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Archive for September, 2009

Stitchpunk Saviors: A Review of Shane Acker’s 9

by Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph.D.

Warning:  This review contains spoilers.

One of the most popular film genres of the last 30 years has been the dystopia, those movies that depict apocalyptic disasters and nightmarish societies of the future.  Though religions, politicians, and various philosophies promise that adherence to their beliefs and theories would produce future utopias, the popularity of depictions of dystopias seems to indicate that many people have pessimistic outlooks concerning the future.    Director Shane Acker’s CG animated film, 9, joins the growing ranks of post-apocalyptic films that depict the annihilation of humanity.   The reasons for the destruction of the earth or civilization vary from film to film, ranging from collisions with asteroids, to deadly viruses, to genetic mutations, to global warming, and to alien invasions.  One of the more popular causes of these future dystopias is the rise of machines (think of the Terminator series of films) that have developed a kind of artificial intelligence, enabling them to rebel against their human creators and eventually enslave (The Matrix), or eliminate them.

Some movie-goers might not be excited about seeing 9, yet another dystopia about the evils of technology.    Though the film covers familiar territory, the main attraction of 9 is not the plot, the characters, or the philosophical questions raised by the film.  The primary reason to watch this movie is to marvel at the CG animation and direction of a Shane Acker film produced by Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (director of Wanted, with Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman).  Though Burton did not direct the film, one cannot help but see the influence of his movies such as Beetlejuice, A Nightmare before Christmas, and especially, Edward Scissorhands.  

The concept of 9 began as Acker’s student  project at UCLA which produced an 11 minute CG film of the same title, nominated for a 2005 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.      Acker and Burton’s 9 is basically Acker’s original short film, lengthened by various plot devices in order to make a feature-length movie.    Though some critics feel that the major weakness of this expansion of the film is the screenplay, written by Pamela Pettler (Monster House and The Corpse Bride),   9 offers some interesting points of discussion as we contemplate the possibilities of a future destruction of humanity and search for solutions to prevent such a catastrophe.  Please forgive a rather long summary of the movie, but for the benefit of those of you who may have not seen the film, I need to explain some of the action in detail in order to help you understand the points I wish to make at the conclusion of the article.

As the film begins, a scientist drops dead in his chaotic, jumbled laboratory.  Immediately after his death, a little rag doll creature that Acker refers to as a “stitchpunk,” seemingly made of burlap and a zipper, comes to life.    On its back is the number “9”.    9 (voiced by Elijah “Frodo” Wood) doesn’t realize that the scientist lying dead on the floor is his creator.  He has no idea who or what he is, or his reason for existence.  Immediately, we are reminded of  how Edward Scissorhands’ creator, played by the legendary Vincent Price, dies after the creation of Edward, leaving him alone in a hostile world for which he has few skills or preparation for assimilation or survival.   9 notices a talisman, a small, semi-spherical object on the floor with strange inscriptions.  He doesn’t know what the object is, but he decides to take it with him.   As 9 first looks at the world outside, it is littered with the ruins of what was once human civilization, now void of all animal and plant life.  Some critics have suggested that the scene of the world resembles either London or Dresden after the World War II bombings.  The hazy atmosphere does not seem to permit the full penetration of sunlight. 

9, a totally new being, goes out to meet the world and finds a creature similar to himself, another stitchpunk with the number “2” on his back, who appears to be an intelligent kind of inventor who can take various parts of the objects littered around him and combine them  to form useful instruments.  But after a few moments of acquaintance, 2 and the talisman are taken by the robotic  Cat Beast,  composed partly of metal and bone.  Shortly afterward, 9, encounters other creatures like himself, all of them rag doll stitchpunks with numbers of their backs, including 1, 5, 6, and 8, hiding in an abandoned church from a creature they call “The Beast.”  1 (voiced by Christopher Plummer)  is a strict authoritarian who even wears a hat resembling a bishop’s miter, and carries a staff.  9 tries to persuade 1 and the others to search for and rescue 2,  but 1 maintains strict control of the other dolls, not allowing anyone to venture into the unknown where the beasts live.  Like Dr. Zaius, keeper of the faith in The Planet of the Apes (another film associated with Tim Burton), 1 does not even seem to want the other dolls to discover the truth about themselves

But 9 convinces 5 to venture into the wasteland, and they leave the “safety” of the church and track 2 to an abandoned factory.  They find 2 and the Cat Beast, who seems to be trying to figure out the proper placement of the talisman in some kind of device. 9 and 5 try to save 2, but they are attacked by  the Cat Beast who is killed by the sudden arrival of 7, a female, warrior stitchpunk voiced by Jennifer Connelly.   9 recovers the talisman, but notices  a device that has a socket which looks as though it was made for the talisman.  When he inserts the talisman into the socket, he brings to life the Fabrication Machine that had been dormant for a long while.  Later we discover that the Fabrication Machine, which has the ability to create other machines, had been invented by the same scientist who later created the stitchpunks, not realizing that ultimately his Machine would later enslave and destroy the human race.  The Fabrication Machine, along with all the machines it had produced,  had been invented to bring the world peace and prosperity.  When 9 brings the Fabrication Machine to life, it sets out to destroy the stitchpunks by extracting the animating force from them, which we find out later to be parts of a human soul.  

9 believes that in order to survive, they must discover how the stitchpunks came into being and why the machines want to destroy them.  He is taken to 3 and 4, librarian scholars, who show him the records in newspapers and videos of how the machines rose to power and created a fascist state, with all the characteristics of Hitler’s Germany.  The records do not, however, tell the story of the talisman, or why and how the stitchpunks were brought to life.  9 believes that they must go back to the source, the laboratory of the scientist to discover their origins.  1 is against this plan, believing that it will only endanger the lives of others.  As they are debating the issue, the Winged Beast, another robotic creature,  attacks them.   Through a united effort, the stitchpunks prevail, but the church where they are hiding burns down.  As they are trying to find another place to hide, they are attacked by the Seamstress, a truly horrific creature who captures it prey and literally “sews them up.”   The Seamstress captures 7 and 8.  9 rescues 7, but the machine steals the soul of 8.  Later, the Fabrication Machine steals the souls of 5 and 6, but not before 6 has told 9 that the souls of the stitchpunks are trapped inside the Fabrication Machine.  1, 3, 4, and 7 want to destroy the Fabrication Machine, but 9 begs them not to do it, believing that if the machine is destroyed, the souls will be lost forever.  9 believes that if he can get back to the laboratory, he can uncover the secret that will perhaps enable him to destroy the machine and at the same time, save the souls of those who have been captured.

When 9 arrives at the laboratory of the scientist, we see scattered papers composed of drawings and plans, detailing the construction of the stitchpunks, again reminding us of the drawings that were used in the invention of Edward Scissorhands.  On one of the papers we see the name of the famous alchemist “Paracelsus.”  This clue lets us know that the man who brought the stitchpunks to life was not only a scientist, but an alchemist.  The name Paracelsus is a hint that the stitchpunks are homunculi.  “Homunculus” is a Latin word meaning “little human.”  Some alchemists believed that it was possible to create “little humans” in the laboratory.   In the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius shows his former student, Victor Frankenstein, his collection of homunculi, tiny humanoids that he keeps in jars, one of whom happens to be a bishop.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the many works of literature and film inspired by it, have always dealt with the issue of how our creations, especially our machines, will one day seek to destroy their creators.    Frankenstein’s monster is, in one sense, one of the most famous homunculi.  

The scientist who created the stitchpunks, 1-9, through a mixture of science and alchemy, has created a series of homunculi, but has found a way to invest them with parts of his own soul.  The scientist has left behind a holographic video that explains to 9 that he created the stitchpunks in order to impart to them a human soul in order that there might be something good and human in the world, now that it was dominated by machines.  The scientist also tells him how to use the talisman to free the souls that have been captured by the Fabrication Machine.  When 9 returns, he finds that the other stitchpunks are trying to fight the Fabrication Machine.  He volunteers to sacrifice himself and his soul so that they can retrieve the talisman, but 1 decides to sacrifice himself, and 9 gets the talisman and frees the souls of the stitchpunks.  At the end of the movie, 3, 4, 7, and 9 have a memorial service at the site where the remains of 1, 2, 5, 6, and 8 have been buried.  9 presses the symbols of the talisman in their proper sequence and the souls of 1, 2, 5, 6, and 8 ascend to heaven.  By some miracle, as their souls reach the clouds, a thunderstorm erupts, and rain begins to fall, each raindrop bringing back to earth parts of the souls that had ascended.

A movie with so many allusions to religion, souls, and alchemy will be open to many interpretations.  In an interview with Emru Townsend for Frames Per Second,  Shane Acker  expressed his view of how films should be interpreted:

Allow people to read into it what they want to read into it. So leave it open to metaphor and to allow people to see what they want to see in it. But first it’s about telling a good story, an interesting story, and then it’s about starting to layer on these different ideas that might not impact the movie, the narrative that’s there, but adds another layer of meaning on top of that….  So I think upon repeat viewings of the film, other things begin to come into light, and other readings can start to come into the film as well.

As with all good films, 9 offers many possible interpretations.    There are so many layers of meaning in this film that I am sure many articles will be written in the future offering plausible understandings.  I think the movie offers several different allegorical interpretations from a religious perspective.  For example, we can see 9 as asking the most fundamental of human questions:  who are we and why are we here?  At the beginning of the film, all 9 really knows is that he is living in a very dangerous  world.  Furthermore,  the stitchphunks are made of  fragile material that can be ripped apart quite easily by their enemies.  Like the stitchpunks, human beings are physically vulnerable,  seemingly  ill-equipped to survive in a world of germs, disease, animals, and other hostile beings.    Humans have often sought an answer to the question, “Why are we living in a world that is so hostile to us.”  As 9 seeks the answers to these kinds of questions, he instinctively realizes that he has to go back to “the source,” back to the place where he was given life.  These questions take him back to his creator to find the reasons for existence.  He is told by the scientist that he was invested with the soul of his creator, much as we are created in the image of God.    The scientist tells him that he wanted to put what was best about humanity into the little humanoids he has created.  Like 9, human beings have often gone back to the source, back to God, back to Holy Scripture to discover that they were created with meaning and purpose.

            The idea of putting parts of a soul into these creatures may seem strange, but some philosophers, such as Plato, often thought of the soul as composed of various elements, each  carrying out a specific function.  Unfortunately, in some people, one aspect of the soul may dominate the person.   Each stitchpunk seems to be governed by a particular characteristic.  1, appropriately named, wants to control and be obeyed, though he argues that he is only thinking of the safety of others.   2 is an inventor.  3 and 4 are scholars.   7 is a warrior. Though 1 is a kind of bishop, he does not seem to possess the kind of love that would inspire him to give his life for others, until, at the end of the film, he has matured to the degree that he now sees the necessity of sacrifice.  9 contains what I think is a thinly veiled criticism of the Church and institutionalized religion.  1 and other stitchpunks are trying to hide behind the walls of the church.   As 9 enters the church for the first time, his eyes scan the stained glass windows and we see a depiction of a kind-looking Jesus.  Like Christ, 9 wants to rescue those who have been taken by the beast, something like the devil, who, like a roaring lion seeks whom he may devour.  But 1, the bishop, is not interested in saving  a fellow creature.  He thinks it is better, for the safety of all concerned,  to hide in fear.  Soon, with the arrival of the Winged Beast,  it becomes obvious that not even the walls of the church can provide a permanent safety.  As the church burns to the ground, there is a scene of 1, looking wistfully over his shoulder, realizing that his hiding place is no more.  But as the rest of the film reveals, it was only by leaving the safe confines of the church that the machines could be defeated.  Outside the walls of the church, 1 is no longer dominated by the authoritarian, safety-seeking aspect of the soul.  When he sees others in danger and that the  only possibility of saving them is by giving himself as a sacrifice, he becomes a living embodiment of the Christ depicted in the stained glass of the church.

            This film suggests that hope for the future resides in the human soul.  Machines, even those possessing artificial intelligence, are interested only in domination.   Yet, one of the puzzles in the film is that these machines were created by human beings.  While the human soul is a wonderful thing, it was human beings who invented the machines that led to their own destruction.  Doesn’t this suggest that there is some flaw in the human soul?  Though the  raindrops bring  parts of the human soul back to earth, will  the new creation, invested with the human soul, repeat the same mistakes in the future?   In Shane Acker’s interview with Townsend, alluded to earlier, he stated that his film deals with this propensity human beings have to keep trying to destroy themselves:  “I think a lot of interest that I’m having as this film is developing now is speaking about these war-torn landscapes and the tragedy of war and how history is just—we constantly repeat ourselves, and we don’t learn. And I think it’s in some sense instinctual in humanity itself to sort of self-destruct or to try to destroy itself.”  If all we have at the end of 9 is just the same old human soul, one that  instinctively self-destructs, giving life to the world again, how do we know that we are not headed for yet another dystopia? 

But the film seems to suggest that the problem is not with the human soul itself, but with allowing one aspect of the soul to dominate.  1, for example, is dominated by the desire to lead.  The world needs leaders, but when the desire to lead becomes more important than love and sacrifice, the result is tyranny.   If all the parts of the soul were thoroughly integrated, a kind of balance would be achieved so that the various parts of the soul would teach us how to behave appropriately in various situations.  9,  the last of the dolls to which the scientist imparted something of his soul,  seems to be the culmination, the pinnacle of  his creator’s work, a kind of “last Adam” as Paul refers to Jesus in I Cor. 15:45.    9  is curious, courageous, and caring.  He is willing to put himself in danger, even sacrifice himself for the good of others.  In some mystical and religious writings, since  the number “9” is the last of the single digits in our numerical system, it represents conclusion.  Thus, 9 signifies what a fully mature human being should be, perhaps filled with the wisdom that could only be imparted by the scientist who fully understood what had led to the destruction of humanity.  9 is a leader, inventor, scholar, warrior, and sacrificial friend .   In this sense, 9 is a fully rounded Christ figure who teaches all the other dolls what it means to be human, even the selfish, self-centered 1 eventually becoming like the caring and giving 9. In writing about Edward Scissorshands, Peter Malone observes:  “Edward Scissorhands is a ‘composite creature,….a creature who is like us and yet not like us—a creature who can show human beings how to be their better selves.  He has been programmed by his father-creator so that he can communicate with people” (61-2).  9, like Edward, is also a creature like us and not like us, but he is able to teach us what it is to be human and truly Christlike.

9 shows us that hope for the future does not reside in our machines and our technology, but in our ability to love and care for one another, even if it means sacrificing our lives so that others might live.  It is, in fact, this reluctance to be fully human, that causes us to become machines whose sole purpose is an unfeeling domination.  In an article entitled, “The Terminator Movies;  Hi-Tech Holiness and the Human Condition,” Gaye Ortiz and Maggie Roux write, “Jesus taught that to be truly human is to be liberated:  we are allowed to make mistakes and be frail.  The danger is not in that, but rather in assuming that we can do anything.  In act of giving one’s self there is a promise, in the very act of surrender, of becoming fully human” (154).  Like Pinocchio, it seems that 9 and the other stitchpunks have become truly human.  There is always the danger that if we increasingly rely on machines, we may become machinelike or enslaved by our machines.  Whether we are living in  a world of soulless machines, or soulless human beings, the only way this frightening dystopia can be reversed is through actions of redemptive love performed by people as frail as stitchpunks.

Works Cited

  1. Malone, Peter.  “Edward Scissorhands:  Christology from a Suburban Fairy-tale.”  Explorations in Theology and Film:  Movies and Meaning.  Malden, MA:  Blackwell P, 1997.  73-86.
  2. Ortiz, Gaye and Maggie Roux.  “The Terminator Moves;  Hi-Tech Holiness and the Human Condition.”  Explorations in Theology and Film:  Movies and Meaning.  Malden, MA:  Blackwell P, 1997.  141-154.
  3. Townsend, Emru.  “Interview:   Shane Acker.”  Frames Per Second
  4. http://www.fpsmagazine.com/feature/050929 acker.php
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This sermon was preached by Father Randall S. Toms at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Baton Rouge, LA on September 27, 2009.

How Deep is His Love
a sermon on “Knowing the Unknowable Love of Christ”

Ephesians 3:14-19

“For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.”

                At the risk of sounding like Carl Sagan on the old series, Cosmos, imagine, if you will, billions and billions of stars and billions and billions of galaxies containing billions and billions of stars.  Do you think that you could ever know everything that there is to know about all of the galaxies, stars, and planets in the universe.  Even if we had powerful telescopes and all of the incredible devices that we have now that can gather and analyze data stars and planets and their compositions, we would have to say that there is still an incredible amount to learn.  Nathan Velasquez and I were talking about a story this week by the famous author, Arthur C. Clarke who wrote 2001, A Space Oddyssey.  In the science fiction story that Nathan and I were discussing, a man has left the earth in order to go to an observatory on the moon, because the moon, without earth’s unpredictable atmosphere, would be such a greater place from which to study the stars.  But even if we were able to study the stars from the moon, no doubt we would want to go to the next planet, the next moon of a planet perhaps, and from there, get a better vantage point to study the stars.    This process would, of course, be infinite, because no matter how far we might go into space to study the stars, there would always be another in which we might go to learn more.  We would never be satisfied, never content, but would always want to go on to study more.  Almost every subject that we could undertake to study, we would eventually find that we could never learn everything that there is to know of it.  We have people in our congregation who study music.  Could you ever know everything that there was to know about some of the great composers and their works?  Some of the people in our congregation study medicine.  Isn’t medicine an endless frontier?  Isn’t there always a new cure to be discovered, a new surgical technique to be developed?  Some of us like to study movies, but there is no way to know everything there is to know about the movies, perhaps even one director such as an Alfred Hitchcock or a Stanley Kubrick.  Whenever we try to study these subjects we find that we will always say that there is no enough time.  There is too much to know.

                But all of the subjects that exceeds our ability to fully understand, nothing comes close to the love of Christ.  When we think of the love of Christ for us, we can never come to grasp it completely.  We can learn a great deal about it.  Holy Scripture has revealed to us so much about the love of Christ.  Preachers preach on the subject endlessly.  So much about the love of Christ is revealed in the sacraments.  And yet, when the day is done, when all the books have been read, and all the meditation has come to a conclusion, we have to say that the love of Christ exceeds knowledge.

                In our epistle reading for today, the Apostle Paul says that he wants us to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge.  There is a kind of paradox in that statement, isn’t it?  How can you know something that surpasses knowledge?  How can you know the unknowable, and yet that is what the Apostle prays that we will have.  He is praying that we will have a knowledge of something that is ultimately unknowable, but the great adventure is in trying to understand it, making small discoveries of it that continually lead us on to new discoveries.  As we think of the love of Christ for us, we find that every aspect of his love excels our ability to fully comprehend it.

                Paul talks about the breadth of the love of Christ.  Think of how many people to whom the love of Christ extends.  It is difficult for us to comprehend this aspect of the love of Christ, because our love for others does not extend very far.  Our love for others rarely extends beyond our love for ourselves and the members of our own immediate family.  Sometimes, our love extends to friends that we have made along the way.  And, of course, if we are in a church, hopefully our love extends to our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Our love usually extends to those who are most like us, those who are of the same race, nationality, those who hold similar beliefs and opinions.  But think of the love of Christ:  how his love extends across racial and cultural lines.  Think of how his love extends even to those who are mired in the depths of sin and all kinds of wickedness.  Think of how his love extends to even those who are his enemies, so that we read in I John 2:2:  and he is the propitiation for our sin, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.  Think of all the billions of people in this world with all of their sins and cruelties, and yet his love is so broad as to encompass them all.  Can you imagine what it is to love in that way.  Oh, I know that we often glibly say that we love all humanity, and I guess we mean that we have a sort of affection for all people.  But when you think about what Christ’s love is—not merely a general sense of kindness toward the world, but a deep, feeling, sacrificial kind of love—how can anyone have that kind of love for so many.  I remember when I was taking a counseling class at seminary that the profess said that if you are a counselor, never try to schedule 8 clients a day.  Counselor have to have empathy and no human being can have that much empathy.  A real counselor would be psychologically and emotionally drained by such an experience.  And yet, our Lord Jesus Christ has such love, including traits such as empathy and compassion, that it extends around the globe.  The breadth of his love surpasses our knowledge.

                Then think of the length of his love.  Let us consider just for a moment the length of his love just in terms of time.  How long has the Lord Jesus Christ loved you?  His love for us is an eternal love.  If we go back into the deep recesses of eternity, before time began, you will find that even there he loved you.  He did not start loving you when you made a decision to become a Christian.  He did not start loving you when you were baptized.  He did not start loving you when you were born.  He did not start loving your when you were conceived in the womb.  There in the eternal recesses of eternity, he loved you and set his favor upon you.  Our Lord Jesus Christ is called the lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world.  I know that Jesus was crucified around 33 A. D. outside the gates of Jerusalem at a specific historical moment.  Nevertheless, the plan for him to die was conceived in eternity past.  There has never been a moment when Christ did not love you.  Just as he was eternally begotten, having no beginning or end, he is love for you was eternally begotten, having no beginning.  And his love for you will have no end.  Unfortunately, our human concepts of love are so shallow that we can say or hear those terrible words, “I don’t love you anymore.”  But the Christian will never hear those words from out Lord.  As St. Paul puts it, “35] Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,  Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  The love of Christ for us has no beginning and it has no end.

                When I was a boy I used to go camping with some my friends in Boy Scouts and church-related events, and we would lie outside under the stars, gazing into the heavens, and we would try to contemplate the vastness of the universe and eternity.  We would always wind up laughing, because our little minds would short circuit when we tried to imagine eternity.  Our minds should also short-circuit when we think not only eternity, but eternal love, a love that has existed from all eternity and will continue throughout all eternity.

                Nor can our minds comprehend the depth of the love of Christ.  Back in the 70s there was a song by the Bee Gees, How Deep Is Your Love, and those of you from that time period will remember that the lyrics of the chorus on that song are, “How deep is your love, I really need to learn.”  Those lyrics point to this desire that human beings have to want know that not only that we are loved, but that we are loved in a very deep, profound way.  Whenever we ask, “How much do you love me?”, we are asking, “How deep is your love.”  When someone asks, “How much do you love me, it is difficult for us to put it into words, isn’t it.  But whenever we look at Christ, and wonder how deep is his love, we have no doubts about the depth.  What mystifies is just how deep it is.  We don’t wonder if he loves us deeply.  What we can’t fathom is just how deeply he loves us.  In human relationships, we may think that someone’s love for us might be shallow, but with the love of Christ, thoughts such as those never enter our minds, because when we think the love of Christ, we go directly to the cross.  Our Lord Jesus said in John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  How deep is his love for us?  So deep that he would be willing to undergo the agonies of the cross so that we might be forgiven and have eternal life.    We can’t imagine what it was like for all our sins to be laid upon our Lord Jesus Christ.  We cannot imagine what it was like for him to be made sin for us.  We cannot imagine what it was like to endure the wrath of his own father in our place, so that he cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.”    Each Sunday, when we come here to partake of Holy Communion, we try to enter into the experience of Christ once more, trying to understand the depth of his love for us on the cross, and each time we partake, we understand it a little more, but then, when we see the depth of our own sin, and compare that to the incredible love he displayed for us on the cross, once again, we leave these altar rails, shaking our heads, saying, the love of Christ surpasses knowledge.  I cannot understand the depth of his love for me.”

                And then, how impossible it is to understand the height of his love for us!  As I have read the various commentaries on this subject, the most frequent interpretation of the height of his love is that it refers to the heights to which his love has raised us and will raise us.  Why did our Lord Jesus Christ give his life on the cross for us?  Of course, he died on the cross to forgive us for our sins, but what was the ultimate purpose in forgiving us of our sins?  His ultimate purpose was to raise us to the heights of glory to be seated with him on his throne and reign with there.  Paul has already spoken to this subject in Eph. 2:4-7 when he said, “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.”  Because we are in Christ, God has raised us up together to be seated with him in heavenly places.  To raise us to the heights of glory was the stated purpose of our Lord Jesus Christ when he prayed, “Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).  This was the ultimate design of the love of Christ.  He redeemed us in order that we might be raised to the heights of heaven, behold his glory, and even share in his glory.  What love is this!  We were sunk so low in the depths of sin, yet, in the depths of his love, he reached down to us, and raised us to the highest heights of heaven.  No wonder that the apostle Paul says that the love of Christ surpasses knowledge.

                The next time you feel as though you are alone in the world, without anyone who loves you, remember that there is someone who loves you far beyond what you will ever be able to comprehend.  The next time you feel as though your life has no meaning and purpose, remember that you have been loved with an eternal love who has destined you for the heights of glory.  The next time you feel as though you are too sinful to approach a holy God, take a dip in the ocean of the love of Christ’s love and remember that your sins have been forgiven, plunged in thedepths  of the ocean of his own unfathomable love for you.  The cure for all our sadness, all of our guilt, all of our feelings of helplessness and meaninglessness is found in the love of Christ.  Begin now the study of this master science, this most unfathomable of all subjects, the love of Christ.

                I began this sermon with the thoughts of billions of galaxies and stars and planets.  Let us imagine again that we had a vessel such as in Star Trek where we could go and explore strange new worlds because we were able to travel at warp speed.  Even if we had that capability, we would not be able to vist all the stars and the planets.  Well, think of the love of Christ as a universe, and every truth about his love leads to another truth, and that you are visiting and learning each day a new world where you continue to make discoveries of his love.  Every day we read the Scriptures, a new world of discovery about his love is opened to us.  Every sermon we explored uncharted territory about the love of Christ.  Every hymn we sing brings us to a richer experience of his love.  Every blessing that we have in this world, the blessing of family and friends is a further manifestation of the love of Christ.  Every pleasure we enjoy in this, physical, emotional, and spiritual is the love of Christ being revealed to us.  Every day is nothing more than the new insights of the love of Christ being revealed to us. This is what heaven will be about.  Throughout all of eternity we will explore the riches of his love, and when we have studied this subject for a billion years, we will still say, “I haven’t scratched the surface.  The love of Christ surpasses knowledge.” 

Amen.

Father Randall S. Toms

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Clashing Idols

Iconoclasm:

Shattering Our False Images of God

Preached by Rev. S. Randall Toms at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Baton Rouge, LA on September 20, 2009

II Kings 18:1-4

“Now it came to pass in the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. Twenty and five years old was he when he began to reign; and he reigned twenty and nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name also was Abi, the daughter of Zachariah. And he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that David his father did. He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan.”

            Human beings are image-making creatures.  If we go back through history, we can find that from the dawn of creation, the beginnings of civilization, human beings have been making images, drawing pictures, molding statues of animals, other people, and even the gods that they worshiped.  So, when God gave the commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:] Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them,” it must have seemed like a very strange prohibition.  Almost all the other peoples of the world made images of their gods.  It seems to be the natural impulse of people to make images of everything, so why would God prohibit people from making images of Himself.

            The prohibition against making images of God seems more puzzling when we realize how many word-images of God we find in the Bible.  The Bible often compares God to certain things of which it would be easy to make an image.  In our study of the book of Hosea on Thursday evenings, we see God compared to a lion, a leopard, a bear.  Since God compares himself to such animals, why not make an image of such an animal and use it as an aid to worship?  Then, in books such as Daniel, we find descriptions of God such as, “I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.   A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened” (Daniel 7:9-10).  Since we have this visual description in words of the “Ancient of days,” why not put that description to paper, to canvas, and use it in worship?  The Bible gives us many descriptions, metaphors, similes, in the effort to describe God.  Since we think in images, even when we think about God, why should there be a prohibition about making an image of God?

            This issue is further complicated by the fact that images are not completely forbidden when it comes to the worship of God.  In Exodus 20, God gives the commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”  But then, in Exodus 25, we have the instructions concerning the crafting of the Ark of the Covenant, something that would figure prominently in the worship of God in the tabernacle and the temple.  God gives the command,

“And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat. And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof. And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be. And thou shalt put the mercy seat above upon the ark; and in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee. And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel.”  So, in Exodus 20, God says don’t make any images of anything in heaven above, and then almost in the next breath, he gives Moses the instruction to put cherubim, certainly a creature from heaven above, on the Ark of the Covenant.  I pointed this out to someone one time and they said, “Well, it’s all right to break the law of God, if God tells you to break it.”  We know that is not going to happen.  God does not give people his law and then tell them to break his law.   It’s obvious that the command about graven images was not a total prohibition of image-making, even in the matter of worship.  Then in Exodus 26:1, we read, “ Moreover thou shalt make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet: with cherubims of cunning work shalt thou make them.”  So, in the tabernacle, you have curtains with images of cherubim woven in them.”

            Furthermore, there is the story in the Old Testament of the time when God sent fiery serpents among the people.  How were the people to be cured of these snake bites?  God tells them to make an image.  We read in Numbers 21: [7] Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people:

“And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.”  So, the God who said, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” tells Moses to make a graven image, an image of a serpent, definitely a creature of the earth, and to lift it up.  The people are even instructed to look at it in order to be healed.  Furthermore, the Lord Jesus Christ compares himself to that brass serpent in John 3: 14] And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.  Whenever we look at such passages of Scripture, we are often confused.  Can we make images, or not?  Can we use images in worship, or, are such images forbidden?

            Protestants, especially those with a Puritan heritage, have a great fear of images.    Some of the Protestant fear of images comes from a desire to stay away from what they perceive as abuses in Roman Catholicism.  Since images figure so prominently in Roman Catholic worship, surely, images must be rejected altogether as far as the worship of God is concerned.  For many Protestant Christian, heavily influenced by various forms of Puritanism, the evil is in the image itself.  I sometimes think that many Puritans wished they had been born blind and deaf, for they see their senses as nothing more than the gateway of sin.  If they had been blind, they would have never seen or been tempted by visual images.  If they had been deaf, they would have never heard sinful words or concepts.  But God made us with eyes to see, ears to hear.  And he made a beautiful world with beautiful things to see and beautiful things to hear.  From the time we wake up in the morning, our eyes are bombarded with images, but sadly many Christians think they must live with blinders on lest something sinful should enter through the eyes.  Surely, God would not have made us with eyes, with the ability to see images, if images, in and of themselves, were sinful.  The sin is not in the image.  The sin lies in what we do with the image.

            In our text for today, we read a story about the brass serpent that I mentioned earlier.  Obviously, there was nothing wrong with making the brass serpent.  God himself gave that commandment and used looking at the brass serpent to heal the people.  But do you remember what became of that brass serpent.  In II Kings 18, we read of the good things that Hezekiah did as king of Judah, such as smashing idols.  But there was one “idol” that gets special attention:  the brass serpent that Moses had made.   There was nothing sinful in the image of the brass serpent itself.  God had commanded that it be made for a holy purpose.  But later on, the people put it to an unholy purpose by worshiping it and burning incense to it.  People began to think that power resided in the image of the serpent.  Thus we see how people take the image of a perfectly good thing, or morally neutral thing, and use it for a sinful purpose.   For this reason, God forbids that people should make an image of Himself, for people would begin to think that power resides in the image.

            But there is another more important reason why God forbade his people from making an image of him.  There is no image that can adequately depict him.  Images of God would not do him justice, and our concepts of God would become limited.  When Isaiah speaks to his people about the foolishness of idolatry, he describes it like this way in Isaiah 40:

“To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him? The workman melteth a graven image, and the goldsmith spreadeth it over with gold, and casteth silver chains. He that is so impoverished that he hath no oblation chooseth a tree that will not rot; he seeketh unto him a cunning workman to prepare a graven image, that shall not be moved. Have ye not known? have ye not heard? hath it not been told you from the beginning? have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth?
[22] It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in: That bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity. Yea, they shall not be planted; yea, they shall not be sown: yea, their stock shall not take root in the earth: and he shall also blow upon them, and they shall wither, and the whirlwind shall take them away as stubble. To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One.”

When God says, “what likeness will ye compare unto him,” he is not saying that we cannot make comparisons and say, “God is like….”  After all, as we have seen, God often does that in his word.  We have seen how he compares himself to a lion, a bear, a leopard.  Then why not make an image of a leopard and say, “This is our God”?  We cannot do that because such a representation of God would be limiting.  While it may be true that God is like a leopard in some ways, he is far more than that.  Images of God tend to limit our conceptions of God.  The Scripture says that our God is a consuming fire.  We could paint a picture of fire and say, “That is our God.”  But while it is true that God is like a consuming fire, he is more than that.  There is no one image, or combination of images that would be adequate to describe God.  So, when Isaiah says that there is nothing to which we could compare God, he is saying that there is nothing that we could adequately compare to God.  No matter what image we produced, it would leave something out.  This is why he presents himself as the one who is high above us.  The heaven of heavens cannot contain him.  He is everywhere at once.  What kind of image could you use that would adequately describe all that he is?

            Now, it would be easy to think that in our modern times we are no longer in danger of making any graven images of God and worshiping them.  I’m sure that none of you are going to go home this afternoon, get a block of wood, fashion an image and call it “God” and worship it.  You are not going to draw a picture of an animal and call it your god.  But with that said, human beings, even sophisticated Americans, are very much still in the idol-making business.  We do not make these idols with our hands.  We make them in our minds and hearts.  We fix in our minds our own image of God, our own ideas about God, and we say, “This is how I conceive of God to be.  This is what I think he is like.”  And inevitably, there is something wrong with that image.   Like all idolatrous images, it is limited, inadequate in some way.    Sometimes our ideas about God were given to us by our parents or our grandparents.    Sometimes, our image of God was shaped by the particular church in which we may have grown up.    Sometimes, our image of God was shaped by ourselves.  We may have heard the truth about God in our early years, but that idea of God was not pleasing, not comfortable, so we fashioned a God who would be easier to live with.  Some people have shaped a god who is all love, but no wrath, no justice.  Some people have created an image of God in their minds who is the great avenger.  He is nothing more than the great fault-finder who is always standing over us with a stick, ready to slap us the way an over-bearing father might.  He is the great chastiser, but he is not one who is full of mercy, grace, understanding, and pity.  Some people have created a god who is the great Santa Claus.  He exists to give me presents.  If I know how to work him right, manipulate him with promises and faith, I can get him to give me whatever I want.  For some, God is the person who will make everything in my life smooth and easy.  He will protect my family and me from tragedies and disasters.  All of these images of God are idolatrous, and like all idols, they should be smashed and broken in pieces, for they deprive us of the full vision of God in all his glory. 

This shattering of idols is often called “iconoclasm.”  So, in our text for today, Hezekiah is a great “iconoclast,” that is, one who destroys idols.  But as great an iconoclast as Hezekiah was, the greatest of all iconoclasts is God himself. In C. S. Lewis’ book, A Grief Observed, we find one of the most quoted of all passages in his writings:

Images of the Holy easily become holy images—sacrosanct.  My idea of God is not a divine idea.  It has to be shattered time after time.  He shatters it himself.  He is the great iconoclast.   Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?  The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.  And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those that are not.”…  The same thing happens in our private prayers.  All reality is iconoclastic.”  Notice what he says.  “My idea of God is not a divine idea.”  But we very often think that our ideas of God are indeed divine.  We are so convinced that our ideas of God are correct, we almost think they were given to us by direct revelation from the throne of God.  But as we go through our lives, we find that our ideas about God are often wrong, and many times incomplete.  So God has to shatter these images we have of him.  Sometimes, our idols of God are smashed by reading the Bible.  We read a passage of Scripture, and a new truth about God leaps out at us, and we know that some of our previous ideas about God have been wrong or at least, unbalanced.  Sometimes, our  precious ideas about God are shattered by powerful preaching.   Last week I spoke on some of the reasons why we are a small church, but this is probably one of the primary reasons.  I’m afraid my preaching is “iconoclastic”; that is, people visit here who have held certain erroneous ideas about God, or inadequate ideas about God, and my preaching smashes those concepts.  As C. S. Lewis says, “most are offended by the iconoclasm, and blessed are those who are not.” 

Of course, C. S. Lewis is talking about that time in the life of John the Baptist when he was in prison.  He sent word to Jesus, “Are you the one who should come, or do we look for another.”  What was causing all this doubt in John the Baptist?  Well, John was still laboring under the ideas that many Jews had about the Messiah.  The Messiah was going to come and set up this glorious kingdom on earth.  He was going to overthrow all the enemies of the Jews and cause them to rule over their enemies.    But Jesus wasn’t behaving that way.  He was preaching, teaching, and healing some sick people.  When was Jesus going to get with the program and be what the Messiah was supposed to be?  So, Jesus tells the disciples of John to go back tell John about all the miracles that I have done, and then he says, “Blessed is he who is not offended in me.”  “That is, Blessed is he is not offended because of what I am doing.  Blessed is he who is not offended because of what I’m not doing.”    You see, Jesus didn’t fit  the idea of what they Jews wanted Jesus to be.  He still isn’t.  That is why the Jews continue to reject Jesus.  A crucified Messiah?  Never!  The Messiah is the glorious king who is going to deliver the Jews.  But Jesus wasn’t doing that in the way they expected.  Jesus didn’t come to overthrow the Romans and its corrupt, tyranny.  He came to deal with the sin problem in our lives by dying on the cross.  He shattered their false images of the Messiah, and they hated him for it.  So, any minister, any priest, who dares to shatter the cherished ideas that many people hold of God is hated.    But one of the duties of the pastor is to shatter false and erroneous concepts we may have of God.  As  C. S. Lewis says, this is one of the signs of the presence of God being among us.  If God is truly among us, he is going to be constantly shattering the false image, the erroneous concepts we have of him.

And then sometimes, God shatters these idols just through the circumstances of life.  As we age, unless we are too arrogant and stubborn to admit our ignorance, God is constantly showing us that he is far different than what we have ever conceived of him to be.  It very often happens when we are young, that we think we have everything figured out.  Sometimes, when people are converted to Christ, they have a certain concept about God, and they never move beyond that initial concept, never grow, never mature, and resist ideas that might run contrary to certain erroneous perceptions or incomplete ideas about God.  But God has a way of breaking through in the circumstances of life and revealing himself to be totally different than what we had previously thought him to be. When we read the story of Job, we see a man who thought he had God all figured out.  He knew what God should be like.  He knew how God should be dealing with him.  When Job was going through this period of intense suffering, he knew that God being unjust.  But, when God reveals himself to Job in all his majesty and glory,  Job realizes that his ideas about God have been limited.  So we read in Job 42:1-6

“Then Job answered the LORD, and said, I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee. Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me. I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Job admits that he has been talking about things that he really didn’t know anything about, and all he could do was lie before God in humility.  Job, and  the image of God he has held for most of his life, have been shattered by a true sight of the Almighty.

            Our false images of God must be shattered, but there is one image of God that is always trustworthy, one that we must gaze upon constantly in order that our ideas of God might be true, and that is the image of God revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ.  In II Cor. 4:4, St. Paul tells us that Christ is the image of God.  In Col. 1:15, he tells us that Christ is the image of the invisible God.  The writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus is “the express image of his person” (Heb. 1:3).  It is in Jesus Christ that we see the image of God in all its fullness.  Therefore, we must keep our eyes focused on Jesus, and if we keep our eyes focused on Jesus, beholding him, growing in him, then we will ever grow into a full understanding of God as he really is.

            If we keep our eyes on Jesus, not only will we be saved from false and inadequate views of God, we will actually be changed into the image of God ourselves.  Paul said in II Cor. 3:18, “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.”  One of the great dangers of idolatry is that we become what we worship.    If you have a mean God with no mercy, you will be a cruel person without pity.  If your God has no standards of right and wrong, you will become an immoral person.    But if you keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, there you will see how God has revealed himself perfectly in his Son, and then, by living in him, meditating on him, walking with him day by day, you are transformed into the same image from glory to glory.  Be an iconoclast.  Smash all your idolatrous images of God, so that nothing remains but the image of Christ, an the constant sight of that image that will transform so that the image of God, tarnished by the fall, will be restored in you in all its glory. 

Amen.

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Saved by Cinema: 

A Review of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds

by S. Randall Toms, Ph.D.

             When we watch films or read accounts of the atrocities the Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis, we are filled with outrage and experience a kind of helplessness, wishing that somehow, someone would have been able to have helped them or prevented the events that led to the destruction of so many innocent lives.  Unfortunately, we cannot go back in time and prevent the slaughter and suffering from taking place, or bring World War II to a swifter conclusion so that, at least, some lives could be spared.  As we view films such as Valkyrie, many viewers can’t help but hope that somehow the plan to assassinate Hitler would succeed.  In recent years, some films have been made which write an alternate history, “what-if” stories that show how history could have been different if we had the ability to turn the clock back and reshape the actions and circumstances of certain key moments.    Though we are prevented from doing so in reality, film-makers, with their God-like abilities, can create a world in which things work out the way that we would have preferred.  Though in actual history, a savior might never arrive, films can rewrite history and provide a deliverer.  One of the reasons we like film so much is that in movies, the justice that we crave, can sometimes only be found in the world of fiction.             Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is such a rewriting of history, even, perhaps, a fairy tale.  The movie begins with the words flashed across the screen, “Once upon a time…” We even have images of Cinderella in this film, though the Cinderella in this story does not live happily ever after.  At the beginning of this horrific fairy tale, we encounter a truly despicable villain, Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), nicknamed “The Jew-Hunter,” who takes a cool, calculating pleasure in hunting and killing his victims.  (I am already beginning my campaign to see that Christoph Waltz wins the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.  His chilling, opening scene alone is worthy of an Oscar).  When one realizes that the Jews were facing the cold-bloodedness of people such as Landa, Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels, one desires that someone could come to deliver the Jews from their persecutors.

Enter, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his “Inglourious Basterds” who are on a mission to kill and scalp as many Jew-hunting Nazis as they can find.  Tarantino draws the title, Inglourious Basterds (deliberately misspelling both “inglorious” and “bastards”), from the 1978 Italian film The Inglorious Bastards directed by Enzo Castellari, known for his “spaghetti Westerns” and “macaroni” war movies. Castellari’s film is in the vein of such famous war movies as The Guns of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen.  Like  Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) in The Dirty Dozen, Lt. Aldo Raine (another nod of Tarantino to the famous star of war movies, Aldo Ray), has assembled a force of Jews who torture, kill, and scalp Nazis.  Having been trained by many years of movie-going to expect that these specially assembled, cracker-jack units will accomplish their mission, we anticipate that the Basterds will succeed.  In one scene, Hitler fears that one of the Basterds, nicknamed “the Bear-Jew,” might be a golem.  In Jewish folklore, a golem is a creature, usually made out of clay, sometimes given life by the incantations of a powerful rabbi, who protects and avenges the Jewish people.   The Basterds, in particular, the baseball bat-wielding Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) strike the fear of the legendary golem into the hearts of many Nazis.

At the same time that the Basterds are doing what they can to bring the war and the suffering of the Jews to an end, a Jewish girl, Shoshanna Dreyfus, is seeking revenge against Colonel Landa and all Nazis.   Shoshanna’s family is murdered at the beginning of the film by Landa and his Jew-hunters.  A few years after her escape, we find Shoshanna is now the owner of a cinema, posing as a Gentile with the name “Emmanuel.”  “Shoshanna” is the Hebrew form of the word “Susanna,” meaning “rose” or “lily.”  (Later in the film, Shoshanna will exact her revenge in a dress as red as a rose).  The apocryphal book of Susanna is often interpreted as teaching that God will deliver innocent sufferers, but in the case of Shoshanna’s family, they were not delivered.   She goes from being “Shoshanna” to being “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us.” 

The first time we encounter the name “Emmanuel” in the Bible is in the story of King Ahaz and the prophet Isaiah.  Ahaz wants to make a league with Assyria because he fears the alliance of the northern kingdom of Israel with Syria.  God wants the Jews to trust in him rather than form an alliance with a foreign nation.  As a sign that God is with the Jews, Isaiah says,

“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). 

Of course, Matthew applies this verse to Jesus at the time of his birth (Matt.  1:23).   Shoshanna, the rose, a symbol of Jewish innocence and purity, becomes, Emmanuel, the symbol that God is with his people and will deliver them.  In some ways, Tarantino’s Emmanuel is a Messianic figure who liberates the Jewish people from Hitler. 

Shoshanna/Emmanuel becomes a deliverer inadvertently.  A young German war hero, Frederick Zoller , finds her attractive, and though she rebuffs his advances, he is determined to win her affections.  Joseph Goebbels has made a propaganda film about Zoller’s heroic exploits as a sniper.  Through his Nazi connections, Zoller arranges for the premier of this biographical film to be shown in Emmanuel’s theater with all of the German leadership present, including Goering, Goebbels, and, as an added bonus, Hitler himself.  Emmanuel, God with us, sees this audience as the opportunity to destroy the German high command, exact vengeance, and possibly, bring a swift conclusion to the war.  As with most Tarantino movies, one cannot underestimate the importance of Westerns, especially the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone.  Throughout the movie, we often hear the musical strains of Ennio Morricone, who wrote the musical scores for such Westerns as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, A Fistful of DollarsFor a Few Dollars More, and Once upon a Time in the West, the latter film deserving special attention in relation to this film which even begins, “One upon a time in Nazi occupied France.”  Lt. Aldo Raine’s nickname is “The Apache.”  When Emmanuel puts on her makeup for this most important of premiers, she begins in a fashion that would resemble a Native American applying war paint.  One of the staple plots of the Western genre is the cowboy who seeks revenge against outlaws or Native Americans who have murdered his family.  In this subversive Western/World War II film,  Inglourious Basterds portrays a Jewish woman, unknowingly in league with “the Apache” who avenges the death of her family.

 Emmanuel does not realize that the Basterds are also intending to attend the premiere and destroy with powerful explosives  the Nazi leadership.  Like two sets of Western heroes, a combination of The Magnificent Seven and The Outlaw Josey Wales, the Basterds and Emmanuel converge to execute vengeance on those who have caused such unjust suffering.   Just as it seems that their plans might succeed, things begin to fall apart for both the Basterds and Emmanuel.  As a matter of fact, we don’t expect their plans to succeed, for, after all, we know that Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering did not die in a fire at a cinema, and the war dragged on for nearly another year.  But remember, this is a fairy tale, a rewriting of history by a filmmaker who can use his God-like prerogative to conclude the story as he, and many viewers would wish it to end.  In this alternative history, Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering do die, and we would assume, many lives are saved as a result.

Some critics of Inglourious Basterds have condemned how Tarantino seems to have turned the Jews into Nazis, making the Jews as cruel and sadistic as their tormentors.  Though Emmanuel may be “God with us,” finding a way to defeat the Nazis through violence, the last images we have of her in her  own film, laughing maniacally, surrounded by flames, remind one more of a devil dragging people with her into the flames of hell.  But as with all Tarantino films, there are many layers of meaning leading to multiple interpretations of the film.  One of the great pleasures of watching a Quentin Tarantino film is noticing all of the references to various aspects of culture, especially pop culture.  In this one film, in addition to the cultural references to which I have already mentioned, we find allusions to John Wayne, the Alamo, both the 1942 and 1982 versions of the movie Cat People, David Bowie, Jim Bridger, Hugo Stiglitz (a famous Mexican actor),  Slaughter (a movie starring former NFL great, Jim Brown), Sherlock Holmes, King Kong, Scottish artist Jack Vettriano,  Austrian film director, G. W. Pabst, references to Tarantino’s own movies such as Pulp Fiction,  just to mention a few.  Many movies invite viewing and re-viewing for various reasons.  In a Tarantino film, one needs multiple viewings just to unpack all of the cultural allusions that he crams into each one of his films.  Since he makes so much use of pop culture, our own experiences with those elements of pop culture, cause us to experience and interpret his films in different ways.  For example, when he uses a piece of music from popular culture, we have already heard that piece of music many times.  We have certain emotions connected with that music.  The music may have the power to recall certain memories that were important to us in our lives.  When we hear that music in one of Tarantino’s films, we are bringing the emotions and memories of that music to the experience of his movies, and our experience and interpretation of Tarantino’s films are influenced by our past associations with this music.  His combination of various genres, including fairy tales, folk tales, Westerns, war movies, detective stories,  and cultural references provide many layers of meaning to his films, and invite a wide range of interpretations.

 All of the references that Tarantino makes to film itself make each one of his movies a celebration of film, its beauty, its power to inspire, instruct, and its ability to give hope and meaning.  When one views a Tarantino film, we often realize that the movie is about film itself.  Many moviegoers love Quentin Tarantino films because it is so obvious that that he loves film so much.   In the final analysis, Inglourious Basterds is not about World II, Hitler, or the suffering of the Jews—it is a movie about movies. 

In a film, history can be rewritten.  In a horrific world of injustice, cinema, for a while at least, can provide us with saviors and vengeance.   In the end, it is not the Basterds or Emmanuel who deliver the Jewish people from further suffering—it is cinema.   God is with us in the cinema.  Shoshanna is a cinema owner who turns her theater into a furnace, just as Nazis used furnaces as crematoriums for the  Jewish people.  Goebbels is a movie producer.  Zoller is soldier made into a movie star.    Bridget von Hammersmark is star of German cinema.  This great act of deliverance occurs in a theater.    Goebbels has invited the elite of the German people to a theater to celebrate on film the exploits of a hero of the Third Reich.    As they are watching this cinematic celebration of German military prowess, they are unaware that a Jewish girl has also prepared a film that is going to displace their filmic celebration with a film that will narrate their own destruction, while staring at an image that proclaims, “This is the face of Jewish vengeance.”   The primary weapon that is used to burn the Nazis is the highly flammable nitrate film.  While the Nazis are watching that combination of films Shoshanna has edited, we are watching a film provides a sense of satisfaction, a kind of wish-fulfillment, that the careers of prominent warmongers and Jew-hunters are cut short. Do we not take some kind of delight, at least a guilty pleasure, in seeing Hitler and Goebbels killed by Jews than by committing suicide in a bunker?  Thousands of lives are saved by cinema in a way that satisfies our desires for justice. After the Cannes Film Festival, Quentin Tarantino remarked that in Inglourious Basterds,

“The power of cinema is going to bring down the Third Reich…I get a kick out of that.” 

One of the unsettling things about this rewriting of history is that deep down inside we know that it is an exercise in fantasy.  The war did not come to such a swift end, and more Jews were slaughtered.  But in this alternate universe that Tarantino has created, the Third Reich was brought down by cinema.  In such sentiments, could there be a suggestion that cinema might have the power to prevent such atrocities in the future?  Can cinema have a moral effect that might change people  to the degree that such atrocities might never happen again?

While it may seem ludicrous to suggest that film might be looked to as a savior, Robert K. Johnston, in his Reframing Theology and Film,  has noted that films not only “influence and express our values and beliefs,” but also, “provide our myths, morals, and rituals.”  It would seem that in some ways, the cinema has replaced the Church as the place people regularly attend to think seriously about the deep issues of life, to find some form of comfort, and  to search for some kind of meaning in their lives.  In an interview with Brad Pitt and Quentin Tarantino, Pitt speaks of how wonderful it is to work with someone as knowledgeable about film as Tarantino.  In the course of the interview, Pitt says,  that the set was church, Tarantino was God, the script was the Bible, and no heretics were allowed.  Though this statement might have been made without a great deal of theological or sociological forethought, Pitt has pointed out something that serious scholars of film have been noticing for quite some time:  film has become a kind of religion with many of the same characteristics as a religion.   To paraphrase Brad Pitt’s statement about working on a set with Quentin Tarantino, it would be possible to say that, for many people, the movie multiplex has become a church in which people’s belief and attitudes are shaped.  With tongue in cheek, I’m sure, at Cannes, Tarantino said that he was god  (in the sense that he created his characters)  and that Cannes was the holy land.  Sociologists and theologians are recognizing that, for many people, going to the movies is a worshiplike  experience.  Gordon Lynch, professor of sociology of religion at Birbeck University of London writes,

“If cinemagoing is indeed a significant ritual framework for engaging with meaning-laden narratives, then we need to understand more about what audiences bring to and take from such rituals if we are to have a fuller understanding of how films genuinely function as transmitters of ideologies in peoples lived experience…. Theologians need to turn their attention from a pure focus on film texts to the ways in which people make use of films in their own personal, meaning-making activities” (112).   

Whether or not people in the Church want to recognize this fact,  the beliefs and morality of people are being shaped more by cinema than they are by Church.  The Church can respond by looking upon the film industry as the enemy, or the Church can choose to enter into a form of interreligious dialogue with film and filmmakers, recognizing and respecting the power of film.  For Christians and non-Christians, films can be part of our shared experience, a common ground through which we are both being transformed.

Far too often, the Church has only tried to make moral judgments about film or particular films.  We need to recognize that for the foreseeable future, films are here to stay and that they are having a great impact upon our culture.  The Church must do more than take a moral stand about film.  Rather, the Church should use film as a means to engage culture and even to profit spiritually by going to the movies.  To quote Gordon Lynch again,

“Such engagements need to move beyond superficial moral judgments about the behaviors of individual characters, (e. g., Is a character a good role model or not, based on whether the person lies, steals, cheats, engages in illicit sexual activity, etc.?)….  Such a contextual theology of film will therefore move beyond superficial moral critiques of characters to explore how empathic and imaginative engagement with film texts and characters contributes to our theological understanding of an authentic whole, and creative personal life….  It is perhaps as we learn to think about cinemagoing as itself a spiritual practice that we will really discover how to nurture personal, transformative theological encounters with film” (122-3). 

Theology not only helps us to understand films.  Films, in a very profound way, can help us to understand and apply  our theology in more meaningful ways.  Too often, Christians have sought to justify their film-going by saying that they were there simply to garner ammunition to oppose unchristian worldviews.  While part of a Christian response to film might be to point out  immoral and unhealthy worldviews and beliefs, the Christian can attend films as means of spiritual growth.  Through a biblically informed engagement with what is good and bad, moral and immoral in film, we can be transformed.  While few Christians today would perhaps see film attendance as a spiritual practice, pastors, teachers, and parents should, in fact, see films as opportunities for God to speak to us.  Rather than sitting by idly and bemoaning the influence of film, we should actively enter into the joy of film as a means of spiritual transformation.

Is it possible for God to speak to us in film, not only through overtly religious films about the life of Christ, but through films such as Inglourious Basterds? The final scene at the cinema in Inglourious Basterds is almost a religious service where people come to pay tribute to one of the new saints of the Third Reich.  But it was through the cinema that Emmanuel brought an end to the war.  She was willing to sacrifice herself in the theater. By burning down her own theater, which the Nazis have transformed into a temple of the Third Reich, she saved the world from further destruction.  She and her friend function  almost as Samson who pulls down the temple of Dagon on the Philistines and themselves in order that others might be liberated.    Is God with us in the movies?  Can we be saved by cinema?  While cinema, of course, can never be a substitute for the saving work of Christ on the cross and ministry of the Church to bring us to final salvation, a thoughtful interaction with cinema can be used by the Holy Spirit to save us from our sinful behaviors by poignantly presenting to us the sadness and suffering caused by human sin.  In this manner, film could serve not merely as the escapist fantasy of an alternate history, but as the means of preventing such horrors from taking place again. 

Works Cited

ychn, Gordon.  “Film and the Subjective Turn:  How the Sociology of Religion Can Contribute to Theological Readings of Film.”  Reframing Theology and Film:  New Focus for an Emerging Discipline.  E. Robert K. Johnston.  Baker Academic:  Grand Rapids, 2007.  109-125.

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Last Days Lunacy

 Sermon preached by the Rev. Toms at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Baton Rouge, on September 6, 2009

Acts 1:6

In a couple of months, a new movie is going to be released entitled 2012.  It is a movie about the end of the world, and how it is going to take place in that year.    You may have already seen how some scholars and new age mystics are saying that the world may come to an end, or at least there is going to be great apocalyptic event in that year.  These predictions are based on the idea that the ancient Mayan calendar ends on December 21, 2012.      Some people are saying that the end of the Mayan Calendar means the end of the world, while others say that it means the beginning of a  new spiritual awakening, the Age of Aquarius.  Others say that in 2012 there are going to be earthquakes, tsunamis, solar flares, increased global warming that will melt the polar ice caps and flood the earth,  and category five hurricanes.  Some people are combining the Book of Revelation, the I Ching, and Islamic writings, and make all of them support the significance of December 21, 2012.

 Also, some people say that a book has been found that people think may be a lost book of the famous medieval psychic, Nostradamus.    According to those who have read the book, the writings have been interprepted to mean that Nostradamus also predicted that the world would come to an end, or at least some apocalyptic tragedy will happen on that same date, December 21, 2012.  According to these predictions, the earth is going to be exposed to a huge gravitational wave  that is going to cause great earthquakes.  Broken planets and asteroids are going to collide with the earth.  The rotation of the earth is going to change.  In less than 10 hours, the continents are going to be covered with water.   So, as 2012 approaches, look for doomsday prophets,  predictions of the end of the world to increase.  As you are checking out of the supermarkets, keep a close eye on the tabloids, because I’m quite sure that every cover will have knew prophecies about the end of the world.

          Now, it is easy for us to dismiss the rather bizarre ramblings and predictions of new age prophets and sensationalists, but we have to remember that Christians have a long history of making such predictions about the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world.  People in the mainstream of Christianity and those on what we might call the lunatic fringe of Christianity, have made equally outrageous prophecies about the Second Coming of Christ, and those continue, even among those who are considered by many misguided people, respectable  Bible teachers.  It has been so difficult for Christians to read in the Bible about the return of Christ, and refrain from looking for the signs and setting dates for his return.  We can say that throughout the history of the church, many people believed that Christ would return in their lifetime or at least in their generation and they had the Scripture texts to prove it.

Many have based their predictions about the end of the world on the six days of creation.  If a thousand years equals one day, then the world would last only six thousand years, the theory goes.  Back in the third century, Hippolytus predicted that the end would come somewhere around the year 500,  which, according to his calculations, was 6,000 years after creation.   It seems that any time one of the big, round dates occur, 1000, 2000, predictions about the Second Coming reach a fever pitch.   When Christ doesn’t return, people make adjustments in their calendar, realizing that Christ was born in 6 B. C. or 4 B. C. or whatever date best fits the new prediction to make those big round numbers of 1000 or 2000 fit.   Or perhaps we should date the thousand years from the resurrection of Christ, again, whichever makes those dates work out best.  In 1010, there was an idea publicized that the 1000 year millennium of the book of Revelation had come to an end.  In 1033, it was said by some that the millennium was beginning because 1033 was a thousand years after the death of a Christ.  In the 13th century it was predicted that in 1260 the age of grace would end and the age of the Spirit would begin.  In the 16th century Muntzer predicted that the Christ would return soon.  In 1533, it was predicted that Christ would return on October 19, 1533 at 8:00 A. M.   It was predicted by others that Christ would return on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1534. 

Another prediction was 1572, since Constantine had made Christianity the official religion of the empire in 312.  You know the Bible talks about time, times, and half a time which is sometimes interpreted to mean 3 ½ years, or 1260 days.  But some have interpreted it to mean 1260 years.  Well, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire in 312.  1260 plus 312 equals 1272.  I was sharing with the men the other  night that at the Bible study that many people were looking for the second coming in 1588.  Melancthon, for example, had figured 70 years from 1517, when Luther had posted his 95 Theses.  The year after that, 1588, would be the end of time.  When the Spanish Armada was headed toward England in 1588, many people thought that the prophecy of the end of the world was coming true.  One of the most interesting studies you can ever make is to take those numbers, 1260, 70, 3 1/2 , 1000, and study how throughout the history of the church those numbers have been used to predict the nearness of the second Coming, and also why certain dates were chosen as the starting date to start counting off the 3 ½ years or the thousand years.

In 1666 London had endured a plague and a great fire.  1666 ended with 666, so that year had the end of the world written all over it.  In the 19th  century, a Russian prophet took some of his followers to the mountains to await the end of the world  They gave up all of their possessions to follow him and wait for the end.  It never came.  Of course, one of the most famous predictions of the end of the world occurred in 1844 when William Miller who predicted that Christ would return on March 21, 1844.  When it didn’t happen, the date was set back October 22, 1844.  When that didn’t happen, his followers said that Christ had returned, but he had returned invisibly.

          Charles Taze Russell predicted the rapture would occur  in 1914, based on the way he computed things in the book of Daniel.  Of course, his followers became what we know now as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.    The Jehovah’s Witnesses have predicted the Second Coming would occur 1874, 1878, 1881, 1910, 1914, 1918, 1925, 1975, and 1984.  When Christ didn’t return in 1914, again it was said that he had returned in a spiritual sense. 

When Israel was made a state in 1948, the prophecy freaks just went off the charts. IN 1967 when the Jews reclaimed part of Jerusalem, prophecy buffs just went to pieces and we were told that the countdown to Armageddon had begun.  Some of these well-known Bible teacher predicted the rapture would occur before the end of 1981, basing the date on the idea that Israel had been restored as a nation in 1948, and Jesus said that a generation wouldn’t pass away after that before the Great Tribulation.  Some predicted that since a generation lasted 40 years and Israel was had become a nation in 1948, the rapture would occur in 1988.  Edgar C. Whisenant  wrote a book entitled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will be in 1988.  When that didn’t happen, he wrote a book entitled 89 Reasons Why the Rapture Will be in 1989.   

Well, I won’t bore you more of these dates, suffice it to say that Christians have predicted the rapture of the church, or the beginning of the millennium, or the second coming in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000,…do I have to go on?  You see what I’m saying.  There is a book written every year that says this year or the next year or five years from now, or 10 years from now, the Lord is going to return.  One thing is for certain, one day, someone is going to get it right, because there will never be a year pass that someone is not going to predict that Christ will return that year.  But when that person finally gets it right, it won’t be because they had a revelation that Christ would return or because they figured it out by signs or by working the numbers in Scripture in a careful way.  It will be a lucky guess.

          We could put these prophets about the end times into two categories.  First, there are those who claim to have received a special revelation from God about when the world is going to come to an end.  There have been these kinds of people throughout the history of Christian church.  Normally, most such people are just dismissed, for it has been the teaching of the Church in most ages that the word of God has told us all we need to know about the  second coming of Christ, and we need no new revelations.  But sometimes, these prophets and prophetesses are so charismatic that they gain huge followings.  Couple their charisma with people’s fears about tribulation and approaching judgment, and many people can’t help but take these so-called prophets seriously.  These  prophets and visionaries come from Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Charismatic churches.  You may have heard on the news, or seen in various documentaries, or read on the Internet the prophecies that were revealed in what is called the third, or last prophecy of Fatima.  You remember that three children in Portugal claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary in 1917, and Mary revealed certain prophecies to them.  The third prophecy was not to be revealed until 1960. When 1960 rolled around, John XXIII did not release the prophecy.  It was finally released in June 2000.  Like most prophecies, the language is open to various interpretations.  In other words, no one really knows what it means.  Furthermore, if you have read much on this subject, you know there is controversy about whether or not this third message is genuine, and also about a fourth secret that is yet to be revealed, that the Vatican may be engaged in a cover-up.  Then, according to which  website you visit, there are all kinds of other predictions attached to it about earthquakes, wind, peace talks, darkness covering the earth, etc., and so many people are expecting the return of Christ soon because of Fatima.

 But Roman Catholics are not the only one who claim to have such revelations.  Since the Reformation, countless people outside the Roman Catholic Church have had visions and revelations that Christ is going to return at a certain time.  I have already mentioned some of them in the course of this sermon.   One thing we can say for certain about all of these people so far is that they have all been wrong.    Yet, in spite of the fact that they have all been wrong so far, the next person to make such a prediction will have a following.  I don’t know which saying to applies to such people, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” or “There’s one born every minute.”  You may ask, “Father Toms, don’t you think we should pay attention to these predictions just in case they might really have received a revelation from God?   Absolutely not!  You can dismiss their predictions without further thought.  Everything you need to know about the Second Coming of Christ is contained here in Scripture.    You don’t need the predictions of the next self-proclaimed prophet. 

Our Lord actually warned us against getting caught up in this kind of last days lunacy.  Just before he ascended to the Father, the disciples asked him, “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).  Jesus answer to them was, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.  But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).  When the disciples wanted to know things about the future, Jesus didn’t tell them to go back to Jerusalem and have an end times conference.  He didn’t even say, “Wait for the Holy Spirit, and he will reveal to you what you need to know about the end times, and then you can have a Bible study and figure it all out.”  He said, Go to Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit will be given to you so that you can be my witnesses.”  Don’t worry about the end times.  Just be busy about spreading the good news of salvation to all the world, and leave all those questions about the end times to me.

But most of the predictions about the end times don’t come from those who claim to have received private, special revelations from God.  Most predictions comes from conservative Bible teachers who have figured out when Christ is going to return by treating the Bible as a kind of jig-saw puzzle, pulling verses out from here and there and putting them together to support certain times and dates.    I hate to have to admit it, but I am an expert at this.  My wife can tell you that in the early days of my ministry I would show up on Wednesday nights to teach the Book of Revelation and the Book of Daniel with my maps and my charts.  I could tell you about that image in the book of Daniel and it’s gold head, breast and arms of silver, thighs of brass, legs of iron, feet of iron and clay   and what all that meant.  I could tell you about that stone cut out without hands.   I could tell you about those four beasts that came up from the sea, and that beast that had the ten horns and the little horn.  I could tell you all about the  weeks of Daniel and how they fit into Bible prophecy and which portions of the Book of Daniel were being fulfilled now and which would soon be fulfilled.  I could take you into Ezekiel and prove to you by Scripture, maps, and the newspaper the identities of Gog and Magog.  I could take you to Revelation and tell you all about the riders on the white horse, red horse, the black horse, and the pale horse.  I could explain to you all the seals and trumpets, the beast and the false prophet.  You should have heard me.  I was very good at it.  But thankfully, through  years of Bible study I saw through that system of Biblical interpretation.  What these people do is study with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.   If they read about an earthquake, a war, or a famine, they say, “See, the coming of the Lord is soon.”   Reports come in that vultures in the Middle East are laying more eggs than ever.  Whatever is happening in the news, they read that back into the Biblical text.  It’s no surprise then why their predictions keep changing over the years.   I can remember when almost all the prophecy books were about how Russia and China were going to be key players in the end of the world.  Some said that Russia and China were going to invade Israel.  Everybody was keeping track of the size of the Chinese army.  Well, when the Soviet Union collapsed,  then all the attention was turned to Iraq, and lo and behold, these Bible teachers said, Hey, Babylon wasn’t Russia after all.  It was literal Babylon.  Well, once Iraq loses a little power, and Russia starts on the rise again, look for the books to change again. 

And if something happens in Israel, these Bible teachers just go all to pieces.    Ever since the state of Israel was established in 1948, these Bible teachers have just gone into high octane overdrive.  That’s why 1988 was such a popular date for the Second Coming, but I’ve seen 2048 coming into literature now.  I won’t be around for that, but some of you kids can remember that Father Toms said that there would be a case of end times madness in 2048.  There’s my prophecy.    It seems that every year we hear of a new candidate to be the Anti-Christ.  I remind you, that this has been going on for centuries.  Down through the years, Bible teachers have indentified the Anti-Christ as Mohammed, Pope Gregory VII, and numerous other popes, Napoleon, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler.  Just in my lifetime, I’ve seen the Anti-Christ proclaimed to be Kruschev, Kissinger, Ted Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan.   It’s fun to go back through history and see how these Bible teachers worked it out to prove that these names resulted in 666.  I don’t know who the next candidate for the anti-Christ will be, but you can be sure that it will be proved from the Bible, he is the one.  And the next date for the Second Coming will also be proved conclusively from Scripture.  I remind you that all of the dates I mentioned earlier were proved from Scripture, using such things as the 70 weeks of Daniel.  Yes, you say, but they were wrong.  And your favorite Bible teacher has it right?  It is incredible how many predictions have been made about the second coming, and how many people have been convinced that the Lord is going to return at a certain time, and all these hopes were disappointed, yet people will still jump on the band wagon of the next person who sets a date.  Bible teachers about the second coming are like weather men—they don’t ever have to be right and they can still keep their jobs. Just remember that the next time you read a book or an article or hear a televangelist or radio preacher, and they start talking about 70 weeks, 7 years, 3 ½ years, 1,000 years, etc, remember that every person who has used all of those numbers to predict the end has used those same exact verses, those same exact numbers, and they have all been wrong.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s the Mayan Calendar, Nostradamus, Fatima, or that very popular Bible teacher—it’s all the same.  They don’t know.  Treat the latest book on Bible prophecy the way you would the movie 2012—as a work of fiction.

Why are these Bible teachers so popular and why do their books sell so well.  Well, there is just a fascination that  people have about things like the end of the world.  Some of our most popular movies are those that have apocalyptic scenarios.   The threat of nuclear holocaust, the danger of a giant sun flare, the collision of the earth with a giant asteroid—these are things that just fascinate people.  Plus, among Christian people, many of us want to believe that perhaps the Lord will come back before we die.  We don’t really want to go through the experience of death, so we take a kind of comfort in thinking that perhaps the Lord will return before we have to go through that experience.    And then, when things really start going downhill morally and politically, when it looks as though Christians are going to be brutally persecuted, we like to take hope in the idea that the Lord will return and save us from having to suffer in the way that millions of Christians before us have had to suffer.  But perhaps the main reason these books and teachers are so popular is that the end times game is just plain fun.  I mean, it’s mind candy.  It’s just fun to weave those Bible verses together with today’s newspaper.  People just love it.    You know, I really wish I believed all this end times stuff, because there’s a lot of money to be made in it.  Why do you think the cover of most supermarket tabloids almost always has a cover or a headline about the end of the world?  Do you think that if it didn’t make money they would be putting that on the cover?  I was telling some of the men the other night that if I was willing to teach this last days lunacy, we would have a much larger congregation.  I mean, I could run an ad in the paper, Come learn how to pray, how to lead a godly life, the benefits of receiving communion, and we would have 5 people.  If I ran an ad in the paper that I was going to show how Christ was going to return in 2010, we wouldn’t have enough seats.    People are just fascinated by it.

You may be asking me, “Father Toms, don’t you believe that we are living in the last days.”  I certainly do.  But I believe that we have been living in the last days for nearly 2,000 years.    Peter said on the day of Pentecost, “But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God,I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh…”  Acts 2:16-17.  According to Peter, we’ve been in the last days since the day of Pentecost, nearly 2000 years ago.  The writer to the Hebrews said, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son…” (Heb. 1:1-2).   The Apostle John said in I John 2:18, “Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.”  According to John, the last time, the last hour, had already come 2000 years ago.  You ask, Well, Fr. Toms, don’t you believe Jesus is coming soon?  I surely do.  But he has been coming soon for 2,000 years.   I believe he is coming soon, but my concept of “soon” and God’s concept of “soon” are two different things.  As we saw earlier, in the sight of God, a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years is as a day.”  Jesus may come tomorrow.  He may come 2,000 years from now.  But whether its tomorrow or 2,000 years, that will be soon.  You ask, Don’t you think we are living in the end times.  Yes, but we have been living in the end times for nearly 2,000 years.  Paul wrote in I Cor. 10: 11.  Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.”  The ESV translates that verse, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”  Has come.  We are not waiting for the end times.  We have been living in the end of the ages ever since Christ came 2000 years ago. 

Now, you may be saying, Father Toms, why are preaching a message like this to us?  First, I ‘m trying to save you some money.  The next time you are in your favorite Christian book store and you see the newest book on Bible prophecy, or the next time you hear your favorite Bible teacher on radio or television peddling his latest book on the end times, save your money.  He doesn’t know any more about the end times than you do.  Buy a book on prayer and holy living.  It will do you far more good.

Second, I’m trying to keep you from selling your house and moving to the mountains to wait for the end.  History has shown that that has never been a good idea.

On a more serious note, I am trying to save your credibility and the credibility of the Christian faith.  When Christians go around predicting the date of the second coming, or telling people he’s coming in the next five years or the next 20 years, especially using Scripture to do it, and then it doesn’t come to pass, what does the world come to think of the Bible and those who believe it.  The world says, See, you can use the Bible to come up with any date or century that you want to prove when Christ is going to return.  The thing is—they are correct.  You can.  And now throw all this garbage about Bible codes, secret numbers and codes in the Bible that predict future world events, the Bible becomes more a text on new age numerology rather than Holy Scripture.  But the Bible wasn’t meant to be used and interpreted in that fashion, and when you fall for these predictions about the end times, and even propagate these theories, you are supporting not on an erroneous system of Biblical interpretation, but, inadvertently, you aid to the skepticism about the word of God.

Next,  I’m preaching this sermon to remind you that you should be ready for the coming of Christ, not because some Bible teacher said that he was coming soon, in the next generation, in the next 5 years or the next 10 years, but because we should always be ready for him.   Besides, the Lord may delay his coming for another thousand years, another 10,000 years.  We are not certain.  But it is certain that if he delays his coming, you will die, and you will meet him.  Rather than stewing about the end of world, be prepared to meet him whether it is by death or by his return.  And the way you show that you are ready for him is by serving him right now.  What would you do if you knew Christ were going to return tomorrow?  I hope you would say, Nothing different than I usually do.  I would get up, pray with my family, and go to work.   Jesus taught us in Matthew 24: 45:

“Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. Verily I say unto you, That he shall make him ruler over all his goods. But and if that evil servant shall say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; And shall begin to smite his fellowservants, and to eat and drink with the drunken;  The lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, And shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  The way you get ready for the coming of Christ is not by figuring out the times and going to wait on a mountain somewhere.  You get ready for the coming of Christ by simply doing every day what you have been called to do.  Many people in the church have made the terrible mistake of waiting for the end to come, and neglected their duty of doing good in the world.  The Christian should not be waiting for the end of the world, he should be actively engaged in the world trying to change the world.  While we’ve been waiting for the end of the world, we’ve let the pagans take over this present world.”

This is what we learn from that section in our 39 Articles on the end of the world.  Turn with me in your prayer books to the 39 articles to the section on the end of the world.  I tricked you.  There is no such section.  Isn’t that amazing.  When we think of how modern Christians are just obsessed with end times prophecies, our articles of religion don’t even contain an article on the Second Coming of Christ.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  There is article VIII, Of the Creeds, which reads, “The Nicene Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.  What does the Apostles’ Creed say, “He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of god the Father Almighty:  From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”  What does the Nicene Creed say, “and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.”  That’s my eschatology.  As you know, I’m a deep theologian when it comes to the second coming.  This is what I believe about the Second Coming of Christ.  And he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.”  To paraphrase Keats on another subject, “That’s all you know, and all you need to know.”  Christ is coming, and when he does, he will judge you.  Be ready for him.  If you know him as your Lord and Saviour, you have nothing to fear about the end of the world.  If you know if him as your Lord and Saviour, if you are trusting, not in your own righteousness, but in his blood shed for you on the cross, then you will be part of his kingdom that shall have no end.  Until he comes, be diligent in your Master’s service, so that you might here his words of Welcome, Well done, thou good and faithful servant. 

Amen.

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Preached by Rev. Father Toms at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Baton Rouge, LA on September 13, 2009

Zech. 4: [8] Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,
[9] The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also finish it; and thou shalt know that the LORD of hosts hath sent me unto you.
[10] For who hath despised the day of small things? for they shall rejoice, and shall see the plummet in the hand of Zerubbabel with those seven; they are the eyes of the LORD, which run to and fro through the whole earth.

          As we look around us today at our congregation, we can see that compared to many other churches, we are quite small.  We started out almost seven years ago as a small congregation, and we are about the same size as when we started.  If some people hadn’t moved out of town over the course of these years, we would be a larger congregation, but we have remained relatively small.  As we look toward the future, we have to face the possibility that we might remain small.  It might be that we will never have that beautiful building of our own that we always dream of having, because we just won’t have enough people with enough money to buy land in this city and erect that truly, beautiful, gothic, Episcopal style of building which many of us envision. 

Whenever you think about our church, what we stand for, what we believe, and our style of worship, just from a human standpoint, our chances of  growing a large church are pretty slim.  Unlike most denominations or independent groups, we do not have a ready-made audience.  There aren’t thousands of people with a Reformed Episcopal background looking for a church home.  If people move to Baton Rouge from another city, how many of them are going to be looking for a Reformed Episcopal Church.  The chances are far more likely that they are going to be looking for a Catholic Church, a Baptist Church, or an independent charismatic congregation.  Normally, if someone is going to attend our church, it means that they have experienced a radical change in their beliefs. 

For people to come to our church probably means that they were used to a very different kind of worship that what we engage in here—from a kind of free, loose, easy-going, contemporary, folksy kind of a worship to one that is liturgical, reverent, and fixed.  For some people, attending this congregation would require a great change in their doctrinal beliefs.  Our beliefs about baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the Church, bishops, and salvation would require some people to adopt an entirely different way of looking at these doctrines than they have been taught.  So, here we are this little congregation, very conservative theologically, with a high church liturgy, getting higher all the time, that believes in baptismal regeneration and the real presence of Christ in the supper, that children should participate in communion, with a strong emphasis on preaching and Bible study, promoting a rigorous engagement with our culture, and not beyond having a drink or two.  Where do we fit?  We don’t fit anywhere.  We are a totally unique congregation.  Let’s face it.  There just aren’t that many people in this city looking for that kind of church. 

So, from a totally human perspective, we would have to say that our chances of attracting people are quite small.  As a matter of fact, we will have to say that no one is going to come here unless the Holy Spirit works in them in an extremely powerful way.  But unless the Holy Spirit does this, we are not going to grow just because we do something like a successful marketing campaign.  A transformation has to take place for anyone to attend our church.  A transformation in which a person accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior through the instrumentality of this church, or a transformation that would cause Christians from other groups to completely discard some of their most cherished beliefs and opinions.  So, I’m just alerting you—we may be small for quite a while.

          But what I want to preach on this morning is this:  Is being a small church a bad thing?  In our text for this morning, the people of Judah are facing the enormous task of having to rebuild the temple.  It was going to be a slow work, but God gives them the promise that they will finish it.  But in the beginning of this great work, they were very discouraged.  It was a day of small things.  God challenges them not to despise the day of small things, the day of humble beginnings.  In America, we do despise the day of small things, especially small churches.  Judging things by American standards of success, we tend to look upon something small as being less than successful.  That is nowhere more true than in the way people look at the church.  In these days of the huge mega-churches, the churches with the largest congregations are looked upon as the pinnacle of success and achievement, and every church should strive to be a mega-church with thousands of members, and if you do not achieve that standard of success, then you are doing something wrong.  If we were worshiping in the right way, if we had the right programs and activities, if we had the right music, then all churches would be mega-churches, bursting at the seams.

          Now, I have pointed out to you in the past that these mega-churches are not nearly as successful as we think they are.  The fact of the matter is, that the back door on these churches is as big as the front door.  They get in a lot of new members, but they don’t stay very long.  And I have pointed out to you that just because these mega-churches are growing does not mean that the Church of Jesus Christ is growing.  Those churches are not being filled with the unchurched.  They are filling up with people who had been members of other churches.  We are not growing, we are just swapping members on a regular basis.  We think we are growing, but we are only adding members who were already members of other churches.  But it is not my intention in this sermon to put down large churches.  As a matter of fact, I would say that the Church needs large churches.  They have great ministries.  This week I was with my grandchildren at the school where they attend which is part of the ministry of a large Episcopal Church.  As I worshiped with them in that huge, beautiful sanctuary, I was filled with envy.  Would I love to have a building such as that?  You know it.  Wouldn’t I love to have enough money where we could build a huge educational complex that would be large enough to house a school that goes through the 8th grade.  Of course, I would.  Large churches have their ministries, and God bless them and their efforts.  But the small church has its place and its ministry as well.  At the present time, God has seen fit that we should be a small congregation.  It may be that one day we will grow into something larger, but if we do, it won’t mean that during this time we were doing something wrong.  The large church is not better than the small church.  It is just different, with a different ministry.  The small church is not better than a large church.  It’s just different, fulfilling the purpose that God has for it in the growth of his kingdom.

          The small church often feels inferior to the large church, and because of its feelings of inferiority, it is obsessed with the idea of growth.  How can we grow numerically?  How can we add new members to our church rolls?  Now, there is nothing wrong with a desire to grow, if we are desiring to grow for the right reasons.  If we are desiring to grow just out of pride so that we can think we are successful, then this kind of desire for growth is sinful.  At this church we desire to grow only for three reasons:  1) we want to see more people come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; 2) we want to see Christian people exposed to the truth of God’s holy word so that they might grow into mature Christian people; 3) to have the resources to be able to minister to the needs of people in their lives.  It’s not really growth, per se, that we are after.  We just have a desire for as many people as possible to be saved, grow in the knowledge of God’s word, and to have more opportunities to support good works.   But we can become obsessed with growth just for the sake of growth, and when we do that, we are often willing to compromise our beliefs and our practices.  Would we be a larger congregation if we changed our beliefs in certain areas?  Of course.  If we gave up our style of worship, if we gave up our beliefs on the sacraments, of course, we would be larger.   But we do not want to grow for the sake of growth.  We want more people to worship God in this particular way, which we believe is the Biblical pattern for worship.  We want more people to have a sacramental understanding of the faith that would enrich their spiritual lives.  If these things were not essential, then I would dismiss you and say, “Join one of the larger churches.”  But if our understanding of worship and practice is Biblical, it is worth persevering even though we are small. 

          As I say, we often feel inferior because we are small, but we are not inferior, not sinful, not unsuccessful, we are merely different, with a different ministry.  The small church has a ministry all its own, and we should not be ashamed of it, but rather glory in the ministry and advantages that a small church has.  Some years ago, Paul Madsen wrote a book entitled, The Small Church: Valid, Vital, Victorious.  We don’t see it that way, do we?  We always look at the small church as sick, lacking, in need of repair, irrelevant, waiting for that glorious day when it is large and can really do something worthwhile in the world.  But the small church can be a healthy, vibrant church.  We do not need to apologize for being small.  The small church is valid, vital, and can be victorious as a small church.

          One thing we can take some encouragement in is the fact that most churches, down through history have been small.  Even if we go back to the days of the New Testament, we must realize that the early church had no church buildings.  For a while, in the book of Acts, early Christians went to the temple to pray if they lived around Jerusalem.  Sometimes, Christians went to the local Jewish synagogue, but by and large they met in people’s houses.    On the day of Pentecost, they were meeting in the upper room of someone’s house.    In Acts 2:46, we read, “And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart.”  They were having the Lord’s Supper in people’s houses.    In Acts 8:3, when Paul is persecuting the church, where was the church meeting?  “As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.”  When Peter was delivered from prison in Acts 12, the Church was having a prayer meeting at someone’s house:  “And when he had considered the thing, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying.”  In Romans 16, we find Paul writing, “Greet Priscilla and Aquila my helpers in Christ Jesus: Who have for my life laid down their own necks: unto whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Likewise greet the church that is in their house” (3-5).   Paul writes in I Cor. 16:19, “The churches of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.”  In Col. 4:15, Paul writes, “Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house.”  In Philemon 1:2, Paul writes, “And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house:”  Now,  I am not advocating the idea of house churches which are becoming so popular in these days.  As you know, some people are leaving institutional churches and forming groups in their homes and they are calling themselves “house churches.”  Very often, these house churches are simply independent groups who can’t get along with anyone else so they just form their own group in their own house.  I mentioned this house church movement to Bishop Grote one time and he said he had no problem with that if these groups were under the authority of an Episcopal bishop.  This is the way it was in the early church.  The church was meeting in houses all over cities such as Rome and Corinth, but they were under the authority and discipline of one bishop, so that they were believing the same thing and speaking the same thing. 

          Anyway, my point is that from the beginning, even when thousands were being converted, there were no huge church buildings with all of the activities that we seem to think are so essential.  The churches were necessarily small.  Because of persecution, Christians couldn’t even build church buildings to meet in.  We do find archeological evidence in the third century of a home that had been converted into a meeting place for Christians, but it is not until the 4th century, after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire, that we find Christians building church building for the purpose of worship.    So the church was thriving and growing for 3 centuries without large church buildings.

          Even now, in spite of all the publicity that is given to the large mega churches, most churches are small churches.  Did you realize that in North America, ¼ of all Protestant congregations have fewer than 35 people in attendance on Sunday morning?  One half of all Protestant congregations attend churches where there are less than 75 people in attendance on Sunday morning.  Looked at in that light, we aren’t so below average after all.  We are an average North American congregation.  So, from the time of the early church, until the present time, God has used small churches.  What is it that the small church has to offer which people need, things that perhaps not even the largest of churches can offer?

          One of the advantages a small church has is that it offers intimacy, a family-like atmosphere.  I was reading an article the other day that pointed out that large churches tend to see themselves as institutions and the pastor as a kind of CEO.  But small churches see themselves as a family with the pastor as a father.  One of the problems a large church has is in getting people to know one another, to share their lives with one another.  So, in large churches, you will often see them trying  to foster fellowship by organizing into small groups, and of course, what you wind up with is a small church within the large church.  You have heard of large churches forming cell groups and in these cell groups they try to get together, have dinners together, have Bible studies together, etc.   In our church, we don’t have cell groups—we are the cell group, the whole church is the cell group.  Therefore, we have an intimacy across our congregation that would not be possible in a large congregation.  Unfortunately, many people seek out a large church because it is possible to get lost, it is possible to become anonymous, and when you are anonymous then  there is no responsibility and no accountability.  In the small church, it is difficult to hide.  If you miss a few Sundays, everyone knows about it, and someone is going to check up on you.  Because we are small, we function much as a family.  Families care about one another.  In large congregations, you will often hear the pastor and leaders to plead with their people get to know one another and care about one another, show love and concern about one another.  But in the small congregation, we all know one another.  We know the hopes, the fears, the dreams, the tragedies, and the disappointments of one another.  Like a family, we care about one another, and we discipline, correct, and encourage one another. 

          Two weeks ago, we had the baptism of Grace and Sophia.  Afterwards, I invited the whole congregation to our house for a time of food and fellowship.  Could I have done that if we had had a congregation of a thousand people?  Of course not.  But we were able to invite the whole congregation, rejoice together in the most important day of their lives.  And the people who were visitors, were so impressed, not only with the service, but the family atmosphere that they experienced while they were at our home with our congregation.  One of the advantages of a small church is that its worship and fellowship is usually intergenerational.  I mean we have all age groups worshiping together.  In some large churches you have children’s church, the youth church, contemporary church, the old folks’ church.  We don’t split up the congregation in these ways.  We are a family.

          Another advantage of the small congregation is that it can emphasize and put all of its resources into what is essential.  Large churches have many programs, and they may be good to have, but they are not essential.   The essential things are things like worship, and of course, here, the priority of our church life is worship.  There is nothing more important than the worship of almighty God.  People sometimes say that the chief task of the church is evangelism, but the chief task of the church is worship.  As a matter of fact, the reason that we do evangelism is to make people worshipers of almighty God.    When we invite people to Christ, we invite them to our church, and we say, “Look at our worship.  We want you to come to Christ so that you can do what we are doing right now—worshiping Almighty God—learn to worship him now because this is the way you are going to be worshiping him throughout  all eternity.”    In the small church, we may not have the resources to engage in all the various programs and activities that larger churches have, but we can worship, and since that it is a priority anyway, we can channel all our energies and desires in that direction.

          Being a small church also allows us to channel our energies into the preaching and teaching of God’s holy word.  One of the disadvantages of the large church is that people are so caught up in various activities, various fun activities, people have little time or desire to study the word of God.  You need a great deal of money to do some of the things that the large churches do, but all you need to study the word of God is a Bible and some time.  Since I am the pastor of a small church, I can give a great deal of time to the study of God’s word so that I can in turn teach you.  So, each week, I do a Sunday School lesson, a sermon, a youth bible study, and a men’s bible study.  Do you think I would have time to do that, adequately anyway, if this were a congregation of a thousand people?  Also, you have to realize that in order to be a truly effective preacher of God’s word, you have to know the people to whom you are preaching.  If I were the pastor of a thousand member congregation, how many  conversations do you think you and I would have had in the past year? Any? Other than, how are you doing today?  Good preaching and teaching comes out of knowing the hearts and minds of the people to whom  you are ministering. 

          Another advantage that a small church has is a sense of identity and asense of loyalty.  Out in the country, when you find a small church, people are loyal to the church because they have been members there all their lives.  They probably have a church cemetery and their family members are buried there.  They will never leave that church because their lives and the histories of their families are tied up in that church, probably the life of the small town as well.  It’s all connected to the church, and people are intensely loyal to it.  IN the city, it is usually different.  Some of the churches have families that have been there for ages, and they are loyal to it for that reason.  But in our increasingly mobile society, most people in churches these days are first generation members, they have been members of the church only for a few years or even for a few months.  Pretty soon, they will be moving on to another church because these large churches give them no real sense of identity.  The small church is usually different.   Most of you who are members of this church know why you are here, or you wouldn’t be here.  Why should you be here when the larger churches offer you  more business contacts, more programs, more opportunities, more activities, maybe even more of the kind of people you really like.  If you are here, in  a small church, unless you are here because you are being forced to against your will by your husband, wife, or parents, you are here because you feel an intense loyalty to our doctrine and worship.  Some people just shop for a while and then they are on their way, but those who truly believe what is being taught here identify with the church strongly, and find it very difficult to believe that they could possibly worship anywhere else.  Unfortunately, in a church like ours, some people visit for a while, but they aren’t really satisfied with something.  I have actually had some former members of this church tell me that they our church wasn’t really what they were looking for, but they had to take what they could get.  I always want to say, Thank you for those words of loyalty and commitment.  It’s sort of like telling your husband or wife, “You aren’t really what I was looking for, but I married you anyway until someone better comes along.”  Some people come here and they like the worship, some people like the sacraments, some people like the preaching, some people love the doctrine, but when a person falls in love the with worship, sacraments, preaching, and doctrines, then it doesn’t matter whether the church is small.  Your identity, your home, your family, is here.

          Of course, there are some dangers in a small church.  I don’t have time to mention all of them, but I will mention one that may sound like a contradiction of everything that I have said so far.  And that is, that sometimes the small church wants to remain small.  It is a great thing to have a family atmosphere in a church, but sometimes families can turn clannish and not want any outsiders to come in.  I started a church once and in the early years we built a strong family atmosphere.  But when we started to grow, some people said that they preferred it back in the days when we were small.    Sometimes, when people in a church have started something like St. Paul’s, when they have gone through the hungry years together, when they have suffered together, they have so many family life experiences, and they have formed intimate friendship, sometimes, not consciously, they make newcomers feel as though they can never really be a part of the congregations.  The small church has advantages, but it should never be against becoming large if God so ordains it.

          We are a small church, and we may always be a small church.  But just because we are small doesn’t mean that we can’t be a healthy, thriving church.    Like Zerubabel and the people of Judah, we have a great work to do.  Most likely, it is going to take quite some time.  IN the beginning the work is slow, but it is the work of God.  Do not despise the day of small things. 

Amen.

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