ALL THINGS TO ALL MEN
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There is more to Christian worship than just words. Like Jesus who is the Word made flesh, His worship also has its fleshly aspect. Most of these things we take for granted, but it’s good that we point them out from time to time. During the service we sit, stand, bow and kneel. We always enter God’s house with reverence which necessarily includes slow, quiet and thoughtful movements; and necessarily excludes the wild gyrations which pass for church among many today. There is the sign of the cross, ecclesiastical art such as we see in our stained glass windows; there are also candles, paraments and vestments that the pastor wears, but there are other earthy elements of our worship that are less obvious and should be made explicit so that every part of the mass works together to make us better understand, and better thank God for our Lord Jesus Christ who delivers us from all of our enemies.
One of those components is called the Gradual. It is the time in the mass when the priest traditionally moves from the epistle side of the altar to the gospel side. In a former day churches had no lecterns and the scriptures were read from the altar which always faced the east in anticipation of the returning Christ who, like the rising of the sun, will return to rescue His beleaguered church. The epistle side was to the south, that is to the right of the on-looking congregation, and the gospel side to the north. The reason is that Israel’s enemies, Assyria and Babylon, entered from the north to kill and destroy God’s people, so the north is equated with evil. Now when the New Israel reads the mighty gospel of her Lord it is from the north, in order to remind her that Jesus is her Strength and Tower, the One who delivers her from all her enemies, and from the hand of all who hate her. As the priest crossed over, graduated as it were, from the epistle to the gospel side of the altar the choir would sing verses of Scripture in keeping with the theme for the Day. Today’s Gradual is the text we read earlier from Psalm eighteen in which David sings praise to God for delivering him from the grasp of King Saul and from the hand of all of his enemies.
It is a fact of life, dear Christians, that we have many enemies. Don’t be shocked. Don’t be surprised. Don’t be dismayed. Above all, don’t believe the Father of Lies who wants us to think that life is meant to be a picnic and that if it isn’t then something is wrong. There is definitely something wrong: the fact that we live in a world full of sin and sinners. As such living in the world is more like residing in an aquarium of piranha than in a bowl of goldfish.
When David wrote this hymn it was because God had given him victory over all his adversaries. Like all men, he was in many ways his own worst enemy. He fell prey to the sins common to us all: pride, lust, envy and greed; but he also had external enemies, the worst of which was King Saul who was his commander in chief. Like all kings, Saul had a pathological need to attract all money, power and glory to himself. The money and power parts were going well, but after David killed Goliath and won victory over the Philistines, the women of the land sang this song: Saul has slain his thousands, but David his ten-thousands. When word got to Saul, he went stark-raving mad, and from that day on he dedicated all his resources to one end: to terminate David with extreme prejudice.
The son of David faced similar threats, but ones more powerful than any earthly king could muster. He appeared in the flesh to do battle against the Roaring Lion of whom St. Peter warns in today’s epistle lesson. Sometimes he faced the devil directly, like in the wilderness. Other times through his human cohorts, namely the civil and religious power brokers of the day. They all wanted Jesus to die and would do whatever it took, so they crucified the Lord of Glory. However as God delivered David from all his enemies, He saved the son of David from death’s strong bands by raising Him from the dead and by placing all authority in heaven and on earth into His hands which He now exercises for the good of His church, into which we are blessedly baptized.
We too have enemies both internal and external. Like David, we, too, spend our days gratifying the desires of the flesh, we too stand ready to devour anyone in order to keep our Pride in tact. We, too, are murderers just as David was when he killed Uriah, if not in fact then certainly in our hearts whenever we hate our brother. As in David’s case there are people who wish us harm and who dedicate their lives to making ours unbearable, but they never are because Jesus is our Strength and our Tower our Hope and our Joy. (TLH#399)
But whatever the foe, God delivers us from them all in Christ. By His suffering and death Jesus has become for us all the things that David attributes to the Lord in today’s Gradual. He is the solid Rock on which we stand. He is the deliverer who saved us from sin, death and judgment by delivering Himself into the hands of those who would crucify Him, but little did they know that this death had been pre-ordained by God to be the sacrifice for the sins of the world and to set all men free from the jaws of the Roaring Lion. Jesus is all these things for us so we don’t ever need to be afraid. He surrounds us with His love, infuses us with His peace and stills us with tender words of love, even as the storms of life rage all around us. Therefore let us join David in singing songs of love and adoration to the son of David, who is our Rock and Fortress, our Shield and Salvation. Amen
~ Rev. Dean Kavouras