – until her vindication shines like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations will see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.”

That’s the second Christmas gift from God: a new name, to go with the new clothes. Isaiah explains it: it’s like a wedding. Isaiah says: “the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”

Can you imagine – God – rejoicing – over us?

Scripture tells us God and sin cannot exist in the same space. It’s like matter and anti-matter, they can’t both occupy the same space at the same time. So how is it possible that God will rejoice over us imperfect human beings?

That’s where the robe of righteousness comes in. God gives us what we need so that our righteousness can shine like the sun and we can be objects of God’s rejoicing.

During this pandemic year we’ve all been slogging our way through, a lot of people have been talking in whispers about the end times. I’m not going to speculate when that may happen, but I do know it’s a good thing to think about the end times now and then, and to remember that God is in charge and all will be set right one day. Remember the words of Jesus about that last day, when he separates the sheep from the goats and says to the sheep: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and in prison and you visited me” – and both the sheep and the goats are surprised at what Jesus says. Those who did these things, don’t remember doing them; and those who didn’t do these things don’t remember not doing them.

While we wait for the end times to come – whenever they may come – we need to be doing our very best to be feeding and clothing and welcoming and visiting those in need – because in doing so we grow to become more like our Saviour. And yet at the same time we know salvation is a gift, and always has been.

God will cause us to be clothed with righteousness. God will cause our vindication to shine like the sun.

Why?

Because God is our Father and God loves us. God is our creator, and God made us for a purpose, each one of us, you and me and our friends and neighbors and even (in some way) our enemies.

The end result is that all nations will see God’s righteousness and the vindication of God’s people. Isaiah says we will be like a crown of beauty in God’s hands.

And this is not just about individuals: the church itself will be purified: church defined as the body of believers, the community of God’s faithful people. During our Zoom Advent series, one evening’s discussion turned to what a mess organized religion is these days: the scandals we hear in the news; the jealousies between different churches and denominations; how churches are torn apart by politics and corruption. There’s no denying it, and it’s sad to see. Though it may help to know we’re not alone: even back in Isaiah’s day people saw the same things in the temple and in their religious leadership. But one day God will purify the community of the faithful and drape a robe of righteousness over it and hold it up to shine like a crown of glory.

How can this be?

Because it doesn’t depend on us.

As Christians we believe in miracles. And we trust a God of miracles.

And most of all we trust a God who came to us as a baby, as the child of a poor teenager in a backwater town in Galilee: a God who is able and willing to become one of us, so that we can be like Him.

Which leads us to the connection between Christmas and Easter: Jesus was born to be our salvation. This is why Simeon takes the baby Jesus into his arms and says “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all the nations…” – and this will be both for the glory of Israel and for the salvation of the Gentiles (which is us).

Jesus was born to keep God’s commandments perfectly, because we can’t. Jesus was born to die on the cross and rise again – and in doing that, destroying the power of sin and death, for all of us, for all time.

Simeon in the temple took the baby Jesus in his arms and said that Jesus was “a sign given so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” There are powers in this world, often hidden, that literally feed on poverty and death. This is what makes (for example) racism so difficult to overcome: because there are people who profit on violence and death, and it’s not always who you think. It’s what makes war so impossible to put and end to: because people literally make profits on death. It’s what makes poverty so hard to overcome: because there are people who make money on the misfortune of others. It’s a truism on Wall Street that where there’s a crisis in the world there’s an opportunity to make a profit: and most of the time the people who do these things are hidden under a cloak of respectability.

Jesus has come to reveal what is hidden and to destroy the power of sin and death.

This also is God’s Christmas gift to us.

So what can we give God in return?

We can sing to him the words of the psalmist: “Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!” For he has raised up a horn of salvation for His people.

Manger2

We can come to the manger, with the shepherds and the wise men, and kneel before our newborn King.

And where it comes to Jesus being our King: we Americans generally don’t have a lot of experience with royalty. It takes practice. We can start with the understanding that God’s Kingdom is not a democracy and go from there.

But for now we approach the manger with faith and with trust that what God has spoken is true, and that Jesus our saviour has come, and that his life and death and resurrection will provide for us robes of righteousness and a glory that never fades.

AMEN

Preached for the South Hills Partnership of Methodist Churches, online, 12/27/2020

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