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Lent Sermons

by sinetortus
Sermon for Passion Sunday
By the Revd. Fr. William Martin

 

Before Abraham was, I AM.
(St. John viii. 58)

The threat of God’s nearness and proximity are quite enough to unnerve, unhinge, and unsettle men in all ages. There is something in human nature that fears God’s presence and His Word. Most men treat the existence of God carelessly, incautiously, indifferently, or casually. The majority of men in our own time are very earthly mindedEven post-modern “Christians” don’t seem the least bit interested in the intellectual and spiritual pursuit of God and appear rather smugly and self-righteously self-contented. Evidently, they’ve got enough or had enough and don’t need more. Or, they arrogantly assert half a shilling’s bit of knowledge to shield them against their own inner fear of what and who God really might be. If such men go on to describe the philosophy or theology that moves them, what emerges usually amounts to little more than a spiritualization of religious feeling that convinces them that neither they or this life is really all that bad after all. Of course, such a philosophy of life collapses into the self and refuses to pursue what might be God’s excellence and the sacrifice that it will, no doubt, entail. The comforts of this life are too much to abandon in the journey after God.
Of course, as we learn in Passion Tide, Jesus Christ confronts all manner of resistance to His mission to us precisely because of this human hardness of heart that cannot abide God’s Word and Will. Which of you convicts me of sin? He says to us today. And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? He who is of God, hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God. (St. John viii. 46)  To be fair to contemporary man, who has stopped caring about Jesus Christ because he is drowned and drenched in the pagan culture which envelops him, it is no small wonder that Jesus Christ and His message are not only alien but antagonistic. Contemporary man seems so free and yet fears freedom. Test out your local I’m spiritual but not religious neighbors, and you shall find that what they fear most is the existence of God! They are enslaved to what is familiar and controllable.  They fear all challenges and confrontations to their pretended freedoms. They fear Christ because of what He might demand or what it might cost to follow Him. They don’t like the idea that there might be a right opposed to their wrong, a good opposed to their evil, and an Absolute Good that to their relative comfort. Who and what they fear above all is Jesus Christ, the One who alone comes to earth to reconcile us with what God has intended for us from the beginning of time.
They are like the Pharisees in this morning’s Gospel who find that Jesus Christ questions their religion and the Law that they worship. Because they are so unacquainted with the Divine Goodness, they can only react to what they consider to be evil. Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil? (St. John viii. 48) What is alien, strange, and contradicts our ways fills us with fear. We become convinced that there must be something wrong with One who challenges and calls all of our lives into question. And when He does, wouldn’t we rather think that the problem is more with Him than us? This is why we convince ourselves that we need not heed with too much seriousness who Jesus says He is and what He asks of us. If He merely irritates or annoys us, we excuse ourselves from following Him on the grounds that who He says He is and what He asks are just too much. If He succeeds in enraging us, we proceed to silence and kill Him. Our negligence, fear, and ignorance kill the Word of God as Man.

Of course, technically speaking, we are right. Who He says He is and what He asks seem just too much! If who He says He is was within the scope of human creativity, we would have invented it long ago and saved ourselves. So, the real question is this. Do we believe that He is who He says He is, and will we give Him what He asks of us? Jesus claims that God is His Father…[He] has come from God…that [he came] not of [Himself], [but was] sent. (St. John viii. 42)The Pharisees are enraged because they can’t imagine that Jesus could ever be who He says He is, and so condemn Him as demon-possessed. Their rage jumps at Him out of envy and resentment. Jesus is trespassing upon their sacred ground. Jesus answers, I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me. And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth. (St. John 8. 49-50) Jesus comes to honor all men with God the Father’s desire for their salvation. The Pharisees honor themselves and seek glory from men. Those who are sinking and going to decay boast most of how other men hold them in the highest esteem. Christ knows that their arrogance stands only to make them and all others only worse. The clergy in every age are mostly corrupt. What He offers, He has received from the Father, and honors it as what alone can touch human hearts and transform them with eternal glory. He is sent by the Father on a Divine Mission: My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me and to finish His work. (St. John iv. 34) The glory that Christ will offer is something that will come near and touch the world in a radically new way.

Jesus claims that if a man keeps [His] saying, he shall never see death. (Ibid) What He promises to faith exceeds our wildest imagination. We are righteously indignant because we know that we must die. Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, if a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death. Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself? (St. John viii. 52-53) The Pharisees mean: You are a man, Jesus of Nazareth, and when you die, your words will die with you. Abraham and the prophets are all dead. And their words have died with them. Indeed their words are as dead as they. So, we cannot believe that your words are any different. 
This is the response of all men who conclude that earthly death is the end of it all. Christ speaks once again. If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth me; of whom ye say, that He is your God: yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you; but I know him, and keep his saying. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. (St. John 8. 54-58) Christ the Word teaches us that human life is made by God to become an opportunity to hope for joy beyond misery and life beyond death. What He tells us is that God spoke His Word to Abraham to give him the hope of salvation. Jesus is the fulfillment of Abraham’s hope. He speaks to the Pharisees to reveal to them that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life that will overcome our death with new and joyful life. The Father’s saying is the promise of salvation to His people. Jesus keeps this saying. This means that He cleaves to the power of love that will save all men. Jesus is the same unchanging Word of God, the saying that moved Abraham to hope in salvation. This is the same unchanging Word of God that inspires Jesus to save all of us. Jesus says, Before Abraham was, I AM. I am the Word, that was heard of old, is with you now, and will be with you forever if you believe and follow me. I am my Father’s ‘saying’ of love for you. Will you follow me? If our faith is dead like that of the ancient Pharisees, our irritation will become the rage that kills Jesus and longs to drag Him into our spiritual death. Then took they up stones to cast at him…. (St. John viii. 59)
Jesus, God’s Word as flesh is sent to do His Father’s willGod’s Word is His will, His will is His Love, and His Love is the utterance and expression of God’s deepest desire and delight for all men’s salvation. His Love is that passion that longs to come near to us on this Passion Sunday. This passion is that Love that does not count the cost. His Love is as broad as the universe and as deep as the human heart. His Love incessantly, persistently, and relentlessly desires to make us His own. His Love is His Passion that longs to touch and transform us. This is the Passion that came near to Abraham, touched him, and transformed all his fears into one unchanging hope. This is the Passion that resonated, reverberated, and resounded in the spirits of those ancient souls who heard God’s Word and were athirst for God, yea, even for the living God…. (Ps. xlii. 2) This is the Passion of God in Jesus, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, to purge our conscience from dead works so that we might begin to serve the living God. (Hebrews ix. 11)
On this Passion Sunday, Jesus Christ persists and perseveres in Passion to keep the Father’s saying. Our English word passion comes from the Latin word patior and it means to suffer, endure, or even to be hurt or wounded. Today, we learn that Christ’s Passion will suffer and endure to win our salvation. He calls us forward to sufferand endure the love that is alive in His heart. If we are humble enough, He will come near to us. If we open our hearts, His approach will overturn all our fears. If we remain with Him, His Passion will wound us. If we follow Him up to His Cross, we shall be bruised by His loving death. In that death, we shall believe that we shall not die but live with Him forever. So, with Henry Vaughn, let us gaze with awe upon the Love that dies to smite and wound us into a Death that cannot help but lead to new and glorious life.

 

Ah, my dear Lord! What couldst thou spy
In this impure, rebellious clay,
That made thee thus resolve to die
For those that kill thee every day?

O what strange wonders could thee move
To slight thy precious blood and breath!
Sure it was Love, my Lord: for Love
Is only stronger far than death. 
(Henry Vaughn, ‘Incarnation and Passion’

Amen.

©wjsmartin

 

Mosaic (6th C.) in the Church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

“But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.”
(Gal. iv. 26)

At the very beginning of Lent Jesus said to his disciples, “Behold we go up to Jerusalem. “(St. Luke xviii. 31) We began our journey at Christ’s command. Long journeys are hard work, and this Lenten journey is no exception. For nearly seven weeks Christians are invited to walk with Jesus towards Jerusalem. Walking to Jerusalem is what our lives are all about. We walk with Jesus to see how He conquers the temptations of Satan and triumphs over sin for us. We walk with Jesus to discover that, like the woman of Canaan, we are more like dogs than men, aliens and exiles to God’s promises, and yet still wholly craving the crumbs that fall from His table. So, we learn to long humbly for that mercy that persists in obtaining Jesus’ mercy and healing. As dogs, we learn also that we are, more often than not, dumb and mute, incapable of comprehending and articulating God’s Word and will in our lives until His inward Grace opens our spiritual senses to His desire.

Our Lenten pilgrimage with Jesus up to Jerusalem, (St. Matthew xx. 18) will not be easy. We learn much about ourselves on this journey, and so we become spiritually exhausted. We grow haggard, hungry, and perhaps even dejected and discouraged. Lenten fasting and abstinence do that to a person. At times, we become distracted and even lose our way. The pull and tug of certain temptations may well have been overcome, but seven other demons worse than ourselves threaten to consume us. (St. Matthew xii. 45) Satan realizes that he is losing our spirits, and so he attacks our bodies with renewed vigor through the elements of this world. (Galatians iv. 3) We have the best of intentions and yet feel ourselves the children of the proverbial Hagar, the bond woman –giving birth to the earthly bastard offspring of vice. We do want to become free men, children of promise, and followers of Jesus, who go up to Jerusalem which is above… and is free. (Galatians iv. 26) And yet it seems the more we try the further back we fall.

Today Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church, provide us with what we need. Today is Dominica Refectionis –Refreshment Sunday or Mothering Sunday: the day on which Mother Church asks us to sit down and rest awhile, to find some spiritual refreshment so that our pursuit of Jesus Christ will not be in vain. Today, we are asked to stop, to breathe, and to contemplate the transcendent and spiritual Jerusalem of Heaven which awaits our arrival. So, we read that Jesus went up into a mountain, and there He sat with His disciples. (St. John vi. 3) Jesus bids us come with Him to the mountain of His holiness so that He might give us a foretaste of our heavenly future. He knows that we are in danger of spiritual languor and listlessness. He intends to provide us with that spiritual food which will give us dogged and dauntless determination to press on.…Jesus said, Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. (St. John vi. 10) St. John Chrysostom tells us:

That Jesus calls us up to rest at intervals from the tumults and confusion of common life. For solitude is good for the study of wisdom. And often doth He go up alone into a mountain, and spend the night there, and pray, to teach us that the man who will come most near to God must be free from all disturbance and must seek times and places clear of confusion. (St.J.C.: Sermon…)

 

So, we must sit down, listen, and trust. And yet in Lent, worn out as we are, we wonder, Whence shall we buy bread that [we all] may eat? (St. John vi. 5). Our minds are bent on earthly things. Jesus asks this question this morning to prove Philip, for he Himself knew what he would do. (St. John vi. 6) He intends to enlarge and deepen Philip’s faith so that he might find hope in heavenly and not earthly nourishment. Philip has seen the finger of God at work in the miracles that Jesus has performed. Will he believe that Jesus can provide food that no man can afford and that can satisfy far more than the physical hunger of a paltry five thousand? What measure of faith does Philip have? Is he a child of Hagar born after the flesh or a child of promise? (Gal. iv. 23) Philip answers as one in bondage to the elements of this world. He responds that even two-hundred penny worth is not enough for this crowd. (St. John vi. 7) Philip is thinking in earthly terms and thus calculates the monetary cost of feeding the hungry thousands. Too many people, too little money, he conjectures. Thus, Jesus intends to reveal the smallness and poverty of Philip’s faith. His faith should be in Christ’s power to fulfill all of his needs. He should have remembered that the same Jesus who made water into wine at the Wedding in Cana of Galilee would surely be able to feed the hungry multitude. His faith should have seen too that if Christ has asked whence shall we buy bread that He intended to remind Philip that God alone provides our every need and want.

Philip’s faith is small and weak because of what he does not have. Andrew’s faith is small and weak because of what they do have. There is a young lad who hath five barley loaves and two fishes, but what are they among so many? (St. John vi. 9) As Philip’s faith was overcome by too much, Andrew’s was constrained by too little. To offer so little to so many could only stand to mock and offend them, Andrew thought. Philip said we have too many to feed. Andrew said we have too little with which to feed.

True faith can often be destroyed because we conclude that we never have enough or we complain about having too little.  Jesus tells us to sit down, listen, and trust. He asks us to remember that we are going up to Jerusalem, that we are dogs eating from the crumbs that fall from His table (St. Matt. xv. 27), and that we must not only hear the Word of God but keep it. (St. Luke xi. 28)

Jesus said, “Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand.” (St. John vi. 10) The disciples obey the Master, though as yet they have nothing to set before the guests. Nature serves her Master and so affords Him and His guests a plush, green carpet of comfortable grass. And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would. (Ibid, 11) Before we make use of God’s gifts to us, we must give thanks. What He gives to us is more than sufficient to satisfy our hunger. Jesus asks us to join in His thanksgiving to the Father as we are fed on our journey up to Jerusalem. Five loaves and two fishes will feed five thousand. For us, tiny morsels and crumbs of bread along with a small sip of wine will become supernaturally potent with Christ’s loving presence. Andrew’s poverty becomes Philip’s plenty. Something small becomes something great.

The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field. (St. Matthew xiii. 31)Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. (St. Matthew xiii. 31,32) Jesus says, gather up the fragments that remain that nothing be lost. (St. John vi. 12) Faith is spread through small fragments remaining from Christ’s feast –twelve baskets full to continue to refresh twelve Apostles and the multitudes whom they will convert. Those who think that Jesus Christ comes to satisfy only earthly hunger are in bondage to the elements of this world. (Gal. iv. 3) They are the children of Hagar. They are like Christians who are worried about what might happen to their bodies while ignoring the state of their souls. Their faith rests in earthly things and does not enlarge to embrace Christ’s true desire for man. To them nothing remains of Christ’s desire to feed the faith of their souls.

But faith’s sustenance is food for men wayfaring. As St. Hilary suggests, The substance [of the five barley loaves and two fishes] progressively increases. (The Passing of the Law: St. Hilary of Poitiers) And as Archbishop Trench says, So we have here a visible symbol of that love which exhausts not itself by loving, but after all its outgoings upon others, multiplies in an ongoing multiplying which is always found in true giving…. (Par’s. p. 213) Christ’s real intention is not feeding hungry bodies. He will feed hungry bodies to be sure. But He will do more. The seed of faith and hope open to the indwelling of Christ’s all-powerful spiritual love. His love intends always to fortify and strengthen that faith that must follow Him up to Jerusalem which is above, and is free. (Gal. iv. 26)

Therefore, the Apostles gathered the fragments together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten. (St. John vi. 13) St. Augustine tells us that the fragments that remained were the parts that the people could not yet eat. (Tr. xxiv. 6) What remains over and above is the spiritual substance of a faith that is growing. Jesus says, if you follow me, you will desire to eat of these fragments that remain. In the fragments that remain are hidden gifts of mystic meaning. In the fragments are the Divine potential for those who will hunger and thirst after righteousness. (St. Matthew v. 6) Jesus always provides more and better food to those who follow Him in faith. Faith sees that the more than the multitude can eat is Spirit and is Truth. Within fragments and crumbs of earthly food, lie hidden the spiritual nourishment of God’s Grace that will be food for men wayfaring. There is more to be seen, grasped, and ingested of this Giver and His gifts, but not until the eyes of faith are opened and the believer’s heart is softened. Let us then gather up the fragments that nothing be lost. (St. John vi. 12) We will need them. Behold we go up to Jerusalem; mere earthly fare will never sustain a faith that seeks to behold and plumb the depths of that love that never stops giving…even in Death.

Amen.
©wjsmartin

 

 

Jesus Healing a Deaf-mute (1635), Bartholomeus Breenbergh (1598-1657), Public Domain, musée du Louvre

Sermon for Lent III

March 20, 2022
Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the Word of God, and keep it.
St. Luke xi.

The Revd. Fr. William Martin

It is rather reassuring to know that the cynicism that characterizes the post-modern and post-Christian world is not new. If we have been attentive this morning, we will have found no small dose of it in the Pharisees who are murmuring against Jesus. Jesus had cast a demon out of a dumb (or mute) man, and the man spake. (St. Luke xi. 14) He had no sooner done this, than they who witnessed the immediate and extraordinary transformation claimed that Jesus had cast out the devil through Beelzebub the chief of the devils. (Idem, 16) In the ancient world, men believed that when any man had a physical handicap he was demonically possessed, and so when he was cured, men concluded that a devil had been cast out. In our own age, demonic possession and demons seem to be out of favor-mostly because postmodern psychiatry that has transcended good and evil believes that truth is relative.Postmodern man believes that truth is not objective, but subjective. So, in the end, if there is no difference between right and wrong, good and evil, then there really can be no talk of God and the chief of the Devils, Lucifer.

The theory that truth is relative is the bastard child of cynicism, and cynicism is the misbegotten child of Stoicism. The Stoic believes that reality is what it is, and that man must be responsible for himself in the pursuit of the Universal Good. None of the tension, struggle, and warfare involved in the conflict of other men must interrupt the Stoic’s philosophical journey. Cynicism emerges out of it because the Cynic sees the Stoic and most other men as selfish. Thus, the Cynic remedies the error by seeking to come to be one with Nature through the self. The Cynic is intent upon a subjective possession of truth for himself. The next step into relativism is not so difficult since man seems to become the measure of all things, of what is good, when, why, and how. The Cynic takes his stand defiantly only against traditional religion and philosophy but also against the state, with its laws and customs. Truth, to a great extent, can be found only subjectively. And so long before they ever get around to meeting God in Himself, they have fashioned another god in their own image -one who might even aid and abet the willful rejection of civilization and the sacrifices it entails for any common good. I am sore displeased with the heathen that are at ease (Zech. i. 15), the Lord tells Zechariah in this morning’s Old Testament lesson. And the problem is that most people use God or gods to promote and ensure their own spiritual comfort. They justify their ways of life, think themselves good enough. They think that their faith or knowledge is good for them, and if they are confronted with the truth that their lives are just as relativistic as their neighbors, they will probably say that you are possessed by an unclean spirit. This temptation is as old as ancient Cynicism.

But we, as Christians, can choose to make one of three responses to that temptation to think that truth is relative or that we are the best judges of what is good or evil and right or wrong. Like the ancient conservative Pharisees, who are much like the Cynics, we can refuse to allow the truth to challenge our carefully formulated and jealously guarded religious prerogatives. The Pharisees think that they have God in full, and that their role is to minister the God they have to others. Thus, when they encounter Jesus, they perceive that an interloper and intruder is poaching upon their territory and supplanting their authority. They say that Jesus casts out devils through Beelzebub the chief of the devils. (St. Luke xi. 15) In other words, they are moved first through pride and arrogance of their position and station as religious leaders. Truth is relative for them, since it depends upon their philosophy. If we identify with them, we begin and end with ourselves, and thus defiantly refuse to identify with the dumb and deaf man in today’s Gospel, or with the need that we all have for the healing and transformation of our lives by God.

Second, we can identify with those for whom the miracle which Jesus performed today was not enough, and so cry out for another. And others, tempting him, sought of him a sign from heaven. (St. Luke xi. 16) With this group, we can choose to become selfishly intent upon the constant consolation that ongoing miracles bring. So, like the Cynics, we require more spectacular miracles -perhaps like those whose faith fails when the external and visible signs of religion do not perfectly meet our childish appetites. Our religion is then natural or rooted in Nature’s soothing touch upon our emotions and feelings. If spiritual life with Jesus does not always involve Transfiguration Moments, or natural and bodily catharsis, as what is always beautiful, true, and good, then we tend to lose faith, hope, and love. This posture is as selfish as the Pharisees, but here the selfishness is less a matter of power and control, and more an instance of the refusal to admit and accept that suffering and pain are part and parcel of the process of sanctification. Truth is relative to this group also, for its validity and authenticity depend upon an ongoing repetition of ongoing highs, appetitive and emotional surges of temporary happiness and thrills. Signs and wonders are demanded constantly in order to prove and authenticate God’s real presence.

         Or, third, we can become like the dumb and deaf man in today’s Gospel. Jesus clearly believes that the model for our humanity is found in this man, but only as a starting point on the road that opens to healing and salvation. Like the Syro-Phoenician woman in last week’s Gospel, the man whom Jesus heals in today’s is one who is truly in need not only of a one-off transfiguration moment of healing, but of that process of redemption that lasts as long as a lifetime. Far from thinking that truth is a personal prerogative or feeling-based, here we find a spiritual disposition of helplessness that reaches out to a healing that tries and tests all spirits and ideas that confront and challenge the human predicament.

So, with this third kind of person, we learn from Jesus that the Devil believes that truth is relative. Every kingdom divided against itself, he says, is brought to desolation. And a house divided against a house falleth. If Satan also be divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand? (St. Luke xi. 17, 18) Satan does not unite but divides a man from truth, from truth’s healing of the self, and of truth’s healing of all others. Satan has one end to divide men from God, within himself, and from others. The Devil believes that relativism is the truth. Satan loves relativism’s delusion of self-sufficiency.

Jesus has been accused of healing a man whose life is separated from the civilized world. He cannot speak, and so is prevented from being connected with any kind of order -spiritual or secular. The man cannot speak and is thus alienated from the world of language and words. The devil delights in this, and if he had healed this man, he would have brought about what he hates -he would have connected this man to a deeper form of healing and goodness through language. Jesus insists that the Devil did not heal this man, for then he would have been at odds with himself.

Jesus says this morning that if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you. (St. Luke xi. 20) True healing then comes to a man who knows and admits his own powerlessness and then opens to what alone will carry and unite him to his fellow men and God through the language of salvation. When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace: But when a stronger than he shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils. (St. Luke xi. 21, 22) Pharisees, Relativists, and Miracle-Seekers all stubbornly and dogmatically clutch on to a knowledge that they think will save them. But when some unforeseen pain of body or soul, misfortune, loss or tragedy assaults them, they fall apart and into chaos, divided, as the Devil would have it. The armour wherein they trusted- self-assured knowledge, good works, and even the miracles are taken away. Jesus suggests that this is a good thing. Perhaps the mute man is a model of our condition. Jesus desires to cast out the devils from the human soul. He allows pain and misfortune to visit a man in order that our illusions, fantasies, and lies in which we have trusted may be revealed as impotent. Our relative happiness must be deprived of all force and meaning. When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out. And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. (St. Luke xi. 24-26) Delusional despair can lead right back to the pursuit of relative and impermanent gods if we do not consider the condition of the mute man.

This morning the Word of God, Jesus Christ, puts His finger on our problem, and desires to cast away our demons. Our demons are any person, place, or thing that resists the Lord’s absolute power to heal us. They can be cast off, but they might return until one stronger than the strong man not only delivers us from them, but overcomes them with His virtue and goodness. Blessed is the womb that bare thee and the paps which thou hast sucked (St. Luke xi. 27) cries a woman who witnesses today’s miracle. Jesus responds, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it. (St. Luke xi. 28) The true miracle we must seek today is that, with St. Paul, we realize that we were sometimes darkness, but now…are light in the Lord. (Eph. V. 8) True healing comes to us from God, who begins to heal us and participate in it. Truth is not relative but Absolute. So, with the dumb mute of today’s Gospel, let us be determined to hear the Word of God and keep it because we can speak the truth that has set us free and walk as children of the light (Idem) so that all other men may realize that the Kingdom of God has come upon us. (Ibid, 20)

Amen.

©wjsmartin

 

 

 

Jesus and the Canaanite or Syrophoenician woman, Manuscript illumination, from Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 164r, Musée Condé, Château de Chantilly in Chantilly, Oise (Public Domain)

 

Sermon for Lent II

The Revd. Fr. William Martin

March 13, 2022

 

He is no unkind physician who opens the swelling, who cuts,

who cauterizes the corrupted part. He gives pain, it is true, but

he only gives pain, that he might bring the patient on to health. He

gives pain, but if he did not, he would do no good.

(St. Augustine: Sermon xxvii)

 

Last week we examined the temptations that Jesus withstood for us to draw us deeper into His love for God our Heavenly Father. And I pray that we came away with a real sense of His desire to serve God alone and to fulfill His will for us. This week we shall come to see and grasp the nature of sin and our powerlessness over it; and, because of this, I pray that we shall come to learn that all sin whether subtle or direct threatens to control us. Lastly, I pray that we shall find deliverance from sin through persistent and humble submission to the Lord’s judgment of our condition and His provision of cure. I pray also that we might be willing to submit ourselves to Jesus’ potent and stinging medicine so that we might be healed fully.

This morning, we read in the Gospel that Our Lord Jesus Christ comes to the coasts of Tyre and Sidon.(St. Matthew 15. 21) He comes to the borders of the pagan Gentile world. Jesus never went into non-Jewish territory. Rather, He visits the periphery and hopes to draw Gentiles into the land of Promise and Salvation. Jesus’ motives should fascinate us. Jesus intends that all men should be saved. He must offer salvation to God’s chosen people first. Yet, isn’t it interesting that more often than not He finds Himself drawn to the borders of heathen nations. Today, He had just finished a discourse to His own people about how sin originates in man’s heart and soul. He said, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. (St. Matthew xv. 8) What Jesus experienced from his own people was the outward shell of meticulous religious observance of the Law but hearts that were not devoted to the Spirit of the Law.

So, the Spirit draws Jesus to the borders of Canaan. He will find the need for what He brings into the world from foreigners, aliens, and outcasts. A Syro-Phoenician woman, a Greek inhabitant of Canaan will approach Jesus. From a distance, she had learned that the Jews had brought those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatics to Jesus for healing. (St. Matthew 4. 24) She had heard that Jesus’ cures were instantaneous. His cure was efficacious, and she was determined to have it also. Jesus was coming, and she wasted no time. We read that she cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. (St. Matthew 15. 22) She comes from afar not for herself but for her daughter who is further away. She bears the burden of her daughter’s illness in her heart. Her daughter’s misery is her misery. She will learn that Jesus’ misery is our misery. She cries out for His mercy, but we read that He answered her not a word. (Ibid, 23) Jesus is silent. St. John Chrysostom writes: The Word has no word; the fountain is sealed; the physician withholds His remedies. (Homily LII: Vol X, NPNF:I)

Jesus, however, will elicit more from her to teach us about true faith –the faith that storms the gates of Heaven until Jesus responds.

We learn that the Apostles cannot see what Jesus is doing. While they have been with Him for some time and have witnessed what He can do, they prefer to hoard Him selfishly, so that seeing, they see, and do not perceive. (St. Mark 4. 12) Like many Christians, they settle for the observing more of what Jesus can do than what all men need. Send her away, for she crieth after us. (St. Matthew 15, 23) The woman is ruining their spiritual friendship with Jesus. They want only to be rid of this pestiferous annoyance. Theirs is that heartless granting of a request, whereof most of us are conscious; when it is granted out of no love to the suppliant, but to leave undisturbed his selfish ease from whom at length it is exhorted. (Trench: Gospel) They are selfishly annoyed. Jesus is not. He will engage the woman, for He knows that in her heart there is a faith that persists in finding the cure that God alone can give.

Jesus is teasing the woman. His first response to the woman is I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (St. Matthew 15. 24) In St. Mark’s Gospel, He says, Let the children first be filled. (St. Mark 7. 27) In both, He means that His mission is first to the Jews because they should be the Children of Promise. Jesus, the Great Physicianbegins to open this heathen woman’s spiritual swelling. The Apostles are silent. She is neither daunted, disheartened, nor disturbed. She needs more from Jesus than the Apostles, for now. As audacious and brazen as it would have seemed to these Jews, she moves closer to Jesus. The more acute the disease, more urgent is the need for the physician’s immediate attention. Then came she and worshipped Him, saying, Lord, help me. (St. Matthew 15.25) She will insist that Jesus is her Lord and she will submit to His rule. From His heart, Jesus is already healing her. As Calvin writes, We see then that the design of Christ’s silence was not to extinguish the woman’s faith, but rather to whet her zeal and inflame her ardor. (Calvin’s Comm’s. xvii) Jesus is amazed. She is courageous, determined, and true to herself.

Jesus is first silent and then discouraging. Now, He rubs salt into her wound. Jesus says: It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. (St. Matthew 15. 26) He calls her a dog! He takes the ancient Jews’ prejudice of the Gentiles and hurls it at her. Yet, if we look more closely, Jesus is trying to tease out of this woman not only faith but humility. Is he mocking this woman or the Jews? He knows that this woman, no matter what her race or cultural origin, might actually possess a faith that will put His faithful Jewish followers to shame.
This Gentile outcast is on a journey after and for Jesus. She is going up to Jerusalem with Him in heart and mind. She needs Him completely. She hangs upon every His every word and refuses to let Him out of her grip. She will follow Him come what may. She believes Jesus is God’s own Son. She responds with, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. (St. Matthew 15. 27) She needs Jesus’ severe mercy and hard love. She may be a dog and not a lost sheep. But she knows herself to be dog who needs the Master’s attention. Jesus can become hers. I am a stray dog who, when found, will sit at my master’s feet. A dog belongs to its master. I sit at his feet but will not be cast out -under but not forsaken. I belong to thee, O Lord. So she says, Let me be a dogIf you are the master, I shall eat of the crumbs that fall from the table that you have prepared for your chosen people. The crumbs shall be more than sufficient for my daughter’s healing. As St. Augustine says, It is but a moderate and a small blessing I desire; I do not press to the table, I only seek for the crumbs. (Serm. xxvii, vol. vi. NPNF) My daughter is sick, and if I am a dog, let me at least eat the crumbs and morsels of mercy that fall from your table. I believe that ‘thou hast the words of eternal life.’ (St. John 6. 68) Lord, evermore give [me] this bread. (St. John 6. 34) 

With her words, this woman storms the gates of Heaven and conquers its Lord. Jesus says, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. (St. Matthew 15. 28) Jesus cauterizes her wound, and her faith ensures that her daughter is healed. In the end, it is her faith that secures the healing she seeks. Faith in Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God and the Power of God, is what always obtains Jesus’ healing for our sin-sick souls. This woman’s faith did not demand that Jesus come down in person to heal her daughter. This woman’s faith knew that the Word could easily retrace the distance she traveled to find her daughter. In faith, she believed that Jesus need speak the word only and [her daughter] would be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8) St. Mark writes that when the woman was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed. (St. Mark 7. 30) 

With our opening St. Augustine reminds us that [Christ] the Good Physician gives pain, it is true, but He only gives pain, that He might bring the patient on to health. He
gives pain, but if He did not, H would do no good. (Idem) So, we must be willing to endure the pain of hearing the hard truth we learn about ourselves from Jesus. He comes to diagnose our condition and provide the cure. He intends to empty us of any pride that our faith might persist in finding His loving cure. Matthew Henry warns us that there is nothing got by contradicting any word of Christ, though it bear ever so hard upon us. But this poor woman, since she cannot object against it, resolves to make the best of it. ‘Truth, Lord, yet the dogs eat of the crumbs…. (Comm. Matt. xv.) 

With the example of the Syrophoenician’s faith and humility let us confess that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. (Collect, Lent II) Let us beg deliverance from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul. (Idem) With her, let us abandon the lust of concupiscence in Gentiles who know not God. (1 Thes. i. 3) Jesus longs to find a faith that will not cease until it finds His cure. Let us all admit that we are dogs. He calls us out as dogs because God call us not to uncleanness, but unto holiness. (Idem) Jesus is always overcome by the faith of dogs who fulfilled with His crumbs can conquer demons and heal human hearts. Jesus may resist us at times, but only to tease out that faith that will have Him, and Him alone as Master.

Amen.
©wjsmartin

 

 

 

Christ Tempted by the Devil, 1818, John Ritto Penniman, Smithsonian American Art Museum

 

Lent I

March 5, 2022

 

For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; 
but was in all points tempted like as we are, yetwithout sin.
(Hebrews iv. 15)

Monsignor Ronald Knox reminds us that “the whole story of the Temptation is misconceived if we do not recognize that it was an attempt made by Satan to find out whether our Lord was the Son of God or not”. (The Epistles and Gospels, p. 89) Perhaps this is our question too. To be sure Satan tempts Jesus, but we tempt Jesus also. We want to know if He is the Son of God. We want evidence and proof that provide certain facts; we want confirmation. And today on the First Sunday of Lent we are given good evidence that He is, at least, moving towards revealing this truth to us. After all, proofs aren’t bad things; and in this case, we can thank Satan for confronting Jesus and providing Him with the opportunity to reveal to us how He overcomes temptation.

We begin with our Gospel lesson for today, remembering that we have accepted Jesus’ invitation to, “go up to Jerusalem”. Presumably, then, we are going up not merely to be recognized as devout pilgrims, but to find out for ourselves just who this Jesus of Nazareth is. We read that “Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.” (St. Matthew iv. 1,2) St. Matthew records that this happened just after Jesus was baptized by St. John Baptist in the River Jordan, “when the heavens were opened…and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: and lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”(St. Matthew iii. 16,17) 

Jesus had been doubly blessed by the Father and the Holy Ghost. He had fasted for forty days in order to prayerfully embrace this blessing. But as the Son of God made flesh, He was hungry. Jesus is famished and there is nothing in the desert but stones. So, Satan says to Him, “If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.” (St. Matthew iv. 3) Jesus knows that God sent Him not to destroy human nature but to redeem it. The temptation is fleshly and involves lust and gluttony. Jesus is the Son of God in the flesh is famished. He cannot put His earthly hunger before His spiritual mission. Monsignor Knox reminds us that “Jesus remembers Moses and flat stones in the wilderness waiting to receive the new law…for that, men’s souls are hungering”. (R. Knox: Sermon, ‘The Temptations of Christ) They reveal to man his duty to God as His Maker and Redeemer. Because the Son of Man is first the Son of God, He will “hunger and thirst for [God’s] righteousness.” (St. Matthew v. 6) The Son of God was made man so that man might become a son of God once again.  Jesus will teach, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, that….all [other]….things may be added unto you.” (St. Matthew vi. 33) Jesus remembers who He is truly and that He “has meat to eat that Satan does not know of. His meat is to do the will of Him that sent…. Him.” (St. John iv. 32,34) In a world without God, there is only food and drink, sex, and material pleasure. But Jesus knows that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” (St. Matthew iv. 4) St. Paul, in today’s Epistle, reminds us that only with “patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in watchings, and in fastings” (2 Cor. vi. 4) in the flesh, can we share in the sufferings of the Son of God for our salvation.

Jesus’ physical hunger is overcome by His spiritual longing to eat and digest the bread of God’s will. Satan will not be deterred. He will tempt Jesus with pride, envy, and wrath. Fasting in the body often brings anger in the soul. This soon brings envy of God’s pure and simple blessedness. Then comes the pride that tempts the Son of God to leave the body altogether and to fast-track salvation by proving His almighty power. “He has denied the good of the body,” Satan thinks, so let Jesus dispense with his body entirely, cleaving as he does to this ‘Word’ of God. He trusts in God, then “let Him deliver Him now, if he will have Him: for he said, I am the Son of God.” (St. Matthew xxvii. 43) “Then the devil taketh Him up into the holy city, and setteth Him on a pinnacle of the temple, And saith unto Him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou thy foot against a stone.” (St. Matthew iv. 5,6) Satan tempts Jesus to prove that He is the Son of God by calling angels to save Him from sure and certain death. Jesus has put the good of His soul over that of His body. If you cannot perform a miracle with regard to the body’s hunger, prove your unbreakable unity with God through the mind or the soul, Satan suggests. Cast yourself down; surely God will not let one perish who places the good of his soul above that of his body.” Jesus, however, knows that this is no way for the Son of God to redeem and save all men. Man’s soul is in a body. God doesn’t intend for the Son of God to save us by performing dazzling magic and miracles on Himself to provoke our faith in Him. The Son of God must save us by perfecting faith and reason. That He is the Son of God will require much more than a selfish, rash, and defiant cry to God to save Him after he has irrationally subjected Himself to danger. Jesus knows that as the Son of God He must use His soul in His body to save us selflessly and innocently.

Jesus is the Son of God by that inner determination to cleave to His Father’s will and to reveal His way. Jesus the Son of God came down from Heaven to redeem the whole of human nature. The Son of God can “feed the multitudes with a few loaves and fishes” later and will perform miracles on others soon enough. Fulton Sheen reminds us that, ” the Son of God had no need to become a Communist Commissar who provides only bread…. He says too that the Son of God would not prove Himself by avoiding His Cross by commanding faith in miraculous powers that would provoke God to contradict reason…and to exempt the Son of God from obedience to natural laws which were the laws of God.” (F. Sheen: The Life of Christ, p. 67) “Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” (St. Matthew iv. 7)

We come to the final temptation. Satan thinks that only one temptation remains. Surely if He is the Son of God as flesh, He can still be tempted by greed and sloth. Jesus has come to save all men, but He wonders if He is held captive and enslaved to His Father’s will as the Son of God? His last temptation, full of the sloth that these temptations have brought, is to covet with greed His Father’s power and to make off with it for His own selfish glory. He is tempted to think that the Son of God is no Son but His own god. “Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” (St. Matthew iv. 8,9) Satan tempts Jesus to despair of His Father’s Kingdom and to rule over His own kingdom. Perhaps His power to resist the first two temptations gives Him the freedom to embrace the third. Jesus has forsaken everything for God and His kingdom and has been rendered utterly powerless. His sense of impending weakness is weighing so heavily upon Him that He is tempted to give it all up, “to do evil that good may come of it.” (Idem, Knox, p. 65) “Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” (St. Matthew iv. 10) The Son of God is God’s only perfect Son. The Son of God is nothing if He does not come from the Father to embrace what His will requires to lead all men to His Kingdom. The Father rules the whole of creation, and He gives meaning to all creation through His Son. As the Father’s Word, the Son of God must create more than an earthly kingdom that satisfies men’s earthly happiness. “Then the devil leaveth Him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto Him.” (St. Matthew iv. 11) 
The Sons of Man are born to become Sons of God. What the Son of God reveals to us is that if we are to become Sons of God, we must go to the Cross with Jesus to die. “The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (St. Matthew xx. 28) At the end of our Gospel lesson for today, we read that, “Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.” (St. Matthew iv. 11) Luther tells us that the angels came down from Heaven to feed Him. This is the proper order and nature of God’s provision. The Son of God is hungering and thirsting for the Father’s righteousness. God the Father rules Christ’s spirit, nourishes His soul, and now cares for His body. It follows that the Son of God has come to serve and redeem us all. The Son of God will go on to win our salvation on the Cross of Calvary. There Satan will attack Him one last time.

In Lent, Jesus the Son of God calls us to His Cross. With Fulton Sheen, the Son of God says:

“All I now want of this earth is a place large enough to erect a Cross; there I shall let you unfurl me before the crossroads of your world. I shall let you nail me in the name of the cities of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, but I will rise from the dead, and you will discover that you, who seemed to conquer, have been crushed, as I march with victory on the wings of the morning.” (Idem)

Amen.
©wjsmartin

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ash Wednesday Sermon

The Revd Fr William Martin

 

Today we begin the great season of Lent. Our liturgical season goes back to the earliest days of the Christian Church when the faithful were called into memory the journey up to Jerusalem and the great events of the Passion which came to pass in the life of Jesus Christ. Lent is a journey. Lent is a time of journeying in memory with Christ, so that we may embrace more profoundly the Word of God in himself and in us. Journeying with Christ means being with him, accompanying him, and accepting his offer of nearness and friendship.

“With its duration of 40 days, Lent acquires an undoubted evocative force. It tries to recall some of the events that marked the life and history of ancient Israel, also presenting to us again its paradigmatic value. Let us think, for example, of the 40 days of the universal flood, which ended with the covenant established by God with Noah and thus with humanity, and of the 40 days of Moses’ stay on Mount Sinai, which were followed by the gift of the tablets of the Law.” (Benedict XVI, Ash Wednesday, 2006)

Our First Sunday in Lent begins with the Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness. But we shall also remember that he was led by the Spirit into this place and experience. The Holy Spirit will take us with Jesus into a place where we have no food, no water, and no shelter. There we shall be asked to face both God our Heavenly Father and Satan’s opposition to His will. There, with Jesus, we must face our temptations and ask Jesus to help us to conquer them. It will help if we keep a journal or notes. We must honestly face our temptations when they arise, jot them down, describe them, find where they come from, and give them over our spiritual poverty to the Lord for destruction. This exercise will help us to conquer the sin they all lead to with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Lent should be a time of quiet stillness in the desert. We should know that Jesus is with us and wants to help us to resist temptation and cleave to His powerful goodness.

Today we prepare to go up to Jerusalem. We pray to go up to the Jerusalem of Jesus’ Cross. In Lent, we shall follow Jesus up to the great city of the Jewish Kings to accompany Jesus into His unearned, unmerited, and wholly undeserved rejection, torture, suffering and death. We shall follow Jesus up to that experience that we, as fallen creatures, could never endure. Jesus is the Holy Child of God. Jesus is the Son of God made man. As man, He goes up to Jerusalem to do a work for us what we could never sustain. He will take on sin, death, and Satan. He will be tempted again to reject God the Father, to choose the evil over the good, and to abandon His mission and calling to win our salvation. He will be tempted at the point of extreme remove from God to say no to God and yes to Himself. On the Cross, as in the wilderness, Jesus will be with God and Satan alone. He will be attacked by all demons that threaten His relationship to God the Father. He will say no to Satan. In the nothingness of His death, He will begin to remold, refashion, and recreate the universe. In the place of his own annihilation, He will become the Creator and Redeemer God from the Tree of Calvary.

Today we rehearse the age-old custom of The Imposition of Ashes. Ashes will be imposed on our foreheads, and we shall hear the words, Remember O Man, that dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return. (Genesis iii:19). The words, taken from the First Book of Moses Genesis, remind us that our bodies were molded and fashioned from the dust of the earth. These words humble us. They remind us that are corruptible, that we all shall die and return to the earth, and that we are fallen and sinful also. But in God’s presence, we are reminded that we need another kind of death, a spiritual death, the kind of death that we must die with Jesus on His Cross of Calvary. We shall be reminded that we must die to the world, the flesh, and the devil, in and through Jesus Christ. We must go to Calvary to see the vision of a new death that becomes the seedbed of our new life.

Lent doesn’t end in death. Lent is all about a death that will lead us into new and Resurrected Life. We repent to believe. We believe to follow. We follow to die and then to rise up into new life. Lent is part and parcel of our return to God through Jesus Christ’s Cross and beyond. Lent is about becoming partakers of His all-sufficient sacrifice on Calvary’s Cross so that we might ingest and imbibe the food and drink of His Sacred Love, His Body and Blood, that give us the strength to die to sin and come alive to righteousness.

Today we pray that we shall look forward to Christ and His Cross and not back. We look forward to Lent as a time of fasting and abstinence. We look forward to Lent as a time of pilgrimage with Jesus to His Cross. We look forward to Lent as a time of journeying into our death to sin and our coming alive to righteousness. The old gods and our old sinful ways must be left behind. We must face our temptations. We must confront the stubborn and hard rocks of our old sinful selves. In the stillness, we must ask Jesus to assist us in our spiritual warfare. We must ask Jesus to enable us to sit still even in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation so that, with Him, we may embrace the power and submit to the Wisdom of our Heavenly Father.

Remember the words of T. S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday.”

“Because I do not hope to turn again…” This is how it begins. He hopes not to turn back and into a world of sin, illusions, lies, and false gods.

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

 

He then turns to Mother Church and commits his soul to her rule and governance as he begins his Lenten pilgrimage.

 

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit
of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

 

Amen.

February 21, 2007    ©wjsmartin

 

Nicolas Poussin, Healing of The Blind Man near Jericho, 1650, Musée du Louvre,

 

 

Quinquagesima Sunday

February 27, 2022

 

“Behold we go up to Jerusalem.”(Luke 18.31)

In the Gospel for today, Jesus announces his final journey to Jerusalem:

Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, He says, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished.

Today we go up. We have changed our direction. For we have just completed the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany. In those liturgical seasons, we meditate upon a certain coming down-God’s coming down in His Son, the Word’s coming down from the Father to be made flesh, Jesus’ coming down to purify and cleanse our consciences of all that is unclean, unholy, and unrighteous. But today we begin to go up, to travel up with Jesus to Jerusalem. He must go up to die and rise again. Behold, we go up to Jerusalem and we go up with Him to gaze upon and share in His suffering and His passion, to be healed and transformed by that vision of the Divine Love.  Behold we go up to Jerusalem in order to see and experience the love of God, and how the love of God while enduring all manner of malevolent rejection, will keep on loving. In faith we go up to Jerusalem, in hope we reach forward towards greater wisdom, and in love, we desire to find a passion that can be made our own –that principle of Primal Love that alone can save and that alone can heal.

But this coming down and going up seem confusing. We faithfully follow Jesus, we hope for the best, but we do not understand what it means to go up to His death. Death seems to be a kind of going down, like going down into the grave. What profit is therein my blood, when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise thee? Shall it declare thy truth? (Psalm xxx. 9) Like the Apostles who went up with Jesus to Jerusalem, we might be a bit befuddled and confused. For, the more they went up, the less they grasped how they were actually going down. Jesus said that the Son of Man…shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on: And they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again. (St. Luke xviii. 32,33) But we read that the disciples understood none of these things, and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken. (St. Luke xviii. 34)The Apostles and we do not understand this. We can’t be going upif our understanding has not emerged up out of the dark pit of ignorance.

But as they will soon learn, going up to Jerusalem with Jesus will involve illumination or enlightenment of a most unusual kind –the illumination that Jesus is God and that God is Love. The eyes of the Apostles, our eyes, will be opened; there is no doubt about it. But not before, with the blind man in this morning’s Gospel, we beg for Jesus to lift us up out our miserable condition. Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy upon me. (St. Luke xviii. 38) We cannot go up to Jerusalem with Jesus until we beg for the mercy of God in Jesus Christ to lift us up into His light. Jesus asks the blind man what he desires of him. The blind man responds, Lord, that I may receive my sight. (St. Luke xviii. 41)The blind man receives his sight, and so too can we if Jesus lifts us up to see more clearly. And immediately he received his sight, and followed him….(St. Luke xviii. 43) Vision is the door that opens the eyes of the heart to know Jesus and to go up with Him to Jerusalem.

Vision is the reward bestowed upon the man whose faith persistently seeks out the source of true healing. What we think should be the gateway to the external and visible world alone, becomes the door to a spiritual vision that goes up to the Cross of Christ’s Love. Christ says in this morning’s Gospel that his impending suffering and death will be necessary that all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished. (St. Luke xviii.31) What the blind man will see and the Apostles will go up to behold is a vision of a healing Love that is always going up and into heart of our Heavenly Father. St. Paul speaks of this Love in this morning’s Epistle. King James’ able translators penned it as Charity. 

         Charity is the Queen of the Theological virtues. It outruns faith and fulfills all hope since its nature is the love of God that knows no end. St. John tells us that, God is love; and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God in him. (1 St. John iv. 16) Love is Charity, and Charity is the everlasting expression of God’s nature. Charity is that one essential virtue that must command all others. St. Paul suggests this morning that Charity is preeminent because it alone binds God to Man and Man to God. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. (1 Cor. xiii. 1-3) Articulate speech, theological knowledge, and earthly kindness alone can never save a man, says St. Paul. They go out but don’t necessarily go up. All sorts of men can speak eloquently and inspirationally. Such virtue does not save a man. Countless others can have right belief, near-perfect knowledge of theological truth, and spiritual understanding. Such virtue does not save a man. Generous and liberal people may spend their lives feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless. Such virtue does not save a man. What they are missing is Charity. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. (1 Cor. xiii. 4-7) Charity is that constant and persistent love of God that comes down in order that we might go up with Jesus to the Cross and beyond. It sums up in one word God’s inestimable forgiveness that has come down from Heaven, was made flesh and dwelt among us, and that come down from Heaven so that we may go up and back to Heaven. It fulfills all hope that every man has for redemption. It sees in all men the possibility of salvation, though their ways be wicked, their hearts hardened, and their motives murderous. Charity comes down to conquer all vice. Why? Because God is love, and God’s love is that pure goodness that can come down into the lowest place removed from Himself. He comes down to over evil with His goodness. It is of Charity’s nature to persistently visit man with the Divine Goodness.
          Charity is the love of God that is forever alive in the heart of Jesus Christ. Jesus is both God coming down into Man and Man going up into God. In Jesus Christ, we find in one what men have tried to divide since the dawn of time. Of course, the devil will do all he can to divide these two aspects of Charity. As we go up to the Cross of Christ’s Charity, we shall see that Jesus will be tempted in His unjust suffering to think that God is no longer coming down to Him. In His innocent death, He will be tempted to go up and call forth His legions of angels to conquer His enemies. He will be tempted to feel that God’s coming down and His going up have come to a tragic end. Rather than going up and into the embrace of His heavenly Father’s Charity, He will be tempted to come down from the Cross, abandon Himself as the forgiveness of sins, and abandon the death that ensures that sin has no power over Him.

But as we go up to His Crosswe shall find that He will not come down into these temptations. He is God’s Charity made flesh for Man; He is Man’s Charity and Love for God made divine. He goes up to die for us. He will come down to rise in us. What we think of as two distinct kinds of Love will persist as one in the heart of Jesus. Sin divides; Love unites. The God-Man’s going up and coming down are but one expression of dying to sin and rising to righteousness.

This morning a blind man became conscious that Jesus Christ was passing by. His cry goes up and Jesus comes down.Cyril of Alexandria reminds us that the blind man had faith in the love of God that he found in the heart of Jesus.

Let [us] admire…the steadfastness with which the blind man proclaimed his belief,

for there were some who, while he confessed his faith, cried out for him to be silent.

But he did not cease, nor lessen the confidence of his prayer…

For faith knows how to combat all things and overcome all. (On the Gospel: St. Cyril of Alexandria)

Christ is God’s Charity that has come down from Heaven so that we might go up. True Charity comes down in order that through Him we all may go up with Jesus to God. The vision of Charity in the flesh will come down to us this Lent so that we may go up to the Cross to die. Let us pray that this coming Lent we shall play the man and see, with the blind man, the Charity that Christ is, cherishing and treasuring not only the vision but enduring His incessant love, as old loves fade and come down into death and true Loveis stirred to go up into New Life. Our hearts will be broken if we go up to gaze upon this Charity; but in their breaking comes an opening, into which the love of God in Christ will flow, grow, expand and triumph. Christ is always coming down. Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, to die, to rise, and then to see His love that we must share with others as we come down to touch the hearts of others.

Amen.

©wjsmartin

 

Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard by Patrick Paearz de Wet, mid-17th century

 

A Sermon for Septuagesima Sunday

February 20, 2022

by the Revd. Fr. William Martin

 

 

And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?
(St. Luke viii. 9)

We said last week that the Gesima Season is all about discovering the self-discipline that will help us to keep a more holy Lent. Part of that discovery involves a real effort at persevering in our pursuit of understanding what Jesus Christ teaches us. Last week we began our pursuit with Jesus’ Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. A parable presents us with a surface illustration or story that begs us to delve deeper into a spiritual and heavenly meaning. Archbishop Trench tells us that a parable always depicts a human habit, experience, or labor with which most men can identify. It is different from a fable in that it does not involves talkative donkeys or philosophical cats who aim to teach us some moral lesson about earthly life. It is unlike a mythsince myth never ends up disentangling truth from the story. The myth is believed more as a sign of the union of the supernatural and natural rather than as the way from the one to the other. A parable, then, takes man seriously in his spiritual pursuit from nature to the divine. It considers the spiritual purpose that lies hidden in earthly intentions and ends. In the case of the parables told by Jesus, He never uses illustrations that contradict the natural and human orders but offers them as earthly depictions of spiritual aspirations and ends. (Summarized from Notes on the Parables. R.C.Trench)

But notice something else. The parables of the New Testament are always about earthly cares and considerations that are always capable of being perfected spiritually. Jesus uses parables not only because He wants to make men think and know but because He wants them to choose and decide for the sake of His Kingdom. Pope Benedict XVI says that Jesus can speak openly about the Kingdom of God to others or all sorts of people. But to those who will follow Him and become His disciples, He speaks in parables, precisely to encourage their decision, their conversion of the heart…. St John Chrysostom says that ‘Jesus uses parables to draw men unto him, and to provoke them and to signify that if they would covert, he would heal them” (Idem, cf. Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 45, 1-2). Parables are used by Jesus to convert men’s hearts, to encourage them to become His disciples, and to give them a picture of what the process of spiritual transformation is all about. Parables stir wonder, questing, seeking, and knocking. The man who seeks out their meaning is the one who desires to know and find happiness in the discovery of a truth that, at first, remains hidden to him. In the parables, each of us is given the opportunity to follow Jesus and to discover God’s Hidden Meaning…which most men couldn’t be bothered about.

Think about how so very hard this is –I mean to decide to follow Jesus and to discover the meaning of His Parables! Last week we prayed for the temperance and perseverance that runs after God’s justice. This week, we are reminded that this self-discipline is no easy business. St. Paul, this morning, takes up the point as he addresses a community of new Christians in Corinth who are being swayed by false prophets to believe that no moral effort or self-discipline is needed at all. They were telling the Corinthians that this Paul was blowing the process of conversion all out of proportion. True Christianity, they insisted, involves really nothing more than a kind of new-age mysticism that promises an otherwise painless existence. True Christianity, they said, shouldn’t involve anything like what St. Paul was teaching but should be an easier, softer, and gentler endeavor that shouldn’t command any moral effort or suffering at all.

But St. Paul was incensed. St. Paul had digested the Parables of Jesus. For Paul, the life of Jesus Christ was a Parable intended to lead men to the long and hard study that should trigger imitation! Far from wishing to justify himself, St. Paul even desired to use his life as a kind of parable that might lead other men onto the road of conversion and redemption. Remember, the parable uses real human experience to carry the seeker’s mind into spiritual wisdom. St. Paul uses his own life as a parable to teach his flock what Christian conversion entails. He shows us that true discipleship requires the same effort that goes into understanding any good parable. He asks, Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck…in perils of robbers, in perils of waters, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen…in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness…(2 Cor. 23-27) He tells them that conversion and discipleship involve running the race with temperance in all things to obtain an incorruptible crown. In other words, true conversion and discipleship will involve the training and discipline for running a spiritual race. This will demand suffering and toil. He tells them that this suffering might demand not only rejection from the outside world and its pleasures but even spiritual warfare and torture that threaten the presence of Christ within. Who is weak, and I am not weak (Cor. xi. 29), he asks? This business of becoming a Christian and staying the course are as real as the parable that his own life reveals. In other words, it hurts. Yet, he concludes, that the end justifies the means. If I must needs glory, I will glory in the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) The parable of Paul’s experience teaches us that in humility, in weakness and suffering, Christ comes to the soul and reveals God’s hidden Word.

St. Paul’s life and witness comprise a parable for us all. But what had happened to his Corinthian converts so that they were so easily swayed by their new teachers and prophets? I think that we can find all or part of the answer in this morning’s Gospel Parable of the Sower. Jesus tells us that A sower went out to sow his seed. At first, some fell by the wayside; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. (St. Luke viii. 5) Perhaps some of the Corinthians had heard God’s Word superficially; the soil of their souls was like the wayside, trodden down by the ongoing traffic and business of this world, and so they could not hear the Word. They might have been in this state because they have exposed their hearts as a common road to every evil influence of the world, till they have become hard as the pavement, till they have laid waste the very soil in which the Word of God should have taken root…(Parables, Trench, p.60) Such men are always prey to the Devil and his friends since they live in a world full of so many words that they cannot distinguish God’s Word from all others.

Next, …some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. (Ibid, 6) Perhaps some of the Corinthians had hearts like gravely rock. For such people, the heard-Word of God with excitement and joy for a short time; it sounds so promising. They prematurely anticipate its benefits without counting the cost of growing it in the soul. They fall away because they cannot work out [their] salvation….with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) Salvation, they discover, is a parable of real life, full of pain and suffering, doubt and confusion, hard labor and effort. Like the sun scorching the blade that has no depth in the earth, these men’s hearts [are] failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth….(St. Luke xxi. 26) 

Next, And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. (Ibid, 7) Perhaps some of the Corinthians honestly received God’s Word but choke and kill it with cares and concerns of this life that end up being more important to them. Here the heard-Word is growing for a season but only alongside inner anxiety and fear that kill the growth of the Word within. They are crushed, as the Gospel says, by the cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life. (St. Luke viii. 14) As Archbishop Trench remarks, the old man is not dead in them; it may seem dead for a while…but unless mortified in earnest, will presently revive in all its strength anew. (Ibid, p. 65) These thorns and briars may take the form of earthly happiness found or lost. In either case, they have neither been killed nor banished from the soil of the soul, and so the Word cannot grow. One or all of these kinds of hearing might explain what happened to St. Paul’s young flock and what can happen to us.

Finally, today’s Parable concludes with, And other [seed] fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. (Ibid, 8) The Parables are always about real life. In real life, seed can grow up effectually only in deep, dark soil that has been weeded and fertilized. So, in the soul, the seed of God’s Word can grow in our hearts only with much care, cultivation, and determined effort. Like Paul, we must expect both punishment from without and suffering from within if the heard-Word is to grow in our souls. Each and every one of us is subject to the temptations that threaten the hearing and growth of God’s Word in this morning’s Parable. With St. Paul we must proclaim, If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) 

It is precisely in the admission that we are weak that Christ responds to us with the love that alone can grow His Word. God has made the soul; God speaks His Word into it to save us. If we begin to hear God’s Word, to clear and cultivate the soil of our souls with sorrow and repentance, to tend the seed with carefulness and devotion, and not superficially and carelessly, by God’s grace we shall bring forth fruit with patience. (St. Luke viii. 15) Then you and I shall become a parable, where we, who hold the Word in earthen vessels can reveal His will and way to the world. And we can ask with Milton:

…What if earth
Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein
Each to other like, more than on earth is thought? 
(Paradise Lost: v, 574-576) 

Amen. 
©wjsmartin

 

 

 

______________________________

 

 

A Sermon for Septuagesima Sunday

February 13, 2022

by the Revd. Fr. William Martin

 

 

 

From The Seven Virtues by Francesco Pesellino and Workshop, Italy, Florence c. 1422 – 1457

Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama

 

Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.

We have just completed our journey from Advent through to Epiphany-tide. As Canon Crouse reminds us, the season we have observed has been a time of expectation, coming, and manifestation. In it, we saw that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we observed the Only Begotten of the Father full of grace and truth. Now we turn to the period spanning between Septuagesima Sunday and Ascension Day. Septuagesima Sunday is the beginning of our short Gesima season; Gesima means days. Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima refer to 70, 60, and 50 days before Easter. On these three Sundays, we prepare for Lent. Our seasons and the appointed readings come to us from patterns established in the Ancient Church. So, with the men of old in the ancient Western Latin Church, we must use our season for self-discipline. Again, with Father Crouse, today’s lesson in self-discipline will include the virtues of temperance, justice, and hope.

The first two virtues that we study today are of the Four Cardinal Virtues. The Cardinal Virtues come to us from the Latin word cardo, which means hinge. These then are the hinge virtues without which we cannot hope to obtain any kind of goodness. Goodness here is that holiness and righteousness which we can find using our reason and free will. The Cardinal Virtues were first formulated by the great Greek philosopher Plato in his Dialogues, were later refined by Aristotle, and were then part and parcel of the Graeco-Roman world’s pursuit of goodness and virtue. The early Church Fathers designated them as Cardinal Virtues and acknowledged with their pagan predecessors that through reason’s study of the universe, human nature could come to know and then will a limited form of God’s goodness. The Fathers taught that they were not especially dependent upon Revelation or Scripture. Instead, they formed a kind of goodness that man can find prior to his need for the Divine Grace and Intervention that lead to salvation. So, you can imagine the Cardinal Virtues are laying a kind of groundwork for the acquisition of goodness in this world. The goodness that they establish conditions the body and soul for an understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of human nature. The Cardinal Virtues, in a Christian context, provide us with a character of soul and body that will better situate us to pursue the Theological Virtues of faith, hope, and charity in the Holy Season of Lent.

Our first virtue is discussed today by St. Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter IX. In it, he likens our pursuit of Heaven to the spiritual and bodily preparation made by ancient Greek runners who competed in the Isthmian Games. Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? (1 Cor. 9. 24) Using an earthly paradigm illustrated by comparison to what the Cardinal Virtues can achieve, St. Paul inspires us to run so that we might win a prize. Of course, his illustration relates to a competition where only one man can win and receive the laurel wreath, the crown of triumph and victory in pagan life. St. Paul wants to assure us that as Christians we all can run to obtain the prize. In fact, we cannot receive it unless we run. And we cannot run without hope. So, with hope we must run to reach the finish line of salvation! So run, that ye may obtain (Ibid, 25), St. Paul insists. Yet, our running must be conditioned. …Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things: now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible. (Ibid, 26) As it turns out, our running in hope must be tempered and moderated towards our end. Our end is not the corruptible crown of the laurel wreath that commands the admiration, wonder, praise, and veneration of earthly athletic enthusiasts. That end is corruptible and passing. Our end is incorruptible and lasting. And if this is the case, then our moderation and temperance must be of such a sort that best conditions our hearts and souls for the eternal prize of Heaven’s gift in the offer of salvation. The Apostle wants us to remember that we are aiming for a prize of inestimable worth and value. The temperance and moderation that we embrace must be applied to our souls as well as our bodies. The runners at the Isthmian Games kept to a strict diet and discipline. Also, they refrained from any activity that would corrupt the body and disrupt their focus. How much more then should Christians keep to a strict diet and discipline as they condition their bodies to serve their souls to hope for the prize of God’s Kingdom? The Greek runners were fighting for an earthly prize but Christians for an eternal reward. Thus, the Apostle warns us against that incautious and immoderate indulgence of the world that is always at enmity with God and more likely than not to distract us from running the race.

I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast-away. (Ibid, 26, 27) 

Runners’ arms beat the air as they push their legs onward to an uncertain victory where one wins and the others lose. Christians, with certainty through hoperun all together, tempering their bodies through self-discipline, hoping to gain one reward. Paul calls us to imitate his example as we run with him.

Moderation and temperance condition our body to serve our soul’s end. For Christians, the end is one reward for all. We are invited into a common labor. The ancient pagans were in combat with one another. We cannot afford such a luxury. We must run altogether. But their virtues can be used in the service of our Gospel prize. By helping one another to moderate and temper our earthly passions and appetites, we can all appreciate more fully the crown that awaits us. Our crown is the reward or gift of God the Giver. We do not deserve, earn, or merit it. We have been invited to run or to labour in the Vineyard of the Lord, as today’s Gospel would have it. For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.(St. Matthew xx. 1) The offer to work in the Vineyard of the Lord is God’s gift. The work is offered at different times of the day or different times of life to men who will come in the morning, noontide, or evening of their lives. Those who come first to work are promised a penny. They have been awakened by the Lord in the morning of their lives and so come early to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. Others are roused or stirred later in the day of their lives. They have been idle, negligent, slothful, careless, or ignorant. Nevertheless, they are given a chance to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. They are told that they will receive what is right in payment for their labour. Others are found at the sixth and ninth hours of their lives. Some are even found in the twilight of their lives, at the eleventh hour or the end of the day. They too are welcomed to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. They too will receive what is right as a reward. These men are even rebuked for their sloth. Why stand ye here all the day idle? (Ibid, 6) Yet, the householder’s desire for their service is greater than his bewilderment at their delay in accepting the offer to run to the work that leads to an incorruptible crown. 

In today’s Gospel Parable, at the end of the day, all are paid. The last to come are paid first and the first to come are paid last. The moderation and temperance that have conditioned the running and working of the Johnny-come-lately men are of equal value and worth to the first in the heart of the householder. Every man receives a penny. Every man receives the same reward. All run. Some come early and some come late. All are called to work for one end. 

But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. (Ibid, 10-12)
Christians are called to run and work not that one may receive the prize but that all may run together to receive the gift of one and the same prize, an incorruptible crown. The householder responds:

Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?  So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. (Ibid, 13-16)

Moderation and temperance prepare us for the virtue of justice. Strictly speaking, as fallen and sinful men, we deserve nothing but just punishment for our sins. That is earthly justice. God’s justice, however, is always tempered by His mercy. He takes our Cardinal Virtues and rewards them with the hope of what we never could have imagined. He offers us an incorruptible crown as the reward of being invited into the hope of running and a work that leads back to Himself. God tells us that if we accept His invitation to run and to work, we shall be rewarded with a crown whose worth and value far exceed anything that is right or just for men. And, as John Henry Newman says:

We cannot be wrong here. Whatever is right, whatever is wrong, in this perplexing world,                                                                                         we must be right in doing justly, in loving mercy, in walking humbly with our God; in denying 
our wills, in ruling our tongues, in softening and sweetening our tempers, in mortifying our
lusts, in learning patience, meekness, purity, forgiveness of injuries, and continuance in well doing. 

Amen.

©wjsmartin

Sermon for Epiphany V

February 6, 2022

                       The parable of the wheat and the tares, painted in the 17th C.  by an unknown Cuzco artist.

(Patrimonio Artístico de la Iglesia Católica del Perú)

 

Nay lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.

(St. Mattew xiii. 29)

 

We have said that our Epiphany-tide is a Season of Light. And the Light that we have been trying to follow in faith, see and understand, embrace and cherish, is Christ’s Light. And so we have been learning that this Light comes to us to make new life and love in our hearts and souls. But there is a danger associated with this Light. We must remember that there is a difference between flashing, blazing, or sparkling light on the one hand, and enduring, persevering, and growing Light on the other. The first light is experienced as fleeting, occasional, and at best temporary. It is found, generally, with the kind of person whose spiritual life is characterized by part-time highs, cheap thrills, and instant gratification. The second Light, being Christ’s Light, is far more demanding, since it desires and longs to overcome, overtake, rule, and guide the whole of a man’s life. It is found in the kind of person, who intends that his conversion should be the first moment on a long journey into healing and transformation, redemption and sanctification, with the reward of salvation.

Now the problem for most of us is that we are always wanting Christ the Light to manifest and reveal Himself to us in the manner of the first light. We want signs and wonders, we want glamour and glitz, we want our walk of faith to be full of transfiguration moments. We expect that because we are faithful church-going Christians, our journey should not be marked by struggles, difficulties, temptations, and distractions. We expect that our common life together in the church should be perfect and that our soul’s journey into God should be the same.

But our Lord knows otherwise and never intends that we should be mistaken about the nature and character of our journey into His Light. This is the reason for the parable which he offers for our meditation this morning. Let us listen to what He says. The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field…(St. Matthew xiii. 24) In this parable we are told that the kingdom of heaven is identified with a man, whom we should recognize as Christ the Son of Man, the Life and Light of God the Father, whose kingdom is about hard work and business. And yet no sooner has He been laboring than we read that while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way – which we ought to see as provocations and temptations. But when the blade [of wheat] was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. (Ibid, 25, 26) What is interesting is that God, through His Son, works hard and sows only good seed, but that a devious and mischievous enemy, the Devil, comes in the night – while men sleep, and attacks the planting with blight and parasites. St. John Chrysostom tells us that the Devil did not sow before this, because he had nothing to destroy, but when all had been fulfilled that he might defeat the diligence of the Husbandman [the Son of Man]. (Catena Aurea) God’s creation begins as a good work. He gives His Grace to sustain His people the Jews in hope and then sends His Son to perfect the work. But the devil has always tried to corrupt God’s human creation and with renewed vigour he attacks Christians. The enemy intends to quash all conscientious and earnest men who intend to journey into Christ the Light. The devil’s ways are so devious that until the Christian begins to spring up as a blade of righteousness, it takes time for the Christian to recognize that the garden he is cultivating is full of tares. Prior to his growth into holiness, through Christ the Light, the Christian sees only other men who look very much like himself. The tares are men who have surrendered to the devious corruption of the Devil. For, as Christ says in another place, ye shall know them by their fruits. (St. Matthew vii. 16)

         So we read in the parable that the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? From whence then hath it tares?  He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. (Idem, 27, 28) What the Christian realizes, as Calvin remarks, is that wicked men are not created by the devil, but, having been created by God, are corrupted by the devil and thrown into the Lord’s field, in order to corrupt the pure seed. (CC: volume xvii) The Devil desires to prevent Christ the Light from growing the good seed, and so he plants tares in the Lord’s field or the church. And the Christian’s response to this malicious attack seems logical enough; he wants to pull up the tares and burn them so that his spiritual experience is free of temptation, struggle, and distraction. Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up (Ibid, 28), the servants ask?

But the Lord’s answer is direct and deliberate: Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn. (Ibid, 29, 30) Here we find a rebuke of that Christian zeal and passion to root out all evil with force and suppression. Before God’s judgment day, it is always wrong for Christians to use violent means for the suppression of error (R.C.T. Notes on the Parables), as Archbishop Trench remarks. The Lord means to warn Christians against forced conversion of the evil to the good. For one thing, we do not know who are the wheat and who are the tares. Again, the wheat and tares look very much the same before each grows up and bears fruit. God [alone] knows the secrets of the heart. (Ps. xliv. 21) Christians must not uproot the tares before the time of harvest since the tares will be burnt and the wheat will be saved. A man who is a tare today might become wheat or fruitful seed tomorrow.
Come to think of it, contrariwise, shouldn’t we all beware of the danger of becoming tares ourselves? Isn’t the real point of the parable that we all are liable and susceptible to the temptations and enticements of the Devil? To be sure there are men who become tares rather easily and quickly since they have never experienced the true nature of Christ the Light. But if the tares bother or distract us, so that we judge and condemn them, hasn’t the Devil made us into tares and not wheat? This happens when we don’t heed St. Paul’s advice this morning to put on, as the elect of God…bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering, forbearing one another and forgiving one another….(Col. iii. 12) Haven’t the tares become false gods to us because we are so obsessed with other people’s sins that we have forgotten the need to confess our own in the Light of Christ’s forgiveness? Then the Devil shall have so corrupted us that we truly become tares ourselves.

         This is where I think the parable reveals its true force in our lives. The Lord allows the Devil to tempt and distract us. The point is that we must not be overwhelmed by the temptations of sin whether they confront us in other men’s lives or in our own. To be sure, we are called to resist the continual presence of temptations, their determination to sever and break our complete reliance and dependence upon God. But this is just where they can be turned round for our good, and we can beat the Devil at his own game. Far from being the occasion of our unfaithfulness to God, they can yield in us a more vigilant determination to please God in all our lives. Temptations are not sins, and they need not make us into tares. In a positive way, they can reveal and disclose to us, through Christ the Light, our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. We even learn that the tares, while attractive and alluring, are false gods that can become the wheat of God or the good seed only through his power and constant care. To be made good, we must depend all the more upon Christ the Light to grow us up and into the fruit that he intends us to become. And more than this, but just as important and instrumental to our becoming that fruit is the need to pray for the conversion of all tares into the good seed or faithful sons and daughters of God. If the tares have helped us to become good seed, why shouldn’t we help them into the same state?

Today, my friends, let us be determined to become the good seed sown by the Son of man. To do so, let us thank God for the temptations, struggles, and difficulties that the tares of this world bring to us. When we become aware of tares, let us look within our own souls and see if we don’t often indulge the same sin or follow the same temptation. Let us thank God for the temptations of the tares, which in their own way, remind and recall us to our deeper dependence upon Christ the Light. Rather than their being flashing, blazing, or sparkling lights that lead us into superficial spirituality, and thus sin and sorrow, let them generate in us that deeper need for the Light of Christ that alone grows us as good seed into perfection. And, let us never be content that those tares should remain tares. And again, with the Apostle, Above all, let us put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness (Col. iii. 14) as we more earnestly pray that the tares become wheat because Christ the Light desires that all men should become His good seed. If our relation to the tares is one of longsuffering intercessory prayer that they be turned from the Devil, the Light of Christ shall shine forth out of us and into the lives of the tares, whose conversion is no less intended by God. For, Christ the Light longs to shine into all men’s lives, drawing us and them closer and closer to the day, as Archbishop Trench remarks [when] the dark hindering element [of the tares will be] removed [from the lives of the faithful]…[and] the element of Light, which was before struggling with and obstructed by it, shall come forth in its full brightness. That shall be the day ‘of the manifestation of the sons of God’; they ‘shall shine forth as the sun’, when the clouds are rolled away, they shall evidently appear, and be acknowledged by all, as ‘the children of Light’….

Amen.

©wjsmartin

Sermon for Epiphany III

January 22, 2022

Fr. William Martin

 

 

 

Jesus healing the servant of the Centurion, Paulo Veronese, c. 1585

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

 

 

 

 

Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate.

Be not wise in your own conceits. (Romans xii. 16)

 

Thus far in the season of Epiphany, we have been invited to see and perceive the manifestation and revelation of Divine wisdom, love, and power in the life of Jesus Christ. We have followed the Star that realigns and adjusts human vision to the origin of all truth and meaning in human life. We have seen His star in the east, and art come to worship Him…(St. Matthew ii. 2) We have learned that out of the centrifugal point of eternity’s re-appropriation of time in the life of the young Jesus, Divine Wisdom informs and arrests the attention of the One who will save all men. Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business…(St. Luke ii. 49) We have gleaned also that this life is the redemption that makes new and potent spiritual wine that longs to be poured into the hearts and souls of them that seek God. But thou hast kept the best wine until now. (St. John ii. 10) Love, wisdom, and power reveal themselves to us in Epiphany as marks of the Saviour’s intention to do even greater things than these. (St. John xiv. 12) And the greater things than these will involve not only what God does in Jesus Christ then and there, but what Jesus will do in us here and now. Epiphany’s patterns extend into the present to ensure our pilgrimage to the Kingdom of God.

The image of the transformation that Epiphany brings to us is pictured this morning in Jesus’ encounter with a Roman Centurion. A centurion was a professional officer in the Roman Legion who commanded roughly one hundred men. He, like the soldiers under his rule, would have been a celibate –Roman soldiers were not permitted to marry until active duty was completed. So, perhaps for the Roman Centurion in this morning’s Gospel, his military battalion was his family for a season, comprised of soldiers who were the subjects of his constant care. And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto Him a centurion, beseeching Him, And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. (St. Matthew viii. 5) Capernaum is the home of Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew the tax collector. In addition, it was the home of a Roman garrison, and thus of our Centurion. Oddly enough the pagan Centurion supplicates Jesus and addresses Him as Lord. Jesus responds and says, I will come and heal him. (St. Matthew viii. 7) But the Centurion protests, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8) No doubt, he had heard of Jesus’ power from others, has witnessed His miracles, and is taking his proper position under a commander of another kind.

In any case, the presence of Divine wisdom, love, and power in Jesus Christ had arrested the Centurion. He sensed that he was in the presence of a holy being. So holy was this being that the Centurion thought himself unworthy to merit Jesus’ visitation to his earthly abode. So holy was this being that the Centurion felt that Christ might be soiled and sullied through contact with him or his family. Yet in his confession, through the keen perception of his own nature in the presence of the all-holy, the Centurion’s humility is what proves to be instrumental in the healing of his servant and himself. Only a humility, like that found in the Centurion, can elicit from Christ the transformation of God’s Grace. Conscious of his own moral and spiritual corruption, disabused of his own self-importance, conscious of the faulty towers made by men, the Centurion’s soul becomes the space that lives on faith, anticipates with hope, and rests in the love that he does not yet possess. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. (St. Matthew viii. 9) This man has experience with authority and obedience. In the earthly domain of Caesar, he has the power to command and exact obedience. He speaks the word and it is done. Notice, also, tht he says, I am a man under authority. I too must obey, I too must enact the wishes of my superiors, and I too must follow. I am subject and accountable to one much greater than myself, and yet this ruler of mine is nothing in comparison with thee, O Lord! Thus, he knows that he must secure help from one far greater than any earthly ruler. His perception of the all-holiness emanating and manifesting itself from the being of Jesus commands him to seek out and follow Him in faith and hope. He knows that the power of God in Jesus is alone sufficient to heal his servant. With his own feeble desire, he reaches out to secure the merciful power of Christ. With a sincere and simple longing for the healing of his servant, he seeks out Jesus. He seeks out Jesus in faith. He is moved by what he longs to secure on behalf of his servant whom he loves as neighbor to himself.

The faith that Jesus finds in this Centurion’s soul is what He came down from heaven to redeem and perfect. St. Augustine reminds us, this faith is of such a nature that it says, if then I a man under authority have the power of commanding, what power must Thou have, whom all powers serve? The Centurion knows all about earthly power. He knows that it is limited, fickle, unreliable, and usually self-serving. The power he perceives in Jesus seems naturally inclined to spread healing, goodness, and truth. It seems also to come from a source that is impeded by no boundaries and knows no bounds. The Centurion surmises too that it must come from God since it acts in a way that is free of all prejudice and seeks not His own. Speak (or send) the Word only, and my servant shall be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8) The Centurion believes that the Word of God in Jesus is capable of remaining in place and yet travelling great distances to heal all manner of sicknesses. God spake the word and they were made; he commanded, and it stood fast. (Psalm xxxiii. 9) The Centurion Roman believes that the redeeming Word of God in Jesus is the Power that made the world.

When Jesus heard this Centurion’s confession of faith, He marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. (St. Matthew viii. 10, 11) What He finds is a faith that does not need for Jesus to be present physically to heal his servant. The Centurion earnestly seeks out only the assurance that Jesus will send God’s healing Word. What Jesus finds is the prayer that every man must make if he believes truly that Christ will bear our sorrows and our cares and supply all our manifold needs and help us to put our whole trust and confidence in Him. (Prayer for Sick: BCP Canada 1962)

This is the message of our Epiphany-tide. But it comes also with a real warning. Jesus says that the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (St. Matthew viii. 12) What He means is that Christians -like the religious Jews whom Jesus rebukes, who think that tradition and ritual alone will save them are mistaken. Many religious people think that mere church attendance and ritual observance will carry them to God’s Kingdom. Other religious people think being Anglican or being a member of some other denomination will save them. Jesus says, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. (St. Matthew vii. 7) Salvation is not awarded to those who show up and go through the motions. Nor is salvation just for other people. Salvation comes to those who believe truly that they are in dire need of God’s power and cure. Jesus Christ does not wish to be adored as a concept, idea, or notion. Jesus Christ does not come only to remembered later as one of the world’s great, dead heroes. Jesus Christ intends to be embraced and held in the human heart, in which He can work all manner of healing and salvation.

Our Centurion had a vision of God in Jesus, and with humility, he longed for Christ’s love to heal his servant. From the ground of his own humble self-emptying, he reached out with every fiber of his being to procure the healing power of God in Jesus Christ. We must ask ourselves: Do we need this healing power in our lives? Are we sinners in need of salvation? We hear so much sighing, moaning, and groaning in our world. What, exactly, is the problem? We fear earthly illness? What about our souls? How are they? Sick, by all accounts. Our souls should be aching because of the sin needs to be worked out so that the righteous healing power of Jesus Christ can be worked in. This is what the vision of God’s shining forth, his showing forth, is meant to accomplish in Epiphany-tide.  Be not wise in your own conceits, but… condescend to men of low estate. (Romans xii. 16) St. Paul means that we should, with the Centurion, bow down, realistically acknowledge our lowliness, and identify with the mean condition of our fallen humanity. He means that, with the Centurion, we should seek out the benefits of Christ’s healing not only for ourselves but for others also.

Today we must ask ourselves, Do we see ourselves truly in the Epiphany illumination that reveals our own deepest need for Christ the Light? Are we pouring out our complaint to Christ? The prayer of faith is the prevailing supplication that must consume our lives. Speak and send thy Word and my servant shall be healed. Speak and send thy Word and I shall be healed. If we are true Christians, we must pray for ongoing healing. The good prayer that we make for others will heal them in God’s time. The good prayer will heal us too because our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus and His righteousness. Then with the Centurion, we shall feel the operative energy of our loving Saviour, who says, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant, [and his own soul], were healed in the selfsame hour. (St. Matthew viii. 13)

Amen.

 

 

Epiphany II

January 16, 2022

Fr. William Martin

(The Sermon for Epiphany Sunday follows below after this one)

The Wedding at Cana, Veronese, c. 1563

 

They have no wine…(St. John ii. 3)

Epiphany means manifestation or shining forth. And the Epiphany season has been set apart in the Church as a time for Christians to consider the meaning and will of God the Father as revealed in the human life of Jesus Christ His only-begotten Son. In this season we contemplate the Divinity of Christ ministering to us through His humanity as we encounter it on the pages of Holy Scripture. On this Second Sunday in Epiphany, in particular, we find God’s power over nature revealed through Jesus. But we find this power only after He has revealed to us the priority of Divine Wisdom in the face of the limitations of human reason. For while God comes into the world to save us, He also takes our nature upon Him so that He can realign our hearts with His rule and governance in human life. Jesus will teach us that the same God whose Wisdom rules and governs all of creation, desires to claim our allegiance also. He will begin to reveal this truth to us through the exchange He has with His Mother in today’s Gospel.

When we think of wisdom, we think of human wisdom or what used to be called prudence. In the Gospels, no better example of that prudence exists than in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Blessed Virgin was, you will remember, astounded, and perhaps even alarmed when the Angel Gabriel visited her prior to the conception of God’s Son in her womb. How can this be, she wondered prudently? Simeon told Mary that a sword would pierce through her own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts might be revealed. (St. Luke ii. 35) The Blessed Virgin pondered these things in her heart because she was often confused and flummoxed. Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing, (St. Luke ii. 48) she exclaims this morning. Through prudence she struggled to understand her son. Wist ye not, He responded, that I must be about my Father’s business? (St. Luke ii. 49) And they understood not the saying which He spake unto them. (Ibid, 50) Humility and prudence urged her to silence. But, again,Mary kept all of these things and pondered them in her heart. (Ibid, 51)

To be fair to the Blessed Virgin, human wisdom or prudence is essential to acting with virtue. It is the perfected ability to make the right decisions. (The Four Cardinal Virtues: Pieper, p. 6) Yet human wisdom can also be elevated onto a higher plane when God opens the human mind to a heavenly end. We find this in this morning’s Gospel, where we read that on the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there with both Jesus and His disciples. (St. John ii, 1) At the outset, we should rejoice to learn that Jesus blesses the institution of Holy Matrimony. The Holy Union of male and female is Divinely ordained, and Christ will reveal how the wisdom in it points to a heavenly end.

Cana means zeal, and Galilee means passage. On this third day, then, Jesus will embrace Holy Matrimony with zeal and transform it as a rite of passage to the Father’s Kingdom. Thomas Aquinas tells us that, this marriage was celebrated in the zeal of a passage, to suggest that those persons are most worthy of union with Christ who, burning with the zeal of a conscientious devotion, pass over from the state of guilt to the grace of the Church. (STA, Comm. on St. John) The married couple is celebrating that zeal of passage, devoting themselves the one to the other so that the two shall be one flesh. (Gen. ii. 24) Marriage reveals a conscientious devotion that purifies affection and orders human love. And Jesus Christ, God’s Word, Wisdom, and Plan made flesh rejoices to bless and perfect the devotion of those who will follow Him conscientiously to God’s Kingdom.

But being the good Jewish mother that she is, the Blessed Virgin becomes consumed with the earthly elements that should contribute to the perfection of the marriage celebration. So, she tugs at Jesus’ tunic and exclaims, they have no wine. (St. John ii. 3) Jesus seems irritated. O, woman what is that to me and thee? (St. John ii, 4) A better translation would be: Woman what does your concern have to do with me? (Orthodox Study Bible transl.) Or what do you expect me to do about it? For, He adds, mine hour is not yet come. (Ibid, 4) Jesus, as last week’s Gospel reminded us, must be about [His] Father’s business. (St. Luke ii, 49). He means no disrespect to His earthly mother, but she does not grasp the true meaning of His Heavenly mission. Her motherly prudence and concern arise from a fear that the perfect wedding is about to come to an abrupt halt. She does not yet grasp how Holy Matrimony is an outward and visible sign of that conscientious devotion that moves from guilt to blessedness through God’s Grace.

But Jesus’ Wisdom is not of this world. His concern is for a kind of wine that will overflow perfectly at a kind of wedding she cannot yet imagine. What does your concern have to do with me? Mine hour is not yet come. (Ibid, 4) Have you forgotten what kind of marriage you have with my Heavenly Father’s Spirit that brought about my earthly Birth? Mary is silenced and probably shamed by the rebuke of the Wisdom of God in her Son. Acquiescing to His Wisdom, she instructs the hired servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it. (Ibid, 5) Whatever or whoever her Son is, He is to be heeded. Her fear of earthly embarrassment for the bride’s parents collapses in the presence of Heaven’s plan. She remembers that her Son Jesus should be called the Son of the Highest…and of his kingdom there should be no end. (St. Luke i. 32-33) She remembers that earthly good must be perfected by God’s Grace as she learns to trust and obey her Heaven-sent Son.

But what is Heaven’s Plan that Jesus brings to earth? Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you. (St. Matthew vi. 33) We know what happens next. There were set there six water pots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece. Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. (St. John ii, 6,7) Jesus will use not wine-skins but pots meant to hold water for ritual cleansing and purification. Add water to the vessels for purification Jesus says.

So the holy water becomes a basis for a miracle that manifests a number of things. First, we see that Jesus’ Heavenly Mission has begun. Next, we learn that the Wisdom that Jesus reveals is not of this world and that His Mother’s worldly prudence must subject itself to the priority of the Divine Mission. Jesus takes the old waters of purification and then fortifies them with Heavenly Potency. The wine that the wedding guests will drink reveals what God intends to do for man. This is what Thomas Aquinas means when he writes that Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.

The hired hands obey first Mary and then Jesus and bear the wine to the governor of the feast. (Ibid, 8) When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now. (St. Luke ii, 9,10) According to ancient tradition, the governor of the feast would first taste all wine that was intended to be served. But see how the governor’s mind in drawn into wonder and bewilderment. Why was this wine not served at the beginning, he wonders? The governor marveled not at the miracle -since he was unaware of it, but at the fact that somehow the best wine was saved until the end.  

This morning the Blessed Virgin Mary exclaims, they have no wine. Indeed. They have no wine. We have no wine. Both she and we realize that there is no wine until Christ, the Lord of Heaven and Earth, the Ruler of all Creation makes new wine. Wine maketh glad the heart of man. Today’s miracle is a foreshadowing of the new wine that He will pour forth from the vine of the His Body on the Cross of Calvary. Christ’s hour is not yet come. (Idem) With the Blessed Virgin we must wait for the Bridegroom to pour out His life for His Bride. His Bride is the Church. We cannot be filled with the new wine of His Blood until He has given Himself to us in Perfect Love and Sacrifice from the Tree of New Life.  The new wine is the libation of His Blood through which we shall be born again in marital union with Him. In consummation with Him, as one flesh, we shall become bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh, one flesh with Him, as His Bride.

Will Christ make our water into wine? Will we listen to Him? Will we do whatsoever he saith? Will our minds be turned from earthly wine and the merriment it brings to the new wine that he saves and serves last? John Calvin reminds us that when the Blessed Virgin says, ‘Whatsoever He saith, do it’, we are taught….that if we desire any thing from Christ, we will not obtain our wishes, unless we depend on Him alone, look to him, and, in short, do whatever he commands. What we should desire first is to seek out and find the new wine of salvation that Jesus the Bridegroom will give to us if we faithfully wait until His hour is come (Idem). His hour has come. Christ has died, Christ is Risen, and Christ will come again. Christ gives us His new life in the Bread of His Body and the Wine of His Blood. As Pope Benedict XVI has said:

In the Eucharist, a communion takes place that corresponds to the union of man and woman in marriage. Just as they become ‘one flesh,’ so in Communion, we all become ‘one spirit,’ one person, with Christ. The spousal mystery, announced in the Old Testament, of the intimate union of God and man takes place in the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, precisely through his Passion and in a very real way (see Eph 5:29-32; I Cor 6:17; Gal 3:28).”

 

With the servants at the feast, we should depend upon Christ who saves the best wine ‘til last.

 

Amen.

©wjsmartin

Adoration of the Magi mosaic (c.432-440)

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.

 

The Feast of the Epiphany
January 9, 2021

Fr. William Martin

In this child something great lay hidden, of which these
Wise Men, the first fruits of the Gentiles, had learned, not
from earthly rumors, but from heavenly revelation. Hence
they say, we have seen His Star in the East. They announce,
yet they ask; they believe, and yet they seek to know and
to find: as though prefiguring those who walk by faith, yet
still desire to see.(R.D. Crouse)

Today we celebrate the great feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany means manifestation or shining forth and in this season we contemplate the various ways in which the love, wisdom, and power of God the Father, flow to us through the life of Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son made flesh. In the Eastern Church, Epiphany is more important than the Nativity, for on this day God welcomes the Gentiles along with the Jews onto the road of salvation. God’s intention to save all men is fully expressed when the Magi or Wise Men from the East journey to find the infant Jesus at Bethlehem. What is remarkable is that Gentiles see a paranormal star in the heavens, they ponder, they ask, and they believe that they must follow this star to know and understand what God intends to reveal to them. It is astounding then that these sages or wise men, who come from cultures that knew nothing of Israel’s God and His promises, should be drawn by his power to Bethlehem. It made sense that Jewish shepherds should come to the manger. It is far more unusual that the non-Jewish scholars of science and wisdom should find this mighty thing that had come to pass.
But, again, remember that these Magi were sages or wise men. They studied nature and the stars. They sought, through scientific expertise and skill to understand the creation and preservation of the earth in relation to the heavens. In other words, they probably had a deep sense that the heavens had much to do with the operations of this planet, or that something higher and more powerful guided and governed the course of the created universe. So, they looked up and beyond themselves to find the mover or movers, the higher reason and truth that might make sense of created life on earth. In addition, if tradition is right in claiming that they came from Persia, they would have been irritated and bothered with the arbitrary and irrational will to power and tyranny that ruled the kingdoms they inhabited. They were those seekers and searchers that forever explore until they have found the truth and meaning that libertate the soul.

So, we might well imagine, on one night, as they gazed into the permanent and unchanging heavens, that something shifted. One star began to outshine all others; one ball of celestial fire began to sing of a Word that had not been heard. The sight bewildered the eyes; the sound rang in the ears of these Eastern sages. What they saw and heard was nothing less than God’s own Word: follow me. It was probably strange, and they might have had their doubts, but this star arrested them and called them from their usual haunts. They began to make their journey; it would not be easy- as the heavens had shifted, so had their perspective. They were not longer at home with their accumulated wisdom. This star moved them to laden their camels and summon attendants, and to gather provisions for a long journey where faith believed but knew not why or how. Tonight, they might have said, we travel to see what this star means and on what new reality it shines. Tonight we seek to discover the nature of this star that sings out to us, ‘come follow me. Until now, the stars had been silent; but this one star called them forth. The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. (ps. xix. 1) 

Thus, these Magi or Wise men began their long journey after the Star that blazoned in the skies. T. S. Eliot describes the nature of this journey they made in his poem The Journey of the Magi: 

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

They saw a star, they asked, they believed, and they followed. They were called out of comfort onto a long, hard, cold, and cruel journey. Nature and society would not be accommodating. The hardened, frozen hearts of most men would oppose them. The journey to find the Infant Babe of Bethlehem would never be easy. It would be a journey through the land of sin, with the voices singing in [their] ears, saying that this was all folly.

As Eliot imagines it, the Magi left behind one kind of obstinately oppositional hell found in the pagan Persia, only to come into another strange and confusing place. They emerged out of lands whose histories neither respected their spiritual questing nor cared much for deeper metaphysical meaning. They came into the promised land of God, into Israel. Probably, they had high hopes; but they experienced a different sensation and climate in this place. It was temperate and warmer. It was wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;/ With a running stream and water mill beating the darkness, / And three trees on the low sky… Here, new life was waiting to be born. The Streams of Living water began to beat against the darkness. Three trees on the horizon were growing up to be cut down and shaped into crosses. Men here were gambling, like men in their own land, preferring seamless robes to brilliant stars. Even here, in the Promised Land of the Jews, the Wise Men found only fragments of interest in the star that they followed. God’s priests and kings had forgotten their first love, their promised destiny, their intended course. The land of the Jews was not as they had expected. And so we continued, say Eliot’s Wise Men, and arrived at evening, not a moment too soon/ Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory. 

First, the Wise Men’s reason led them ignorantly to Jerusalem, but the star did not shine there on her king, Herod. Besides, he was too old and hardened to be born or even born again. There was no room in Jerusalem, the holy city, for the birth of the king the wise men sought. Its temple had no room for the birth of a Heavenly king; its priests were the puppets of power and pretention. The newborn king the Wise men sought could not have been born there. Instead, the Star insisted on leading them to a place that was satisfactory, more sufficiently suitable for the birth of God’s Son. They found what appeared to be an ordinary birth, of ordinary parents, in an ordinary place. And yet they believed and saw that this was the kind of king for whom their gifts were prepared. They offered gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The gold offered to this king would be used to sustain the child, with Mary and Joseph, as they fled into exile and then returned to rear up God’s own Son in a carpenter’s shop. The frankincensepointed to the priesthood and holiness of this child who would become God’s priest and victim. The myrrh they brought was a funerary ointment to be held in reserve to embalm the king born to die for all men. The Star moved them to discover the king through sacred gifts of mystic meaning. 

The Wise Men left, warned by an angel not to return to Herod, they withdrew to their country by another route.(St. Matthew ii. 12) 

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different. This Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. (Idem)

The Wise Men were moved by the Star to see, believe, find, and know the birth of a new king. They witnessed a birth but offered their gifts for life, holiness, and death. In the simplicity of this new life, they found the holiness of God. With holiness, they foresaw sacrifice and death. They offered gifts to an infant king whose holy life would call all men to share in His death.

Nevertheless, as Eliot has them admit, they would do it again. We must always desire to follow the Light that leads to the Infant Child of Bethlehem. In Him, The Wise Men, full of truth, found a new kind of love. Ye are dead, St. Paul would say long after the Magi were dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:3)

Eliot’s poem, The Journey of the Magi is about the death and new life that must always characterize our relationship with Jesus Christ, or what is manifested and revealed in this season of Epiphany. His poem concludes like this:

We returned to our places, these kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

 

Something remarkably spiritual had taken place with the Wise Men, and something equally remarkable is meant to take place in the lives of all who have the courage to follow the Star to Bethlehem and there to find God in Man made ManifestWe should be glad of another death. A new death. Death to sin. Death to darkness. His Death and our Death. His Life and our Life. We are being led by the bright beams of a star. The star brings us to Christ the Light. In the Burning Love of this Light, we must be changed, no longer the same, uncomfortably aware of the need for our spiritual death if we are to embrace this remarkable new life in Jesus Christ. Ye are the light of the world, he says to us, a city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. (St. Matthew v. 13-16) Christ the Light enlightens us today, and so now let us continue the journey we have begun together, heading for a new home, starting here and now, fearing nothing but the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. Let us look forward into the Burning Love of that Light, Jesus Christ, God’s Epiphany, who alone can lead us home,

no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With alien people clutching their gods. (Idem)

 

Amen.