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Archive for November, 2009

Advent Comfort–Sermon

Advent Comfort

A Sermon Preached by Rev. S. Randall Toms

On November 29, 2009

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, LA

 Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.   Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isa. 40:1-2)

             After the overture, Handel’s Messiah begins with these words from Isaiah 40, “Comfort ye, my people.”  Although Handel’s Messiah was first performed during Lent, it has become customary to sing it during the time of Advent.    Certainly, there could be no more appropriate text for the beginning of the Advent season than the opening verses of Isaiah 40.  You will remember that Luke used words from Isaiah 40 to describe the ministry of John the Baptist who prepared the way for our Lord Jesus:  “And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;  As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth;  And all flesh shall see the salvation of God (Luke 3:3-6).   Isaiah 40 is a very important passage to describe the Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ and the purpose of his coming into our world.  This Advent season, we will study Isaiah 40 in some detail.

            The chapter begins with those words that we can’t speak now without hearing Handel’s tenor solo echoing in our minds, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.”  As we think of the Advent season and contemplate the reason our Lord Jesus came into the world, we should be reminded that his mission was one of comfort.

            When Isaiah spoke these words, he was looking into the future and seeing the time when the children of Israel would be in exile, suffering the trying times of Babylonian captivity.  God had punished the people of Judah and Jerusalem for their sins.  He had warned them for many years by his prophets that judgment was coming if the people did not change their ways; but the Jews refused to repent, and they were carried away from their homeland, thus fulfilling the predictions of the prophets.  But the prophets had also predicted a day when the people of Israel would be delivered from their captivity.  Isaiah 40 looks forward to that time.

            We can imagine how sad, gloomy, and depressed the people of Israel must have been in their captivity.  Imagine, being away from home for so long.  Many of the people of Israel died in the captivity.  Others had been born in the captivity and had only heard stories about Judah and Jerusalem.  We read something of their sadness in Psalm 137:1-5: 

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.  We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.  For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.  How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. 

 Here we get a picture of how much the children of Israel wanted to go back home.    Every time they thought about Jerusalem, they would break down and cry.  The Babylonians would taunt them, saying, “Sing us one of those songs that you people used to sing when you were living in Jerusalem.”  The people replied that they found it impossible to sing the joyful songs of Zion while they were suffering under those terrible circumstances.  They were so distraught, they hung their harps on the willows and refused to play them.  Such was their sadness during the time of captivity.

            But now, Isaiah looks forward to the time when their captivity will come to an end.   God wants his people to be comforted, and in verse 2, he gives them three reasons why they should be comforted:  1) their warfare is ended; 2) their sin is pardoned; and 3) they have received double for all their sins.

            When God says that her warfare is ended, he means that their time of harsh service has come to an end.  Isaiah doesn’t mean that the people of Israel were engaged in military service during this time of captivity.  He is saying that military service is very hard, very difficult, with a great deal of suffering involved.  The captivity was the same way.  The captivity was a time when the people had been “conscripted,” as it were, and were forced to bear heaven burdens of service.  But now, that forced service has come to an end.

            Then, the Lord says that her sin has been pardoned.  The word for “pardon” in this verse mean to “to be regarded favorably,” or “to be regarded with satisfaction.”  It was the word that was used to describe how God looked favorably upon the sacrifices that were offered to him.  We find this word frequently used in the book of Leviticus where it is usually translated as “accepted.”  For example, in Levitcus 1:3-4, we read, 

If his offering be a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish: he shall offer it of his own voluntary will at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the LORD.   And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. 

The reason the children of Israel should be comforted is that satisfaction has been made for her sins. 

When the Lord says that she has received double for all her sins, he doesn’t mean that Israel suffered twice as much as she should have suffered.    We know that God’s punishment would be exact, and the punishment would fit the crime in correct proportion.  When this word “double” is used in a such a context, it means “ample.”  All this phrase means is that Israel has suffered sufficiently for the sins of idolatry and rebellion against God.   These verses teach us that there can be no comfort unless the sin problem is dealt with.

 Isaiah 40 is a beautiful description of how the people in captivity would one day return to Judah and Jerusalem after their sin had been pardoned.  But as we look at this passage, we are reminded that the New Testament teaches us that this passage was not ultimately fulfilled until Christ came into the world some five hundred years after the release of the Jews from captivity.    The very passage itself shows us that it could not have been fulfilled until the coming of Christ.  What sacrifice could have made real satisfaction for the sins of the people except the sacrifice of Christ?

            Our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world to deal with the captivity caused by sin.  For this reason, Handel begins the Messiah with this text.  He understood, as Christians always have, that this prophecy was fulfilled when Christ came into the world.  When the New Testament says that this prophecy was fulfilled with the coming of Christ, we might be a little confused.  We say, “I thought it was fulfilled when the Jews went back to Jerusalem after their  captivity.”  In one sense, it was fulfilled at that time; but the greater fulfillment was when Christ came into the world to deliver us from the captivity of sin.  In our great Advent hymn, we sing

             O come, O come, Emmanuel

            And ransom captive Israel,

            That mourns in lonely exile here

            Until the Son of God appear.

            Rejoice!  Rejoice! 

            Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

 While it was true that the children of Israel were released from captivity in 538 B. C., they were still captives–not captives of the Babylonians and Persians, but captives to sin and Satan.  As long as we are captives of sin, we are still in lonely exile.  We are exiled from God and from the comfort of God.  Christ came into the world so that our warfare would come to an end, so that an atoning sacrifice could be made, and so that ample satisfaction could be made for our sins.

            When the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling him to take Mary as his wife, the angel said, “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.”  This is why Christ came into the world—to save his people from their sins.  Without Christ we are in the warfare of sin, the servitude of sin.  Without Christ, we would be held in captivity by sin and the devil.    Paul tells Timothy in II 2:24-26:  “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.”  Scripture teaches us that those who do not know Christ are captives of the devil.  The comfort that we experience at this time of year is the remembrance that Christ came into the world to save us from this captivity.  Service to Satan is a kind of cruel captivity, far more cruel than the Egyptians and Babylonians were  to the children of Israel.  Sin and Satan are hard taskmasters.  They ruin our lives and our reputations.  They enslave us in various forms of sin, and we cannot overcome these sins by our own will power.  Sin enslaves us to the degree that in many cases they become forms of mental and physical addiction, whether it is to drugs, alcohol, sex, or many other numerous forms of captivity.   The comfort of the Advent season is that Christ came to free us from this bondage.   As we sing in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” 

Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day

To save us all from Satan’s pow’r  when we were gone astray.

O tidings of comfort and joy. 

To those who find themselves in bondage to sin and Satan, these are words of comfort.  Christ came into the world to destroy the works of the devil, to set us free from his bondage.

            As we saw last week, the only way that Christ could destroy the works of the devil, the only way that he could deliver us from this captivity was to die on the cross.  This is why we celebrate his birth.  We celebrate his birth because he was born to die.   He was born to save us from our sins, and the only way he could save us from our sins was by going to the cross.  In Hebrews 2:14-15, we read,

Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;  And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. 

In this passage we see the purpose of the Incarnation.  God took on flesh and blood and became man so that he could die, and through that death, he would overcome death, and liberate those who were held in bondage by the fear of death.  These are words of comfort and joy.  Death is a thing of such sorrow and dread that the fear of it is a kind of bondage.   Even in an age that has rejected God, we still cannot escape our bondage to the fear of death.  We engage in countless activities trying to blot out the reminders of our own mortality.  If the existentialist philosophers were right about one thing it is this:  we spend our lives refusing to face up to the fact that we are going to die.  So much of our addictive behavior has come upon us because we are trying to blot out of our minds the fear of our own mortality.   

But there is a better way to escape this bondage of the fear of death.  The fear of death is overcome by knowing Jesus Christ.  He comforts us in the face of death by telling us he has overcome the power of death.  He defeated sin on the cross.  On the third day he rose again and showed that he was victorious over death.  With sin and Satan defeated, we no longer need fear death.  The bondage of the fear of death has been cast aside.  Because of what Christ has done we can now look at death as the gateway to a more glorious life.  As we sang a moment ago: 

O come, thou Day-spring from on high,

And cheer us by thy drawing nigh;

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,

And death’s dark shadow put to flight.

 These truths are genuine tidings of comfort and joy.  What a wonderful thing it is to be preacher in these years after the death and resurrection of Christ.  I can speak comfortably to Jerusalem.  I can speak comfortably to the people of God.  That word translated “comfortably” means “to the heart.”  As a minister of the gospel, I can speak to the heart of God’s people, speak comfortable words that your misery is over, a sacrifice has been made, a sacrifice that was more than sufficient to cover all your sins.  I love it that in our liturgy, every Sunday, I have the opportunity to say to you what we call “The Comfortable Words of Scripture.”  “Hear what comfortable words our Savior Christ saith to all who truly turn to him.”  Every Sunday, our liturgy compels me to speak comfortably to Jerusalem, to remind you that your sins have been pardoned.  You have been released from captivity.

One of our great Anglican priests of the past was John Newton, writer of the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” and the friend of Wilberforce, the man who freed the slaves.  In 1784, there were many performances of Handel’s Messiah in London.  It was the first Handel Centenary Commemoration, and 4000 people jammed Westminster Abbey to hear a choir of 513 people sing the Messiah.  Newton was quite concerned about these performances.   Two things troubled him.  One, he thought that Handel, the man, was being celebrated more than Jesus, the Messiah.  Second, he was concerned that for many people, it was just a musical performance and that people were not paying attention to the meaning of the verses of Scripture that Handel used.  If any of you have ever attended a concert or a singing where the Messiah is performed, you know what Newton was talking about.  Many people perform this piece who don’t have a clue about the meaning of it.  Newton devised a plan to try to remedy the problem of people not understanding the Messiah. He would preach a series of sermons based on every text that Handel used in the Messiah.   Newton’s first sermon, of course, was based on the text I have preached on today.  In this first sermon he expresses his concern that many performers of the Messiah and many listeners do not appreciate the meaning of these two verses, because, in order to appreciate these verses, you must know what it is to be pardoned for your sins.    Newton writes: 

           To be capable of the comfort my text proposes, the mind must be in a suitable disposition.  A free pardon is a comfort to a malefactor, but it   implies guilt; and therefore they who have no apprehension that they have broken the law, would be rather offended, than comforted by an offer of pardon.  This is one principal cause of that neglect, yea, contempt, which the Gospel of the grace of God meets with from the world.  If we could suppose that a company of people who were all trembling under an apprehension of his displeasure, constrained to confess the justice of the sentence, but not as yet informed of any way to escape, were to hear this message for the first time, and to be fully assured of its truth and authority, they would receive it as life from the dead.  But it is to be feared, that for want of knowing themselves, and their real state in the sight of him with whom they have to do, many person, who have received pleasure from the music of the Messiah, have neither found, nor expected, nor desired to find, any comfort from the words. 

Newton is saying that comfort is only for those who know that they have been in exile, in captivity.  Comfort is only for those who realize they are sinners, because the comfort is that your sins have been pardoned.

            It is strange that a season of the year that should bring us such comfort and joy is, for many people, such a sad time of the year.  Those who battle depression will tell you that this is the most difficult time of the year.  People blame this depression on many things, such as the lack of sunlight, loneliness, sad memories that seem to attack us with a vengeance during the holiday season.  It seems that the tragedies and disappointments of life are magnified during this time of year.  We are reminded of those whom death has taken away from us.  Our financial setbacks seem more ominous.   Seeing other people happy and smiling is only a bitter reminder of how unhappy we are deep inside.   

But it is during this time of gloominess that the message of the coming of Christ comes to us powerfully, and says, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” At the root of so much of our unhappiness is the guilt caused by sin.  So much unhappiness is caused by our enslavement to sin, and how we cannot stop hurting ourselves and other people because of our love for sin.    If we could only really believe that our sins have been pardoned, if we could only really believe that Christ can set us free from our enslavement to sin, what a wonderful time of year Christmas would be, because we would hear the good news afresh that Christ came to set us free the guilt and the power of sin.  Unlike the Jews who had to look hundreds of years into the future hoping for the day when the Messiah would come, we can rejoice that the Messiah has come.  His first Advent was nearly 2,000 years ago, and he has liberated his people from their sins.  There will be a second Advent when we will be liberated not only from the guilt and power of sin, but from the very presence of sin and all its effects.  For nearly 2,000 years now, God has been sending his ministers into the world saying, “Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people.”   May God speak comfortably to your hearts during this Advent season.  Amen.

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A Debt of Thanksgiving 

A Sermon by Rev. S. Randall Toms

Preached on Sunday, November 22, 2009

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, LA

 

 O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!  For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counseller? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.  (Romans 11:33-36) 

When we go through trying and difficult times in our lives, when our plans are interrupted, when  we experience financial setbacks, when tragedies and disappointments come our way, we often say, “It isn’t fair.”    We look around at other people, and they don’t seem to have nearly as many troubles as we do.  Why do they get all the breaks and we seem to have no luck at all?   We say, “Life isn’t fair.”  If we are a little bolder, we might even say, “God isn’t fair.”    What we are really saying is this:  “God owes me better than what I am getting.  I’m not a bad person.  As a matter of fact, compared with the rest of the people in the world, I think I’m on the good end of the scale.  I’m a hard worker, a good employee, I sacrifice on behalf of my children, I’m a faithful spouse, a good parent, I go to church often,  I give money to charities.  And look at what I get for it.  God isn’t being fair.  He owes me better than this.”

            In the midst of our complaining, we often forget how many blessings we have enjoyed over the course of our lives.  All of us in this room, though we may have gone through some difficulties, have had it pretty good.  As we approach Thanksgiving Day, it is important that we remember all of those blessings.  Many of us can say that we had Christian parents, we grew up in a free country that gave us many opportunities, we are surrounded by family and friends, and  most of us haven’t missed any meals lately.  Though we have endured times of sickness or various injuries, by and large, most of us have been pretty healthy.    There have been times when we had to tighten our belts a little, but most of us have been able to pay our bills.  We can afford to live in nice homes that are so much better than those lived in by the vast majority of people in this world.   As a matter of fact, I think that most of us in this room would have to say that we have been blessed far beyond the way most people in the history of the world have been blessed.  While we often say, “It isn’t fair,” 95% of the world is probably looking at you this morning and saying, “It isn’t fair.”  Rather than complaining about our lack of blessings, we should be looking at ourselves and asking, “Why has God blessed me so much more than he has blessed the other people in the world?”    Unfortunately,  we may think we deserve it.    Secretly, we may say to ourselves, “I know I’m no saint, but I do try to live a good life.  I’m fairly obedient to the Ten Commandments.  I try to live by the Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule.   So, it’s not really surprising that God has blessed me the way he has.  I deserve it.”

            If you ever begin to think that way, remind yourself of the words in our text for this morning:  “Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?”  Today’s English Version translates that verse, “Who has ever given him anything, so that he had to pay it back.”  We may not say so out loud, but we often think that if we do something good, some good deed, God should bless us in return.  In other words, if we give money to the church, or help out some poor person, God owes us.  God becomes our debtor.  St. Paul reminds us in this verse that God is debtor to no man.  God doesn’t owe us anything.  Even if you become the most loving, charitable person the world has ever known, God owes you nothing.

            When St. Paul wrote these words, he was probably drawing from the book of Job where the Lord tells Job, “Who hath prevented me, that I should repay him? whatsoever is under the whole heaven is mine;” or, as the New International Version has it, “Who has a claim against me that I must pay?  Everything under heaven belongs to me” (Job 41:11).  You will remember that Job has been complaining that God owes him better.  After all, God himself had said that Job was a righteous man, one that shunned evil.  Yet, look at the suffering that Job had to endure.  Throughout the book, we hear Job saying that God has not dealt fairly with him and he demands an explanation.    Once again, God reminds him,  “I don’t owe you anything.  You have never given me anything that obligates me as your debtor.”  As John Murray puts it, “his favor is never compensation.”  Elihu asked Job the question, “If you are righteous, what do you give to him, or what does he receive from your hand?” (Job 35:7).

            But that doesn’t sound right, does it?  Haven’t we given to God?  Haven’t we given our time, our talents, and our money to God?  Not really.  There is a verse that I often say here just before we take up the offering:  “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee” (I Chron. 29:14).    In other words, when we give to God, we are only giving him back what he gave to us first.    When we give to God, we are only giving him what is already his.  He just let us borrow it for a while.  As God says in Ps. 50:10-12:   For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills.   I know all the fowls of the mountains: and the wild beasts of the field are mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell thee: for the world is mine, and the fulness thereof.”  God doesn’t need anything that I can give him.  Not only that, everything I have is something that belonged to him anyway.  I never give first.  God always gives first, and when I give, I’m just returning something that was already his.

            When we give, God is not indebted to us.  As a matter of fact, the opposite is the case.  We are debtors to God.    Everything that we have ever received or ever enjoyed came from the hand of God.  Think of all the blessings you enjoy?  Where did they originate?  Let us suppose you inherited a great deal of money or land?  What did you do to earn any of that?   Nothing!  You were born into it.  Not only that, but God had blessed your parents or grandparents with the ability to make that money in order that you might enjoy it.  Perhaps you made your money on your own, and you pride yourself on being the self-made man.  Are you really self-made?  Why were you born with a sound mind and a healthy body while so many people have been born with neither?  Why were you born in a country that gave you the freedom to pursue your dreams and goals?  God, in his providence, led you from place to place, person to person, and  opportunity to opportunity.  Was it all chance and coincidence?  Was it all just the luck of the draw?  Those who do not believe in God would say that it was, but as a believer in Christ you know that your life has been guided by the mysterious providence of God.  Why have you been blessed in such a way?  We don’t know.  All we can say is that we don’t deserve it.  All we can say is that God in his mercy chose to bless us and that we are forever in his debt.    All we can do is bow before the Lord, and say with Paul, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!”

            That we are debtors to God is seen especially in our salvation.  What did we ever do to deserve our salvation?  What did we do to earn the forgiveness of our sins?  Nothing!   We are debtors to the grace of God.  You have never done one single thing that made you worthy of eternal life.  If you were to get to the gates of heaven, and God asked you to pay the price for admittance, what would you have to give?  “Well, I did say my prayers every night.  I served food in a soup kitchen one time.”    Somehow, we think we have to pay for our right to enter heaven.  We believe we must  perform a certain number of good things and hope they outweigh the bad we have done.  Throughout the book of Romans, the apostle Paul has shown us how hopelessly in debt we are.  This is how Paul describes all people, including you and me, “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one:  There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.   Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips:   Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness:   Their feet are swift to shed blood:   Destruction and misery are in their ways:  And the way of peace have they not known: There is no fear of God before their eyes.  (Romans 3:10-18).  The Bible presents us as people who are hopelessly in debt.    This is why our transgressions, our sins, are spoken of as debts, as the wording of the Lord’s Prayer is in Matthew 6:12, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  Sin is spoken of as a debt, because we owed perfect obedience to God, but we did not give him what we owed.  Since we broke his law, we owe the punishment that is due to breaking his law.  There is no way that we can ever pay that debt.  Even if you worked every day of your life and did everything that God had commanded you to do, what does Jesus say, “So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.”  Even if you did everything that God had commanded you, you are still an unprofitable servant.  Even if you suffered in hell a million years, you could never pay the debt you owe for having broken God’s law.  We often think that if we do a few good deeds, that makes us for the bad and cancels out the debt.  You are hopelessly in debt.  You can never look at God and say, “God, I did these good things.  Now, you owe me eternal life in heaven.”  No, there is nothing you could ever do to pay the debt you owe to God.

            But the good news of the gospel is that what we could not do, our Lord Jesus Christ did for us.  He paid the debt in full.  The other night I was listening to the famous atheist, Christopher Hitchens,  and he said that this was the most immoral of the teachings of the Bible—the idea that Jesus could pay for our sins.  If Christopher Hitchens is right, if Christ did not pay the debt of my sin on the cross, then we are all hopelessly doomed, because there is no other way that we could have been forgiven.    Our only hope is that Jesus Christ paid the debt that we owed to God.    We owed him perfect obedience, but we did not give him perfect obedience.  But Jesus did live a sinless life, a life of perfect obedience to God.  The miracle of the gospel is that God credits what Christ did to our account.    When God looks at us, he doesn’t see all the sin and wickedness we have done.  He sees the perfect life of his son.  We don’t have any righteousness of our own, butut God has given us the righteousness of his son.  In God’s eyes, you have kept the law absolutely perfectly, because Jesus kept the law absolutely perfectly.  Jesus paid the debt of obedience you owe to God.

            Not only did Jesus pay your debt of obedience, he also paid the debt of punishment you owe.  Whenever Jesus died on the cross, all of your sins were placed on him.  As Isaiah said it, “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.   All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:4-6).  God laid on Jesus our iniquities, and he paid the debt of punishment for our sins.    Think of it like this.  Let us assume that you have a long, long piece of paper that has every one of your sins on it.  At the end of the list, after it has all been added up, there is the punishment that you must suffer for all of those sins.  What does our Lord Jesus Christ do with that list?  He takes it, and writes over it in the red ink of his own blood, “Paid in full on the cross of Calvary.”  We did nothing. There is nothing we could have done.  Christ did it all.  Did we do something first, and God repaid us?  No, we did nothing except pile up a debt that we could not pay, and Christ paid the debt himself.   What can we do except say, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!”

            When we are in heaven, enjoying the privileges of communion with God throughout all eternity, no doubt we will often ask the question, “What did I ever do to deserve all of this?”  Of course, the answer will be, “Nothing.  Not one thing.”  Who has first given to God that God should repay him?  No one! God gave first, and we are forever in his debt. 

            Paul ends this wonderful doxology by saying, “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.”    Whatever blessings you have received are  “of him.”  That is, all your blessings originated in God.  All your blessings come through him.   All your blessings are for his honor and glory.  When you receive any blessings, it is not so that we can think, “I must really be doing something right, or I wouldn’t have all these blessings.”  No,  just the opposite is the case.  We have done nothing to deserve them.  God gives them to us so that we might glorify his name for giving such blessings to those who are totally unworthy of them.  Throughout all eternity, we will be singing, “To God be the glory.”  Throughout billions and billions of years, we will be shouting, “Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth’s sake” (Ps. 115:1)

            What can we do when we realize that we have never done anything to deserve even the least of blessings that we have received?  We can do what Paul does here.  We can break out into a doxology.  We can participate in the Holy Eucharist, for “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving.”    Each Sunday we pray, “And we earnestly desire thy fatherly goodness, mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”  Each Sunday, we celebrate a thanksgiving feast, acknowledging that all of our blessings come to us only because Christ died on the cross for us.  When we think of all the blessings that have come our way because of what Christ has done, all we can do is engage in thanksgiving.   As we sang in our hymn a moment ago,

No gifts have we to offer

For all thy love imparts

But that which thou desirest,

Our humble thankful hearts.

            At this Thanksgiving season, let us remember that all our blessings are undeserved.  If we think that God has not been good enough to us, let us remember that we have never done anything to deserve the least of his favors, but he has showered us with so many blessings, in spite of what we really deserve.   As Matthew Henry said, “We can demand nothing from him, nor have any reason to complain if we have not what we expect, but to be thankful that we have better than we deserve.”

            This Thursday, as you look at that table loaded down with so many different kinds of food, and you look around at your family and friends, let us be reminded that we are getting more deeply in debt.  You may be thinking that I am contradicting myself because I said earlier that the debt had been paid.  It is true that the debt of sin has been paid, but now, we are incurring another debt—the debt of gratitude, the debt of thanksgiving.  As we look at our Thanksgiving tables, groaning under the weight of the bounty, let us think to ourselves, “God has done it again.  He has given first, and there is no way I can repay.”  In the old hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” we sing, “O to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be.”  Again, this is a debt we can never pay, but let us take great delight now and look forward to an eternity where we can strive with our humble hearts to repay this debt with everlasting thanksgiving.  Amen.

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Existentialist Purgatory:

A Review of Richard Kelly’s The Box

by S. Randall Toms, Ph.D.

Warning:  This review contains spoilers. 

The Box is based on a 1970 short story, “Button, Button,” by Richard Matheson, a well-known writer of macabre stories.  Some of his works, such as,  I Am Legend, What Dreams May Come, and The Legend of Hell House have been made into major motion pictures.  He also wrote episodes for The Twilight Zone, including the famous “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” featuring William Shatner before his Star Trek days.  “Button, Button” was used as the basis for a 1986 episode of The Twilight Zone revival series on CBS. 

The  Twilight Zone episode, and the new movie version share the key elements of the original short story, but each varies the tale in significant ways.  In the original version, a mysterious stranger named Mr. Steward delivers a small box with a button on top to Norma and her husband, Arthur.    Steward informs the couple that if they will press the button, they will receive $50,000, but someone in the world whom they do not know will die.    While initially rejecting the idea, Norma later rationalizes that maybe there would be nothing wrong with pressing the button.  Perhaps the person who dies might be “some old Chinese peasant ten thousand miles away” or “some diseased native in the Congo” (21).  But Arthur reminds her that the person who dies could be a “baby boy in Pennsylvania” or a “beautiful little girl on the next block” (21).  The more Norma thinks about all the things she could buy with the $50,000, the more she entertains the idea of pushing the button.  Eventually, Norma succumbs to the temptation.  After pushing the button, she learns that her husband has been killed in a train accident.  Norma accuses Mr. Steward of lying because he had said that the person who would die would be someone she didn’t know.  Steward  counters that she   didn’t really know her husband.

In the Twilight Zone episode, the plot is the same, though Norma and Arthur appear to be in a much more difficult financial situation, and the offer is now $200,000.  Norma, played by Mare Winningham (St. Elmo’s Fire), is a bitter, nagging wife, constantly complaining about their lack of money.  We are not surprised when she passes the button.  When Mr. Steward returns for the box, he tells them the unit will be reset and given to someone whom they do not know,  implying that when the next person pushes the button, Norma or Arthur could be the victim.

Since The Box is a 113 minute feature-length film, we can expect that even more plot elements have been added by director and screenplay writer Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko, Southland Tales).  The movie is set in 1976 in a time of great excitement at NASA concerning the Viking Mars probe. In this version, Norma (Cameron Diaz) is a far more sympathetic character than in the other two versions.    A loving wife and mother, she teaches at a private school that her son is able to attend only because of a tuition discount for children of faculty members.  On the day she learns that the tuition discount is going to be discontinued, her  husband, Arthur, played by James Marsden (X-Men, Enchanted), working for NASA  in the field of optics, is informed that he has been denied a long awaited opportunity to enter the astronaut training program.   Though this edition of the Lewis family does not appear to be as in dire financial straits as the Twilight Zone couple, the recent disappointments and setbacks make Mr. Steward’s offer more tempting, especially considering that the offer is now $1,000,0000.    We also feel pity for Norma because she walks with a limp due to a mistake by a physician that resulted in a partial amputation of her foot.  Cameron Diaz portrays Norma as such a likeable character that we tend to be sympathetic toward her when pushes the button, though we know she has been willing to take the life of another person for the sake a million dollars.

The character that undergoes the most extensive revision in this version is Mr. Steward.   Kelly was intrigued by a statement in Matheson’s original short story.  When Norma asks Steward whom he represents, he replies, “I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to tell you that….  However, I assure you the organization is of international scope” (17).  While the short story and the Twilight Zone episode never divulge the nature of that organization, Kelly picks up where the other two versions of the story end and tries to explain who Steward is and the nature of his mission. 

At the beginning of the movie, an on-screen caption tells us that Arlington Steward has recovered from severe burns and is delivering units related to the Mars project.  When Steward arrives at the Lewis home with the button unit, we see that his face is terribly disfigured.    We learn that Steward was also a NASA employee, but he died after he had been struck by lightning.  Steward came back to life.  Ever since his resurrection, he has been making these button units and distributing them to people.  Eventually, we find that Steward is testing human beings to see if they will make a selfless choice.   The movie poster for this film has the caption:  “You are the experiment.”  Rather than a Biblical kind of God who is testing people, Steward seems to be an advanced form of alien who is running mystical/scientific   research to determine if our world is worthy of continued existence. We don’t know on whose behalf he is performing this test, but we learn that our planet will be destroyed unless a sufficient number of people will deny themselves their own selfish desires for the benefit of the species as a whole.    When people make the selfish choice of pushing the button, they must pay for this choice by being faced with an even tougher decision to act selflessly.

After Norma pushes the button, she and Arthur begin to realize that there are inescapable consequences for her actions.  They are trapped in a box, so to speak.  Steward explains that  the box is an extended metaphor for our entire lives.  We live in boxes, we drive in boxes, we sit in front of boxes to watch television programs, and when we die our bodies are placed in another box.  Now, Norma and Arthur are in another box of their own making, a box that may be a kind of hell.

One of the interesting allusions in the film is to the existentialist philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre.    In one of the opening scenes of the movie, Norma is teaching a class on Sartre’s play, No Exit.  Later, she and her husband attend a theater to see a staged version of the play.  In one scene, after they leave a party , the words “No Exit” are written on the windshield of their car.  Unless these allusions are a red herring, Kelly seems to be hitting us over the head with the idea that there is some kind of connection between No Exit and The Box.   Sartre’s play is about three people who die and go to hell.  The fourth character is a valet who ushers the people into hell and occasionally answers questions.  In The Box, there is a character with a huge nameplate reading “Valet.”  In No Exit, the three characters  sit around discussing the reasons why they have been damned.  Sartre’s play deals with the lies we tell ourselves and others, refusing to face up to what we really are and take responsibility for our actions.  They keep waiting for demonic torturers to arrive to inflict hellish suffering,, but they finally realize that their hell torment one another  for all eternity.   Sartre portrays hell as a drawing room,  another box, from which there is no escape, “no exit.”   At the end of the play, the doors to hell are open, but none of the three leave. 

Of course, Sartre didn’t believe in a hell after this life.  His play is an existentialist  parable about the hells we create for ourselves in the present.  In Sartre’s view, hell is allowing other people to define us.   Describing this key tenet of existentialist philosophy, Solomon and Higgins write, “Kierkegaard, as the first existentialist, insisted that the authentic self was the personally chosen self, as opposed to one’s public or ‘herd’ identity” (279).  The most famous line in No Exit is “Hell is other people.”  The line doesn’t mean that our relationships with other people are so bad it seems as though we are living in hell.  For Sartre, hell is living according to the standards of other people, rather than using our freedom to create our own lives.  The reason the three people in No Exit will not leave hell is that they need other people to define them.  There are no mirrors in this room so that they could see their own reflections.  They can only see themselves the way others see them.  They cannot leave hell, because they wouldn’t feel as though they were existing unless they knew that other people were looking at them.  Since they are totally dependent on the opinions of other people to give them any kind of sense of self-worth, they are eternally tormented when the good opinion of others is not forthcoming.    Describing these three people in hell, George Myerson points out that  they are people who have “no courage to face their own consciousness, to take responsibility for who they are or what they have become.  These are people for whom that responsibility is unbearable”(53). Myerson goes on to say, “They have chosen this suffering in preference to the only alternative, the authentic choice, the responsible choice of a life from one’s own supported perspective” (53).

Is Norma in a  from which there is no exit because she pushed the button?   Interestingly, Arthur suggests to Steward that  there situation is purgatory.  If it is purgatory, then there is an exit.    While hell is eternal, purgatory is not.    It would appear that Steward puts people to the test.  When they fail and push the button, they are placed in a situation like purgatory where they can be cleansed and then move on to a better form of existence.   The film is replete with references to  choices that lead to salvation or eternal damnation.  Norma and Arthur believe that Steward gives them a brief glimpse of the after-life, just a glimpse to give them hope that there is something better.  In the end, Norma is comforted by the idea that forgiveness is possible, and she can go to a better place after her death. 

While it may see that The Box explores the question of what makes us worthy of everlasting life, The Box could be an existentialist, science fiction morality tale that, like Sartre’s No Exit, merely illustrates, not a future purgatory, but a present kind of purgatory that permits us to change and escape the box.    Solomon and Higgins describe Sartre’s view that the human being can always change:  “We are always striving to define ourselves, but we are always an ‘open question,’ a self not yet made” (281).  In The Box, Norma is not in hell—she is in purgatory, still an ‘open question,” a person who has the possibility to change and create a better self.  The Box is probably not concerned with God, aliens, or literal heavens, hells, and purgatories.  In a true existentialist fashion, it is about the free choices we make, the seeming inescapable consequences of those choices, and the hope that there may yet be an exit from the hells or purgatories we have created for ourselves.  Satre’s view was that we don’t need a God to give us moral standards.  Likewise, he didn’t think we need a literal hell or demons to torture us.  We make our own hells and torture ourselves. We don’t need a Mr. Steward to present a moral test for us.  In many ways, we contemplate pushing the button every day by the selfish choices we make.

But the moral lesson taught by Steward is twisted an perverted at best.  In the end, Norma chooses to sacrifice her life for the well-being of her son.  Arthur must commit a truly selfless act by murdering his own wife  and facing life imprisonment so that his son may have a good life.  But it is just here that The Box falls apart as an existentialist morality tale.  At first we may think that Norma has truly learned to behave altruistically by sacrificing herself for the good of her son.  But how do we know that Norma is really motivated by altruism?  How do we know that she is not motivated by a self-pity caused by an overwhelming sense of guilt?  Perhaps her willingness to die is just a form of suicide caused by a selfish desire to escape more suffering.  After all, if she doesn’t choose to die, she will have to face her husband and her blind and deaf son, knowing that she was responsible for their unhappiness and suffering.   Like the three characters in No Exit, Norma would endure the hell of being defined by her husband and son as a selfish mother who not only was responsible for her son’s affliction, but also unwilling to do what was necessary to give him a normal life.  Does Steward really cause Norma to act altruistically?

Before Norma decides to sacrifice herself for the good of her son, she asks Steward if she can be forgiven for pushing the button which caused the death of another person.  Steward says that he doesn’t know, but reminds her of how important the concept of freedom was to Sartre, one of her favorites.  Steward implies that Norma can still act freely and do the right thing.  But is Norma acting freely, or has she been manipulated into a decision where she feels she has no other option.  Here is another place where the film seems to fail as an existential parable.  In existentialism, the “authentic” person is one who creates his/her own morality without the influence of outside, objective standards. Describing Sartre’s view of the freedom of the individual, Bryan Magee writes, “In a Godless world, he [Sartre] said, we have no alternative but to choose, and in that sense create, our own values…. Many people find this freedom and this responsibility too terrifying to face, so they run away from it by pretending that they are bound by already existing norms and rules” (217).  Yet, Norma allows Steward and his own standard of altruism to define not only her, but the rest of the human race as well.  Reminiscent of Klatu’s speech in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), earth faces extinction if its people do not exhibit his Steward’s definition of  altruism.  Steward, as an almost godlike figure, is imposing his values on the human race and manipulating the events of their lives to leave them “no exit” if they do not conform to his standards, which is more an existentialist hell than a solution to our problems.  

            The Box takes place during the Christmas season.  The button unit arrives almost like a Christmas gift.  As Norma and Arthur enter the theater to see the production of No Exit, a group of carolers is standing outside singing  “The First Nowell.”   One of the stanzas of this carol describes how the wise men followed the star to Bethlehem:

They looked up and saw a star

Shining in the east beyond them far,

And to the earth it gave great light,

And so it continued both day and night.

Steward seems to think that he has come to the earth with a mission to give great light to the earth, but his light appears to be another form of darkness.  In an  interview with Patrick Lee,  Richard Kelly said that pushing the button “is the key to the downfall of man.”  While selfishness causes a great deal of misery, Steward’s solution to the problem raises far more moral questions than it answers.  If the box is meant to be a gift to humanity to teach us the meaning of altruism, it should remain unopened.

Works Cited

Lee, Patrick.  Sci Fi Wire.  “Donnie Darko Director Richard Kelly Reveals Just What’s in The

            Box.” 19 June 2009.  22 November 2009.  http://scifiwire.come/2009/06/donnie-darko-

            director-ric.php

Magee, Bryan.  The History of Philosophy.  New York:  Dorling Kindersley, 2001.

Matheson, Richard.  “Button, Button.”  Button Button:  Uncanny Stories.  New York:  Tom

 Doherty, 2008.  15-25.

Myerson, George.  Sartre:  A Beginner’s Guide.  London:  Hodder and Stoughton, 2001.

Solomon, Robert C.  and Kathleen M. Higgins.  A Short History of Philosophy.  New York: 

            Oxford U P,    1996.

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A Colony of Heaven–Sermon

A Colony of Heaven

A Sermon Preached by Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph.D.

on November 15, 2009

at St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

 Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample.   (For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ:   Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.)   For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ:   Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself. (Phil. 3:17-21)

 As we enter this season of the year, our thoughts naturally turn to that group of settlers that we call “the Pilgrims” who came to this country on the Mayflower and established a colony in the New World, which we often refer to as the Plymouth Colony.  In 1630, the Puritans would  come to the shores of Massachusetts and establish what came to be known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  During this period, many colonies were established.  We hear that word “colony” so often that we say it without even thinking of what a colony is.

By definition, “a colony is a settlement established by people outside their native land, and ruled by the mother country.”  That definition is certainly a fitting description to describe the colonies of the Pilgrims and the Puritans.  They were living outside their native land, and they were still ruled by the mother country which was England.  During this time of Thanksgiving, we marvel at the courage and the perseverance of the Pilgrims and Puritans who were determined to persevere and survive in such a hostile environment, all for the sake of their religious beliefs.

            When we speak of these colonies that were established over 300 years ago, we forget that there is still an important colony that continues to exist in our present time.   The colony that I am speaking of is the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.  In many ways, the Church is, indeed, a colony.  We are a people who live outside our native land, and we are ruled and governed by the mother country.  This kind of colony is described for us in our epistle reading for today.  St. Paul reminds us in Phil. 3:20 that we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven.  In the old King James Version, we read, “For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Now, if you have a newer translation you will see that that word “conversation” is almost always translated as “citizenship.”  Our citizenship is in heaven.  Though we may be living in this world, possessing citizenship in the land of our residence, in another sense we are living outside our native land.  William Hendriksen, in his commentary on Philippians,  translates his verse, “For our homeland is in heaven.”  Moffat’s translation renders this verse, “We are a colony of heaven.”  The Church should see itself as a colony of heaven.  St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church should see itself as a colony of heaven in the middle of the city of Baton Rouge.

            As St. Paul wrote to these Christians at Philippi, he wanted to remind them that even though they might be citizens of the Roman Empire, they were also citizens of a greater kingdom.  The Philippians were very proud of their Roman citizenship, just as we are proud to be citizens of the United States of America.  But we hold dual citizenship.  We are citizens of the United States of America.  Some of us are natural born citizens of this nation, while others of us in this room have been naturalized.  By whatever means we have come to be citizens, our names are on record as being citizens of this country. We are governed by the laws of this nation and enjoy the protection of the powers of this nation.

            But as Christians, we have another citizenship.  In Eph. 2:19, St. Paul said that when the Ephesians believed in Jesus Christ, they were “no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints.”  We are fellow citizens with all of those who are citizens of the United States, but we are also fellow citizens with the saints.  We share heavenly citizenship with all those who are believers in Christ.  It is wonderful thing to be a citizen of the United States of America, but how much greater it is to be a citizen of the kingdom of heaven! 

            We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven because heaven  gave birth to us.  No matter where you might have been born in the physical sense, if you are a Christian, you have been born again, born anew from above.   Our names are registered in heaven.    We often talk about citizenship rolls, but did you ever realize that your name is registered in the citizenship roll of heaven?  In Hebrews 12:22-24 we read, “But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,  And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.”  If you are a Christian, you may be living in Baton Rouge, but at the same time, you are living in the heavenly Jerusalem.  Your name is written in heaven.  The word that is translated as “written” means “enrolled” or “registered.”  Your name is on the citizenship rolls of the kingdom of heaven.  Paul says in Gal. 4:26, “But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.”  What is your motherland?  Your motherland is the Jerusalem above, the heavenly Jerusalem,  that gave birth to you and made you a citizen of that heavenly kingdom. 

Now, this dual citizenship sometimes causes conflicts for us.  Our lives are governed by the laws of heaven.  Certainly, we are to be obedient to the laws of the earthly government wherein we live, unless those laws come in conflict with the laws of heaven.  Our supreme allegiance is to the kingdom of God.  In the book of Acts we are told about the when Peter and John were called before the council and commanded not to teach anymore about Jesus Christ:   “And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus.   But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye.   For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:18-20).  When Peter and the other apostles were told by those in authority  that they could no longer preach the gospel of Christ,  they said, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”   We read in our Gospel reading for today how we must render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.  Caesar has the authority to command that we pay taxes.  But Caesar does not have the authority to tell us not to preach the Gospel.  There is a higher law than the law of the land, and that is the law of heaven. 

Being a member of the colony of heaven also causes us difficulty from time to time, because our customs and lifestyles are heavenly customs and lifestyles.  It is always the characteristic of a colony that its members seem a little out of place.  We don’t act like the rest of the world, but we shouldn’t think it strange that we are different.  We are a colony.  Our values and goals are different, and we shouldn’t let that fact embarrass us.  Our children and young people often feel that they are held to a different standard than the rest of their friends.  I was reading the story of a pastor the other day whose church was next door to a  Jewish synagogue.   One day the pastor and the Rabbi were talking and the Rabbi commented how difficult it was to be Jewish in that city.  He said that they were always having to tell their children things like, “That’s fine for everyone else, but it’s not fine for you. You are special. You are different. You are a Jews. You have a different story. A different set of values.”  But the Christian parent is no different.  He is also telling his children, “That’s fine for everyone else, but it’s not fine for you. You are special. You are different. You are a Christian. You have a different story. A different set of values.”  Don’t be embarrassed.  You are a colonist.  Be proud of your heavenly citizenship.  We act the way we do because our heavenly king has sent us into this world as a colony and we are proud of that status.

Another wonderful thing  about being a colonist is that we are on our way back to our native homeland.  We have recently been celebrating the season of All Saints, and we have remembered all those who have already made it back to the motherland, the heavenly Jerusalem.  Those of us on earth will soon return to our homeland and enjoy all the rich blessings of heavenly citizenship.   Over and over the Scriptures remind us that we are a colony in this world:   we are pilgrims who are headed for our homeland.    Remember the comforting words of our Lord Jesus:  “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.   In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.   And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.   And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know.”  Our Lord Jesus Christ has gone to heaven to prepare a place for those pilgrims when they return to their homeland.    The Scriptures remind us that we are on a pilgrim journey to our better homeland.  When the writer to the Hebrews describes those great people of faith, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, he says, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:14-16).  We are pilgrims who have come out of another country.   We are seeking a better country, a heavenly one, and God has prepared a city for us.  In our text for today, when we are reminded that our citizenship is in heaven, and one day, our Savior will descend from our homeland and transform our bodies into a body like his own glorious body, and we will reign with him for ever and ever. 

I hope that you can see that we are indeed a colony of heaven.  But what is the mission of this heavenly colony?  A few years ago, William Willimon and Stanley  Hauerwas wrote a book entitled, Resident Aliens:  Life in the Christian Colony.  I don’t always agree with the conclusions and applications of Willimon and Hauerwas, but in places, the book does describe accurately what the Christian colony is here to do.  In one place they write, “A colony is a beachhead, an outpost, an island of one culture in the middle of another, a place where the values of home are reiterated and passed on to the young, a place where the distinctive language and life-style of the resident aliens are lovingly nurtured and reinforced.”  All of those descriptions of a colony are important. 

We are an island of one culture in the middle of another.  This description of the Christian colony is becoming more and more true in the United States.   There was a time when Christian culture and the culture of the United States had a great deal in common, but the values that Christians share in common with the American culture are rapidly becoming less and less.  Increasing, we are finding that we are that island culture in the middle of a culture that is very hostile to our core values.  But we should not think that strange.  The Church, by very definition, has been called out of the world.  That is the very meaning of the word “church” in the Greek language.  We are “the called out ones.”  Christians have been called out of the pagan culture in which we find ourselves.  The Church is like the children of Israel in exile in Babylon.  We live in the midst of a pagan culture, but we are still maintaining our own beliefs and practices.  Look at how Peter described the early church in I Peter 1:1:  “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.”  As you can see, we have always been strangers, pilgrims, exiles. 

Yet, we survive as a people.  As this island culture, it is our duty to pass on the values of our homeland.  We must pass these values on to our children.  This colony is a place where the distinctive language of our culture is taught. Sadly, in order to make ourselves more popular with the world, we have abandoned our distinctive language and adopted the language of the foreign culture.  You will remember that before the Pilgrim’s came to America, they went to Holland, but they left Holland because they feared that their children becoming too Dutch.  But our children should have their own distinctive language–a language where words like justification, sanctification, redemption, reconciliation,  are just commonplace–second nature.  The other night, at our Youth Sunday School,  I was trying to explain to our young people the meaning of the word “vouchsafe.”  That’s a word we use over and over in our liturgy.    And I was explaining that there really is no exact synonym for vouchsafe but it means something like “grant or give out of graciousness.”  It means that when God gives to us, he is condescending to grant us his blessings.  Someone might wonder why don’t just say, “grant” or “give.”  We refuse to dumb down the language, because other words are not as rich as “vouchsafe.”  There really is no synonym for “vouchsafe.”  “Vouchsafe” is a word of the colony.  We want our children to grow up knowing words like “incarnation,” “supplication,” “oblation,” “succor,” “beseech,” “manifold,” and “intolerable” are natural to them.    We do not have a desire to modernize the language of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, because we lose the richness of the language of the Christian colony. 

One of the reasons we cling to the rich hymns of our faith rather than so-called contemporary praise music is that the modern worship music does not even remotely approach the beauty and richness of our great hymns.  Think of the words of Newman’s great hymn:

O loving wisdom of our God!

When all was sin and shame,

A second Adam to the fight,

And to the rescue came.

O wisest love! That flesh and blood,

Which did in Adam fail,

Should strive afresh against the foe,

Should strive, and should prevail.

A hymn such as that has the power to make you a great theologian and a great poet.  Hymns such as these contain the language, the theology, the poetry, and the beauty of our colony. 

If, by the time our children leave our homes, they are not profound theologians, able to argue minute points of theology, we as parents and a church ought to be profoundly embarrassed.  If our kids know only the language  of the world, know the stats about their favorite athletes, the life stories of music and film stars, but know little about the characters of the Bible, the saints of old, and the great hymns of the faith, we have failed them.  We have our language, our customs, and we must pass them on to the next generation.  In the Anglican Church, we have a great opportunity to pass on our language and our culture to the next generation.  Our liturgy and our Church calendar are blessed instruments to be used to saturate the children of our colony with our beliefs, practices, and customs.  The first duty of God’s colony is to maintain its distinctiveness as a unique culture.

But let me add a word of caution at this point.  Maintaining our distinct culture does not mean completely separating ourselves from the culture that is around us.  Some Christian groups have literally tried to separate themselves from the world and have as little to do with the world as possible.  They are so afraid that they are going to be corrupted by the world and its ways that they think the solution is to withdraw from the world completely.    Christians, in their zeal to be separate from the world, adopt lifestyles that have nothing to with being separate from the world.  They think if they don’t drink, smoke, go to movies, watch television, wear makeup, or refuse to do many other things they might add to the list, they are separate from the world.  I know people who never do any of these things and don’t allow their children to do any of these things, and yet they are some of the most worldly people I know.  Our separation from the world does not consist in obeying such man-made lists.    What makes the Christian distinctive is loving enemies, forgiving others, patiently enduring suffering and hardship, having a kind rather than a constantly critical spirit, living at peace with others,  engaging in deeds of love and mercy, being faithful to our spouses,  caring for and giving proper attention to our children, and submitting to Church authority:  this is true separation from the world.  No wonder our children often rebel against us.  We have led them to believe that what makes them separate from the world is a list of don’ts.    The Christian colony is not one that separates itself completely from the surrounding culture.  The Christian colony is one that is actively involved in the surrounding culture, seeking to show the beauty of its values with the world.

God’s colony is meant to propagate and spread in its influence, and not just through natural generation.  I think the Puritans and some such religious colonies made this mistake.  They separated themselves from the world and thought they would eventually prevail just by having godly children.  We think it is our duty just to hibernate within the colony and try to keep all of the evil forces out of it. When you adopt that type of agenda, you become a cult, not the church.   The primary posture of the church is not defensive–it is offensive.  Whenever you look at those first disciples, a little colony of Christians, see how that colony was on the move. 

One of the encyclopedias says, “Nations establish colonies to find more room in which people can live, to increase trade by providing a market for manufactured goods, to gain sources of raw materials, to secure military advantages, and to increase the prestige of the mother country.”   I especially like that last part of the purpose of colony—to increase the prestige of the mother country.  As Christians, we are not hibernating, insulating ourselves from the world.  No, we want others to become members of our colony and join us in the pilgrim journey.   We must refuse to be holier- than- thou people who cannot have contact with sinners.    We must have contact with people, lovingly embrace them, present the gospel to them, and invite them to join our colony.  We are so concerned with maintaining our purity, we refuse contact with the world, which as you remember, was the great sin of the Pharisees.  They criticized our Lord Jesus Christ for eating and drinking with sinners. By refusing to show any interest in the surrounding culture, we too are separating ourselves from people, and we become guilty of a vile form of hypocritical Pharisaism.

 One of the purposes of the colony was to secure military advantages .  God has placed his colony in the world for the same reason–to launch an assault.  Willimon and Hauerwas used the words “beachhead” and “outpost.”   A beachhead is a position on an enemy shoreline captured by troops in advance of an invading army. I like to think of St. Paul’s as a beachhead.  It is incredible to think that God could this little group to capture Baton Rouge. But we are just the beginning. The full army is on its way. Further developments are about to happen.   Perhaps St. Paul’s is opening the door  for what God is about to do in this city.  We are an outpost–a military base in another country, and God’s army is on its way to making more strategic assaults.   

We are not the Church hibernating, nor the Church retreating.  We are the Church militant. Our goal is not merely to protect the people in our colony.  Our goal is to spread the influence of our colony–to increase the prestige of the mother country.   We want to live in such a way that people would want to join our colony.  We want to be a church of such holiness, such unity, such love, that we are a constant reminder to this pagan society they will never enjoy the blessedness we experience apart from Jesus Christ.  We want to proclaim the gospel, pray, and extend the influence  of the gospel in this world until all people  want to joyfully embrace the privileges of citizenship in this heavenly kingdom. Only in that way are we functioning genuinely as a colony of heaven.

            So, as we approach this Thanksgiving season,  let’s turn our thoughts to those Pilgrims, those colonists.  Remember what they endured to be a colony.   Give thanks for their faith.  But let us also think about ourselves as a church.  The Pilgrims and the Puritans were small in number, but I don’t think any historian would disagree that their influence has been felt around the world.  We often talk about the Puritan work ethic.  Can there be any doubt that the principles by which these colonists lived laid the foundation for a great nation?  We are colonists as well, small in number, but who knows what our future influence might be?     Let us give God thanks that we are part of this heavenly colony, this beachhead, and may God use us to advance his kingdom.  Amen.

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Is It More Than a Feeling?:

A Review of The Men Who Stare at Goats

by S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.

The Men Who Stare at Goats begins with the onscreen caption, “More of this is true than you would believe.”  Having been fooled by “mockumentaries” of the past few years,  viewers may be worried that they are about to be deceived again by a film claiming to be factual,  only to find out later that it was not based on actual events.  This film really is an adaptation of Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book of the same title which alleges that the U. S. military engaged in experiments to ascertain if certain people had  paranormal powers, such as remote viewing abilities, or the capability to kill a goat simply by staring at it. 

            In order to give the claims of Ronson’s book a plot for a film, the screenplay by Peter Straughan (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People) invents a story about Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a reporter who goes to Iraq to prove himself to his wife who has recently left him for another man.  While waiting in Kuwait to get into Iraq during the 2003 Iraq War, he meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) who tells Wilton that the U. S. military trained him to be a Jedi warrior by developing his paranormal powers.   Clooney, trying to explain his Jedi powers to Ewan McGregor, who, of course, played one the greatest of the Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi, is one of the many ironic jokes of the film.   There are many references to Star Wars sprinkled throughout the movie, such as Cassady saying, “We’re Jedi.  We don’t fight with guns; we fight with our minds.”  While taking Wilton across the Iraqi desert,  In a series of flashbacks, Cassady explains  how he had become a psychic soldier under the tutelage of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges).    During the Viet Nam War, Django, after having been shot,  experienced a moment of enlightenment, and convinced the military to allow him to develop  a band of New Age-type warriors  called the New Earth Army, soldiers who would be able to bring peace to the world by being less violent.   The United States would become “the first superpower to have superpowers.”   While handing out flowers to his trainees, Django tells them, “We must create warrior monks who can pass through walls and see into the future.”    Though they profess to be peaceful soldiers, they actually inflict pain on their opponents like any other kind of military force, even inventing new tactics for fighting with knives.    They developed their powers of ESP, sometimes with the aid of drugs and rock music.  Cassady’s powers seem to be especially enhanced by listening to Boston (One of the pleasures of this film is listening to “More Than a Feeling” in the surround sound of a theater).   

 Cassady becomes Django’s star pupil, having the ability to locate kidnapped subjects through the powers of remote viewing—a clairvoyant ability to see what is happening at another location a great distance away, sometimes on the other side of the world.  Remote viewing can be thought of as long distance spying, utilizing only the powers of the mind.   

            Django and Cassady are pleased with the progress of the New Earth Army, but when Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) enters the program, his jealousy of Cassady’s abilities leads him to undermine the project.  Django is discharged and disappears, while Hooper tries to continue the psychic training, but with more violent and evil purposes in mind.  Believing that Cassady has the ability to kill living things with the power of his mind, Hooper arranges an experiment in which Cassady is challenged to stop the heart of a goat using only his powers of concentration.  When he succeeds, Cassady believes that he and the program are under a curse because he used his powers to harm an innocent animal.  The rest of the film shows how Cassady tries to achieve some kind of redemption for having killed the goat.   Though Cassady left the army years before, he explains to Wilton that he has been reactivated and is on a secret mission.  In reality, he has learned that Hooper  has continued the psychic soldier program and  its experiments in Iraq, but with far different purposes than those intended by Django.   The real intent of Cassady’s visit to Iraq is to deal with the abuses to the program that have been developed by Hooper.   Toward the end of the film we learn that Cassady is on a crusade, not just to liberate goats who are being used in cruel experiments, but also prisoners of war who are tortured by being forced to listen to Barney the Dinosaur sing “I Love You, You Love Me,” a technique Cassady describes as coming from “the dark side.”  On one level, this film could be seen as a critique of the treatment of soldiers in Abu-Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, but the force of the criticism is blunted by the ridiculous beliefs and practices of the New Earth Army.  Even the deliverance of the mistreated captives seems to be only another part of the general absurdity.

Clooney and McGregor give good performances, but the true star of the film is Jeff Bridges in an incredibly funny role as a New Age hippie, reminiscent of his role as “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski.   Bridge’s Django character is said to be based, somewhat, on Lt. Col. Jim Channon, who actually did convince the U. S. military in the 1970s to allow him to investigate ways to create a new kind of soldier.   Channon was heavily influenced by the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, an organization that advocated a blending of Eastern and Western philosophies, encouraging   practices such as meditation, yoga, and massage therapy.   After investigating these ideas, Channon wrote a manual for the Army entitled The First Earth Battalion.  This manual  advocated that soldiers should walk into enemy territory bearing in their arms animals that are symbolic of peace, such as lambs.  These new soldiers would use their “sparkly eyes” to dazzle the enemy. (George Clooney shows off his comedic skills while demonstrating this technique).  They would wear radio devices playing peaceful sounds and music.  If the enemy would not become compliant, the soldiers would transmit acid rock or unpleasant sounds to confuse the enemy.  These new soldiers would love everyone and have out of body experiences.

 If the military took any of these ideas seriously, as Ronson’s book maintains, it is astounding, and certainly worthy of being satire.  Some have seen this film as a spoof  in the same vein as  Mash or Catch-22.  If the military was actually involved in this kind of experimentation, the satire is well-aimed, but The Men Who Stare at Goats does not have the lasting impact of earlier anti-war films such as Dr. Strangelove.

Viewing the film, it is difficult to determine what is being satirized:  the military, the New Age beliefs, or both.  Even if the film is not based on fact, it illustrates how attempts to introduce such concepts into the military would be foolish and impractical.  The movie also shows how difficult it is to blend Eastern and Western philosophies of spirituality.  The outcome of such attempts is usually to transform the participants into ridiculous caricatures, such as those portrayed by Clooney and Bridges.    The prayer of the First Earth Battalion, recited, in part, by Django’s trainees,  is almost a silly parody of the prayers recited in the liturgy of some Christian denominations for the service of Holy Communion:  “Mother Earth… my life support system… as a soldier… I must drink your blue water… live inside your red clay and eat your green skin. I pray… my boots will always kiss your face and my footsteps match your heartbeat. Carry my body through space and time… you are my connection to the Universe… and all that comes after. I am yours and you are mine. I salute you.”  Such a prayer demonstrates the absurd result of combining Eastern and Western spiritual traditions into an Americanized, eco-friendly, form of spirituality that still retains echoes of Christian worship. 

Some critics have suggested that the point of the film is to show how the peaceful teachings of the East are corrupted by power-hungry men like Hooper.   When Hooper’s character is introduced, Wilton’s narration says that a serpent had entered the garden.  The implication seems to be that things were going well in this new kind of army that would lead us back to the Garden, but a Satanic soldier, who wanted to use these peaceful teachings for evil, corrupted the program. 

On the other hand, the Django and Cassady characters are not presented in a way that we can ever take seriously them or their beliefs.  Cassady tries to convince Wilton of his psychic abilities, but his proofs can usually be explained in terms of chance and coincidence.  In one scene, Cassady stares at a cloud and tells Wilton that he can cause it to disappear—a technique called “cloud-bursting.”  Sure enough, the cloud disintegrates, but just as it does, Cassady drives their car into a huge boulder.  He has the power to dissipate a cloud, but his ESP cannot alert him that he is about to hit the only visible rock  in a sea of sand.   The choice of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” indicates how much those involved in such research want to believe that their psychic power is “more than a feeling.”   Another appropriate song introduced into one scene, Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself,” implies that when all these claims of paranormal abilities have been investigated, we will find that these so-called powers existed only  in the mind and never influenced anything outside of the self.

            Whether or not it was intended, the film points out what harebrained characters we become when want to believe in something that has no basis in fact.  The film opens with Brigadier General Dean Hopgood (Stephen Lang),  someone who really wants to believe that these powers exist, trying to run through a wall.  The last scene (I won’t spoil it for you) shows how much we want to hold on to the idea that such things are possible.  McGregor portrays Wilton as someone who knows deep down inside that what Cassady believes he can do is a delusion, but at the same time he wants to believe it is true.  While Cassady is on a mission to find redemption, Wilton is on a mission to find some kind of meaning to his life, a quest that often results in believing the absurd.   The director of this film, Grant Heslov, said that he was “fascinated by people who believe something strongly enough that it becomes true for them” (Williams).     At the end of this motion picture, we don’t know which is more absurd—the ideas themselves, or our desire to believe in them.  We want to convince ourselves that these powers are more than a feeling.  People may want to believe they have psychic abilities when they “close their eyes and drift away,” but the true name for such  an experience is called  “dreaming.”

Works Cited

 Williams, Joe.   “The Man Who Steered ‘Goats’.”   stltoday.com  8 Nov. 2009.  10 Nov. 2009.

http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/entertainment/stories.nsf.story/9911BEA1EA352B89286257666007ABDBA?OpenDocument

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How Do You Want to Be Remembered?

A Sermon Preached by  Rev.  S. Randall Toms

On Sunday, November 8, 2009

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, LA

I thank my God upon every remembrance of you,  Always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy, For your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now;  Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ: Even as it is meet for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart; inasmuch as both in my bonds, and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel, ye all are partakers of my grace.  (Phil. 1:3) 

            We often hear people say, “I want to be remembered as ….”  Fill in the blank.  How would you like to be remembered?  Sometimes we hear presidents talk about the kind of legacy they would like to leave.  I suppose that within many of us there is this desire to leave behind us something that would cause other people to remember us favorably.  The great poet John Keats asked that on his headstone the following words would be inscribed:  “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”  For the time being, we can say that Keats was wrong, for there are still a few of us who devotedly read Keats’ poetry; but, there will probably come a day when no one will remember Keats and the beautiful words that he wrote.  Like Keats, many of us feel that when we are gone, we will be forgotten.

            We are still in the octave of All Saints’, so we are still remembering all of the people who lived their lives in devotion to Jesus Christ.   But as we remember them, I want to ask you, “How do you want to be remembered?”  When I ask that question, I am not only asking you how you would like to be remembered after your death, but how you would like to be remembered now whenever your name is mentioned.  When the Apostle wrote this letter to the Philippians, he begins it by saying, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you.”  What a wonderful compliment!  This should be the desire of every Christian—to be remembered with thanksgiving.  Each Sunday morning, in our prayer of intercession, we say, “And we also bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching to grant them continual growth in thy love and service, and to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom.”  This is how we should want to be remembered, both in this life, and after we are gone.  We should desire to be remembered as those who set a good example for others to follow, and that when people think of us, they would thank God for letting us have a place in their lives, because we provided a life for them to imitate. 

In our service for the burial of the dead, there is a prayer that says:

Almighty and everliving God, we yield unto thee most high praise and hearty thanks, for the wonderful grace and virtue declared in all thy saints, who have been the choice vessels of thy grace, and the lights of the world in their several generations; most humbly beseeching thee to give us grace so to follow the example of their steadfastness in the faith, and obedience to thy holy commandments, that at the day of the general Resurrection, we, with all those who are of the mystical body of thy Son, may be set on his right hand, and hear that his most joyful voice:  Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

 Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one day, people could stand at your graveside and give God thanks for the grace and virtue he had imparted to you?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could say, “This person was an example of steadfast faith and obedience to God’s commandments.  Thank you Lord for this holy example, and grant me the same grace that you gave to this person.”

As we enter this Thanksgiving season of the year, it is appropriate that we should give thanks for all the blessings that God has given to us, especially those people in our lives who bring us so much happiness and joy.  It is natural for us to give thanks for our family members and our friends who provide for our necessities and comforts in this world.  But as the Christian thinks of those for whom he should give thanks, he is most thankful for his brothers and sisters in Christ, the members of the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.  As we approach this Thanksgiving time, I want all of us who are members of St. Paul’s to give thanks to God especially for one another.  Get out your church directory in the next few weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and go down the list of all the members in our church, and bless God’s holy name that he has allowed you to be in a church where you can have fellowship with that person.  I hope and pray that every person in this church could look at every other person in this congregation and say, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you.”

            As we look at the other members of our congregation, there are all kinds of reasons to remember them with thanksgiving.  Some can give God thanks for the close ties of friendship that have been formed as a result of being brought into this church.  There may be some people in this congregation that you don’t know very well, but even if you don’t you can still give God thanks when you remember them for their faithfulness to this church, for the way they support its worship and work, and for the words and acts of kindness when we have gone through trying and troubling times.   

But there is one other reason to give God thanks for one another that the Apostle Paul spells out for us in this epistle reading for today.  Paul thanks God for the Philippians and their fellowship in the gospel.  This fellowship in the gospel is something that binds all of us together in this church.  Some of us in this congregation may not be united to others by anything else.  We come from different backgrounds, different cultures, different interests, and different likes and dislikes.  Some of us love art, some of us love books, some of us love football, baseball, basketball,  golf, and some of us, inexplicably, love soccer.    Some of us love cooking, some of us love rock and roll, and some of us love opera.    We are a diverse congregation of doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, builders, homemakers, couples, singles, parents, children, and spouses.  For such a small congregation we are quite diverse, but there is one thing we all have in common—one thing that unites us all—the fellowship of the gospel.

What has brought us here?  Why have we been willing to struggle as a small congregation for nearly 7 years now?  The fellowship of the gospel!   We have a common love for the inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God.  We have a common love for the form of worship that is guided by our Book of Common Prayer.  We have a common goal of influencing and shaping the culture in which we live.  We have a common desire that Jesus Christ would be exalted and glorified in every institution of our society, whether we are talking about government, education, or business.  We are united by a common desire that all people would come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.    This is our fellowship in the gospel.  When we think of one another, we can say, I thank God for that person, for God has given me that person as a brother or sister who desires that the gospel of Jesus Christ would be known in all the world.   

In his commentary on Philippians, William Hendriksen points out several features of this fellowship:  it is a fellowship in love for one another; it is a fellowship in helping one another and contributing to one another’s needs; it is a fellowship in promoting the work of the gospel; it is a fellowship in separation from the world; and it is a fellowship in warfare.  When we think of how we share these things with one another, shouldn’t we give God thanks for one another?  

 It is a fellowship of love for one another.  Jesus Christ has drawn us to himself by the power of the gospel, and we all love him.  Since have this common love for our Lord and Savior who died for us, since this Christ lives in each of us, how can we not have a fellowship of love?  Since we love one another we also have this desire to help one another in times of need, to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep for we have been united into one body.    We have a fellowship in promoting the gospel, so we join together to sacrificially contribute our time, our talents, and our money so that the gospel would be spread in this city, our nation, and our world.  We are united by a common separation from the world.  Though the world is constantly calling to us, telling us to forsake the path of obedience to God, we are encouraged by our brothers and sisters in Christ to stay the course.  Though we may be few, we are not alone in the world.  We have brothers and sisters who have bid farewell to the way of the world, to walk in it nevermore.  In the church, we find those who love what is true,  honest,  just,  pure, and lovely.  We are bound together as we fight a common war against the world, the flesh, and the devil.  Ask almost any military person, and they will tell you that nothing unites you to another person like standing side by side, in times of great danger, fighting against a common enemy.    We are all soldiers in the army of the Lord and have been called to arms, to see that gospel prevails, so that “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun, doth his successive journeys run.”  Having experienced this kind of fellowship with one another, what else can we do remember one another with thanksgiving?

As a pastor, I can say, I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, for you have been willing to be faithful to the gospel and what it teaches, so much so that you would be willing to be steadfast to this tiny congregation with all its limitations.  Yet, you believe that what we are doing here is according to the will of God.  Not many people in this generation are willing to do that, so I give God thanks that he has worked in your heart and life in such a way that you are willing to join us in this fellowship of the gospel.    Our fellowship is in the gospel.  Think of it.  Were it not for the gospel of Christ, most of us would have probably never met.  It is the gospel of Jesus Christ that brought us together, and it is the gospel of Jesus Christ which sustains our fellowship.  We often sing the hymn, “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.”  But what is that tie that binds us together.  It is the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

How do you want to be remembered?  There are those who want to be remembered as  powerful military leaders.  Some want to be remembered as  famous entertainers.  Some want to be remembered as great statesmen.  Some want to be remembered as great athletes.  But no matter how well known you may become in any of those fields, ultimately, your name will be writ in water.  Remember the words of St. John:  “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.   And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (I John 2:15-17).  Only those who do the will of God will be remembered for ever.  The Psalmist said, “The righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance” (Ps. 112:6). 

Today, we continue to remember those who have lived for Christ, some of them dead for nearly 2,000 years now.  But we remember them with thanksgiving.  There are many others whose names have been erased by time, but who are remembered forever in the heavenly city.  Why?  One reason—their fellowship in the gospel.  How do you want to be remembered?  Whenever other people think of us, we should hope that we have lived our lives in such a way that people would bow their heads for a moment and offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the blessing that we have been to their lives.  They will remember us with thanksgiving if we have shared in the fellowship of the Gospel.  Amen.

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Worthy to Wear White

A Sermon by S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.

Preached on Sunday, November 1, 2009

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, LA

Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy (Rev. 3:4).

Last week at our Youth Sunday School, we were having a discussion about the meaning of All Saints’ Day, and I was explaining to the young people why we wear white at this special time of the year.  I also explained that I also wear a white alb every Sunday, even if it is not All Saints’.  As I was describing the meaning of wearing white, I said that white represented purity of life.  When I said that, one of our young people said, “Wow!  That’s saying a lot about yourself.”     When she said that, it may me not ever want to put on the white alb again, because if it does indeed stand for purity of life, which one of us could ever wear the white alb in good conscience?

When we read verses like Rev. 3:4, “Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy,” it confuses us a little.  After all, isn’t the whole point of the Bible, the whole thrust of the gospel, to show us that we are not worthy to wear white?  Don’t we emphasize over and over that we are not worthy of any of the blessings that God has ever given to us?  Don’t we constantly cry out with Jacob, “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant…” (Gen. 32:10).  We are like the centurion who told our Lord Jesus Christ, “I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof” (Matt. 8:8).  Each Sunday morning, before we take Holy Communion, we say, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.”   We say with John the Baptist that we are not worthy to even unloose the latchet of our Lord’s sandals.  Whenever we baptize a child, such as we did a couple of weeks ago, I present the child with a white garment and challenge him to bring it unstained to the judgment seat of Christ.  How could we possibly go through our lives and hope to arrive at the judgment seat of Christ with an unstained garment?  Whenever we think of all the sins that we have committed, doesn’t it seem that our garment will be so dirty and soiled that there won’t be a single speck of white showing through?

Yet, when we read the descriptions of Christians, both in this world and in the world to come, we find them described as wearing a white garment, which does indeed represent purity of life.    This passage in Rev. 3:4 says that there were some people there in Sardis who had not defiled their garments.    Then, we read  that those who have gone on to heaven are clothed in white garments.  “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment” (Rev. 3:5).  “And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.” (Rev. 4:4).  “After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands” (Rev. 7:9).  “And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean” (Rev. 19:14).  Thus, on All Saints’ it is appropriate to wear white since the saints are described as wearing it.

Still, knowing our own sinfulness, how is it that we ever get a white robe when we are so unworthy of wearing it?      First, though it is true that we are guilty of innumerable sins, the Christian’s sins have been washed away by the blood of Christ.  For our closing hymn this morning we are going to sing, “Who are these like stars appearing.”  The inspiration for that song comes from Rev. 7:13-14, “And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?  And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  If we have white robes, it is because our robes have been washed in the blood of Christ.  If you were to dip a robe in blood, you might expect that it would come out red, but in God’s universe, when you wash your dirty robe in red blood, it comes out white as snow.  As we read in Isaiah 1:18, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”  It is true that our sins are many, but the promise of Scripture in I John is, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.   If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:7-9).    It is true that we are unworthy to wear the white robe, but we have been made worthy by what Christ did on the cross.  He shed his blood to wash us clean, so that our robes would be white, and that we might walk in heaven with him forever, in a robe as pure and white as that of his own, because any righteousness we have, any purity we have, comes from him, and him alone.  So, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, if you are placing your faith and trust in him, you are in fact wearing a white robe.  When you see us each Sunday wearing these white robes that symbolize purity, always see them as white, because they have been washed in the blood of Christ.

But there is another sense in which the Christian is worthy to wear white.  He is worthy to wear white because he lives a life that is worthy of a Christian.    Notice carefully what I said.  I didn’t say that we are worthy to wear white because we are sinless.  I said that the Christian is worthy to wear the white robe because he lives a life that is worthy of a Christian. This is what St. Paul meant in Colossian 1:9-11, when he wrote, “For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding;  That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God;  Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness.”  Notice how Paul says that the Christian can walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing.  It doesn’t mean that the Christian is sinless, but it does mean that his life is characterized by obedience, by holiness, by a zeal and determination to please God in all things.   When we are fruitful in every good work, we are walking worthy of the Lord.   St. Paul said in Ephesians 4:1, “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called.”  You have been called to Christ.  You have been called to bear the name of Christ.  Now, walk worthy of that calling.  This is why the Lord gives us his Holy Spirit, so that we might be “strengthened with all might,” given the power to walk in obedience to the commandments of God.  In one of our readings for today, we read from one of the Apocryphyal books, The Wisdom of Solomon.  As you know, in the Reformed Episcopal Church,  we do not consider such books to be part of the inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God and cannot use them to establish any doctrine, but we can use them as valuable tools of instruction in morals.  In the Wisdom of Solomon 3, verse 5, we are told that God proved those who have gone on to heaven.  He tested them and found them worthy of himself.  This is what happens to in the course of our Christian lives.  We go through many trials and tribulations, but through them all, we walk worthy of the Lord who has called us.  This is what our Lord meant when he said that there were people at Sardis who had not defiled their garments.  He didn’t mean that they were perfectly sinless, but it did mean that they had not departed from the faith.  The great sin at the church in Sardis was that they were pretending to be spiritually alive, going through the rituals and the motions, but they were in fact dead spiritually.  But there were some at Sardis, though not perfect, who nevertheless, were spiritually alive and were living lives that demonstrated that they were alive.

Though the Christian is not sinless, it can be said of him that, overall, his life is characterized by godliness and holiness.  We read of Zacharias and Elizabeth, “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Luke 1:6).  Does that mean that Zacharias and Elizabeth never sinned?  Of course not.  But it does mean that overall, their lives were characterized by obedience.  They walked worthy of the Lord to all pleasing.

The Christian’s worthiness to wear the robe is two-fold.  His robes have been washed in the blood of the lamb, and he lives a life that corresponds to the sacrifice that Christ made on his behalf, because Christ himself has given us his strength, a strength in the inner man, that enables us to walk worthy of the calling by which we are called.  “They shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy.”  How could they be worthy?  They are worthy because of what Christ has done for them and in them.

This morning as we gaze into heaven and experience the wonderful communion of saints, as I say, “Lift up your hearts,” and we are aware that we are worshiping now with all the saints on earth and all the saints in heaven, we should be a aware that they are wearing white.  By the eye of faith, see them now, “Clad in robes of purest whiteness,/Robes whose luster ne’er shall fade.”  But then, wonder of wonders, take a look at yourself, and by the eye of faith, see that you are also clothed in a glorious white garment, and fall upon your knees confessing your unworthiness to wear it, but at the same time, rejoicing that by his death, resurrection, and glorious ascension, Christ has made you worthy.  Amen.

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