Archive for May, 2010

What People Really Need 

A Sermon 

Preached on Sunday, May 2, 2010, by  

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D., 

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

Now Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour.   And a certain man lame from his mother’s womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms of them that entered into the temple;  Who seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple asked an alms.   And Peter, fastening his eyes upon him with John, said, Look on us.   And he gave heed unto them, expecting to receive something of them.  Then Peter said, Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.   And he took him by the right hand, and lifted him up: and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength.  And he leaping up stood, and walked, and entered with them into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God. (Acts 3:1-8) 

            Some years ago I had lunch with one of the university faculty members who was a quadriplegic.    For many years my dad worked for vocational rehabilitation, so I was always aware of the many things that were done for handicapped people in order that they might have access to certain places.  But until I had lunch with this man, I don’t think I fully realized how many activities and places such people are excluded from, and how many other activities people used to be excluded from before we were made aware of their needs in our contemporary society.  This teacher would not have been able to teach if thousands of dollars had not been spent to build ramps for wheelchairs leading into some of those buildings.  That day we had lunch, he drove his motorized wheel chair all the way from his building to the restaurant.  He would not have been able to do get there if there had not been little ramps cut into the curbs and sidewalks.  When we got to the restaurant, we had to wait a little longer to get a table, because the upper court was not wheel-chair accessible.  That was a slight inconvenience, having to wait a little longer for a table, but imagine what people used to have to do before so many of the current laws about accessibility had been enacted. 

            But imagine the life of such a person in the ancient world.  We have the story of the difficulties experienced by such a person in our text for today in the story of the man who was begging at the Beautiful Gate of the temple.  Since Luke was a medical man, when he wrote the book of Acts, he often employed medical terminology to describe the physical impairments of people.  He tells us that this man had a congenital defect in which the sockets of his ankles did not allow the proper connection of bones.  Since there was no vocational rehabilitation program, the only way he had to get money was through begging and depending of the charity of others.    But this man couldn’t even get to the place to beg without help from others.  Someone carried him every day to the temple, placed him there so that he could cry out for alms.  Putting him at the gate of the temple was very clever on his part, or, on the part of those who put him there.  Typically, beggars are quite clever, seeming to know the best places to beg and knowing the kinds of people who are most likely to give to them.   Being at the gate of the temple, this man  probably knew that people are usually in a very religious, charitable frame of mind when they are going to church and thus, more likely to give.  

            Many of these people who ask for help are just con artists, but this man in our text is really in need.  There were many things about this man which should evoke our sympathy, but perhaps the saddest thing about this man’s condition is that you will notice that he was outside the gate of the temple.  We don’t know exactly where this gate was located, though there are many theories.  The view accepted by most scholars is that the Beautiful Gate was one called the Nicanor gate.  The doors of that gate were made of Corinthian bronze.  Josephus tells us that this gate was 50 cubits high (75 feet), and the doors themselves were 40 cubits tall (60 feet).  On these doors was the carving of a vine, representing that Israel was God’s vine.  A Jew from Alexandria named Nicanor had donated the doors to the temple.  As you remember, there was an outer court of the temple where Gentiles were allowed.  From the court of the Gentiles, you would go through a barrier that separated the outer court from the inner courts.  Signs were posted to warn people that no Gentile could go through this barrier.   Nine gates led through that barrier, and this Beautiful Gate was one of those gates.  When you got through this gate, you would come to the court of women, but women could go no further than this court.  The Jewish laymen could go beyond this court into the place called the court of Israel.  Beyond that place was the court of priests.  Then, beyond the court of the priests was the Holy of holies, where only the high priest could go once each year on the Day of Atonement.

            Let us think of this beggar, then, as a symbol of how far we are from the presence of God and all the barriers that separate us from him.  Like this man, spiritually speaking, we are poor and lame.  You remember that under Old Testament law, a man who was lame could not serve as a priest (Lev. 21:17-24).  Lameness was a symbol of the moral defect that keeps us from drawing near to God.  That defect, that congenital defect, if you will, is sin, and it excludes us from drawing near to God.    The world is filled with billions of people who are excluded by sin from drawing near to God.  How do we meet the needs of such people?   Peter and John show us what we need to do for those in our world are morally and spiritually lame.

            The first thing we can do for them is to be devoted to the worship of Almighty God.  You will notice that this miracle happens as Peter and John are on the way to the temple to pray.  The words “going up” are in the past progressive form which indicates that this was their usual custom.  It is interesting, that even after the crucifixion and resurrection, the disciples did not stop going to the temple.  They could have said, “All of this worship that is carried on in the temple has been fulfilled in Christ, so we don’t need to go to the temple anymore.”  Instead, they continue to worship in the temple, even observing the stated hours of prayer.  The Talmud tells us that the Jews went to the temple three times a day for prayer.  We  find in the Psalms, that the people were accustomed to praying three times daily:  “As for me, I will call upon God; and the LORD shall save me.   Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice” (Ps. 55:16-17).  Peter and John did not abandon the practice of attending the stated hours of prayer.  They didn’t say to themselves, “Since there are no more sacred places, we can just stay at home and pray.”  They didn’t say, “There are no more sacred times to be set apart for prayer.”  People often criticize Episcopalians because we still believe that there are sacred places and sacred times, but we see here that even after the resurrection, Peter and John didn’t says to themselves, “We are not going to observe these things and set a bad, legalistic example.    They went to the temple to pray.  They went at the stated hour for prayer.  As the priests offered the sacrifices, the people gathered at these times for prayer.  In this case, Peter and John are going to the 3:00 P.M. prayer time, when sacrifices would be offered.  While the sacrifices were offered, the people prayed in the courts.  Peter and John would have been on their way to that court of Israel, where Jewish laymen were allowed to gather.  As you can see, Peter and John are on their way to worship when they perform this miracle.

            The best thing we can do for a hurting and dying world is worship Almighty God.  It would be so easy to say to ourselves, “With so many needs in the world, why lose so much time in worship.  All this money that is given to build beautiful church buildings should be given to the poor.  When there are so many in poverty, so many starving, how can we spend so much time and effort on worship and places of worship?”  On the other hand, couldn’t you have asked the same thing of Solomon?  Weren’t there many poor people in Israel and in the rest of the world when Solomon built the temple?  Why wasn’t that money just distributed to the poor and needy?  After all, some people argue, you don’t need a place to worship God–you can just worship him in your heart.  It seems to me that I remember a similar argument that someone used in the gospels.   Remember when Mary of Bethany is anointing Jesus, Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed our Lord objected to this extravagance on the part of Mary:

Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.   Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him,  Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein.   Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this.  For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always. (John 12:3-8). 

 Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed our Lord is the one who said that this ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor.  But Mary had wasted it on this adoration of Jesus.  Yet, Jesus defended her.    The worship and adoration of Jesus should never been seen as conflicting with our duty to help the poor.  As a matter fact, it is the worship of our Lord that makes us better equipped to help those in need.  The more we worship, the more we become like Christ, the more we are filled with compassion for those in need, and the more power we have to help them.    If you really want to meet the needs of this needy world, keep worshiping God.  Do you want to help this lame world?  Do you want to be able to help people draw near to God?  Draw near to God in worship,  and you will be able to help those who are far from him.

            It is through worshiping God ourselves that we obtain the knowledge and power to help those in need.  It is through worship that we obtain what people really need.  What do people really need?  What did this man at the Beautiful Gate think he really needed?  He thought he needed money, but he needed much more than that.  Because Peter knew what he really needed, he looks at him and says, “Silver and gold have I none.”  We shouldn’t look at Peter’s remark as an apology.  He wasn’t saying, “I wish I had some silver and gold to give you.”  Peter had something better than silver and gold to give this man.  Peter had the power of Jesus Christ, so he says, “In the name of Jesus Christ, rise up and walk.”  The name  of Jesus Christ represents all the power and authority of Jesus Christ, and it is this name, this person in his fullness, that we have to offer the world.  We offer the world Jesus Christ himself.  The Church may not always have the money to meet the financial needs of people, she may not always be able to meet the physical needs of people, but she always has what people need most, and that is Jesus Christ himself.

            What this man needed was not money.   He needed the power of Christ to be displayed in his life.  The Church often makes the same mistake as our Federal Government.  We think that money is the answer to every problem, so we try to turn the Church into a giant welfare agency.    I am not against helping the poor and needy.  Certainly, the Church must always be involved in works of mercy and charity, but the primary focus of the Church is not works of mercy.  The primary focus of the Church is the preaching of salvation by Jesus Christ, a salvation that changes the hearts of people.    We think that we can solve the problems of crime, the problems in the schools, and many other social ills, by throwing more money at these problems.    These problems are not caused by lack of money.  Many of these problems are caused by failure in the home, and the failure in the home is  caused by the sinful hearts of parents—hearts that can only be transformed by the Gospel.  We often make the mistake of thinking that if everyone had a job, if everyone was financially well-off, that all our problems would be solved.   But money does not take away the sinful heart.  Do rich people never murder?  Do rich people never steal or engage in dishonest practices?  Isn’t it often the case that those who are well-off are still filled with covetousness and engage in dishonest practices so that they can have even more?  We think that if people were healthy, they would all be good, moral people.  Do healthy people never use their healthy bodies to commit adultery?    Do healthy people never use their bodies to hurt and injure other people?

If everybody was healthy and wealthy we would still have a generation of people who are still in rebellion against God and still filled with hatred and prejudice for one another.  We think that money, wealth, freedom, and equality would solve all the world’s problems, but these things never deal with the root of our problems.  If Peter and John had given this man silver and gold, where would this man have been the next day?  He would have been right back where he was at this time.  He would have still been lame and begging.  Peter and John went to the source of the problem—his lameness.

            When the Church looks at all the evil and suffering in the world, while it tries to help on a physical level as much as she can, she realizes that she is in the world primarily to deal with the source of these problems. The Church recognizes that, so often, poverty, drunkenness, and abuse are just symptoms of the deep, spiritual problem we have.  To deal with these problems, the Church says to this world, “Such as we have, we give to you,” and that something we have is the Gospel.  The Church has something far more valuable than money and charity to give to the world.  You remember the old story about Thomas Aquinas who was talking to Pope Innocent II.  The pope was counting some money, and he said, “See, Thomas, the Church can no longer say, ‘Silver and gold, have I none.’”  Aquinas replied, “True, holy father, and neither can she now say, ‘Arise and walk.’”  In this age when many of our churches are so prosperous and have plenty of silver and gold, we need to ask ourselves, “Can we still say, ‘Rise and walk’”?  We will not have that ability until we really have faith in Jesus Christ, that he indeed does have power to meet the deepest needs of people.  The deepest need that people have is access to God, and that access can only been given to them through the gospel of Christ.

            The most wonderful thing about this miracle in Acts 3 is not that this man could now walk, but what he does now that he can walk.  This man, who had been on the outside, goes into the temple with the apostles and joins in the worship of God.  Verse 8 says, “And he leaping up stood, and walked, and entered with them into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God.”  Peter and John, on the way to worship, meet the needs of this man through the power of Christ, and this man becomes a worshiper.  The intent and purpose of all that the Church does, whether it is through preaching or works of mercy, is to transform those to whom we minister into worshipers of Almighty God.  This man didn’t get healed and then head out to the golf course.  I mean, think of all the things that you would have longed to do if you had been born with an inability to walk, and you had never been able to walk.  I would have challenged someone to a race.  I would have found somebody to dance with.  I would have grabbed a baseball bat and begged someone to throw me a pitch.    But the first thing this man does is to go into the temple to pray and worship God.  The important thing in this miracle is not the healing itself, but the one who is responsible for the healing, Jesus Christ.

            We see immediately how Peter turns the focus of the attention away from this man, away from themselves, and toward Jesus Christ.  Peter says in verse 16-19: 

And his name through faith in his name hath made this man strong, whom ye see and know: yea, the faith which is by him hath given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all.  And now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers.   But those things, which God before had shewed by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he hath so fulfilled. Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.

You see what Peter is doing.  He uses this miracle as a means of pointing men to Christ.  He immediately shifts the focus from the healing to the cross, the sufferings and death of Christ, and then, of their need for repentance.    What people really need is access to God.  What people really need is the ability to worship almighty God,  and that access to God only comes through repentance and faith in what Jesus Christ did on the cross.  This miracle gave Peter the opportunity to preach a sermon about Jesus and call the people to repentance.  You see, a miracle is a wonderful thing.  Being filled with wonder and amazement is good, but being filled with wonder and amazement is not the same thing as believing in the one who performed the miracle—Jesus Christ.  Healing a man who is lame from birth is a great miracle, but Peter wants to see an even greater miracle—repentance.  Peter doesn’t want to focus on this man, or even this miracle—he wants them to focus on Jesus and their need to repent.  When the great miracles happened on the day of Pentecost, it gave Peter a chance to preach a sermon about Jesus and call the people to repentance.  Three thousand people are converted.  After the healing of this man in Acts 3, we are told in Acts 4:4 that 5,000 people are converted.

            Let us follow the example of Peter and John.  Let us worship God  and have this great desire that other people should follow us into the temple and worship.  Let us give this world what we have—Jesus Christ.  Yes, we live in a spiritually lame world, but this lameness gives the Church the opportunity to show the power and compassion of Christ.  May God give us the courage, power, and faith to go this world and say, “Look at us.  We have no silver and gold, but we do have Jesus Christ.  Believe in him, rise and walk,  and follow us into the presence of almighty God.”  Amen.


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Doctrine and Worship

A Sermon

 Preached on Sunday, April 25, 2010, by  

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D., 

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


Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem.   And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault.   For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders.   And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables.   Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?   He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.   Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctines the commandments of men.   For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.   And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.   For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death:   But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free.   And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother;   Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye. (Mark 7:1-13) 

There will be thousands of worship services held in churches throughout the United States on this Lord’s Day.  If a person could have a bird’s eye view about what is going on in America on this Sunday, one might come to the conclusion that about half of the population worshiped God today.  If we could survey the various churches, we might be impressed with what seems to be a great deal of religious devotion.  Look at the people in formal churches with all of their beautiful liturgies and ceremonies.  So many will participating in the sacraments, and the gathered worshipers will appear holy,  reverent, and sincere.  Then,  we could go to certain evangelical and charismatic services.    There they are singing and praising with an enthusiasm that must indicate a serious dedication to the worship of almighty God.  Then we might turn to those churches where their primary emphasis is on preaching and teaching, and we see the congregation with their open Bibles, perusing the pages of Holy Scripture, listening to well-prepared sermons and lessons. 

I suppose that all the various Christian groups engaged in what they thought was a sincere attempt to worship almighty God.  But in our text for this morning, Jesus teaches us that you can engage in all of these kinds of activities and your worship be in vain.   Such worship can be nothing more than an empty show.  We think if people are sincere in their worship, if they go through their rituals and observances, then their worship is acceptable to God.  But there is such a thing as going through all kinds of elaborate worship services and still not be worshipping God.  You can go to a beautiful sanctuary, cross yourself, genuflect, say all the prayers, and still worship God in vain.  You can go to a church where you raise your hands, shout at the top of your lungs, dance in the aisles, speak in tongues, and still worship God in vain.  You can go to a worship service, read the Scriptures, sing the greatest hymns of the faith, listen to the preaching of the word and still worship God in vain.  All such activities can be nothing more than the worship of hypocrites. 

The Scribes and Pharisees fervently engaged in worship.  The Scribes and Pharisees studied the word of God constantly, and yet, they were hypocrites, and their worship was unacceptable in the sight of God.    Jesus calls them  “hypocrites.” We all know what a hypocrite is.  The word “hypocrite” is taken from the theater, the stage.  An actor was called a hypocrite, because he wore a mask and played a role.  An actor, a hypocrite, is someone who is pretending to be something, but we know that in real life he is not that person.  I have never known personally a famous actor, but I understand that it can be a real disappointment on many levels, because fans were expecting the actor to be the person that appears on the screen.  They often find that they are not as handsome, not as beautiful, not as nice, not as intelligent as the person they portrayed.  Religiously, the hypocrite is someone who is wearing a mask, playing the role of a person devoted to God.  The place of public worship is the place where the hypocrite gives his Oscar-winning performance, for here he has an audience, he is on stage, and he tries to convince everyone that he is not playing a role—he tries to persuade everyone   that he is what he pretends to be. 

There are  several different kinds of hypocrisy.  One is the kind where you know you are a fake, and you keep up the pretence anyway.  When I read the stories of some famous religious leaders, I must conlude that  there have been some who were fakes, and they knew it.  They probably went home after the worship services and said to themselves, “What fools! I can’t believe these people fall for this act every time I conduct a worship service.”  Then there are those who are not worship leaders, yet they know that they aren’t interested in the worship of Almighty God at all, but they are there to make business contacts, to be thought of as well-respected members of the community. 

But there is another kind of hypocrisy, and I think this  kind of hypocrisy characterized many of the Scribes and Pharisees, as well as many  professing Christians in America.  This kind of hypocrite has convinced himself that he really is what he pretends to be.  He believes himself to be very sincere in his worship.  He  is deeply reverent, or highly emotional, as the case may be, and he really thinks he is spiritual.  Yet, all the time he doesn’t even know that his heart is far from God.  These are the hypocrites who get most angry and violent when their hypocrisy is exposed.  This  kind of hypocrite, the kind the Scribes and Pharisees represent, believes he is righteous, holy, and godly.  When such people come into contact with Jesus, when they come in contact with the genuine article, they see how far they are from true godliness, and it offends them.  Jesus tells them that they are hypocrites, and he spells out for them what characteristic reveals their hypocrisy.  Jesus said that Isaiah had described them 700 years before:  “These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.  And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” This is a quotation from Isaiah 29:13.  I want to return to that chapter in a little while, but Jesus said that the Scribe and Pharisees of his day were just like the people Isaiah was describing.  What Isaiah said about the people in his day found ultimate expression in the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day.  History was repeating itself.  There is nothing new under the sun.  Just as in Isaiah’s day, the hypocritical worship of the Scribes and Pharisees had two distinguishing marks:                 1) worship based on the teachings of men rather than the word of God;  and,  2) worship characterized by outward show while the heart is far from God.

First, we see that false worship and false teaching go hand in hand.   Jesus said, “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”  There can be no such thing as genuine worship of God apart from truth.  If the truth is not being preached and believed, the worship will be vain and hypocritical.  If false doctrine is being taught and received, there can be no worship of Almighty God taking place.   want to say something about a group of people who say that they know that at this church we preach the truth, but they don’t like our style of worship.   Years ago I had a lady tell me that she knew I was preaching the truth and that her pastor was not, but when she went to church she just had to have the freedom to engage in a very emotional form of worship.  She went to a church that preaches error so that she could have the freedom to “worship.”  Don’t you see that Jesus said that such worship is impossible?  Whatever teaching you hear is going to affect the way you worship.  Jesus tells us in this text that you cannot separate worship and doctrine.  We have had people tell us that they know that we preach the truth here, but they go to another church because they like the choir and the music at another church.   Would you trade the truth for music that you prefer?   What an indication of the heart being far from God!  We have had people tell us that they know we are preaching the truth here, but another church was more friendly.  Would you trade the truth for smiling faces?  We have had people tell us that they know that we are teaching the truth here, but another church has more activities for their children, more young people for them to have fellowship with.  Would you trade the truth for youth activities? Would you trade the truth so that your kids can go to the beach and play volleyball?   I know that from time to time your children may ask you, “Why can’t we go to a bigger church with more activities?”  When they ask you that question just respond by saying, “The truth.”  We go to St. Paul’s because of the truth.  Please don’t misunderstand me.  I am not saying that friendly churches that play volleyball are not preaching the truth.  What I am saying is that if a person is trying to decide between a church that is preaching the whole counsel of God and one that isn’t, these other activities and factors should not enter into the consideration.  No matter how beautiful the building may be, no matter how professional the choir, no matter how packed with fervent people, no matter how exciting, if the truth is not being taught and believed, there is no worship. 

            I want you to look at that verse in Isa. 29:13 that Jesus is quoting here.  The Hebrew reads like this:  “And their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men.”  Jesus, following the translation in the Septuagint,  uses the word “worship” instead of “fear.”  Isn’t that interesting?  Why would the Septuagint use the word “worship” instead of “fear”?  Actually, in this case, there is no difference between “worship” and “fear,” because worship is the fear of God.  Worship is giving God the adoration and reverence due to his glorious person.   The Scripture is teaching us that your fear of God, your worship, is determined by the kind of teaching you hear.   First and foremost, worship is bowing in humble adoration with holy fear and reverence before the holy and majestic God, and people are not going to worship with fear and reverence unless the truth about God’s holy character is being taught.  Truth and worship go hand in hand–you can’t have one without the other.   If your church is preaching error, that error is going to show in your worship.  If you are not being taught the truth about the nature and character of God, how are you going to fear him?    Worship is shaped and controlled by the word of God.  I hear people say constantly, “Oh, we don’t emphasize doctrine, we just praise and worship.”   This idea that we need to stop talking about doctrine and just engage in praise and worship is spreading around the world.  People aren’t concerned about truth, they just want to engage in praise and worship, but according to Jesus, such “worship” is not possible.  True worship depends on the truth.  Jesus  told the woman at the well,  “But the hour is coming and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth”(John 4:23-4). You say that you don’t care about doctrine; you  just care about the practice.   Listen, every practice goes back to a doctrine.  We worship the way we do at St. Paul’s because of doctrine.  Everybody has a doctrine, whether they admit it or not, whether they realize it or not.  Your practice is determined by that doctrine. True worship depends on what God says in his word.

When we look at different styles of worship, we are not talking about just different practices– we are talking about different doctrines, the doctrines that are behind those practices,  because it is your doctrine that determines your worship.   Listen to this definition of worship by William Temple:  “To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.”  That is a great definition of worship, but  how can you do any of that without truth?  So much of our worship in America is not worship, because there can’t be worship without truth.  Looking at Temple’s definition, how can the conscience be quickened unless you know the truth about the holiness of God?  How can we worship properly unless we have been taught how high and majestic God is, and how far above us  he is in every way?  It is only through a constant teaching about God’s attributes, his omnipotence, his omnipresence, his omniscience, his purity, his justice, his love, and his mercy that we can have any concept of how to approach and worship this God.   How can you feed your mind apart from the truth of God?   How can you know anything about the beauty of God apart from truth that is revealed in his word? How can you know the will and purpose of God and devote yourself to it apart from truth?   If there is not a constant preaching on the duties that God requires of us, how will people approach him in worship?  They will approach him in the same way that the Pharisees did—professing to love and honor God while at the same time excusing their sinful behavior ,or not even aware that they are living in a way that is not pleasing to God.  In this passage that we have just read, we see that the Pharisees had excused their sinful behavior with respect to the commandment, “Honor thy Father and they mother.”  Part of living in obedience to that commandment was taking care of parents in their old age, but the Pharisees had found a way around obedience to that commandment.  They said that they had dedicated their money to the temple, and since their money was dedicated to the temple, that did away with their responsibility to their parents.    The application that Jesus makes is this—if you use these kinds of rationalizations to get out of following the commandments of God, your worship is vain, useless, empty.  The same applies to us.  If we are living in flagrant disobedience to God, refusing to bring our lives in conformity with the teaching of God’s word, refusing to repent of our sin when it is exposed, then our worship is vain.  Our hearts are far from God no matter the forms of worship we use.  But how are you going to know if you are living in a way that is displeasing to God if you aren’t being instructed in the truth?  It is the preaching of the truth that exposes the hypocrisy in our lives, convicts of sin, and leads us to repentance.    If all you want to do is go to church to sing some of your favorite songs, see a few friends, but be totally unconcerned with hearing truth that is going to bring you under conviction, then your worship is vain.  Let me tell you what has happened to Christian worship in the last 100 years.  Our worship has been based on the precepts of men rather than the word of God.  When that happens, your worship is rendered useless.

Why do we worship the way we do at St. Paul’s?  Why do we use the Book of Common Prayer as our liturgy?  Someone might say that the Book of Common Prayer is just an example of worshiping according to the traditions of men.  Why do we worship in this way?  Is it just because we like old English?  Is it because we love the beauty of it?  Is it just because we like the old and traditional?  If so, then we are just as guilty of hypocritical worship as the Scribes and Pharisees.  No, we worship using this liturgy because it is based on the truth of God’s holy word.  As I have reminded you before,  if you combine the Gospel readings, the Epistle readings, and the Psalter, over half of this Book of Common Prayer is verbatim, word for word Scripture.  If you combine all the other direct quotations from Scripture used in other parts of the Book of Common Prayer, you will find that over two thirds of the Book of Common Prayer is verbatim Scripture.    Henry Ives Bailey showed many years ago that “by a simple assembling of texts that every sentence in the Prayer Book is either in exact Scriptural language, or has a Scripture parallel.”  Our Prayer Book is not the tradition of men.  It is an order of worship based on the truth of Scripture.  We use this form of worship because it is based on truth.  Everybody uses a form of worship, no matter how much they deny it.  Even those churches that say they are just following the leadership of the Holy Spirit have a form or worship, and it is just as rigid and ritualized as anything written in a book.  We use this form of worship in the Book of Common Prayer because it is the one most calculated to give us a high, exalted vision of God and a corresponding sense of our sinful unworthiness.  We use this form of worship because it places the cross at the center of our worship with a constant reminder that there is no way for sinful human beings to approach this Holy God except through the cross of Christ.  Our worship is not based on the latest fads that church growth experts tell us will attract more people.  We worship the way we do because of truth, and when people worship according to truth, it makes it possible for the heart to be drawn near to God.  If people are really searching for the truth, then if they walk through those doors and worship with us, they will be hooked, because the thing that matters most to the Christian is not the building, the programs, the music, the activities, but the truth.

Today is the Feast Day of St. Mark the Evangelist who wrote our second Gospel as contained in our canon of Holy Scripture.  There are many things we could celebrate about Mark, but I want you to notice what the emphasis is upon in the Collect and Epistle Reading for today.  The Collect for the Day reads,

O ALMIGHTY God, who hast instructed thy holy Church with the heavenly doctrine of thy Evangelist Saint Mark; Give us grace that, being not like children carried away with every blast of vain doctrine, we may be established in the truth of thy holy Gospel; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

  What is the emphasis, what is the primary request in this prayer?  The primary emphasis is doctrine.    St. Mark instructed the holy Church in heavenly doctrine, especially in writing for us this gospel where the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ is preserved for us.    Then, notice that this prayer appeals to God that he would keep Christians from being carried away by every blast of vain doctrine.  What a needed prayer that is in our time when some churches are being carried away by false doctrine!  Where  did those who wrote this collect get that phrase, “carried away with every blast of vain doctrine.” It is based on our Epistle reading  for today from the book of Ephesians, where St. Paul wrote,

And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive. (Eph. 4:11-14)

The ministry was given to the church to teach and instruct its people so that they can grow up to be mature people, so that they won’t be carried away by every false wind of doctrine.    Christians today are not mature in their understanding of the word of God, so they are influenced by every heretic that comes along, because, as Paul put it, heretics are cunning, crafty.   In these days heretics don’t even have to be very cunning because many American Christians will embrace any new kind of doctrinal toy that comes along.   They turn on the radio or television, they hear somebody quoting Scripture, and they don’t have enough knowledge of God’s word to be able to say, “That’s false doctrine.”  They go to a church where a pastor has a number of degrees, he says some good things that don’t seem too far-fetched, and people just take it for granted that he must be right.   They walk into a building that cost millions of dollars, has an exciting worship team, jumbo-trons,  and seats thousands of people and they say, “They must be teaching the truth here.  They must be doing something right.”  Not being able to evaluate truth in the light of God’s word, they are led astray simply by glitz and glitter. 

In the more formal churches, how was it possible that the mainline denominations went so far astray?  How did the lay people allow their churches to be taken over by a liberal clergy?  All of this happened because people had not been instructed in the truth.  They had not been taught the Holy Scriptures.  The level of Biblical illiteracy in this country is appalling, and if the Biblical illiteracy is appalling,  the theological illiteracy is even more so.  No wonder the church was led astray by liberalism on the one hand and a mindless emotionalism on the other extreme.    In the liberal churches, this apostasy began with people doubting the inspiration and inerrancy of Holy Scripture.  When preachers began to doubt the word of God, they began to abandon the word of God.  What did their sermons become?  If you abandon the word of God, you have nothing left to preach but the commandments of men.  When you abandon God’s truth, the only thing you can replace it with is man’s opinion.  Sermons became little stories that made people laugh and feel good about themselves.    People no longer heard strong doctrinal content based on the Bible, but a few pious-sounding platitudes that were gleaned from philosophers, leaders of other religions, or the latest self-help book. 

In some cases, conservative evangelicalism has followed suit but in a different direction.  Some didn’t abandon the word of God because they doubted its inspiration.   They just abandoned it by replacing it with entertainment and emotionalism.    Again, the strong doctrinal preaching that is able to keep people from straying was crowded out by what made people feel good.  The end result  in liberal churches and many conservative churches has been the same—a people who are carried about by every false wind of doctrine.  People had not been instructed, and when people are not instructed, they are immature, following every false wind of doctrine that comes along.  The feast day of St. Mark the Evangelist reminds us of the importance of being grounded in the truth of God’s holy word.

            The symbol for St. Mark the Evangelist is the lion.  As you know, each of the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, has a symbol associated with them.    In Revelation 4:6-7 we read, “And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind.   And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.”  Over the years, each of the evangelists became associated with one of these four symbols.  Matthew was the man,  Luke was the calf or ox, John was the eagle, and Mark was the lion.   You may have noticed on your order of service that I have a painting of St. Mark, and you will notice the lion in the background.   As a matter of fact, if you go on the Internet at look at the various church schools that are called St. Mark’s, you will often find that their mascot is the lion.   There have been various attempts to explain how each evangelist became associated with their particular symbol, but in Mark’s case, it is believed that Mark was associated with the lion because his gospel opens with John the Baptist, who was like a lion, roaring in the wilderness.  When Jesus looked at the Pharisees on this occasion, he said, “You hypocrites.”  When John the Baptist saw the Pharisees coming to his baptism, he said, “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance” (Matt. 3:7-8).  Yes, John was like a great lion of God, roaring in the wilderness, exposing the hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees.  When we think of St. Mark’s instruction, we should think of the lion, calling people to repent of their hypocrisy.  How we need such lions in our day–men who roar from the pulpits, exposing the hypocrisy of a false worship.  Such roaring would be very appropriate today,  since it is the Feast of St. Mark, symbolized by the lion.  This feast day of St. Mark reminds us of the importance of doctrine, sound teaching, for without sound doctrine, worship is vain.

            Vain, empty, hypocritical worship is bad enough in and of itself, but it also brings a serious punishment.  If we go back to that 29th chapter of Isaiah from which  our Lord Jesus is quoting, we see the consequences of this kind of worship:  

 For the LORD hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered.   And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed:   And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned.   Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men: Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid” (Isa. 29:10-14). 

What was the punishment that God threatens?   He says that there will be no more prophets, no more seers.  In other words, as a judgment, he will take away those who faithfully proclaim the word of God.    He says that the word of God would become sealed up to them.  The word of God would be like a book in the middle of a society where everyone is illiterate.  Aren’t we living  in that time of spiritual illiteracy?  People can read this book and have no understanding at all about its meaning.  Why is it that people don’t understand the word of God?  You might answer, “Because they don’t read it.”  In many cases, no doubt, in our country, most cases, people don’t understand the word of God because they never read it.  But that’s only part of the answer.  Many people do read it, but don’t understand it because they prefer the commandments and precepts of men rather than the word of God.  God says in Isaiah 29:14—“For the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hidden.” God has removed the prophet, he has taken away the wisdom of the wise and the understanding of the prudent.  Isn’t that true on every level of our society, in all our institutions, whether we are talking about the  Church,  government, education, or business?  God has taken away the wisdom of the wise and the understanding of the prudent.  It is a punishment for this kind of hypocritical worship in which we have engaged.  This decadence all began in the pulpit, when the men of God should have been using the word of God to call people to repentance and holiness of life.  But when the preachers abandoned the word of God, the people abandoned the word of God, and we shouldn’t be surprised that many of our national leaders have abandoned the word of God.  So, God threatens us, reminding us,  that if we want to obey the traditions and commandments of men rather than his holy word, then he will take his word away from us.  Oh, we will still have our Bibles, but we won’t understand it.  It will be like a sealed book to us, and when we read it, it will make no sense.  It will be as though we are illiterate.   God will pour out a heavy sleep on us, and we will not even have a heart that is interested in learning what God’s word says.   We will still have preachers and teachers, but they won’t be wise and prudent.  Since we wanted the precepts and commandments of men, then God will give us preachers who preach the commandments and precepts of men, but God will remove the true and faithful preachers from us.  Because we have desired to worship God according to the precepts of men, because we have refused to bring our hearts to God in worship, because we have lived in disobedience and then pretended to worship God though our hearts were in love with the world, the flesh, and the devil,  God has taken away from us the understanding of his word.  Because we wanted games instead of truth, because we wanted to hear sermons that made us feel good about ourselves rather than hear the truth about ourselves, God has taken his truth away from us, and the result is that our worship is in vain.

On this feast day of St. Mark, when we are reminded of the importance of sound doctrine, let us repent of our vain worship.  For the sake of our churches, for the sake of our nation, when we come to worship, let us make sure that we are here to do what God’s word says, to hear what God’s word says, and to commit ourselves that we will repent and make amendment of life when God’s word convicts us.    Let it not be said that this people draws near with their lips, but their hearts are far from God.    Let it not be said that we were children carried about by every form of false doctrine because they had not been properly instructed.  Rather, let us desire the sincere milk of the word that we may grow thereby.   Let us be like those described in the epistle to the Hebrews, those who can eat the strong meat of God’s word, able to discern good and evil (Heb. 5:14).  Let us remember, that apart from sound doctrine, worship is vain.   Amen

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The Good Shepherd

A Sermon 

Preached on Sunday, April 18, 2010, by  

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D., 

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

 I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.   But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.   The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.   I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.   As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:11-15) 

One of the most famous descriptions of our Lord Jesus Christ is that of  “the good shepherd.” Of all the images that he used to describe himself, this one must be the most popular. How many paintings have been done with either the title or the theme of Jesus as the good shepherd?  We see paintings of Jesus walking the mountains, wild and bare , searching for his lost sheep. We see Jesus standing in the middle of a flock of sheep, carrying a lamb in his arms. This poetic picture, “the good shepherd” has always captured our minds and hearts.

But some of the paintings and poetry on this subject may be a little misleading. Like everything connected with Jesus, we make this description of him far too sentimental.  I suppose we think of the shepherd in some sort of vision of pastoral peace–the shepherd who has nothing to do all day but blissfully meditate on the beauties of nature while playing a flute in his occasional busy moments. When we think of Jesus as the good shepherd, we are prone to think of him in those terms.

We fail to take into account what was required of shepherds in these Biblical days. It was a very tiring job. Think of all the walking that was required. Think of the long hours of tending a flock, sometimes having to go long distances to find that sheep that had strayed.  Also, the job could be dangerous. Sometimes the shepherd had to search for his sheep on a lofty precipice. There was always the threat of wolves and robbers. It took quite a man to be a shepherd. Sometimes, when I look at these paintings of Jesus as the good shepherd, I wonder if he could have physically even led the sheep, much less protected them from wolves and thieves. He looks so frail that one wonders if he could have climbed the mountain steeps with his flock in any way whatsoever.

Sometimes, when we think of Jesus as the “good” shepherd,  we substitute for the word “good”,  words such as  “kind” or “sweet.”  Jesus is the “sweet” shepherd, and thus, we have all of the paintings of Jesus with his lambs with the “sweet” expression on his face. I have read several commentaries during the week concerning this word “good”,  and many of them point out that this word for “good” can mean “beautiful” in the Greek language.   Some conclude that Jesus is saying that he is the beautiful shepherd, so virtuous that he is winsome in his personality and demeanor. Maybe that is why so many of the paintings of the good shepherd make Jesus appear to be physically beautiful. While it is true that this word can mean “beautiful,” that meaning is pretty rare in Biblical usage. The root meaning of this word for “good” is “fit”, “useful”, or “serviceable.”   Homer used this word to describe the great heroes of his Iliad and Odyssey. The word was also used to describe something that was ideal, flawless, or genuine.   I think that  this meaning may be closer to what Jesus is saying here about himself.   He is the genuine shepherd, the excellent shepherd.   But the Greek word for “good” has also the idea of “nobility” or “worth.” How about if we translate these words, “I am the noble shepherd”?   What kind of image does that put in your minds? Jesus is a shepherd with dignity, a kingly, majestic shepherd, if you will.  I realize that in these days, people don’t want a noble and majestic Jesus.  They want the Jesus who is one of the boys, a very casual Jesus.  Maybe I’m different, but I have a difficult time understanding why people want a Jesus like that. I don’t want a Jesus who is my good buddy.  I want a Jesus who is noble, majestic—a friend, yes, but a noble, dignified friend. The failure to see him as king is the reason for our lack of reverence these days, even in our worship services.

When Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, we are looking at an exalted view of a shepherd. He is the good, noble, or worthy shepherd.  He is everything that anyone could ever desire as a shepherd. You remember when Jesus described himself in other metaphorical terms, he often used the word “true.” He said things like,  “I am the true vine,” or “I am the true manna.”   In other words, all of these metaphors, these types, did not come close to being what he really was.  Other vines might fail in some way, but he is the true vine.   Other manna might be lacking, because the people would get hungry again, but he was the true manna that men could eat and never hunger again. When Jesus says that he is the good shepherd, he is saying that he is the shepherd of all shepherds, perfect in every way.

You will notice that be contrasts himself with those who might try to pose as shepherds, but are not really shepherds. He calls them “hirelings.” These people have no real concern for their sheep, but how different Jesus is!  In verse 12 we see that when the hireling sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep.  He leaves them exposed, and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them.  In verse 13 Jesus says, “The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep.”  Then, in verse 14 he presents the contrast again, “I am the good shepherd.”  In other words,  “I am not like the hireling who will leave his sheep when danger comes.”  If you want proof  of how good a shepherd he is, if you want to know what a noble shepherd he is, he will tell you, for he then says these most famous words, “The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.”

When Jesus says that he gives his life for the sheep, he is saying that he is willing to do whatever is necessary to save his sheep. The shepherd, the true shepherd, realized how important those sheep were, and he was willing to fight for them. We see David as that kind of shepherd when he was a boy. When David was trying to convince Saul that he could stand up to Goliath in battle, we read, “And David said unto Saul, Thy servant kept his father’s sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock:   And I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth: and when he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him.   Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the armies of the living God” (I Sam. 17:34-36).   David was a good shepherd. What would most of us do if we were keeping sheep and a lion or bear came out to take away one of the flock?   We probably wouldn’t wait around to see if the lion or bear took the sheep or not. Our theme song would be from The Wizard of Oz, “Lions, and Tigers, and Bears, Oh My.” But notice what David says. David says that even if the lion or bear took one of the lambs, David pursued it. Now there’s a man looking for trouble, looking for a fight, and putting himself in danger. Why not let that sheep go?   You have others here. Keep them safe. Why put your own life in danger just for some sheep?  But good shepherds were willing to risk their lives for their sheep.

You remember the description of a brave shepherd in Amos 3:12, “As a shepherd takes from the mouth of a lion, two legs or a piece of an ear.”  Amos pictures a shepherd who has pursued a lion that has stolen one of the sheep. The shepherd catches up with the lion and grabs the sheep,  and the lion and the shepherd have a tug of war.   The shepherd pulls and pulls  on that sheep and a leg comes off.  He pulls and pulls and another leg comes off. He tries again to free the lamb, and all he can grab is a piece of an ear. The picture is that the shepherd will fight with the lion, do everything he can to free the sheep from the mouth of the lion. Every time I read that story, I can’t help but think of the close proximity of the shepherd to the lion. If the lion has the sheep in its mouth, and you have a leg in your hand, you are face to face with the lion. Wouldn’t you have the fear that the lion might say, “Why am I fighting over this sheep when I can have shepherd for supper?”  The Lord Jesus Christ is making the point  that a good shepherd is willing to put his life on the line for the sheep.

Jesus Christ put his life on the line, and more, for us.  The wolf, the lion did have us in its mouth. Remember how Satan is described as a roaring lion, prowling around, seeking whom he may devour. We were in the clutches of this terrible beast, but our Lord came and snatched us from the jaws of the evil one and saved us. That is the good shepherd.  Chasing lions and wolves, dragging sheep out of the very jaws of the wolf takes courage, strength, and the willingness to risk one’s life.  

When we think of Jesus as the good shepherd, he is the best of all shepherds, for when he saved us, it took more courage, more strength, more of the spirit of self-sacrifice than any shepherd ever displayed.  Think of what our Lord did to save us. Did he save us by giving us some teaching on how to stay away from the lion? Did he give us a book entitled, “Thirty Methods of Self Defense whereby Sheep Can Defeat Wolves?” No, I think we all know that sheep are pretty defenseless when it comes to defending themselves against these sorts of predators. Then how did our Lord, the good shepherd, save us?  He saved us by dying for us. The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep.   In verse 15 he says, “I lay down my life for the sheep.”  In verse 17, again, “I lay down my life that I may take it again.”  Again, in verse 18, “No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of myself.” Here, the analogy between what Jesus did and what a shepherd does breaks down a little, doesn’t it? Certainly, good shepherds in Biblical days were willing to put their lives on the line for the sheep, but it was a good idea for some self preservation to be present, for a shepherd must be willing to risk his life for the sheep, but no shepherd ever saved his sheep by giving his life for it. If the shepherd dies, the sheep is lost as well, and probably the whole flock. If a pack of wolves surround a flock, and the shepherd defends them, but loses his life in the process, then the whole flock will be devoured. I doubt that many Palestinian shepherds ever actually gave their lives for the sheep. If a Palestinian shepherd died for his sheep, you can bet that he did not plan to do so.  Leon Morris says that the typical Palestinian shepherd planned on living for his sheep, but never on dying for his sheep. It would be far more beneficial for his sheep that he live rather than die.

But with Jesus, it is exactly by losing his life, by giving his life, that he actually saves his flock. As Matthew Henry said,  our Lord not only “ventured, but laid down his life for his sheep.” It is one thing to risk one’s life for the sheep. It is another to come deliberately with the purpose of dying for the sheep.  In Biblical times, if a shepherd was killed defending his sheep, it would have been accidental. He did not go into the battle with the wild animal planning on dying.   But Jesus’ death for his sheep was no accident—it was calculated and deliberate. He came into the world to die for his sheep, and it is through his death that we are saved from destroyer of men’s souls. As the writer to the Hebrews says, “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” (Hebrews 2:14-15).   It was through dying for us that we were delivered from the mouth of the lion, the devil.  The only claim that the devil had on us was due to sin, but Jesus, on the cross, paid the penalty for our sin.  He died on the cross that we might not die in sin, that we might not die in the clutches of the roaring lion who wanted to devour us.  Because Christ died in our place, the devil no longer has any right to us. The point of the gospel is that Jesus came into the world with the express purpose of dying for them.   Bishop J. C. Ryle said, “When He saw that nothing could deliver them from hell and the devil but His blood, He willingly made His soul an offering for their sins.”  How courageous and noble!   What a heroic shepherd—one who would give his life for the sheep, sinful sheep who deserve to be destroyed. Christ loves them and gives himself for them. What a word of comfort this is to all of us!   Our salvation is in the hands of the good shepherd. This whole chapter is one long chapter on how safe and secure the sheep should feel. He is the good shepherd, the noble, excellent, true shepherd who loved his sheep so much he gave his life for them.   Now, after giving his life for us, he will certainly continue to defend us.   Another shepherd, a false shepherd may allow the wolves and robbers to get to his sheep, but not the good shepherd. How comforting to know that no matter how long we live, what dangers we face, what trials we go through, what temptations come our way, we will always be under the care of the good shepherd.  Amen.

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Why We Believe in the Resurrection

A Sermon 

Preached on Sunday, April 11, 2010, by  

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D., 

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

 The word which God sent unto the children of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: (he is Lord of all:) That word, I say, ye know, which was published throughout all Judaea, and began from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached;  How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him.   And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree:   Him God raised up the third day, and shewed him openly;   Not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us, who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead.   And he commanded us to preach unto the people, and to testify that it is he which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead.   To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins.  While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word.  (Acts 10:36-44)

Have you ever had moments in your life when you doubted everything that you had been taught by your parents or by your Church?   A few moments ago when we said the Nicene Creed, we confessed that we believe so many things. Have you ever come here on Sunday morning, come to the place where you were called on to confess these things, and yet, found it difficult to actually say the words, because, deep down inside, you didn’t know whether you believed them?  Perhaps it was as a teen-ager, and you began thinking for yourself, that you first wondered, “Do I really believe what I have been taught all these years?” Perhaps as a college student, you came under the influence of a towering intellect of a professor who was a skeptic, and under his influence you began to say, “He doesn’t believe the Bible. Why should I?” Or, perhaps some great tragedy happened in your life, and you began to think, “How can I say that there is a God who is in control of all the world when he lets things like this happen. If he exists, and he is all powerful, why does he allow these kinds of things to happen?”   Maybe it was at the death-bed of a love one, the graveside of someone close, and the words came to your mind, “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” At those moments it is so very difficult to believe.   Yet, the great Puritan preacher Thomas Watson once said, “We are more sure to arise out of our grave than out of our beds.” Do you believe that?   This is the time of year in our Church calendar that we pay special attention to the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Our Scripture readings for the past week and today continue to focus on the Resurrection.   At some points along the way, we may be tempted to ask, “How do I know that this is really true? How do I know that Jesus was raised from the dead?”  Is it that we just take a leap of faith into the dark?  Is faith merely hoping against hope, hoping against all evidence to the contrary, that something is really true. As someone said, “Faith is believing in something that you know deep down inside isn’t true.”

Why do we believe in the resurrection? Do we believe in the resurrection simply because we can’t face the harsh reality that death may truly be the end, so we invent things like the resurrection to give us hope?  The recent movie, The Invention of Lying, implies that the idea of life after death was just a lie invented to give people comfort who were facing the horrors of non-existence.   In other words, doctrines like the resurrection are just a way to comfort ourselves in the face of death that maybe there is life beyond the grave. Why do we believe in the resurrection?   Do we believe in the resurrection because Christian apologists have given us good historical evidence to support the resurrection? Some years ago, Josh McDowell wrote a book entitled Evidence that Demands a Verdict.  In this book he lays out all the historical facts that support the resurrection.  Do we believe in the resurrection because Josh MacDowell and other Christians have written books that give good historical evidence to believe in the resurrection?

Do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ? That is the most important question I could ask you this morning, for  your eternal destiny hinges on how you answer that question.   Remember how Paul said in Romans 10:9, “ That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart…”  What comes next?  In these days of modern evangelistic techniques, we would expect the next phrase to be, “and believe in your heart that Jesus died on the cross for your sins.”  But that is not what Paul says.   He says, “…and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead.” In the preaching of the apostles there is no salvation apart from the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Paul said in I Cor. 15:17, “ If Christ is not risen, your faith if futile; you are still in your sins!” Pay close attention to that. You are still in your sins.   The disciples went out into the world to bear witness of the resurrection. The proof that the gospel is true is not the cross.  Many people died on crosses.  The proof that the gospel is true is the resurrection. You see the connection between the resurrection and our justification. If Christ is not raised, the cross is meaningless.

If we stopped with the death and burial of our Lord Jesus Christ, our gospel message would be incomplete. Many great religious leaders have come and died. Many have suffered in terrible ways, but God raised up Jesus on the third day. Peter never failed to mention this truth  in his preaching. In Acts 2:23-24 we read how Peter said, “Him being delivered by the determined counsel and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that he should be held by it.”  No matter how the liberal theologians of our day try to spiritualize the resurrection, Peter insisted that it actually happened.  Liberal theologians try to tell us  that Jesus did not literally come from the grave, but that in some mystical sense Jesus is alive because his followers carry his life and teachings in their hearts.  They say that the resurrection is just a symbol that God can take a tragic event and make something good out of it.   They say that the resurrection is just an allegory, just a legend, to show that in some sense, people go on living in the hearts of those who love them.   There is none of that kind of allegorical spiritualizing for Peter. Jesus walked from the grave literally, physically. In our text for this morning, Peter mentions how they ate and drank with him after the resurrection.  We read of others eating and drinking with him, like those two who met him on the road to Emmaus.  They don’t recognize him, they invite him to eat, and it was in the breaking of bread that they recognized him.

This whole idea of Jesus showing himself is very important in the resurrection accounts. In our Gospel reading for today in John 20:19-20, we read, “Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, Peace be with you.  Now when he had said this, He showed them His hands and His side.” In John 21:1, we have another one of these showings:  “After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberius, and in this way He showed Himself.”   Luke writes in his prologue to the book of  Acts:  “ The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach,  Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen:  To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:1-3).  Notice again, that he showed himself, and that he gave infallible proofs.  But to whom did he show himself and give those infallible proofs? The resurrection is at the center, the very foundation of our faith, but why do we believe in the resurrection? He hasn’t appeared to any of us. How can we be for certain that it really happened?

You can know for certain that Jesus really was raised from the dead.   You can be just as sure that Jesus Christ rose from the dead as though you had been standing at the tomb on that Easter morning, felt the earth quake, saw the angels come and move away the stone, saw the angels standing there, and saw Jesus Christ walk from the tomb. You can be that certain. You can be that certain simply because the Apostle Peter told us so, just as he told the household of Cornelius in our text for today.  You were probably expecting something more certain.  There is nothing more certain than the testimony of the Apostles, and furthermore, there is nothing better than the words of Peter saying that he saw the risen Christ to convince us that Christ was raised from the dead.

The Apostle Peter went to the home of Cornelius  to bear witness of the resurrection. The Apostle Peter recounts for the household of Cornelius those terrible days of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.   He tells us that in spite of all the good our Lord Jesus had done, how he had done good works, how he had healed those who were oppressed by the devil, nevertheless, the people hated him so much, they killed him by hanging him on a tree. Then, at the culmination of all the suffering, we come to the glorious truth that we celebrate at this time of year.   Notice Peter’s words in Acts 10: 40-41: “Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead.”  Though Christ appeared  only to those whom he had chosen, we too, his people, have seen these infallible proofs. You may ask, “What are you saying, Fr. Toms?   Has Jesus Christ appeared to you as he appeared to the apostles and showed you his hands, feet, and side?”  No, but we have received infallible proofs. You see, for us, the infallible proof is the apostolic witness. Thomas Paine used to try to refute this argument by saying that these proofs might have been a revelation to the apostles, but not to us.  Paine was wrong, for the apostolic witness is a revelation to us. That is why it is so important to hold on to the concept of an infallible Bible, because if we don’t have an infallible Bible, we don’t have any infallible proofs of his resurrection.

This book, which contains the apostolic witness is the infallible proof for us that Jesus was raised from the dead.   Our infallible proofs are not in dreams, visions, nor even our personal experiences.  Years ago, I heard a great theologian take issue with the hymn I used to sing as a boy, “He Lives.”  There is a line in the song that says, “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.”   It is a wonderful thing to know that Jesus lives within our hearts , but that is not the primary way that we know he lives. We know that he lives because the apostles in the word of God told us that he lives.   Followers of all false religions could say that the spirit of their god, gods,  prophet, or teacher lives within them.  You say, “But I had a personal experience with Jesus Christ.”  They had a personal experience with their god.  You say, “But my life was changed by Jesus.”  Their lives were changed by their god.  You say, “But I have a personal relationship with Jesus.”  They claim to have a personal relationship with their god. You say, “Well, they are just deceived.  They are just imagining these things.”  They say you are deceived and imagining these things.   The reason we know he lives is not because of our personal experience and personal relationship.  We know that he lives because of the witness of the apostles.  Without that testimony, we would be in the dark. We believe because of the testimony of the apostles.  The Apostle John teaches this truth in I John 1:1-3:   “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;  (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;)  That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.”   Notice how John says, “We bear witness.  We declare it to you.  You know that Jesus is the son of God because of our witness.”  If we know of the life and resurrection of Jesus, it is through the apostolic witness.

Jonathan Edwards has a wonderful sermon entitled, “The Warnings of Scripture Are in the Best Manner Adapted to the Awakening and Conversion of Sinners”. He takes as his text Luke 16:31, “And he said unto them, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from dead.”   Throughout this sermon Edwards labors to show that God gave us the best means for convincing us of his truth by giving us the Bible. He says that people in his day, just as now, say, “I would believe if I heard the voice of God speaking audibly to me.” Edwards points out that Israel heard God at Sinai and look at what happened to them. They still had no faith. He says that people say they would believe if they could have walked with Christ and seen his miracles. How many people in the time of Christ saw all of those miracles and yet did not believe.   Then Edwards starts to prove that the best means of bringing people to Christ is the Scripture, but in each of his points, he presupposes that people recognize that this book is where God has spoken. If you don’t believe Scripture, there are no other means to convince people of the truth. This is where God has spoken, and since this is where God has spoken, we may and must believe all that is written here.

            In John 20, verses 30 and 31 we find these words:   “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book:   But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.”  Notice those words:  “these are written that you may believe.”  The way John looked at it was that what was  written here in these pages is sufficient for anyone to believe.  I don’t see a verse after this one that says, “What is written will be sufficient to produce faith until the twenty-first century when people will need modern scientific proofs that Jesus is the son of God.”  John said, “These are written that you may believe.”  Scripture alone is sufficient to produce faith in our hearts.  You ask me, “Why do you believe in Jesus?  Why do you believe in the resurrection?”   I believe because John wrote it down.  I don’t need confirmation from history, science, archeology, or anything else.  John wrote these words, and I believe what John said.  Period!  The historical, scientific, and archeological evidence is interesting, but it doesn’t “prove” anything to me.  I believed long before I had any “confirmation” from outside sources.

According to Jesus, you are so hardhearted, that if you don’t believe the Bible, you wouldn’t believe if an angel from heaven came and told you the truth. The apostolic witness is the most powerful testimony you could have, more powerful than if an angel appeared to you right now.  Furthermore, if you don’t believe what we have read from the Scriptures, you wouldn’t believe if one rose from the dead and told you it was true.

The words translated here in Acts 10:40 “showed openly” are actually much more complicated. Literally it is, “God gave him to become manifest”. The word for “show” here is “euphanays” meaning “visible.” He was made visible, but again, why didn’t he make himself visible to everyone? Why doesn’t he appear to us?  Why doesn’t he appear to everyone right now?   After the resurrection, why didn’t Jesus appear on the Mt. of Olives and invite everyone in Jerusalem to come take a look?  Why not get Annas and Caiaphas and show himself openly  to them?  Why doesn’t he do the same thing now? If he is alive, if he did walk from that tomb, why not appear to everyone now and end the doubt in everyone’s mind?   He doesn’t do these thing simply because the witness of the apostles is sufficient, and if people will not believe this account, they would not believe it if someone rose from dead.   If Jesus Christ were to personally appear to people today, they would explain it away as a hallucination, mass hypnosis, a dream, a demon, an alien, or who knows what other explanation they would offer.  None of these things would be convincing.  On the other hand, the Apostles proclaimed that they had seen the risen Christ, and you know what?  People believed them! Why did these people believe in the resurrection just because a few people said it was true?

We must remember that the apostles had another witness of the resurrection who bore witness along with them.  In Acts 5:30-32, we read how Peter and the apostles said, “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.  Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.   And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.”   In a wonderful way the Lord still becomes visible to people, not  in the physical sense in which the apostles saw him, but the Holy Spirit does take the gospel message and make the risen Christ visible to us. This word for “visible” is used in Romans 10:20—“I was found by those who did not seek Me; I was made manifest by those who did not ask for me.”  The Lord is still made visible, made manifest.  How?  He is made visible, not in dreams or visions, but by the witness of the apostles applied powerfully to our hearts and minds by the Holy Spirit.   A form of this word was used in John 14:21 when the Lord says, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.” The Lord is still made visible to his people through giving us faith in what the apostles wrote. 

He made himself known to Peter and the Apostles, and Peter tells the household of Cornelius, “And we are witnesses of the things which He did.” In verse 41 he says, “Not to all the people, but to witnesses.” Peter is insistent on this point. He is a witness, and he is to be believed because he is a witness.  In Acts 2:32, Peter says, “This Jesus God has raised up of which we are all witnesses.”  In Acts 3:14-15, he said, “But you denied the Holy One and the Just, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Prince of life, whom God raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses.”  In Acts 4:33 we are told, “And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” Notice those words, “with great power.”  How was it that people believed Peter just because he said he had seen the risen Christ?  The people believed the apostolic witness because the Holy Spirit gave them great power, and when they preached on the resurrection, the Holy Spirit opened the hearts of the people to believe it.   In Acts 13:29-31, the Apostle Paul said, “And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a sepulchre.  But God raised him from the dead:  And he was seen many days of them which came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are his witnesses unto the people.”  Peter was a witness, an eyewitness of the risen Lord.  He has told us what he saw, and his testimony in the inspired, inerrant word of God, is all that we need to convince us of the truth.

How did these people in the household of Cornelius come to believe in the risen Christ? Peter said, “I saw the risen Christ.”  Why didn’t the household of Cornelius say, “Yeah, right.  Show us the proof.”  They didn’t say that because the Holy Spirit descended on them and gave them faith to believe the witness of this apostle.  It never seemed to dawn on Peter that his testimony coupled with the power of the Holy Spirit would be insufficient, and it isn’t.  The preaching of the apostolic gospel, in and of itself and alone, will always be sufficient to bring people to faith in Christ. How did the people on the day of Pentecost come to believe in the resurrection of Christ?  Had they seen the risen Christ physically with their own eyes? No, they heard the testimony of Peter, they were pricked in their hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit, and they believed.   The same is true now. If you have believed in the resurrection of Christ, how did this faith come to you?  You have not had a vision  of the risen Christ, nor have you seen him physically. You heard the testimony of the apostles, and God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, granted you faith to believe what they said.  Why do we believe in the resurrection? We believe in the resurrection because the apostles said it happened, and the Holy Spirit gave us the faith to believe it.

Why should we think that such proof is not sufficient?  You believe so many things, not because you have seen them or personally verified them.  You accept certain things because you believe certain credible witnesses.    For example, most of you probably believe that the sun is 93 million miles from the earth.  Why do you believe that?  Have you made the measurement yourself?  Do you even know how to make such a measurement?  I suppose that you believe in molecules, atoms, electrons, and protons, and if you read a scientific journal you would probably believe their explanations of how these things function though you are no physicist.  I suppose that you believe that there was a person named Alexander the Great who lived from 356-323 B. C.  Have you seen any of the ancient historical documents that attest to his existence?  If you did, why would you believe what is written in them?  Why do you believe in any of the things I have just mentioned?  You believe because someone told you these things were true, and you consider these people, often without any research or personal verification on your part, that these people who wrote these books and articles are credible witnesses.  We believe that the apostles are credible witnesses.  Let all of the skeptics try to cast doubt into our minds. Let all of the tragedies of life come our way. Let death itself come to our doorstep. The confident reply of the Christian in the face of it all is still, “Christ is risen,” and we know he is risen because of the witnesses he had chosen.  “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God,” and we believe what is written.  Amen.

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Resting in Hope

A Sermon 

Preached on Sunday, April 4, 2010, by  

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D., 

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

Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know:   Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain:   Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it.   For David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved:   Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope:   Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. (Acts 2:22-27) 

The desire for immortality, to live forever in some form, has obsessed human beings throughout recorded history.  Most religions offer some form of immortality for their followers.  Some religions promise their followers lives of incredible happiness in a future world that is much like our own, but without the pain and suffering.  Other faiths look forward to a state of bliss, being absorbed back into the great void of pure being.  The immortality of some religions consists of an almost endless cycle of reincarnations in which the soul lives many different lives in various forms of existence.

The ancient Egyptians had a great desire for immortality.  One of the reasons they mummified bodies was their belief that the soul could not continue to exist apart from the preservation of the body.  Their embalming techniques were attempts to preserve the body as best they could.  I was reading not long ago about the intricate process of embalming that the Egyptians practiced.  I won’t go into great detail, especially this close to lunch, but I was amazed at what they did with all of the internal organs, and how many weeks and even months were required to preserve and wrap the body in order to preserve it.  All of this preparation of the body was done with the hope  to preserve the body in order to ease the transition into the next world. 

In our day, we have seen a desire for a new form of immortality, but not immortality in another world—immortality here in this world on planet earth.  I am sure that most of you have heard of the science called cryonics—that is, the process of freezing the body so that perhaps, years and years from now, medical science will have discovered how to cure disease and resurrect bodies.  If you have enough money, you can have your body, or just your head, frozen, if they can get your body within three hours after death so that significant tissue damage has not taken place.  All of these attempts to mummify the body or freeze the body are an attempt to ensure that the body does not see corruption–to ensure that the body does not decay.

            As the Apostle Peter is preaching his great sermon on the day of Pentecost, he begins to talk about how the Old Testament had prophesied that the Messiah, the Christ, would rise from the dead.  In support of his argument, he quotes from the sixteenth Psalm.  Peter says, 

 For David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved: Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope: Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou shalt make me full of joy with thy countenance. Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day. Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption (Acts 2:25-31). 

Peter tells us that David was not only the king of Israel, but he was also a prophet who foresaw the resurrection of Jesus that we are celebrating today.  Peter argues that David could not be speaking about himself,  because  this person in the sixteenth Psalm says, “For you will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will you allow Your Holy One to see corruption.”  Then, in verse 29 St. Peter says that David’s body did see corruption.   David’s body rotted in the grave just as all human bodies must decay.  Despite all of our attempts to preserve it, these bodies, after death, will decompose.

            As most of you know, I am a real fan of the pre-Raphaelite painters and poets who flourished in the 1800s.  One of the most famous of those was a man named Dante Gabriel Rosestti .   Rossetti’s wife, Elizabeth Siddal, who was the model for many pre-Raphaelite paintings, died when she was only 32.  At her death, Rossetti was so grief-stricken that he had one of his journals, containing many unpublished poems, buried with her, wrapping the little volume in her hair.  Six years later, Rossetti changed his mind and decided to publish those poems after all, so he had her body exhumed.  At this point, the story begins to sound like a horror movie.  Though Rossetti did not attend the exhumation, his agent, Charles Augustus Howell, retrieved the journal from her hair.  Howell told Rossetti that Elizabeth Siddal’s body was almost perfectly preserved, and that there were little, if any, signs of decomposition.  Many people believe that Howell lied to Rossetti in order to prevent the poet from dwelling on the horrors of what had happened to the body of his beautiful wife and model.  It is interesting that notes of the exhumation indicate that a worm had burrowed a hole in the volume of poems.  It seems unlikely that worms would have eaten the book but left Lizzie’s body untouched.  No matter how much we try, or hope beyond hope, the truth is that no matter who or what we were in this life, after we die, these bodies will see corruption.   

            I remember when I was a boy I was fascinated by the story of how Lenin’s body had been preserved, and how the people of Russia used to wait in line to go see the body.  I talked to a man once who had been there and seen the body, and he said he was convinced that what was in that glass case was a pretty good wax job.  The Soviets had tried to preserve the body, but it couldn’t really be done.

            But our Lord Jesus Christ, speaking through David, said, “My flesh also will rest in hope.”  Jesus would rest in the hope that his body was going to be resurrected.  In verse 27, our Lord Jesus, speaking through David, said, “You will not leave my soul in Hades.”  That word that is translated in the Authorized Version  as “hell” is the word for “Hades.”  Though sometimes, Hades can refer to hell, it often simply means “the grave” or “the realm of the dead.”  Whenever we say the Apostles’ Creed and confess, “He descended into hell,” we mean that he descended into Hades, the grave, or the abode of the dead.   Jesus didn’t go into the flames of hell and suffer there.  He suffered all that was necessary for our sins when he was on the cross.  On the cross, he suffered our hell for us.  But he did descend into Hades, the grave, or the abode of the dead.    In this Messianic Psalm, our Lord is looking with trust to his heavenly Father, and he says, “You will not leave my soul in Hades,”  that is, the abode of the dead.   He also expresses his trust in his Father by saying, “Nor will you allow Your Holy One to see corruption.”  That “Holy One” that is mentioned here is our Lord Jesus Christ.  Our Lord is saying that the Father is not going to allow the body of his Son to rot and decay in the grave.  He is going to resurrect him, and it is that glorious resurrection that we celebrate this Sunday, and every Lord’s Day.  We celebrate that our Lord’s body did not decompose in the grave.  The Father preserved it, and when our Lord was raised from the dead,  he was raised in a glorious body that had not seen corruption.  Our Lord’s flesh rested in hope because he knew that his journey into the world of the dead was not going to hurt him at all, because he knew that his Father was going to raise him from the dead.  His heart rejoices and his tongue is glad, for he knows that he will rise from the tomb.             

It is for this reason that the resurrection of Christ fills us with hope as well.  We too, no matter what difficulty or trial we face, can say that our flesh rests in hope.  While it is true for us, that if we die, these bodies of ours will see corruption, our flesh still rests in hope because we know that there is coming a day in which this corruptible will put on incorruption, and we will be raised with a glorious body like unto his own body (Phil. 3:21).  For this reason,  St.  Paul said that when we face  the death of loved ones, we do not need to weep as those who have no hope, because when Christ returns, the dead in Christ shall rise first (I Thess. 4:14-17).  We have a certain hope that this corruption shall put on incorruption.  Remember that in the Bible, “hope” does not indicate uncertainty, like when we say, “I hope so.”  Hope, in the Bible, is a firm certainty that a future event will definitely take place because of God’s word and work. 

Since our resurrection is a certainty, our tongues can be glad even in the face of death.  We do not merely endure the sad times.  Our tongues can be glad even at the darkest moment, just as the tongue of our Lord Jesus Christ was glad at the moment he was to descend into Hades.   Even at the prospect of death our hearts can rejoice and our tongues be glad, because we know that on that first Easter Sunday so long ago, Christ defeated death, and he gives us the right and the power to participate in that victory.  We can give God praise now, because we know that he is going to be faithful to his promises.  Our  resurrection is as certain as if it had already taken place, and we can rest in hope.

Here is the test of the depth of our faith in the resurrection of Christ, whether we firmly believe in his resurrection and the blessings that will come to us as a result.  Can we face the trials of life and even the prospect of death with hope and joy?  It is easy to sing and praise God with our tongues when everything is going well in our lives.  But Christianity gives a song even in the moment of trial and approaching death.  One of the  old Christian martyrs said, “In all the days of my life I was never so merry as now I am in this dark dungeon.”  What a difference the eye of faith makes!  Normally, we are saddened because we are gazing only upon what we can see with these physical eyes.  There are times when it seems that all that we see are the trials.  The trials seem to be everything.  Death seems to be final.  But  the Christian has another kind of sight.  He can rest in hope because of what he sees by the eye of faith.  As St. Paul put it, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory;  While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (II Cor. 4:17-18).

I began this sermon by talking about techniques of embalming the body in an attempt to preserve it.  Of course, there is no way to ultimately preserve the body in a pristine condition.  But the bodies of Christians have a better kind of embalming.  One of the old preachers, who was preaching on this verse, “Thou wilt not allow thy holy one to see corruption,” entitled his sermon, “The Embalming of the Dead Saints.”  That is a great title, because, you see, the saints are not really embalmed in a mortuary.   The saints are embalmed by the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Whenever we distribute the elements of Holy Communion to you, we say, “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life;”   “the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.”  Because of what Christ did for us on the cross, and because he rose again from the dead, our bodies and souls will be preserved.  If we should die, our souls are taken immediately into the presence of Christ.  Then, on the last day, our bodies will be raised from the dead.  Because Christ was victorious over the grave, because he came forth from the tomb, our bodies also will come forth, victorious over death.  Because of what Christ did on the cross, our bodies and souls are preserved unto everlasting life.  For this reason, the ancient church fathers referred to the Lord’s Supper as “the medicine of immortality.”  As we, by faith, feed on the body and blood of Christ, we know that he will preserve our body and soul unto everlasting life. 

Our preservative is not some kind of scientific technique.   Our preservative is the hope we have in Christ Jesus.   In I Corinthians 15: 53-55, St. Paul wrote, “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.   So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”  That word that is translated there as “grave” is the word “Hades,” the same word that we are studying here in Acts 2:26, “Thou wilt not leave my soul in Hades.”  But notice how Paul says that “Hades” has no victory.  If you do not know Christ as Lord and Savior, Hades is victorious.  All people go into the grave to decompose, and there they remain–end of story.  But Christ walked out of Hades.  If Hades was victorious, we could not rest in hope.    We rest in hope because we rest in Christ.  We rest in hope, not because our bodies have been mummified.  We rest in hope, not because our bodies or our brains have been frozen to be awakened in some unknown future.  People who put their hopes in such things are resting in hope because they have faith in modern science.  But think about how uncertain that hope is.  What if there is a power failure and your body thaws?  What if there is a war and all these containers are exploded?  What if science never does advance far enough to be able to resurrect us with all our memories and personalities intact?  Such hope seems to be quite uncertain.  But thank God, our immortality does not rest in freezers, or in science, but in the almighty, all-powerful God who has promised to resurrect his people from the dead and has guaranteed it by the resurrection of Christ.   

 We rest in hope, not because we have a scientific way of preserving these bodies, but because we are in Christ who did not see corruption.    Remember how St. Paul said, “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?  Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.  For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Romans 6:3-5).  On that first Easter Sunday morning, when Jesus rose from the dead,  you arose from the dead as well.  We were crucified with him, died with him, buried with him, raised with him, and we are seated with him in the Heavenlies.  Because we are in Christ, all these things have already taken place.  God did not allow his holy one to see corruption, and since we were in him, united to him, our resurrection,  our putting on incorruption, is as certain as if it had already taken place.  

The world is seeking immortality, but in spite of all our ways that we try to devise to cheat death and the grave, not many are resting in hope, because  all of these hopes are filled with human uncertainty.  But the Christian rests in hope in life, and in death, because of this glorious resurrection of Christ that we celebrate today.  No matter what you may face in the future, rest in hope, for God did not allow his holy one to see corruption, and because he did not see corruption, you will be preserved, body and soul, unto everlasting life.  Amen.

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