Monday, January 26, 2015

Are men accountable to God, even if they have never heard of Him?


DOES that title sound familiar?  If you worship here frequently, you have definitely heard it before because it comes from a form of the General Prayer.  In our hymnal it is on page 110.  It was written in the 16th century by Thomas Cranmer, a reformer of the English Church, an Archbishop of Canterbury, martyred under Queen Mary.  In today's Gospel we can see Jesus answering that petition, granting the mercies of God to a gentile.  As He did so, He surprised everyone around Him.  That was one "sort and condition of men" that nobody seemed to think the Messiah would care about.  They were wrong.

The Epiphany season begins with the lesson of the Magi, who were certainly gentiles.  God called them with a sign in the stars, which they could not miss since they were astrologers.  They understood that they had to follow the call, and thus were led to the Incarnate Word.  Occasionally Jesus served Samaritans, who were half-gentile.  Only very rarely do we see Him interacting with 100% gentiles.  There was the Canaanite woman whose daughter was possessed.  During Holy Week there were some Greeks who wanted to see Him, and there was this centurion.  After His resurrection Jesus gave clear instructions to make disciples of all nations.  Many people today wonder why.  One popular notion is that if people do not know God's Law they are not accountable for keeping it.  Likewise, the same notion holds that one who does not know the Gospel cannot be expected to have faith.  Never think such things!  Anyone who is a sinner is accountable, and everyone is born is a sinner.  There is no one in this world who does not need God's saving health, no one who does not need to be born again and thus to have a more proper role in Christ's kingdom.  Don't think that this proves God to be unjust.  We know little of His ways, thus He may seem to be what He is not, but He certainly has given us commandments and consequences for breaking them.  Everyone is accountable.  Yes, even the Muslims who believe in a barbaric god who rewards suicides and murderers, a god who appears to be Satan, are accountable to our God.

Reason teaches us a lot about God.  For example, dumb beasts do not give birth to rational creatures.  If we can talk, that bears witness to a Creator who can talk.  The same is true about knowing right from wrong.  Creatures with a conscience could not come from those who lack it.  Thus the existence of morality bears witness to a moral Creator.  We may say the same about having purposes.  So nearly everyone knows enough to worship something.  There are very few true atheists.  Some call themselves atheists because they deny traditional gods -- like Communists who worship the great future society, or Humanists who worship what mankind will become, or materialists who worship the things they own.  Genuine atheists, like Albert Camus, usually kill themselves.  So St. Paul tells us in Romans 1 that truth concerning God ought to be clear from the things He has made.  There is no excuse for those who deny Him.

Obviously, everyone doesn't believe the truth.  God's enemy deceives them.  Even though the Creator has left His messages all over our world, Satan has perverted them so they call our attention elsewhere.  He sabotages souls.  He makes you discontent with your status as a human creature.  He comes from both sides, making you wish you were a beast, or an angel.  If only I could be irresponsible and grabbing, or on the other hand, disgusted with my fellow men because I am so far above them.  If these tricks don't work, Satan trots out his three greatest idols - the drive for power, the drive for escape, or the drive for pleasures and delights.  In Paradise Lost, John Milton personified them as Moloch, Belial, and Mammon, three lieutenants of the Deceiver.  God's saving health turns us from them to the Word made flesh.

The centurion was a Roman.  the people in the Gospel were amazed that Jesus showed him mercy, but what amazed Jesus was His own disciples' unbelief.  This gentile had real faith.  He humbled himself, telling the Lord that he was unworthy to have Him come under His roof.  He believed that Jesus would give him some blessing, some small portion of His saving health.  He had come to the right Person.  As Jesus pointed out shortly afterward what really matters is not who your parents were, or what you remember, or what you did.  To get a reserved seat at the table with the Patriarchs, what matters is who you know.  Even as this event was taking place, the carnal Israel was rejecting Jesus the Messiah, and He was gathering a new community, an Israel of believers.  To give life to that community He died and rose again, and after His resurrection He commanded His disciples to preach the Gospel everywhere, baptizing people in the name of the Triune God, so that they might be born again of water and the Spirit.  That's how God's saving health came to me; that's how it comes to you, and that's how it must come to all sorts and conditions of men.  That faith is the true faith, because it is faith in the true God.

Just as everyone is poisoned by sin, so everyone can be detoxed by forgiveness.  Whatever Satan wants us to forget, the Holy Spirit helps us remember.  We must indeed look to the cross to see the real horror of our sins, to be truly sorry for them, and to see the depth and height of God's redeeming love, stronger than our sin, willing to offer His own blood.  As we then behold the resurrection, we see that Jesus was serious about living forever with the Patriarchs.  That gives us all hope.  Even as He is risen, so He will raise the Israel of faith from all ages and places, to be blessed at the beatific board.  That is what God's saving health does.

He could do it without our help, even without our prayers, but He wants us to pray and to work, to want what He wants, to accomplish His will through us rather than in spite of us.  He wants our companionship in this noble work, to share His victory with His soldiers.  We tell Him by prayer of our success and failure, that He might rejoice with us in the one and cover the other.  Most people don't think they need this, but they do.  Without God's saving health, all is lost.  To work for it without prayer is vanity.  To pray for it without working is hypocrisy.  We are children of the Light, the disciples of the one true religion, not just in church, but wherever we ply our vocation.  It is our privilege to bring this saving health to all sorts and conditions of men.  Amen.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Monday, January 19, 2015

How does Christ's first recorded miracle at Cana fulfil prophecy?


"Behold, the days are coming,"  declares the LORD, "when...the mountains shall drip sweet wine and all the hills shall flow with it."  Amos 9:13

TODAY this prophecy is fulfilled in your hearing; fulfilled in the Lord's miracle at Cana, in the liturgy we now pray, and the Sacrament we will here receive.

We make a mistake if we think of scripture and the events it portrays as nothing more than religious information, however wonderful.  God's Word is far more than that!  What St. John records for us here is factual.  It happened just as he reported, but it is more!  It is not just a narrative to teach how good and powerful Jesus is, though it does.  Neither is it a morality tale to instruct Christians to help a neighbor in need, though we should.  What we read today in Saint John's gospel is the fulfillment of Amos's prophecy.

The first and immediate fulfillment was when God restored Israel to her land after the Babylonian Captivity.  Nothing could bring her former glory, but God did restore her land and temple so that she could once again drink the sweet wine of communion with God in the world.

The second fulfillment is in the miracle of today's gospel reading, when our Lord converted water into wine; wine of such quality and quantity as no heart ever imagined, no tongue ever tasted.

In the homes of Orthodox Jews each Sabbath the head of the household ritually pours wine into a cup, and purposely causes the cup to overflow.  the practice comes from the Talmud (Book of Erubin p.65) which says: that where wine flows like water God is present to bless.  God was in Cana that day.

Though there are many lessons to be learned from today's gospel reading -- the prayer of Mary, the faith that this miraculous sign elicited in the disciples -- the focus is on Jesus, who made the mountains and the hills to drip with sweet wine in fulfillment of Amos' most excellent prophecy.

In scripture water symbolizes life and wine symbolizes salvation.  Jesus is both and gives both without measure, without money and without cost to those who need it the most.  We are those people.  He is God's blessing.   He is God's wine who gives us more than we could ask or even imagine.

Thirdly, Amos's prophecy comes true in the church today.  What occurred 2000 years ago in Cana was written to point to what happens in the church each Sunday, only now, Christ is the Bridegroom and we, the beloved Bride upon whom the faithful love and tender mercies of the Groom is richly tendered.

It is the Christian faith that in Christian worship Jesus is factually present with His bride, but hidden within the means He established.  Don't ask why.  It is how He does things, and these visible means are not dispensable as the little Puritan residing inside each of us would like to think.

When Paul speaks in today's epistle lesson of prophesying, serving, teaching, exhorting and so on, he is not referring to the church's organizational flow chart but to the offices of the church of his day; to those men, who led her worship which always centered on the best bread and the best wine of all, the body and blood of Christ given and shed for you.  (There were no non-communion Sundays for St. Paul.)  Through these blessed offices the Spirit of God dispenses faith by the Word preached and eaten in the supper, because behind it all is Jesus.  He is the actual Liturgist.  He is the one who is heard when scripture is read, and the one who is consecrating the bread and wine for us by His word so that what we receive is not mere bread and wine to feed the belly, but His body and blood provided to heal us, and give us indestructible life.

This is why our gathering is properly called the Divine Service, because here the Divine is serving His bride, cleansing her from the sins of the flesh, the sins that so easily beset us,  the violations of divine law that make us afraid of our God, afraid of judgment, and cause so many unintended consequences for us; all of which are lamentable and none of which can be borne except by aid and consolation that God Himself supplies us here.

Being thus cleansed by Jesus means that we are also filled with a deep gladness that makes us light-hearted even when life becomes intolerable and makes our heads spin.  Then we calm ourselves with St Paul's words, "for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."  We know that we are "strangers and pilgrims" here and that "heaven is our home."  We trust that "in the Father's house are many rooms," and that Jesus is "gone ahead to prepare a place" for us.  With this eternal perspective, one that only the baptized understand, we can "bear all things through Christ who strengthens us."  (Phillipians 4:13)  Being cleansed and sanctified as we are by the Lord's word our hearts are also set to obey His commandments.  We are commissioned by the Lord to live noble lives, meaningful lives, sacrificial lives to the glory of God and the love of our neighbor -- and charity begins at home!

Lastly, Amos's prophecy will be brought to pass in the Father's House where wine will flow like water from the River of Life, even Jesus Christ our Lord.  Nothing we presently imagine can compare to the the things that God has prepared for those who love Him, neither is any present trouble worth comparing to what is ahead.  This is why the words of the 12th century monk, Bernard of Cluny are so urgent.  The words we sing in hymn #605, (midi) "Strive, man, to win that glory; toil, man, to gain that light..." is not an admonition to salvation by works, but rather another way of saying seek first, seek above all, the kingdom of God and His righteousness in Christ, because there is no higher goal, no better end than to serve God in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness, beginning now.  Amen.

~Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, January 11, 2015

How does one Man take on the sins of the entire world?


And Jesus, having been baptized, immediately came up out of the water, and behold the heavens were opened to Him and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and resting upon Him.  And behold a voice out of Heaven said, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased."  Matthew 3:16-17

IF we are thinking of the Lord's divine nature when we hear St. Matthew's report, things don't seem very surprising.  Why should the Spirit not descend on Jesus?  Why would He not be called God's own Son and well-pleasing to the Father?  He is, after all, true God begotten of the Father from eternity.  Yet when we remember that our Lord is also a true man born of the virgin Mary; when we remember that St. Paul calls Him "the Man Christ Jesus," (1 Timothy 2:5) we must take note.  Then we must stand in awe that the heavenly voice should say to Man, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am fully pleased."

What we behold here, dear Christians, is nothing less than the beginning of the new creation!  The old one went bad we know and the evidence is all about us.  It is confirmed for us by man's cruelty to man, by earth's explosive temper against her inhabitants, and by man's steadfast refusal to fear, love and trust in his Creator above all things, but as God once gave His stamp of approval to Adam with the words "very good," He now gives it to the New Adam and to all who are baptized into His holy name with this words, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased."

This is the gospel of Jesus Christ:  that men who are born as sons of Adam and who inherit the wages of his sin, should be called the sons of God and inherit the life of Jesus instead!  Such a precious gift as this is not bestowed upon you by the giants of industry or the kings of the earth, but by the King of kings.  It is not something that you might obtain by ardent desire or merit by good behavior, for as Scripture says there is none that is righteous, no not one.  It is, instead, the gift of God that accrues to you in the flood of holy baptism, but baptism would have no power had the Lord not first "fulfilled all righteousness" in the Jordan River that day.  Neither would it be anything more than the "good luck charm" that many mistake it to be were it not for the Lord's death and resurrection because baptism is God's chosen instrument to unite sinners to the redemption that is in Christ Jesus our Lord so that His death is also our death for sin, His burial our Sabbath day rest, his resurrection our resurrection to a new and better life that begins at the font and continues into the ages of ages.

How can water do such great things, you ask?  The day Jesus stepped into the Jordan the life-giving power of the Almighty entered the water too.  From that time on, "baptism is not plain water only, but water that is included with God's Word and combined with God's command." 

The promise still holds good today.  You don't need to be baptized in the Jordan or even be immersed as some people insist.  A few drops will do because baptismal water is water like no other.   It is not intended to cleanse the body of its blemishes, but to purify the soul from the squalor of its sins.  No humanly devised ceremony such as "believers baptism" or "spirit baptism" can do this, but only the sacramental baptism that our Lord commands in the last chapter of Matthew.  No wonder Jesus equates evangelism with baptism and not with the embarrassing antics that churches mistake for mission work today.  Even so, neither baptism, nor the new life that it bestows are mere theological propositions simply to be pondered in the mind.  Baptism has a real and profound effect upon us.  As we learn in our catechism it works forgiveness of sins.  It rescues from death and the devil, and it gives eternal salvation to all who believe this as the words and promises of God declare.

In today's Old Testament lesson we learn how Joshua led the people of Israel across the Jordan River into the sweet land of promise.  This was a type of baptism.   It was an entrance that was precisely planned down to the last detail, attended by a carefully constructed liturgy and marked by a sterling miracle.  As Moses parted the waters of the Red Sea to make good Israel's escape, so Joshua now parts the Jordan to make good their safe arrival into the land of milk and honey.  All this is recorded in the third and fourth chapters of Joshua's scroll, but the fifth chapter begins like this:  As soon as all the kings of the Amorites... and all the kings of the Canaanites... heard that the LORD had dried up the waters of the Jordan for...Israel until they had crossed over, their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel."

When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan that day, when the heavenly voice spoke and the Spirit rested upon Him, the Evil One knew that his reign of terror was over.  His cold heart melted with fear and now, since our own baptism, we are no longer his prisoners, but have a new Lord and Savior who is our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption.  He is the one who empowers us to drown the Old Adam by daily contrition and repentance, to put to death all sins and evil desires and to rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  All these benefits are ours because Jesus fulfilled all righteousness that day in the Jordan, because He died and rose again for us, and because He called us to be His own in this blessed Sacrament.  Now may God grant what we pray for in today's Collect: that we be faithful to our calling as His sons and inheritors of eternal life with Christ.  Amen.

Rev. Dean Kavouras

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Why is the story of the Magi so important to Christmas?


Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is the newborn king of the Jews?  For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him,"  Matthew 2:1-2

The Feast of Epiphany is one of the church's oldest celebrations and this account of the Magi has captured the imagination of God's people like no other, and why should it not?  For it is a truly amazing story that teaches us two consoling theological realities.  First, that Mary's Son is none other than God Himself, come to us in the flesh to undo sin's deadly curse.  Secondly, that Jesus did not come to redeem only a limited number or favored group of people, but that the salvation He obtained by His blood on the cross answers every sin and covers every sinner, so whoever you are today, you are not beyond the boundaries of His love, or outside the pale of his mercy.

Everyone we meet in today's gospel lesson knew that the child in question is God Himself, come to earth veiled in human flesh to visit and redeem His people.

First there are the magi.  Over the Christian centuries the church has celebrated these men because of their devotion to the Holy Child, but they did not start out that way.  Like every other person, they too, were born in spiritual darkness and lived their lives that way, suffering one collision after another, as blind men always do.  They were pagan astrologers, superstitious men who relied on the creation rather than the Creator to guide them through life by His good Spirit.  They thought that they could get a leg up in life by reading the stars to know what the future might hold.  Today they might have appeared as astrophysicists on a university campus, or as "readers and advisers" in a shabby store front on West 25th Street, but God in His love caused the Bright Morning Star to rise in their minds, even as He has in ours.  He met them where they were and turned things around for their benefit and for the blessing of all who are afflicted by evil.

Herod also, much to his consternation, understood who this child was.  When word of the Magi's inquiry reached the palace he called the nation's religious leaders together, but notice his question.  He did not inquire where the "King of the Jews" was to be born, but rather where "the Christ" was to be born!  Though Herod was not a Jew, he understood that this child meant the end of his power and Herod could not live life on those terms.  He was too used to the luxury, too head-over- heels in love with the world and the things glory, money and power afforded him.  We should not repeat his mistake.  Instead, like St. Paul, we should be light on our feet.  We should know how to live with plenty when the Lord gives and with little when He takes away.  We should follow St. Paul's advice when he says godliness with contentment is great gain, because one never knows what tomorrow might hold, and because this is not our final destination.

The same can be said of the chief priests and religious scholars Herod called together.  They too understood because they knew immediately where to find the answer to Herod's question:  in the scroll of Micah the prophet who predicted that the Son of David would be born in the City of David.  There was no hesitation or question in their minds when they heard the Magi's inquiry, that this star, "His star," was leading them to the birthplace of the Messiah who would put an end to the long night of sin.

This distinguished feast reveals to us that God did not send a boy to do a man's job, but His one and only Son to save, comfort and defend us in this vale of fears, but Epiphany has a second emphasis as well, namely that God's love is not limited to any favored group of people but holds out the hope of salvation for us all; for you, whoever you are, and whatever you have become.

In the old testament scheme of things there were two classes of people:  Jews and everyone else who the Bible terms as Gentiles.  During the old testament era, and even in the early new testament, it was assumed that God would send the Christ to redeem Israel alone, but Epiphany teaches us that this was wrong.  True, it is a moot point today since the church is now made up almost exclusively of gentiles, but the principle of Epiphany is still in force because the invitation to worship the newborn King is still tendered to all men, none excluded for God is not a respecter of persons.   His love is offered to all:  to criminals and policemen, ministers and rabbis, dictators and philanthropists, homosexuals and heterosexuals, for there is no difference!  All have transgressed, all have merited condemnation for their wrongs, all come short of the glory of God, and if we are to be saved, if ever we are to be cleansed and enabled to shed the sorrow of sin - to break free from the chains of our addictions - it must be by God's power, God's grace, a gift given us through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is why the church continues to celebrate this renowned feast today after all these centuries, because it overflows with the joy and hope of the gospel!  As the star drew the magi to the place where the Christ child lay, the church draws us today to the gospel and sacraments which are the cradle of Christ, the guiding star that leads us to heaven.  Like the magi, it is here that we can kneel before the God-Man with humble hearts and expectant hopes.  Here that we can offer Him our gifts of thankfulness and praise, but most importantly it is the place where we come to receive His good gifts, light to dispel our darkness, guidance from the Good Shepherd each day, and the blessings of heavenly peace, both here in time and there in eternity.  Amen

Rev. Dean Kavouras

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

When nature and prophecy agreed

The Magi had traveled many arduous miles, coming from a place which St. Matthew simply calls "the East."  They were probably from Iran, for that is where Magi were important people.  They came to Palestine because of a star.  Whatever else they may have experienced, they knew for certain that the star was there.  It remained, not disappointing them.  They came to Herod, but they could tell from the way he was questioning them that he was up to no good.  That was not unusual.  Kings in those days tended to be devious, so the Magi did not give up.  While they were there, the king called some teachers to his court, who read from the Book of Micah, the Prophet. They heard the Bethlehem prophecy.   They turned to go there, and as they did they saw the star again.  When they saw it, according to Matthew, it made them very happy.   They did not doubt that God was leading them to the Royal Child.

Who were these guys?  There is a Christmas carol that calls them "kings."  St. Matthew does not say this.  However, from certain Old Testament passages we can say that kings were supposed to come to the Messiah's birth.  In the 60th chapter of Isaiah, the prophet says, Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.  These are the only guests in the nativity story who fit that description.   Later in the chapter St. Matthew lists the gifts.  In Psalm 72 verse 10 Solomon tells us that kings will bow down before the Messiah, bringing such things.  They certainly didn't do that when He was grown.  There was a whole class of Magi in the Middle East who served as advisors to kings.  They were the scientists of the time, observing nature and keeping records.   Magi were astrologers, in fact they invented astrology.  Their ephemeral tables are still used today.   Now there are people who
call themselves astrologers, such as the notorious crew that Nancy Reagan kept in her entourage.  Those people are not Magi.  They are merely fortune-tellers, who have very limited knowledge of the night sky.  Magi did not tell fortunes.  They made responsible readings of celestial cycles, the very "signs and seasons" that God said He made the lights in the sky to be.  St. Matthew does not tell us their names, nor anything about their personalities.  He does not tell us how many there were, but it is reasonable to conclude that a group of them came, and possibly brought some kings, or at least princes, with them, but he definitely tells us what their errand was, and it was holy.   They knew that a king of the Jews had been born.  The star was leading them to Christ.

When they came to Jerusalem the Magi acted honestly.  They did not use their science to deceive people, to make vain predictions, or give psychic advice.  If they had done such things they would have found a ready market, for people have always been trying to gain the advantage over their neighbors, and superstition was just as prevalent then as it is now, but these were honest men.  They were not there to sell occult services.  They were looking for the Messiah of Israel.   Their intention was to worship Him.   When they saw Him they didn't ask any questions.  There were no second thoughts about His humble situation.  They didn't offer psychic advice to Mary and Joseph, or speculate about what God was going to do.  Far from it!  These ancient scientists did what all true scientists have done ever since, they fell down and worshipped Him.  Then they gave Him expensive gifts, to acknowledge Him as Lord.  All of us should be so humble.

Each of us gets only one life.  We don't want to take chances with it.  To try to lead it based on the quicksand of psychic advice, or to gamble on the words of clever manipulators, is just plain foolish.  We want to base our lives on something certain.  Does our intelligence admit anything trustworthy?  Can we embrace the idea of God Incarnate?  The Bible assures us that Jesus is God indeed, but can we believe that?  Does nature contradict the Bible?  Not in this story.   Let's go over the facts again.  The Magi had the star - that was nature, not revelation.  There was no voice with it.  The location of the star made it special.  In Jerusalem the Magi had a small taste of revelation as the Hebrew scholars read Micah 5:2. That small prophecy turned them to Bethlehem.  As they looked toward Bethlehem, they saw the star again.  Now there were two witnesses, the star and the prophecy, agreeing with each other.  The star had been hidden for a while, but it became visible again, and St. Matthew tells us how happy it made the Magi.   Remember how the King James Version put it:  They rejoiced with exceeding great joy.   Is it too much to imagine these learned men jumping up and down in excitement, certain that what they learned from nature and revelation agreed?

What do we have that corresponds to the star?  We have the Word, of course, prophecies and fulfillments, but what other evidence do we have?  What witnesses lead us to the Christ Child's crib?  What serves as a foundation for our faith?   The Holy Church is just such a witness.  We have the assembly of God's people who use the Scriptures and the Blessed Sacraments, the visible forms of the Word, which Jesus instituted for our use.  So the Word and the Church are our witnesses.  Just as the star was hidden for a while, sometimes the Church may be obscured.  False prophets mix the Word of God with falsehood, or the Church may act in an unloving way, but when we see the two witnesses again, that should make us as happy as the star made the Magi.  We need the Word, the Law and the Gospel, that we might repent of our sins and believe in the atonement Jesus made for us.  We need the witness of the Church, which preserves for us the Rule of Faith that we might properly read the Bible.  The Holy Spirit renews and reforms the Church so we can see this second witness.

Think back to Israel's dying prophecy in Genesis 49 - the scepter shall not depart from Judah until its owner comes.  It had departed to Herod, who was not an Israelite at all but an Edomite, a descendant of Esau.  Jacob had said that the scepter would not depart until the Messiah came.  In fulfillment, when Herod the Edomite sat on the throne, the Messiah came.   Paying attention to such things can make the world far more meaningful for us.  They bear witness to Jesus.  We have assurance of forgiveness, of peace in our hearts, of courage for a holy life, of comfort when we are tried and tested, and the hope of heaven in death.   All these are solidly based on the certain truth that Jesus has died and risen again.  The Magi had never been to church.  One of the great ironies of the Bible is that the scholars learned of Messiah's birth from Gentiles.  We do want to learn from what is around us, but we need the Word of God to put it all together.  Only after the Magi heard the prophecy did they set out for Bethlehem.  Then they were permitted to see the star again.  So the Word and the Church assure us that God has visited His people, and that makes us very happy.   AMEN.

~Rev. Lloyd E. Gross