Archive for March, 2010

Losing Life to Find It

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

Preached on Sunday,  March 7, 2010

At St. Paul’s Anglican Church,  Baton Rouge, LA

And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  And he spake that saying openly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him.   But when he had turned about and looked on his disciples, he rebuked Peter, saying, Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men.   And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.   For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. (Mark 8:31-35) 

In this passage of Scripture, Peter has made his wonderful confession that he believes that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God.  After his confession, our Lord responds by saying some wonderful things to Peter.  He says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  These are wonderful promises made to Peter, the apostles, and the Church.  I can imagine that Peter was feeling pretty good about himself after our Lord spoke these words.  He must have been thinking, “Finally, after all my stupid blunders, after putting my foot in my mouth so many times, I finally said the right thing.”  But, like all of us, we can say things that are so good, and then in the next moment, open our mouths and show that, at heart, we are still quite foolish.  One moment, we can speak with clarity the things that God has revealed to us, and in the next moment, become the mouthpiece of the devil himself. 

            Just after Peter makes his great confession, our Lord begins to teach his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, but raised the third day.  But Peter immediately interrupts him and says, “Far be it from You, Lord, this shall not happen to you.”  We look at what Peter said with our full, New Testament understanding of how our Lord redeemed us, and we wonder how Peter could have made such a statement.  We give thanks every day, and especially on the Lord’s Day when we celebrate Holy Communion, that our Lord went to Jerusalem to be treated in such a horrible fashion, for it was in that way that our redemption was accomplished.  But we must remember that Peter, like most of the Jews of this time, were laboring under the mistaken notion that the Messiah was going to be a great political leader who would overthrow the Romans and set up an earthly kingdom with Israel being the chief of the nations.  Peter is saying, “Lord, what are you talking about?  You are the Christ, the Messiah.  I have just confessed that you are, and you have commended me for saying so.  You are the Christ, and you are going to lead us to victory.  You are not going to Jerusalem to die.  If you die, then all of our hopes and dreams will come to an end.”  Peter didn’t understand that the way Christ would redeem his people would be by going to a cross and dying for us.  Peter, just like the others, couldn’t see the connection between a crucified Christ and a reigning Christ.  They could not see the connection between suffering and glory.  They could not understand that there was no crown without the cross.

            Peter decides that he must correct our Lord on a few points.  Notice how strong the language is here.  Mark says that Peter “took him,” that is, Peter actually takes hold of Jesus.  Perhaps they were walking down the road, and Peter literally grabbed Jesus, in a protective manner,  as though to forcefully prevent him from taking another step in the direction of the cross.  Peter not only grabs the Lord, he rebukes him.  Can you imagine how Peter could in one moment confess that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, and then, in the next moment rebuke the Christ, the son of the living God?  Surely this rebuke demonstrates how emotional Peter must have been about the words that Jesus has just spoken.  This word for “rebuke” is the same Greek word that is used to describe how Jesus rebuked demons, or how Jesus rebuked the winds and the waves and made them to become calm.  The word can mean “to strictly forbid.”  This word for “rebuke” is a strong word.  We could paraphrase these words as Peter saying, “Lord, you stop talking like this,” or “Lord, I absolutely forbid you from doing this.”  Peter tries to stand in the way of the Lord to prevent him from going to the cross.

            Now we can understand why Jesus calls Peter “Satan.”  After Peter says that this shall not happen, Jesus looks at Peter and says, “Get thee behind me, Satan.”  If Peter’s rebuke of Jesus was harsh, our Lord’s rebuke of Peter is even more so.  How could our Lord look at one of his own and say, “Get thee behind me, Satan”?  This doesn’t mean that Peter was demon possessed or that he had a demon.  The name “Satan” means “adversary.”  Here, Peter was indeed acting as the great adversary.  Anything that seeks to deter us from doing God’s will is acting as Satan, the adversary.  When we say thing like Peter said,  we become the mouthpiece of Satan.  Jesus would tolerate nothing that would deter him from going to the cross. 

            In Matthew’s account, Jesus says,  “Get thee behind me, Satan:  thou art an offence unto me.”  That word that is translated as “offence” means “a stumbling stone.”  It is an amazing thing that this man who has just been given the name “Peter,” “the Rock,” now becomes another kind of rock, a stumbling stone, a trap, a snare, something that stands in the way of accomplishing the will of God.    Satan was using Peter to act as a voice of temptation.  Satan is using Peter to try to seduce Jesus to obtain the crown without enduring the cross.   In the garden of Gethsemane, when our Lord was praying just before his crucifixion, we see how our Lord dreaded the cup of wrath that he was about to drink.    Perhaps some of that dread was already upon him as he thought of how he must go up to Jerusalem.  At such a time, he didn’t need Peter to add to that sense of dread.  I am sure that when Peter says these words, he said them out of love.  Though these words were spoken out of love, they are nevertheless, the words of Satan himself trying to dissuade him from going to the cross.  As I mentioned, this word for “stumbling block,” also means “a trap.”  Through Peter, Satan is trying to set a trap for Jesus to achieve glory through some other way than the cross.

            During the season of Lent, we often reflect on the temptations of our Lord in the wilderness.  As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the temptation in the wilderness was designed to persuade Christ to achieve glory through some other path than that of the suffering servant:  “Turn stones into bread and alleviate your sufferings.  Throw yourself down from the temple and gain popularity by doing such a miracle.  Fall down and worship me and I will give you everything in the world that you could desire.”  This same temptation is coming to our Lord through Peter.  Remember that in the story of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, Luke said, “And when the devil had ended all the temptation, he departed from him for a season,” or, as some have put it, “until a more opportune time.”  Here is one of those opportune times, and the voice of temptation comes through Peter. 

Peter was thinking like any normal man would think.  “Surely,” we think, “the way to glory and the crown cannot come through a cross.”  Jesus rebukes him by saying, “For thou savourest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men.”  The Good News Translation has it, “Your thoughts don’t come from God but from human nature!”  The NIV has it, “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”  Peter was thinking like a man:  “Achieve the throne through leading a rebellion against Rome.”  That was man’s way.  The way of pride and self aggrandizement.  But God’s way is the way of sacrifice.    Jesus said, “You are not thinking the things of God, but the things of men.  For Peter, the concepts of suffering and the rule of the Messiah were incompatible, because Peter was thinking like a man, not like God. 

Though the Scriptures had taught this great truth that the path of suffering is the path to glory, the people had missed it.  After our Lord’s resurrection, Jesus meets those two disciples on the road to Emmaus who do not recognize him.  They were explaining how disillusioned they were.  They had thought this Jesus would be the one who would lead them to victory.  Since he has been crucified, they think that they must have been wrong in believing that Jesus was the Christ.  But Luke tells us how Jesus corrected their thinking:  “ Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?  And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27).  Our Lord uses the Scriptures and shows them that Moses and all the prophets taught that the Messiah, when he came, would first suffer, and then enter into glory.

            The same is true for us, for just after our Lord rebukes Peter, his next words are, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.  For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.” (Mark 8:34-5).    When people try to tempt us with the idea that there is any other way to be a Christian other than by giving ourselves to a life of sacrificial love, we must give them a firm, “Get thee behind me, Satan .”  There will be many voices to persuade us from taking up the cross.  There will always be those who will be there to say, “Save yourself.  Think of yourself.  Don’t throw your life away.  Think of all your dreams.  Think of all your talents and abilities.  Are you going to just throw it all away  to live for Christ and others?”  They may not realize it any more than Peter did, but they are the mouthpiece of Satan when they say such things.  You must turn a deaf ear to them, and do as your Lord did.  Set your face toward Jerusalem and the way of the cross.  The people of this world will always think you are throwing your life away, but in reality you will find your life for the first time.   The path of ease and comfort is man’s way.  The path of self-denial and the cross is God’s way.  Jesus has set the example for us.  By losing his life, Jesus was not losing life at all.  He was gaining life, a far more glorious life.  Our Lord set down that pattern for all of his followers.  If you want to gain your life,  you must lose your life.  We equate losing life with death.  We still use that terminology when people die.  We say that so many people “lost their lives.”   For us, death means that life is lost forever, but in the Christian scheme of things, when you lose your life, you really begin to live.  It is when you deny yourself, that life really becomes adventurous and fulfilling. 

It is only when we give up living for ourselves and begin living for God and others that we truly come alive.  Again, our Lord has set the example for us.  He came into the world to be treated cruelly, all for the sake of others.  If our Lord hadn’t gone to the cross, all of us would have been damned forever.  But our Lord didn’t think of his glory, his comforts, or his pleasures.  He thought of us,  how we were lost in sin, and that there was no other way to redeem us except by going to the cross.    He lays down this rule that if we really want to live and be a blessing to others, we must follow his example and stop thinking of ourselves all the time.  The reason that most of us are so unhappy most of the time is that we have an obsession with self.  We are so narcissistic that we spend all of our time doing nothing but thinking of our personal feelings,  pains, and  pleasures.  After awhile, such a life gets old and boring.  But when we begin to live for Christ and others, life becomes an adventure.  Paul said in II Cor. 4:14-15, “For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead:  And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.”  Paul says that the Christian no longer lives for himself, to please himself in all things.  He denies himself and lives for Christ. What kind of life does Christ call you to lose?  He call upon you to lose a life of selfishness, to begin a life of usefulness, a life lived for others.

The season of Lent is about self-denial.  During these few weeks of the year, we give up some things, whether it is food, other pleasures or pastimes, or take upon ourselves certain disciplines where we spend more time on them, giving up some of the time we would spend in our own pleasures.    Some people may criticize you for this practice of self-denial during Lent, asking, “What good do you think that does?  What is so significant about giving up something like chocolate or soft drinks?”  These small acts of self-denial are just miniatures of the larger act of self-denial to which Christ calls all of his people.   As we deny ourselves, we find that we are praying more, thinking more of Christ, meditating more on his word, being drawn to acts of repentance.  Out of these small acts of self denial, we find that the less we live for ourselves and our pleasures, the richer our spiritual lives become.    These small acts of self-denial reveal to us in some small way what it means to deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow Christ, and that by doing so, we actually find our lives.   For the Christian is not to deny himself merely during the season of Lent, but throughout his life.   The voice of Satan comes to us during Lent and throughout our lives says, “What is the point of this self denial, this taking up the cross.  Surely there must be a better way, an easier way.”  During Lent, we see that though it is man’s way to serve ourselves and please ourselves, God’s way is that the path to fullness of life, both here and hereafter, is through taking up the cross.  Amen.


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Loving What Is Worthless 

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

Preached on Sunday, February 28, 2010

At St. Paul’s Anglican Church,  Baton Rouge, LA

O ye sons of men, how long will ye turn my glory into shame? how long will ye love vanity, and seek after leasing? (Ps. 4:2) 

            One of the greatest orators in the history of the Church was John Chrysostom (347-407), who was the Bishop of Constantinople.  The word “Chrysostom” means “golden-mouthed.” He was given this name because of his ability to preach such powerful and beautiful sermons.  He once said that if he could be given a pulpit from which he could preach to the entire world, he would choose as his text this phrase from Psalm 4:2, “How long will ye love vanity, and seek after leasing?”  Remember that the word for “vanity” in Scripture means “empty,” “meaningless,” “worthless.”  Today’s English Version translates that question as, “How long will you love what is worthless and go after what is false?”  Chrysostom felt that the dominant characteristic of the age in which he lived was that people loved those things which are worthless.   If people in the fourth and fifth century loved those things that are worthless, how more is it true of our generation?  Actually, loving what is worthless is the characteristic of all people in all generations.  Since the fall, we have shown our depravity of heart by pursuing that  which has no value in the great scheme of things.   The fall gave us this ridiculous capacity to waste our affections on relatively non-important matters. 

In this Psalm before us, David realizes the people of his generation, especially those in places of power, loved the things that are vain, empty, and worthless.  They were scheming to ruin him so that they might have the power that was his, but they were in pursuit of those things that were really of no value.  Their hopes and their dreams would never be realized.  This sad, foolish, manner of living, chasing the things of no value, is the characteristic of all those who do not know Jesus Christ.    They have so many hopes and dreams, but they will never achieve them ultimately, and if they do gain those things that they are so bent on pursuing, they will ultimately find that the things they have set their hearts upon have no lasting value.

            What do people consider to be truly valuable in our day?  In our country, we place a high value on “things,” that is, material possessions–houses, land, furniture, crystal, silverware, diamonds, gold pens, antiques, necklaces, watches, cars, clothes, trucks, appliances, collectibles.    Advertisers know that we are obsessed with things.  If you pick up any magazine, or watch television for very long, you will see that most ads are trying to persuade us to get more things, and and to convince us how unhappy we will be if we don’t have those things.    We work to make a living, to provide the necessities of for our families, but so much of our desire for higher incomes is so that we can purchase more things.

            If we are not in pursuit of things, we live in pursuit of pleasure.    These pleasures take many forms, coming through the different senses of sight, sound, feeling, tasting, smelling.  Or, our pleasures may be pleasures of the mind, something that makes the adrenalin flow so that we have rush of excitement.  The other night I was watching the Olympics, and one of the athletes described himself as an “adrenalin junkie.”  He is addicted to that feeling of excitement that involves putting your health and your life on the line.    Again, if our advertisers are not pushing things, pushing pleasures must come in a strong second.  For this reason, almost every add, even for “things,” has at least a sexual suggestion, linking the possession of the thing with a feeling of pleasure.    Advertisers spend so much money pushing pleasures and possessions because they know that we place such a high value on them.    As we look at advertising, we wonder, “Do we love these things because they advertise them so much, or do they advertise them so much because we love them?”  I don’t know the answer to that question, but at this point, the relationship between our values and advertising is an endless cycle.  The more we love possessions and pleasures, the more they are advertised, and the more they are advertised, the more we love them.

            If it is not possessions or pleasures we pursue, we may pursue power and popularity.    The love for things and the love for power and popularity go together.  We are told, “Buy this, and you will be the envy of everyone.  Look like this, and everyone will love you.  Lose weight now, and your whole life will change and become meaningful.  Get into this position of authority, and you will have such a feel of self-satisfaction and contentment.” 

            It may shock you to hear me say that all of these things that we pursue are relatively worthless.  Notice that I said that they are “relatively” worthless.  Many of the things I have mentioned are, in some ways, valuable.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with pursuing possessions, pleasures, or power.    Many of these things that we pursue  are innocent and good, and do give us certain feelings of enjoyment and satisfaction.  But relatively speaking, they are vanity, worthless.

            Do you remember that in Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and Faithful had to travel through the town of Vanity Fair?  All kinds of things were sold at Vanity Fair, and Bunyan mentions the following things that were for sale:  “Houses, lands, trade, places, honors, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, bodies, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones.”  If you look at that list, you will notice that some of those things are perfectly fine, natural, and innocent, in and of themselves.  There is nothing wrong with having a house, land, a job, or a position of authority.  There is nothing wrong with having a husband, wife, and children.    Then why does Bunyan include them in those things that are considered vain?  They are vain if we place such importance on them that we would compromise our beliefs and convictions in order to obtain them.  They are vain if we consider these things more important than our relationship to God.    When these things become of supreme importance to us, they become idols, and  an idol is vanity, nothing, meaningless.  Many a man has sold his soul so that could have the job he wanted, the money he wanted, the power he wanted, or the woman he wanted.  All of these things seem so very valuable, so very precious, and people think they  must have them.  But in comparison with your relationship to God, they are worthless.    Very often, the choice is just that simple:  a wife for your soul, a job for your soul, a promotion for your soul,  a boyfriend or a girlfriend for your soul.  If you obtain these things at the price of your soul, then you are loving what is relatively worthless.  Jesus said it best, didn’t he?  “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?  Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:36-7).  Get a pair of scales.  Put all of the riches and pleasures in this whole world on one side.  Then, on the other side, put the value of one soul, and the scales will crash with the value of the one soul outweighing everything else.    But what we normally say is this:  “I would rather have what is comparatively worthless.”  Jesus warns us that the person who strives to have all of those things and neglects his own soul is a fool. 

            The truly wise man, on the other hand, behaves as those men Jesus told us about in Matt. 13:44-46:  “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.   Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:   Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. “ The Lord Jesus Christ, the kingdom of heaven, is that treasure in the field.   Our Lord Jesus Christ is that pearl of great price.  Both of these men sold all that they had and bought the treasure, the Pearl, because they knew what was truly valuable.  Our Lord is saying that if you are not willing to part with all of your possession, all your titles, all your positions, all your honor and popularity, in order that you might have Christ, then you have never seen the glory and beauty of Christ and what a relationship with him offers us.    To consider something more valuable than the Pearl of great price is loving what is worthless.

            But not only are the things of this world worthless when compared to what is truly valuable, they are worthless when it comes to bringing you true happiness, fulfillment, and contentment.    If we look at the testimony of Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes, we find that though he had everything that this world had to offer, he said, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”  Notice that word “vanity.”  No doubt, Solomon thought that all of these things would bring him happiness, and, I am sure that for a while, they did.  But looking back over his life, there was no satisfaction, no happiness, and no contentment.    Some people want to work and profit from what they do on their jobs.  They think that this work and profit will give them happiness and satisfaction.  But what did Solomon conclude about such pursuits:  “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.   What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” (Eccl. 1:2-3).  Later he writes, “I have also learned why people work so hard to succeed: it is because they envy the things their neighbors have. But it is useless. It is like chasing the wind.  They say that we would be fools to fold our hands and let ourselves starve to death.  Maybe so, but it is better to have only a little, with peace of mind, than be busy all the time with both hands, trying to catch the wind” (Eccl. 4:4-6, TEV).  Trying to gain happiness by having what everyone else has is like trying to catch the wind.  This desire to have what everyone else has is never ending and it never ends in satisfaction.

            Some people give their lives to the pursuit of knowledge.  “To live is to learn” is their motto.   They think, “If I can just learn enough, I’ll be happy.  I’ll become a professional student, spend all of my life in school, and that will bring happiness.”  How does Solomon evaluate such a life:  “And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow” (Eccl. 1:17-18).    If you think the more you know, the happier you will be, then you haven’t learned very much, especially about human beings.  The more you learn about history, the more you keep up with world events, the more miserable you become.

            Then, there are those who believe that pleasure will bring happiness.  In the last half of the twentieth century we tried to live by the playboy philosophy:  if it feels good, do it, as long as no one else gets hurt.    Of course, what we found in the last half of the century is that it is impossible to live for our own selfish pleasures without hurting others.    In South Louisiana, one of our mottoes is, “Let the good times roll.”  In Solomon, you find someone who let the good times roll.  What did he finally conclude about such a philosophy: 

I said in mine heart, Go to now , I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also is vanity. I said of laughter, It is mad : and of mirth, What doeth it? I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life.  I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards:  I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kind of fruits: I made me pools of water, to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees:  I got me servants and maidens, and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of great and small cattle above all that were in Jerusalem before me:  I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat me men singers and women singers , and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments , and that of all sorts.  So I was great , and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me.  And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labour: and this was my portion of all my labour.  Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought , and on the labour that I had laboured to do : and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun (Eccl. 2:1-11). 

           And if you think that you should achieve fame so that you will always be remembered, Solomon said, “There may be no limit to the number of people a king rules; when he is gone, no one will be grateful for what he has done.  It is useless.  It is like chasing the wind” (Eccl. 4:16, TEV).  Do you really believe that all of your accomplishments, achievements, and good deeds will be remembered?  I read books by people who at one time were extremely popular.  If I mentioned some of them, I think I would find that most of you have never read a book by them.  And yet, these are people who at one time were on the lips of all the reading public.   Most of you have never heard of them.  They are gone and forgotten.

            We pursue these things, thinking that they are of such value because we are convinced that they will bring us happiness, but the moment you achieve that kind of happiness, it is gone.  Solomon said that all of this was chasing the wind.  You never catch it.  My grandchildren love to chase soap bubbles.  We have bought so many of those sets and made bubbles for them to chase all over the yard.  But what happens the moment you grasp a bubble?  It’s gone.  As Robert Burns said,

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy.

These things not only do not bring us the joy they promised.  We often find that the pursuit of these things leads to grief and pain. 

            Our greatest heroes in American society are a constant proof of what I am saying.  As we look at many people who have all the popularity, power, and bright futures, we find that they still are not happy and satisfied.  Perhaps, at one time in their lives, it was enough.  I can imagine politicians saying, “If only I could be a representative.  Then, “If only I could be a senator.”   Then, “If only I could be President.”  Great athletes may say, “If I could only make the team, I would be happy.”  Then, “If only I could win a state championship.”  Then, “If only I could get a scholarship, I wouldn’t ask for anything else.”  Then, “If only I could sign that multi-million dollar contract. “ But all of these people prove that reaching those goals is never enough.  One of the popular James Bond movies was entitled, “The World Is not Enough.”  It never is.  Once you obtain those things that you thought would purchase your happiness, you find that they are worthless.  You are trying to buy the priceless treasures of peace and happiness with pennies.

            Then, you will find that these things will be worthless when you come to die.  It is amazing how worthless all of these “valuable” things are when you are faced with death.    I have seen many people die.  I have stood by the bedside of people as they breathed their last.  All of these experiences cause us to face our own mortality.  When you face the fact that you are going to die, it really makes you put things in perspective.  What are the most important things in your life?    What is really worth doing?  What is really worth living for?  When you come to the end of your life, how will you wish you had spent it?  Throughout our lives we are tempted to pursue things that will mean very little to us when we come to the end of our days in this world.  The best way to escape from those temptations is to imagine yourself on your deathbed.  Then, in your imagination look around you at all of the things you own and all the pleasure you have experienced and ask yourself one question,  “Now that I am dying, what is the value of what I possess?”  I think the answer will come thundering through:  Most of these things are vanity.  None of these things really matter on a deathbed.   Remember how Jesus explained it in the parable of the Rich Fool:   

And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.   And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully:   And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?   And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.   And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.   But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?   So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” is (Luke 12:15-21).

  This man is the American success story. This man would be on the cover of Forbes.  But God say he is a fool, because he was not rich toward God.  He had treasures on earth where moth  and rust destroy and where thieves break through and steal.  He had treasures on earth, but he would be compelled to relinquish them one day.  What fools we are!   We value things that will mean nothing to us in a few years, and yet we are  willing to sell our eternal souls for them. 

What causes us to pursue such meaningless things?   We have believed lies.  David asks the question in this verse, “How long will you seek after lies?”  We have been told the lie that  happiness and contentment is dependent on what we possess.  We love to believe that lie rather than the truth of God that our deepest longings can only satisfied by knowing Him.  Our first parents believed a lie, and we have been pursuing lies ever since.  The devil told them that there was something more valuable than their  relationship with God.  We have been believing the devil’s lie about what is truly valuable ever since.  Last week we looked at how our Lord dealt with this same temptation concerning what is truly valuable.  He was offered the lie, as well.  He could have it all if he would only fall before the feet of Satan and worship him.    But our Lord knew what was valuable and what was worthless.  In Heb. 12:2 we read, “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  Our Lord knew better than to love what is worthless.  Though he knew that he must go to the cross, he looked at the joy that would come after those trials.  The joy that was set before him was far more valuable than anything that the world, the flesh, and the devil could offer him.

Do you know what is valuable and what is worthless?  What do you love?  What has the great value for you?   Most of life, if you look at it seriously, is a process of learning what is valuable and what is worthless.  If you live long enough, you begin to realize that what is truly valuable can be boiled down to a few things.  When we are young and the whole world and everything in it lies before us, we have a tendency to think that each and every thing is infinitely valuable, and we are willing to do anything to obtain those things.  But as you get older, the things that you considered so valuable at one time, begin to lose their luster, and you wonder why you were so obsessed by those things.  Many people who die young, never learn these lessons.  Some older people never learn the lesson.  Since many of them have given up on finding any real satisfaction in God, they have turned to the world to fill up the emptiness in their lives, and they die searching for that one thing that would give them contentment.    But for some people, life may become the great school where we learn what is truly valuable.  Trials, sicknesses, death, tragedies, the fleeting happiness of possessions, pleasures, and powers, all combine to show what has genuine worth. 

 Lent is a great time to evaluate what is valuable and what is comparatively worthless.  As we give up certain things for the sake of drawing nearer to the Lord during this holy season, we find that we can live without certain things and that spiritual pleasures are more valuable.  During Lent, we take our minds off the things of the world for a while, and when we do, we see those invisible things that are truly worthwhile.  The writer to the Hebrews explains for us why Moses gave up all the treasures of Egypt:   “By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter;  Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season;  Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward.  By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:24-27).   By our standards, Moses made a foolish choice.  He traded power, pleasure, and riches to suffer affliction with the people of God.  How could he make such a choice?  He saw the one who was invisible.  During Lent, we take our eyes off of the visible, focus on the invisible, and when we do so, we see that the things eternal are more valuable than the things temporal.

As Chrysostom said, this verse needs to be preached to the world.  How long will you love what is worthless?  We will love those things that are worthless until we finally see what is invisible.  We will love those things that are worthless until we have a vision of the Pearl of Great Price.  May God grant to us during this Lenten season, a sight of Christ in all his glory so that we might value above all else the things that are eternal.  Amen.

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The Wilderness of Lent

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

Preached on Sunday, February 21, 2010

At St. Paul’s Anglican Church,  Baton Rouge, LA 

“And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Luke 4:1). 

When we read these accounts of the temptation of our Lord Jesus Christ, we often think only of Jesus and the devil.  We fail to take into account the important role that the Holy Spirit played in these events.  To see the significance of the Holy Spirit in this time of testing, we need to go back to the baptism of Jesus.  Our Lord has been waiting for 30 years to begin his public ministry, so he goes to John the Baptist and is baptized.  The heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends on him as a dove, and the voice of the Father in Heaven says, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  Surely, after all this time, and after all these wonderful events, Jesus is ready to begin his public ministry.  But before he begins teaching and doing many marvelous works, we are told that the Spirit leads him into the wilderness.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention that it was the Holy Spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  Mark’s account has it, “And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12).  Luke even adds the phrase, “Then Jesus, being full of the Holy Ghost, returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.”  After the temptation, our Lord goes to the synagogue in Nazareth and preaches a sermon, and he chooses as his text Isaiah 61 which begins, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me…”  Although the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Son of God was obviously unique, I think the Scripture is teaching us valuable lessons about how the Holy Spirit prepares us for service.  We often say that we want to be filled with the Spirit, that we want to be led by the Spirit, but I wonder if we realize what we are asking for when we make such a request.  Why did the Holy Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness to be exposed to such a great temptation?

You will remember that God had another son.  Luke’s genealogy of Christ ends,  “…Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God” (Luke 3:38).  Granted, Adam was not a son of God in the unique sense that Jesus was,  but he was a son in the sense of having God as his creator.  We know that Adam also had an encounter with Satan, but when Adam was tempted to eat the forbidden fruit, he succumbed to the temptation and plunged the whole human race into sin, misery, and death.  But now, Jesus, the unique son of God, fully God and yet fully man, would be led into the wilderness and meet Satan face to face.  He has been proclaimed to be the Son of God at his baptism, and now, though I am sure that he had been tempted many times throughout his life, he will meet the fiercest temptation of his life.  Now that he is about to enter his public ministry and reveal that he is the Savior of the world, Satan will tempt him in ways that will try to subvert him from carrying out the mission that he came into the world to accomplish.    But unlike Adam, Christ will refuse to listen to the temptations of the devil and will triumph gloriously over him.  Where Adam failed, Christ will succeed. 

Most of you are familiar with John Milton’s classic, Paradise Lost, but not many people have read one of his other works entitled Paradise Regained.   If you were going to write a book about how Jesus regained Paradise for us, what event in the life of Christ would you depict?  I would probably have chosen the crucifixion or the resurrection.  But when Milton wrote Paradise Regained, he chose to write about the temptation in the wilderness.  Milton was saying that if Christ had not overcome the temptation in the wilderness, Paradise would not have been regained.  If Jesus had not resisted all the temptations that Satan hurled at him, he could not have offered himself as the spotless sacrifice on the cross for our sins.  If he had not lived in perfect obedience to God, then he could not have given us his righteousness, for he would have been a sinner like the rest of us.  Certainly, Paradise was regained for us through the passion, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, but none of that would have been possible if Jesus had yielded to these temptations in the wilderness.    If Adam had been obedient, we would have lived in Paradise forever.  Because Christ has been obedient, he has regained Paradise for us. 

Another reason that Jesus was led into the wilderness to be tempted was that  God had yet another son who had failed.  Sometimes, in Scripture, the nation of Israel is referred to as the son of God.  In Exodus 4:21-22, we read, “And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.  And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD, Israel is my son, even my firstborn.”  In Hosea 11:1, the Lord says, “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.”   God refers to the nation of  Israel as the son of God.  When God delivered Israel from Egypt,  he led them into the wilderness.  For what purpose did God lead them there?  In Deut. 8:2, we are told, “And thou shalt remember all the way which the LORD thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no.”  As Israel was in the wilderness for 40 years, our Lord was in the wilderness for 40 days.  While it was not necessary to humble our Lord Jesus Christ and know what was in his heart, the wilderness temptations of our Lord did demonstrate for Satan and all to see that his heart was set to obey God even in these severe  temptations.

 It is so obvious that the Scripture is drawing parallels between Jesus and Israel.  Israel was delivered from Egypt.  Jesus and his family had to flee to Egypt to seek safety from Herod.  Matthew even quoted that verse I mentioned earlier from Hosea 11:1, saying “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Matt. 2:15).    Israel was led into the wilderness for 40 years.  Jesus was led into the wilderness for 40 days.  But whereas Israel failed miserably in their wilderness experience, our Lord Jesus Christ responded perfectly to the time of testing.    When our Lord was tempted to make the stones into bread, he said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”  Do you know where he got those words?  Let me go back and read to you that verse in Deuternomy  that I read you a moment ago and keep on reading through the next verse.  “And thou shalt remember all the way which the LORD thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no.   And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live” (Deut. 8:2-3).  As you can see, in the very passage where it is explained why Israel was led into the wilderness,  we are told that it was to teach them that man does not live by bread alone.  Jesus demonstrated that he knew the truth of those words and refused to yield to the temptation, thus passing this test that Satan had put before him.    Israel never became what God had intended for them to become.  Israel was to be a nation of priests that would be a light for the rest of the world, but they failed in their mission.  As a matter of fact, we are told that they sinned against the Holy Spirit, for in Isaiah 63:10 we read, “But they rebelled, and vexed his holy Spirit: therefore he was turned to be their enemy, and he fought against them.”  Jesus, on the other hand, being filled with the Holy Spirit, was obedient to God and became our sinless High Priest who ever lives to make intercession for us.  Jesus succeeded where Adam had failed.  Jesus was what Israel failed to be.

Jesus is about to reveal himself as the Messiah, but he would be tempted before he began his ministry. What kind of Messiah would he be?  He was the Son of God with all of these amazing powers, but how would he use his powers?    Would he use them selfishly to satisfy his own needs, like turning stones into bread?  Would he be the kind who would seek notoriety for himself by doing things like casting  himself down from the temple?  Would he be the kind who would take the easy way to obtaining all the kingdoms of the world and all their riches?  Or would he be the kind of Messiah who would live selflessly for the good of others.  Would he be the kind of Messiah who would seek the honor that comes from being popular with men, or would he be one who would seek first to honor God?  Would he show that the only way to rule and reign truly would be to go to the cross to give himself a ransom for many?  These are the questions, the temptations, that Jesus faced in the wilderness, and he emerged triumphantly, full of the Holy Spirit, ready to accomplish all that the Father had ordained for him to fulfill. 

In like manner, when God wants to prepare us for whatever it is that he wants us to accomplish in his service, the Spirit leads us into the wilderness, often to the place where we will be tempted, tried, and tested.  James said, “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man” (James 1:12).  While it is true that God does not lead us into temptation desiring that we should fall and do evil, it is also true that the Spirit of God does lead us into places where our sincerity and trust are tested for our good so that we might be strengthened for future service. We often think that if we are filled by the Spirit and led by the Spirit, that we will be immune from these severe testings and temptations.  Remember that it was just after the wonderful experience of baptism that Jesus is led into the wilderness.   Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit when this happens.   We too, in our baptisms, have been filled with the Holy Spirit, but this being filled with the Spirit does not make Satanic attacks less likely.  Satan attacks those whom he fears are going to be most useful in the service of the Lord.  It is often after our greatest times of spiritual blessing that we are most severely tempted.   

The season of Lent is one of those times when we often draw very close to the Lord, and we spend a great deal of time in prayer.  We feel so close to the Lord that we think that we are safe from the assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil.  But it is usually just then that we encounter some of our most severe trials.  As we look back at the temptation of our Lord, we see that the very place of the temptation is one that makes the temptation more severe.  Imagine such a hot and barren place, you have been fasting 40 days, and the first temptation is one involving food.   Imagine the loneliness of the desert, and then being tempted with instant popularity by performing the miracle of floating down from the heights of the temple. Imagine the barrenness of the landscape and being tempted with all the kingdoms of the world.  In like manner, the Holy Spirit leads us to those places where it seems that we are weakest and most vulnerable.  He leads us to the place where we are tempted to say, “It’s no use.  I can’t fight this.  Not at this time, in this place, in my present condition.”  But it is in these positions that we are taught to put our entire trust in God.  It is not my intention today to go into each of the three temptations, but one way to summarize them is to say that they were all temptations to doubt God, to fail to put his trust in his Father.  All our temptations and testings come down to the same issue—will we trust God or not?  In the wilderness, Israel failed to trust God, constantly murmuring and complaining against God and Moses, failing to believe that God would provide for them.  Jesus was tempted to doubt that God would provide for his needs.  He was tempted to doubt that the way of the cross was the way to power.  He was tempted to doubt that the way of service was the way to the hearts of men. 

The Spirit leads each of us into the wilderness to be tested so that we might be more useful in the service of the Lord.  If you go back through the history of  the Church and read the lives of those who have been most useful in the service of the Lord, you will find that they were also the ones who went through the most fiery trials and testings, beginning with our Lord Jesus Christ himself.  Look at all the temptations and testings he endured.  Look at the great apostle Paul himself.  Was there anyone, other than our Lord himself, who had to endure so many different kinds of trials?  Yet, look at all that he accomplished in the service of Christ.

During this season of Lent, let us look on this time as one when the Holy Spirit is leading us into the wilderness for a period of testing.    Lent is a time of denying ourselves, a time of denying ourselves even legitimate pleasures.  During the season of Lent, the Holy Spirit leads us into the wilderness so that we can learn to say, “No.”  In the wilderness of Lent we learn to say “No,” to our own desires for pleasure.  In the wilderness of Lent we learn that that the true path to greatness and power is not in pleasing ourselves, but in denying ourselves for the sake of our Lord and others.  The Holy Spirit leads us into the wilderness of Lent to teach us to put to death the deeds of the body.  In Romans 8:12-14, St. Paul wrote, “Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh.  For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.  For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.  Look at that phrase, “led by the Spirit of God.”  When people think about being led by the Spirit of God, they usually have in mind some kind of mystical experience where they think the Holy Spirit is telling them to do certain things.  But in this passage, being led by the Spirit of God is being led, being instructed to put to death our sinful desires.     Look upon the season of Lent as being led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to put to death your sinful desires.   Adam failed in his mission.  Israel failed in its mission.    Christ triumphed in his wilderness temptations, and so must we.  If we can learn even in the fierce battles of the wilderness to say “No” to ourselves, then we will be ready to accomplish great things in the service of the Lord.

Look upon the period of fasting during Lent as your time of preparation for the great battles ahead.  When our Lord Jesus Christ was tempted, his victory over Satan was the greatest act of courage and heroism the world had known.  To be offered all the kingdoms of the world, and to turn it down, all to go to the cross for the sins of mankind is true heroism.  May this forty days of Lent prepare us for the great conflicts which lie ahead, and may we conquer Satan, ourselves, and this world for the glory of the name of Jesus Christ our Savior.   Amen.

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Lent, Fasting, and Humility

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

Preached on Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2010

At St. Paul’s Anglican Church,  Baton Rouge, LA

And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.   And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?  And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.  And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.  And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord.  And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth,  (Acts 9:1-11). 

            As we look toward the future, one of the most exciting, and at the same time terrifying, fields of scientific advancement is genetic engineering.  We will soon have all the genetic code deciphered well enough so that we can make some serious advances in the prevention of diseases. We are told that genetically transmitted diseases will be eliminated by this new kind of engineering, and I think most people are excited about those kinds of advances.  But when you begin to think of some of the other things we might be able to do, people begin to wonder, “Should we go that far?”  For example, should we be able to determine all the characteristics of our children?  Should we be able to choose hair and eye color, or body build, for example?  Some of you may have seen the movie, Gattaca, which depicts a future where people have achieved almost intellectual and physical perfection through the use of genetic engineering.  Now there is talk of engineering  certain personality traits.  For example, there are some who say that we might be able to genetically eliminate such traits as impatience.  We will be able to activate the patience code.  But, what if I don’t want to be a patient person? Scientists tell us that in the future, that will be no problem.  There will be a pill you will be able to take that can unlock any particular genetic characteristic.  Do you want to be patient?  Take the pill, and you will be a patient person.  It is frightening to think of how we might be able to engineer certain personality traits.  In the hands of the wrong person, how do we know we might not engineer people for violence, hatred, etc?  Who will make the decisions concerning what characteristics people should have? Well, if I was in charge, there is one trait that, if possible, I would hardwire into everybody—the trait of humility.  I would make it a law that everyone born in the future should have the humility gene.    Wouldn’t it be something if we could have a pill that would produce real and genuine humility?    As a pastor, I would love to have a box of such pills. Whenever someone joined our church, I would say that one of the requirements is that you must take this pill that unlocks the humility gene.

            Actually, in the Church, it shouldn’t be necessary to take a pill in order to become humble.  We shouldn’t need to be products of genetic engineering.  Just knowing Jesus Christ, walking in love and fellowship with Him, should be sufficient to produce humility.  Jesus once took a little child and set him front of the people and said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.  Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3-4).    The essential characteristic of the Christian is to come down from adult arrogance and be as humble as a child.  Over and over in Scripture, this characteristic of humility is given as the true characteristic of the Christian.  In the Beatitudes, our Lord said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3).    People often argue about the doctrine of election, or worry about whether or not they are part of the elect.  Well, one of the characteristics of the elect is humility.  St. Paul wrote, “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering” (Col. 3:12).    According to St. Paul, the great characteristic of the Church should be humility: “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love” (Eph. 4:1-2).  Yet, we would have to say, in spite of all these admonitions to walk in humility, we would have to say that humility is a very rare characteristic.    But even the most proud and arrogant become humble when they really come to know Jesus Christ. 

            In our text, we see how one of the most proud and arrogant men in the history of the world was humbled and brought to his knees through an encounter with Jesus Christ.   One of the great characteristics of many religious Jews during this time was their pride and arrogance.  They were proud that they were the chosen people.  Being proud that you are one of the chosen may not seem like a great sin, but it becomes sin  if you think that being a member of the chosen means that you are innately better than other people.    The Jews’ pride in their Jewishness blinded them to their own sinfulness.  Remember that the Jews didn’t like the preaching of John the Baptist because he was calling them to repentance.  They said, “We don’t need to repent.  We have Abraham for our father.”    They were proud about how zealous they were in keeping the law.  Remember how Jesus described the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  The Pharisee said, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are,  extortioners,  unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:11-12).  The Pharisees were so proud of all their religious accomplishments. 

If there was anyone who ever thought he had reason to be proud of how religious he was, it was Saul of Tarsus.  Describing his own pride before he came to know Christ, he described himself as, “Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5-6).  Paul was saying that if anyone wanted to talk about heritage, good works, keeping every aspect of the law of God down to the most minute detail, he had more to brag about than anyone else.    He was circumcised on the eighth day according to the Law.    He was of the stock of Israel, one of the chosen people.  He was of the tribe of Benjamin, the tribe descended from one of Jacob’s favorite sons, the tribe from which came the first king of Israel.  As a matter of fact, he even bore the name of the first king of Israel.  Paul said that he was a Hebrew of the Hebrews.  In other words, you just couldn’t get more Jewish than Saul of Tarsus.  From the time he was a youth, he gave himself to keeping the law.  In his defense before Agrippa he said, “after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee” (Acts 26:5).   Nobody followed all the nit-picking little details of obeying the Law more than Saul of Tarsus.  No doubt, he would have been one who tithed even down to the mint, cumin, and anise.  He avoided contact with the unclean so that we would always be ceremonially pure.  He would not eat with tax collectors and sinners for fear of defilement.  Furthermore, Saul of Tarsus wanted to know everything he could about the Scriptures, so he studied at the feet of one of the greatest teachers of the law, Gamaliel.

You can imagine how puffed up with pride Saul of Tarsus was.  He was proud of himself, and he was proud of his religious heritage.  When he heard of the people who were followers of Christ, he felt that they were threatening his whole way of life.   Can’t you hear him saying to himself, “These nobodies are trying to tell me that I am wrong.  Some of these people are just poor peasants, and they have the nerve to try to teach me the correct interpretation of Scripture.  Who do they think they are to teach me?”   Saul of Tarsus was determined to stamp out this fledgling movement.  We can imagine the arrogance etched in his face as he marches down the Damascus road, his head lifted up with a sense of superiority  as he is determined to arrest these Christians and throw them in prison.  Yet,  in just a few moments, this proud, arrogant man is going to be brought to his knees in humility.  What can account for such a powerful change?  Saul saw the glory of the resurrected Christ, and in the face of that glory, all of our religious accomplishments seem as rubbish.

Whenever we see the glory of Christ, the automatic response must be humility.  In every account of his conversion on the Damascus road, it is recorded how Saul of Tarsus fell to the ground.  “And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:3-4).  In his defense at Jerusalem, he said, “And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me.   And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 22:6-7).  In his defense before Agrippa he said, “At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me.  And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (Acts 26:13-14).  Did they fall to the ground because their horses threw them?  You will notice that in all these accounts there is a description of a light from heaven, brighter than the sun.  Though they might not have known exactly what it was, it is obvious that they were so afraid that they lost strength and fell to the ground.  Maybe they realized that they were in the presence of a divine being.   One thing is for certain–the glory of the Lord was shining around them, and they fell to the ground.  The proper place for any person when he is in the presence of the glory of God is on his face before his Lord.      Proud, arrogant Saul has had his head lifted up defiantly against Jesus Christ.  In the next moment, he is on the ground before his Lord.  Humility is the natural response when a person has a sight of Jesus Christ.  We are humbled because of his majesty.  We see that he is exalted so far above us in every way.  We are humbled because of his holiness which gives us such an incredible sight of our own sinfulness.  We are humbled because he is so pure, excellent, and beautiful.  What can we do except bow before him, confessing our own unworthiness? 

As we study Holy Scripture, we so often find people responding to the Lord with such expressions of humility as falling to the ground.  When God makes his covenant with Abraham, the Lord appears to him and what is Abraham’s response?  We read, “And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect.   And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.  And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him” (Gen. 17:1-3).  If you want to do an interesting study,  just go through the Bible and see how often you find the words “fell on his face,” or “fell on their faces.”  Even in the book of Revelation  where we see those heavenly worship scenes, we find the same description.  In Rev. 7:11, we find, “And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God.”  Also, in Rev. 11:16, “And the four and twenty elders, which sat before God on their seats, fell upon their faces, and worshipped God.”    Don’t think that this display of humility is just some Old Testament practice.  From Genesis to Revelation, people fall on their faces before the glory of God.  These people in the book of Revelation are those who are in Heaven, perfect, cleansed completely from their sin, and still, though now without sin, they are falling on their faces before God.  If these perfected saints are falling on their faces before God, what should you and I be doing?  In some Christian circles, we sometimes see people falling down or passing out.  That is not what is happening here.  The Biblical kind of falling on our faces is not simply an emotional response to excitement.  It is an expression of profound humility in the presence of God.    Falling on our faces before God is not some kind of ecstatic experience that makes us feel good or puffs us up with pride.  When we are truly overwhelmed with the glory of God, we say with Isaiah, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isa. 6:5).  How humbling it is to realize that the one we have been sinning against is this Lord of heaven and earth!  

In our time, we often hear preachers calling upon God to visit their worship services.  People brag about how the Holy Spirit was present in their worship services.  If that is true, where is the resulting humility?   When we come to church on Sunday morning, and  invoke the presence of almighty God, do we have any idea what a dangerous thing we are doing?  We are asking the Holy God to come among us!  Are we crazy?  When we truly see the holy God of heaven and earth, we have the impulse to fall on our faces.  Actually, we would like to get lower than that if we could.  We would like to get under the earth.  If we have truly seen the Lord in his glory, that experience should send away all the proud and haughty looks, the attitude of arrogance and pride.  Like Job, we say, “Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth” (Job 40:4).  These words came from the lips of the man that God himself  said was a perfect man, one who feared God and shunned evil.  Whenever the Lord reveals himself to us, no matter what level of sanctification we might have achieved, it is a humbling experience.  We have no good works to offer him.  Nothing we have done impresses him.  Furthermore, what we have done highly offends him. The only proper place for us in on the ground, confessing our unworthiness to even stand in his presence.  This is one of the reasons why we do so much kneeling in the Episcopal Church.  It is the proper posture before a holy God.  It is an expression of humility.  How modern man hates to take that posture of humility!  We think we are such good people.  We have all the answers already.  We have nothing to learn. But when the Lord reveals himself, we do not lift up our faces to heaven, but say with the tax collector, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”    Saul falls to the ground because of this sight of the glory of Christ.

            But God continues to humble Saul by showing him now that he must be led and instructed by others.  We see in this passage how the Lord works through stages and means.  The Lord Jesus Christ could have taught Saul everything he needed to know at that moment he appeared to him on the Damascus road.  He could have told him to go immediately into the Arabian desert and everything would be revealed to him without any kind of human instrumentality.  Instead, the Lord Jesus Christ takes time to teach Saul of Tarsus lessons in humility.   The Lord said, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”  Here is this proud, arrogant man, Saul of Tarsus—the man who knows everything and has all the answers.  But the Lord tells him that now he must go and await instructions.  How humbling it must have been for this man who knew everything to be taught by someone in this despised sect that he had been trying to destroy.    But when a person is truly humbled, he becomes teachable.  The main sin that stands between people and Christ is their pride, for they must say those three words that we most hate to say:  “I was wrong!”  How can you confess that you have been wrong all your life?  How can you face all your friends, colleagues, and associates, and say, “I have been wrong?”  Then, think of how Saul had to turn to people that he despised most and say, “Please, take my hand and lead me.”    So many people who come into our churches now already knowing everything, and you can’t teach them anything.  When was the last time you really saw someone come into a church with humility, begging to learn, just crying out, “Teach me, for I have so much to learn”?  No, the attitude is usually, “I am here to teach you and straighten you out on all your theology, and if you won’t listen to me, then I will leave.”  That’s why, as a pastor, I’m looking forward to the humility pill.  I want a full supply so that people will be humble enough to be teachable.  Saul had to learn humility through an admission that even he, as brilliant as he was, needed guidance.  We need that kind of humility in our churches today. 

            The Lord further humbled Saul by blinding him.  In verse 8 we read that they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.  How humbling that must have been to Saul of Tarsus.  Think of how Saul thought he was going to enter the city of Damascus.  He thought he was going to come in with zeal causing terror in these upstart Christians.  He thought when he came into the city, people would be saying, “There is Saul of Tarsus. Run and hide.”  He thought people would be scurrying along the streets, hiding in mortal terror before this great and cruel man.  Instead, he enters the city blind, being led by the hand.  I wonder if anyone even knew if he had arrived.  How the Lord humbles us!  He humbles us so much that we must be led by others.  But isn’t that what it means to be a disciple?  A disciple is a learner.  You can’t be a disciple of Christ if you aren’t capable of being led.  Being led is an act of humility.  It is saying, “I realize that the way I have been traveling is not the right one.  I need guidance.”  Have you been humbled to the extent that you realize you need to be taught?  Have you been humbled to the point that you submit to the teaching of your pastor and your bishops?    Are you too proud to be led because you already know everything?  Those who have been humbled by Christ are led to the Church so that they can there be taught, not directly by Christ, but through those whom Christ has appointed.

            We can see Saul’s new attitude of humility even in the manner in which behaves.  He is fasting.  We are told that for three days he neither ate nor drank.  Fasting like that is a sign of deep humility and repentance.  I wonder what Saul was thinking about during those three days.  Can you imagine the guilt and shame he must have been experiencing?  He must have been thinking about how Jesus is the Lord and heaven and earth and how he had spoken against him and those who followed him.  He must have thought of how he had consented to the stoning death of Stephen.  No wonder he is fasting.  He probably felt as though he would never eat again.  Saul is fasting, expressing humility for the life of sin, the life of rebellion, his life of self-righteousness.  Throughout the Bible, we see fasting as a sign of repentance, a sign of sorrow for sin.  In the book of Nehemiah we read, “Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them. And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers” (Neh. 9:1-2).  We read just a moment ago the words of the prophet:  “Therefore also now, saith the LORD, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning:  And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil” (Joel 2:12-13). 

            Today, we enter into the season of Lent, which is a period of fasting.  Some of you will be engaged in some kind of fast.  You may be giving up certain foods, certain pleasures, certain periods of time.  We fast as an act of discipline, a discipline that helps us to remember our sins, to remember the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ for our sins.  Saul of Tarsus was fasting for three days so that he could focus on Jesus Christ and nothing else.  Fasting is a way of reminding us that there are more important things in life than food and other pleasures.  The Lord was impressing on Saul that from now on, nothing will be more important than his relationship with Jesus Christ, not even eating.   We fast as a sign of sorrow for our sin.  We also fast to show that nothing is so important, so absorbing, as our relationship to Jesus Christ.  Some people have said that one of the reasons Saul may have been fasting is that he was in a state of shock.  I am sure, that in a sense, he was.  He had been shocked by the sight of the glory of Christ.  He had been shocked by the sight of his own sinfulness.  During this holy season of Lent, we spend more time reading Scripture, more time in prayer, more time examining ourselves in the light of God’s holy word, and it is shocking to see what we are in the light of God’s blazing holiness.    Our fasting during this season of the year is a way of expressing how shocked we are at our sins, how intolerable the burden of our sins truly is, and how much we desire, more than anything else, to be delivered from the power of those sins.

But Saul was doing more than going without food.  He was also praying.  When the Lord tells Ananias to go to Saul, he said, “For behold, he prayeth” (Acts 9:11).  Fasting must always be joined with prayer.  If you don’t pray when you fast, you aren’t really fasting.  You’re just going without food.  Fasting is a means of reminding us to pray.  Lent is more than a time to just give up food.  Lent is a time that is designed to draw us more and more into the presence of God for prayer.  Every time we remember that food or that pleasure that we have given up, we are reminded to pray:  to pray for forgiveness, to pray for greater holiness of life, to pray for greater usefulness in his service.

Fasting and prayer go hand in hand, because even prayer itself is an act of humility.  The Lord further humbles Saul by making him wait three days in prayer.  The Lord could have sent Ananias immediately to Saul.  The day that Saul arrived in Damascus, Ananias could have been waiting for him, giving him instruction, baptizing him, and ending his time of blindness.  Instead, God makes him wait.  Not only is he humbled by having to wait for instruction, God shows him that he must wait until God says that the time for that instruction is right.  This teaches us that in prayer, we seek God, but humbly wait for his timing to answer our prayer.  Saul has taken the humble position of prayer.  Blind and helpless, he must wait God’s timing.  What a change has taken place in this proud and arrogant man.  Have you been humbled in this way—humbled enough to pray? After all, prayer is the taking of a humble posture to express your complete dependence on the mercy of God.  Again, this is one of the reasons we kneel when we pray.  We are showing that we are unworthy to ask, but nevertheless humbly asking because we know that we are totally dependent.  Even prayer is an act of humility.

We don’t really need a humility pill.  We don’t need genetic engineering to make us humble.  We need a sight of the glory of Christ and a sight of our sinfulness.  We need the discipline of Lent.  For many generations we have been filling our churches with proud, arrogant people who are more like Saul when he was the proud Pharisee than Paul the humble Christian.  When people are humbled, they are broken, willing to be led, willing to see themselves as they really are, willing to go without even legitimate pleasures, and willing to pray.  I don’t know what kind of humility might be produced synthetically in human beings in the future by means of science, but I have a feeling that it will always be lacking in some way.  Pride is the great sin of the human heart.  True, genuine humility can only come to us through the work of the Holy Spirit.  During this season of Lent, let us pray that the Holy Spirit will give us a true sight of the risen Christ, a true sight of our sins, and may that sight of his glory and our unworthiness lead to real repentance that springs from a genuine humility.  Amen.

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Too Stressed to Serve

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

Preached on Sunday, Sunday, February 14, 2010

At St. Paul’s Anglican Church,  Baton Rouge, LA

Then he took unto him the twelve, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished.  For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on:   And they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again.  And they understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken.  And it came to pass, that as he was come nigh unto Jericho, a certain blind man sat by the way side begging:  And hearing the multitude pass by, he asked what it meant.  And they told him, that Jesus of Nazareth passeth by.  And he cried, saying, Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me.  And they which went before rebuked him, that he should hold his peace: but he cried so much the more, Thou Son of David, have mercy on me.  And Jesus stood, and commanded him to be brought unto him: and when he was come near, he asked him,  Saying, What wilt thou that I shall do unto thee? And he said, Lord, that I may receive my sight.  And Jesus said unto him, Receive thy sight: thy faith hath saved thee.  And immediately he received his sight, and followed him, glorifying God: and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise unto God. (Luke 18:31-43) 

As we go through the Gospels, it is amazing how often we see how the disciples and others were constantly trying to protect our Lord from being bothered by other people.    In our Gospel reading for today, we read of how Jesus healed this blind man, whom Mark tells us was named Baritmaeus.    When Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was near, he cried out,  “Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me.”  But many people told him to be quiet.    Just before this event, people had brought infants to  Jesus so that he could bless them, and we are told that the disciples rebuked those people who were bringing these babies to the Master.    When the Canaanite woman came to Jesus asking that Jesus heal her daughter who was vexed with a demon, the disciples told Jesus, “Send her away, for she crieth after us.”    It seems that sometimes people thought Jesus was unconcerned for those in need, or that he had no time for certain classes of people.    When the people brought infants to Jesus, perhaps the disciples thought,  “Don’t bother Jesus with these babies.  His blessing can do them no good now anyway since they are not able to understand who he is and the exact theological meaning of the blessing that they would receive.    When they get older, bring them back.  Then, Jesus might have time for them.”  When the Canaanite woman came to Jesus on behalf of her demon oppressed daughter, perhaps the disciples thought, “Surely Jesus has no time for this woman.  After all, she is a Canaanite, one of those people that the children of Israel should have driven out of the Promised Land.   She is a Gentile.  Surely, the Master has no time for a Gentile dog.”  Then, when blind Bartimaeus calls out for help, perhaps they thought that Jesus had no time for blind beggars.  But in each of these instances, we find that our Lord stopped what he was doing, and he blessed and healed them.

            It seems that many people,  even the disciples, had difficulty learning that Jesus’ mission on this earth was to show love and compassion, even for those who were unlovable, even for those that everyone else neglected.    In Mark’s account of this story, just before Jesus heals blind Bartimaeus, Jesus tells the disciples, “For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  Then, he demonstrated that impulse to minister by healing this blind beggar.  Our Lord was filled with such compassion and love that he would help those whom the rest of their culture considered unimportant.

            When we look at how our Lord was willing to show compassion to those in need, the fact that he showed compassion to blind Bartimaeus at this particular time is even more amazing.    You will notice that our Gospel reading for today includes that portion just before this healing that reads, “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished. For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on: and they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again.”   Our Lord has made up his mind to go to Jerusalem.  He knows what awaits him there.  In Jerusalem he is going to be betrayed, arrested, his disciples will deny him, he will be ridiculed, scourged, crucified, and undergo those agonizing hours on the cross.    With all of that on his mind, surely he will be excused for not helping someone in need at this time.  But in spite of all the heavy load that is pressing upon his mind, he has time to show compassion to blind Bartimaeus.

            In a wonderful sermon on this text, Alexander MacLaren brings out how often we excuse ourselves from showing compassion to others, or helping others, because we are going through a difficult time in our own lives.    As long as things are going well for us, we may have time to help others in need, but if we are depressed, if we are having personal troubles and trials, if other people are mistreating us, we suddenly feel that our trying circumstances give us the right to excuse ourselves from helping others, serving others, or serving God in his church.  I have been a pastor many years, and over the years I don’t know how many times people in the churches have excused themselves from serving in the church because they are going through a difficult time.    It’s strange that people can go to work even when they are going through a difficult time.  They can go to a ball game when they are going through a difficult time.    They can go to movies and watch television when they are going through a difficult time.  It seems that the only thing that they can’t do is serve other people and serve the Church when they are facing trials and troubles.   One thing is for certain.  If you let difficult times prevent you from showing love and compassion to others, you will not be showing much love and compassion.  Life is tough.  Life is difficult, filled with cares, concerns, pressure, pain, and disappointment.  If you are waiting for these things to go away before you serve others, you won’t be serving others very much.   

Many of us admire great athletes.  One of the things we admire about them is how they have the ability to play hurt.    There are some injuries that sideline them, and there is nothing that can be done about it, but how often do we hear athletes say, “I’m 80%, 70%,  60% ,etc.”  Most of them are not totally free from aches and pains, but they work through them.  The one thing that keeps them going through all of the pain is love—love of the game, love of glory, or love of money.  Love for something keeps them going.    If I may say so, most of the time, you are not going to be 100% physically, emotionally, even spiritually.  But if you are filled with love, then you will be able to show concern and compassion even though you are not 100%.  I have told some of you how my grandmother died a very slow, agonizing death.  When she was close to dying and in so much horrible pain, my dad went to see her.    Through all the pain, barely able to raise her voice to a whisper, she asked him, “How are you doing?”  Even in that pain, just a few hours before dying, her primary concern was the welfare of her son.  How is that possible?  Love!  The reason that we look for the first excuse to bail out from our responsibilities to serve the Lord and his people is that our hearts are not filled with love, a love that can cause us to persevere and look beyond our own trials and difficulties. 

            Like our Lord Jesus Christ, we cannot stop serving others because we are going through difficult times.  We must stop and serve others in even in our most trying moments.  When we look at  our Epistle Reading for today, I Corinthians 13, often referred to as the “love chapter,” we could replace the word “love” with the name “Jesus.”    For isn’t it true that Jesus is longsuffering and  that Jesus is kind.  Jesus bore all things and endured all things.  The love of our Lord Jesus Christ, even for the marginalized of the society, never failed.   In our Prayer of Humble Access that we say each Sunday, we address our Lord as the one “whose property is always to have mercy.”    Many sermons have been preached on this passage of the healing of Bartimaeus  that have the basic theme of, “The Cry that Stopped Jesus.”  What a comfort it is to know that Jesus is one who pays attention to those in need!  Though he was determined to go to Jerusalem, though that was the supreme thought on his mind, he could still be stopped by a cry for mercy.    Our Lord is no different today.  You may be going through a difficult period in your life.  You may not be blind like Bartimaeus, but you may be going through difficults times emotionally, physically, or spiritually.   You may think that you are too sinful, that you have failed the Lord too many times for him to stop to hear your cries.   You may not think that the Lord has time for you.  We often hear people say, “I’m sure that the Lord has more important things to take care of than my little problems. ” Not so!   The Lord had this grand mission to go to Jerusalem and be crucified for the sins of the world, but he still had time for a poor, blind beggar.  Whatever you are going through right now, join Bartimaeus in his cry, “Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me.”  Then, wonder of wonders, you will find that he will stop! He is always attentive to the humble, believing cry for mercy.    Call out to him.  He will stop to show you mercy.  Then, in gratitude for what he has done for you, be like your Master, and hear the cries  of others who need the mercy of Christ that you can show to them.  Amen.

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