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Archive for October, 2010

The Evil Day–A Sermon

The Evil Day

A Sermon

Preached on Sunday, October 24, 2010, by

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

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

(click here to listen to the audio recording of this sermon)

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.   Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.   For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. (Eph. 6:10-13)

When young people go into certain branches of military service, one of the first things they are subjected to is a period of intense basic training.  During this time, they are conditioned mentally and physically for the task that is ahead of them.  They may be trained in methods of hand to hand combat.  They are taught how to work as a unit and take various positions on the battlefield.  They are given the proper equipment:  clothing, helmets, knives, and guns.    They are taught the proper use of this equipment.  They are taught how to shoot, how to advance against enemy troops, and how to hold a position.    They must be subjected to this kind of training because there may come a day when they will be called upon to fight, to defend themselves, to gain important ground in a battle.  Soldiers need intense training because there may come a time when their lives and the lives of others will be depend on how skillfully they were trained, and how dedicated they were to implementing all that they had been taught.

Although some churches don’t like the military metaphors of Scripture, the Bible often describes the Christian life in terms of warfare.  The Christian is a soldier who is engaged in a fierce battle.  Just like a soldier who carries guns, knives, and other equipment, the Christian soldier must be well-equipped for battle with spiritual forces, described in our epistle reading for today as principalities, powers, and spiritual wickedness in high places.    The Christian must be prepared to fight, because, in the words of the Apostle Paul, the evil day is going to come.  The evil day would be equivalent to the time of fierce battle encountered by a soldier.  It is the time of testing when the forces of evil are marshaled against us.  The Christian must have the whole armor of God if he is going to survive this onslaught, so the Apostle Paul says, “Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”

What is this evil day that the apostle Paul speaks of?  In a certain sense, the times in which we live are evil days, because the times in which we live are morally evil.  Every day that we live is an evil day because we are constantly surrounded by danger:   spiritual, and sometimes, even physical danger.  We are especially living in days of great moral and spiritual evil.  You remember that Paul admonished these same Ephesians in chapter 5, verses 15 and 16, “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”  If the days were evil 2,000 years ago, what can we say about the days in which we live now?  In Scripture, certain periods of time, entire generations are spoken of as evil.  Remember how our Lord described his own generation:  “This is an evil generation: they seek a sign; and there shall no sign be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet” (Luke 11:29).  John the Baptist described them as a “generation of vipers” (Matt. 3:7).  Jesus described them as a “faithless and perverse generation” (Matt. 17:17).    On the day of Pentecost, Peter admonished his hearer s to save themselves “from this untoward generation” (Acts 2:40).   In Gal. 1:4, the Apostle Paul described Jesus as the one “Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father.”  In that sense then, every day is an evil day.    Certainly, all that was true of the generation in which our Lord and Paul lived is true of our day.  We live in a faithless, perverse, untoward, and evil generation.  Every day, the world, the flesh, and the devil are seeking to lure us into sin, faithlessness, disobedience, and rebellion against God.  We are surrounded by so many temptations, temptations that come to us from both within and without.  We are constantly being challenged by those who would try to undermine our faith.  We encounter those who are skeptics, those who mock our faith, and those who cause us to question what we have been taught as the truth of God’s holy word.  There are so many different false religions.  Even within Christianity itself, there is so much false teaching, and so many heresies arise day by day.  There are so many false philosophies of life that we are called upon to embrace as being that one, true way of life that will be the source of peace and happiness.  We are tempted to leave the strait and narrow path of life and embrace the philosophies of hedonism and materialism.    No wonder then that Paul says we must “be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.”   We cannot stand; we cannot win this battle in our own strength.  Far more spiritual people than you and I have been overcome by the great temptations that we face.  The evil days in which we live have lured many Christians into sin, so we must be constantly on guard, ready to do battle in the power of the Lord against the many enticements that this present evil age throws at us.    In this sense, every day is an evil day, because every day we are surrounded by evil.

Sometimes, certain periods of life can be described as evil days, not because the times are characterized by moral evil, but evil in the sense of being full of trials and troubles that we must face.  You remember when Jacob appeared before Pharaoh, he said, “ The days of the years of my pilgrimage are an hundred and thirty years: few and evil have the days of the years of my life been, and have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage” (Gen. 47:9).  When Jacob says that his days have been few and evil, he does not mean that he had led an evil life.  He means that many  trying, difficult things came to him in his sojourn in this world.  The writer of Ecclesiastes says, “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them.”  The evil days mentioned there are times of trial and affliction, especially those that come to us when we get into the period of old age.  Many of the days become evil in the sense of all the physical pain we have to face, as well as the emotional pain of seeing many of our friends and loved ones pass away.  Remember how our Lord said, “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” (Matt. 6:34).  When our Lord speaks about the evil in this verse, he is talking about the various kinds of trials and tribulations that we face day by day.  Each day has its share of difficulty, it’s time of testing.

But many Bible scholars believe that the evil day that is spoken of in Ephesians 6:13 is that time in life when we face certain crisis situations.  It is true that we face spiritual conflict every day, but you all know that there are times when we must face the most difficult periods of trial and testing.  There are those times in life when it seems that the damn breaks, and the evil, the trouble, comes pouring in like a flood.  It is the kind of evil day that psalmist spoke of when he said, “The LORD hear thee in the day of trouble; the name of the God of Jacob defend thee.”  Every day has its share of trouble, but there are some days that are filled with so much trial, we would call it a day of trouble.  The Lord even invites us in Psalm 50:15, “And call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.”

These days of trouble can take many different forms.  They can be days of persecution. When the prophet Jeremiah was being persecuted, he described it as an evil day:  “ Be not a terror unto me: thou art my hope in the day of evil.   Let them be confounded that persecute me, but let not me be confounded: let them be dismayed, but let not me be dismayed: bring upon them the day of evil, and destroy them with double destruction” (Jer. 17:17-18).  During times of persecution, when people are mocking us and criticizing us for our faith, it is sometimes difficult to stand for the truth.   The day of evil may be a day when you are exposed to a certain kind of temptation.    You might have thought that you were incapable of committing this kind of sin, but it seems that Satan and all the forces of hell have decided that they are going lure you into this sin.  You cannot get the temptation out of your mind.  You know that you shouldn’t fall into this sin and a fierce battle is raging in your heart and mind.    Then, there are those times when great trouble comes into our families.  Sometimes there is an unfaithful husband or wife that causes great heartache, and those can be called days of evil, days when we think we cannot stand the brokenness of heart, the depression of mind and spirit that follows in the wake of such difficulties.  Occasionally,  children rebel against their parents,  even appearing to reject the faith that we have taught them.  What an evil day that is!  We become so concerned about them, we have such concerns for both their physical and spiritual safety, and we just don’t know if we are going to be able to endure that period of testing.  Then,  there are those evil days of sickness that come our way.  There are those times when we are in so much pain, that we look to heaven and say that we cannot endure this.  Then, there comes that time when we face the death of loved ones and our own deaths.  The fear and heartbreak caused by death cause many people to be shaken in their faith to the very foundation.  Make no mistake about it, our spiritual enemies make use of such times to cause us to question the goodness and mercy of God.  During such periods, our spiritual enemies will cause us to question even the existence of God.    What an evil day that is, when we are tempted to abandon the faith itself!

These evil days that I have described will come to you in some form at various periods of your life.  What can you do during such a time?  How will you ever be able to survive?  Scripture tells us that we are not defenseless.  Just like that soldier that has been prepared to face that evil day, you can be prepared to face that evil day.  The soldier is prepared so that when the battle begins to rage, when shots are being fired all around, when bombs are dropping, when the temptation would be to panic and run in fear, his training takes over.  He knows what to do in such situations.  He knows what is expected of him, he does his duty as a good soldier, and, in the end, in spite of all the danger, he stands.    Just like that soldier, you are to be trained, you are to be given all the equipment that you need to stand when the fierce day of spiritual battle comes your way.  In our Epistle reading for today, Paul mentions all the armor that is given to you, so that you can stand in the evil day.  I don’t have time to go into lengthy descriptions of each piece of armor, but no doubt, you have heard countless sermons on these various parts already.  But you have all the armor you need.  You have truth, salvation, righteousness, peace, faith, the word of God, and the weapon of prayer.    We have the whole armor of God, every piece essential, but this armor is able to help us stand in the evil day.

All this armor that you need is available to you.  Think upon the Church as the armory of God.  You remember that in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian goes to the palace Beautiful, which represents the Church.  While Christian is in the palace Beautiful, we are told, “The next day they took him, and had him into Christian the armory, where they shew’d him all manner of furniture, which the Lord had provided for pilgrims, as sword, shield, helmet, breastplate, all-prayer, and shoes that would not wear out. And there was here enough of these to hand out as many men for the service of their Lord, as there be stars in heaven for multitude.”  The Church is the armory of God where we are outfitted for the spiritual battles ahead.  Just as certain military installations are designated as places where soldiers go to receive their basic training, the Church is the place where you come to be trained, and where you are going to receive the armor you need to stand in the evil day.  In these days, people say that you don’t need the Church.  The truth is that the Church is essential if you are going to have any hope of standing in these fierce battles.  It is the Church that teaches you the truth; it is the Church that preaches the gospel to you so that you can have peace, salvation, righteousness, and faith.   It is the Church that teaches you how to use the word of God as a weapon in your spiritual warfare. It is the Church that teaches you to pray and surrounds you with prayer so that you can survive these evil days.  When you leave this place on Sunday mornings, you should feel as though you have put your armor on, and now, you are ready for the battles that lie ahead.

The spiritual warfare that is described for us in this text is no child’s play.  The battles we fight day by day, and especially in those days of great trouble, are far fiercer and are far more important and significant than the great military campaigns in history.  The battles we fight concern our own souls and the souls of others.  We fight these battles in the effort to win the world for our Lord Jesus Christ, that his kingdom would come, that his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.  In our efforts to subdue the kingdoms of this world to the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, we meet fierce opposition, but we can stand.  As Paul puts it in this passage, “And having done all to stand.”Think of the imagery.  All the powers of hell are trying to advance against us.  We, at the same time, are marching.  We meet in a terrific clash, day by day, and in all the great crises of life.  But we have the advantage.   We are not fighting in our own strength.  We are fighting in the strength of the Lord and the power of his might.  We have put on the armor that he has given to us.  And when the dust of battle settles, you should see the Christian, standing firm–he has not given up an inch of ground.  Someone has said that in all this description of the armor, there is nothing for your back.  We do not retreat, we do not yield ground.  We stand the onslaught, and we advance.    Yes, it is true, that the evil day will come, evil days with the force of hell behind it, but the Christian has put on the whole armor or God, and in the end, the Christian stands.  Amen.

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Who May Worship?–A Sermon

Who May Worship?

A Sermon

Preached on Sunday, October 17, 2010, by

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

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

(click here to listen to the audio recording of this sermon)

LORD, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart.   He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor doeth evil to his neighbour, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbour.   In whose eyes a vile person is contemned; but he honoureth them that fear the LORD. He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not.  He that putteth not out his money to usury, nor taketh reward against the innocent. He that doeth these things shall never be moved. (Ps. 15:1-5)

One of our readings for Morning Prayer today is the 15th Psalm, so I am preaching from this passage.  The theme of this Psalm is preparation for worship, for it begins with the question, “Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy holy hill?”  The tabernacle, of course, is the place where God promised to meet his people.  Abiding in the tabernacle of the Lord, dwelling in the holy hill of the Lord, was a way of describing worship.  The New Living Translation has this first verse as, “Who may worship in your sanctuary, LORD? Who may enter your presence on your holy hill?”  Some people have suggested that perhaps this question was part of the liturgy of the ancient people of God.  Perhaps when people came to the tabernacle or the temple, the priest would pose the question to them, “Who shall abide in thy tabernacle?” When asked that question, the people were reminded of the qualifications that a person had to meet in order to worship God.  Other scholars have suggested that the question may have been part of an ancient catechism.  People, especially children, were asked this question so that they would always be aware of the character that person should possess in order to approach the Lord.    Some commentators have suggested that it was a prayer that the people were accustomed to pray before they entered worship.  On your order of service each Sunday I print a helpful preparation for worship with prayers to help you get yourself in the right frame of mind in order to worship.  Perhaps in ancient Israel, before they worshiped, they looked to heaven and prayed this prayer.   Most likely, it was a psalm, a hymn that was used in worship to remind people of what a person must be like in order to have the right to approach God.  It is a question that we should continue to ask ourselves any time we are about to come into the presence of God for worship.  “LORD, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill?”  The twenty-fourth Psalm is similar to this one and basically asks the same question in verse 3, “Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place?”  It was obviously a question that was frequently on the mind of those who wanted to worship God.

In these days the question might arise, “Why ask this question.”  Most people assume that there is a simple answer to this question, “Who may worship God?”  The answer that most people in our generation would give to that question is, “Anybody!  Anybody can worship God.  Anyone, regardless of the condition of the heart, regardless of the lifestyle that a person has adopted, anyone can worship God.”    Does anyone see the need to ask these questions any longer?  Don’t most people come to church with the assumption, “Of course I will be able to worship.  I’m here, am I not?  I’m singing the hymns, I’m praying.  Of course, God will receive my worship.”  There may be some people who are a little stricter than that.  Some people might answer that question, “Who can worship God?”, by saying, “Anyone who makes the effort to come to church.”  Perhaps someone who might spend five minutes of preparation before the worship service might think they have met all the qualifications necessary.   But the Psalmist gives a different set of qualifications that should be found in those who come to worship God.  Why would David be so concerned with this question when most people in our day would dismiss it as not even worthy of consideration?  David knew some truths that we seem to consider irrelevant as far as worship is concerned.

First, David knew who God was.  If you understand who God is, and what he is like, you will inevitably ask this question, “If that is who God is, how am I going to approach him?”  God is holy, so holy that seraphim must veil their faces, not able to look on the dazzling glory and holiness of God.  Back in 1826 Thomas Binney wrote the hymn that we sang earlier, “Eternal Light, Eternal Light!”  Unfortunately our hymnal leaves out my favorite verse in that hymn which says,

The spirits that surround Thy throne
May bear the burning bliss;
But that is surely theirs alone,
Since they have never, never known
A fallen world like this.

I like how Binney describes worship around the throne as beholding “burning bliss.”  But he says that surely those angelic spirits alone can look upon the dazzling holiness of God, because they have never known a fallen world like this.  But according to Isaiah, even the seraphim around the throne must veil their faces.  If God’s holiness is so dazzling that seraphim, who have never known a fallen world like this, must veil their faces, what should be our attitude and posture when we gaze upon that glory? Therefore we ask, “Who can abide in his tabernacle?”  He is so infinite, our minds cannot comprehend him.  He is so majestic and holy, that he tells us plainly that no man can see his face and live.  No wonder David asks the question, “Who shall abide in thy tabernacle?”  When the Apostle John saw the glorified Christ in the book of Revelation, he was so overwhelmed by his glory and majesty that he says that he fell at his feet as though dead.  Every person who ever had a sight of his glory was overcome by the sight.  That’s why the contemporary worship that is often flippant and relaxed is so disgusting, because it is obvious that people have no concept of the glory and majesty of God.

But the Psalmist not only asks this question because of the majesty, glory, and holiness of God.  David also asks the question because he realizes what he is, what we all are—sinners in the sight of God.  Job 4:18 says that God charges his angels with folly.  Even angels, as pure as they are, do not match the awesomeness, beauty, and perfection of God.  If he charges his angels with folly, what must he charge us with?  If angels who have no sin do not measure up to his perfection, how much folly and imperfection is attached to my worship?  We have hearts and minds that have been defiled by sin.  We spend so much of our time living in disobedience to God and his commandments.  Even when we approach God in worship, our hearts are often cold and lifeless.  When we think of all the times that we have deliberately disobeyed God, is it any wonder that we ask ourselves the question, “Who can ascend into the hill of the Lord.”

Then, when we look at the qualifications for worshipers that the Psalmist mentions, we wonder who could meet these requirements.  Who can worship God?  The Psalmist answers, “He who walks uprightly, works righteousness,” those “whose words are true and sincere, and who do not slander others; those who do no wrong to their friends nor spread rumors about their neighbors; those who despise those whom God rejects, but honor those who obey the Lord, those who always do what they promise, no matter how much it may cost; those who make loans without charging interest and cannot be bribed to testify against the innocent” (Good News Translation).  Combine those qualifications with those we find in psalm 24.  “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?”  The people who can worship God are those who have clean hands and a pure heart, those who have not lifted up their souls to idols or sworn by what is false.   If we examine ourselves by those qualifications, do we have any hope that we meet the requirements to worship God?  When modern people are asked, “Who can worship God, they usually reply, “Anyone can?”  But, as someone has said, when we realize who God is and what we are, we would have to answer that question by saying, “Can anyone?”  We can only worship if we are worthy, but how can we be worthy?

You can thank God that you are in a Church that has been historically devoted to answering that question.  One of the reasons I am an Anglican is that our Church best shows people how to approach God and worship him.  I get so angry when I hear people talk about how some groups of American Evangelicals think they rediscovered how to worship God in the latter half of the twentieth century.  The proper way to approach God and worship God is contained in our Book of Common Prayer, which is based upon the ancient liturgies of the Church which have been handed down to us from the time of the apostles and early Church fathers.

When you look at the liturgy of our Church, you will see that it is literally designed to answer this question, “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?”  One of these days, if someone will devote several million dollars so that we can build a huge church, we will literally ascend to the precincts of the altar.  But even in these surroundings, in a spiritual sense, we are ascending the hill of the Lord.   It is our form of worship that reminds us of how holy and glorious God is.  It is our form of worship that reminds us that we are sinners.  Yet, in spite of the fact that we are sinners in the presence of a holy God, our liturgy shows us how sinners can worship a holy and righteous God.

We begin our services with a hymn, usually one that reminds us of the holiness and majesty of God.  Then, our first prayer is one that reminds us that we are sinners that need to be cleansed:  “ALMIGHTY God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”  We begin our service by acknowledging that we cannot hide from God.  We cannot hide our sins from him.  We know that he knows what we are; therefore, we ask him, first of all, to cleanse our hearts.  The next thing we do is to either recite the Ten Commandments or the Summary of the Law of God.  Why do we do that?  We remind ourselves of the law to remind ourselves that we have all broken that law, so the next thing we do is sing some form of the Kyrie, “Lord Have Mercy on Us. Christ Have Mercy on Us.  Lord Have Mercy on Us.”  After having been reminded that we have all broken the law of God, having been reminded that we do not have clean hands and a pure heart, having been reminded that we have not walked uprightly, that we have not been righteous, that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, we realize that if we are going to worship God, he must have mercy upon us or we will never able to approach him.  Then, later in the service, we confess our sins, admitting that we are guilty of “manifold sins and wickedness,” that we have “provoked his wrath and indignation.”  Then, we plead once again for the mercy of God, that he would forgive our sins for Christ’s sake.

Then the priest stands before you to tell you that if you have repented of your sin, if you have turned to Christ, your sins are forgiven.  Now you can enter into the holy of holies.  Now you can have that assurance that your worship is acceptable in the sight of God, for even though he is holy, and though you have broken his commandments, still, because of what Christ has done, you have been forgiven of all your sins that would have kept you from the presence of God.  After quoting to you the Comfortable Words of Scripture, reminding you that Jesus Christ is the advocate for sinners, the priest says, “Lift up your hearts,” and in that moment we are transported into the heavenly precincts to engage in the highest form of worship as we have communion with him at his holy altar, to commune with him through the body and blood of Christ.  We can worship God not because we are righteous, but because Christ has cleansed us from our sins.  Thus, we pray in the Prayer of Humble Access, “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.”  We are permitted to worship, not because of any righteousness of our own, but because God has shown us mercy through Jesus Christ.  The first step in worshiping God is to realize that we are unworthy to worship him, but we have been made worthy because of what Christ has done.

With that said, we may come to an erroneous conclusion.  We may think that since we are unworthy in ourselves to worship God, and since we can only worship because God forgives us through Christ, then it doesn’t matter how we live.  We may think that we can live any way we please, come to church, ask forgiveness, and we will be permitted to worship.  In other words, we may conclude that since we cannot keep the commandments of God perfectly, there is no need to walk uprightly, work righteousness, speak the truth, or love our neighbors as ourselves.  We may conclude that there is no need to have clean hands and pure heart.  We may think that all we need do is come to church, say the prayers, go through the rituals, and we will be permitted to worship no matter how we have lived.  But the Jews made the same mistake.  In Isaiah 1 we find the description of how they worshiped, they prayed, and they offered their sacrifices, but God would accept none of their worship because they were living in such an unholy manner.    Today, we may think, “I am in Christ, I have been baptized, I come to Church each Sunday and partake of Holy Communion; therefore, God accepts my worship no matter how I live.”  But we must remember that there is a moral and ethical requirement for worship.    You remember how Jesus said that if you come to make an offering and remember that your brother has something against you, first be reconciled to your brother and then come and make your offering.  The requirement to live a moral and ethical life has not been removed.  Living a moral and ethical life in obedience to God’s commandments is the natural result of truly worshiping God.    Through worshiping God, we are transformed into those people who do love God with all the heart, mind, soul, and strength, and into those people who love our neighbors as ourselves.

In our liturgy we are constantly reminded of our duty toward God and our fellow man, and we constantly plead with God that he would give us the strength to live holy lives.  We not only pray that God would forgive us for not keeping his law, but we pray that God would “incline our hearts to keep this law.” We have a sermon, and in all true preaching, the minister will remind us of God’s commandments and encourage us to keep his commandments, warning us of the consequences of not obeying him, and giving us counsel concerning how to keep God’s commandments.  The priest invites you to come and participate in this Holy Communion, but he also reminds you that this privilege of communion is for those who “truly and earnestly repent you of their sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways.”  Even in our prayer of confession, we pray, “And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee in newness of life, to the honour and glory of thy Name.”  You see, we never go through the service of worship without committing ourselves to live a holy and godly life in obedience to God’s commandments.  If we do not commit ourselves to living a holy and godly life, the rest of our worship is nothing but hypocrisy.    At one and the same time, we realize that we are sinners who have broken God’s law, but we also commit ourselves to live in obedience to the commandments of God by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.  Just before we receive Holy Communion, the priest prays, “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee, that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”  When we participate in Holy Communion, we are not only cleansed of our sin, but we are also given the strength we need to live in obedience to Christ.  One of our last prayers contains the words, “And we most humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.”  Just before we leave this place, we ask that God would assist us to engage in all the good works that he has commanded us to perform.    We are transformed by our worship.  If we are not being transformed by our worship to live a holy and godly life, then we are not worshiping at all.

In our liturgy you find the perfect balance.  We are not self-righteous legalists who believe that we are good enough to worship God.  We realize that we are sinners who cannot approach God apart from the mercy of Christ.  But we do not turn the grace of God into an excuse to live any way we please.  We realize that true worship also involves a renewal of our covenant to walk in obedience to his commandments.    Though we do not obey perfectly the commandments of God, we are striving to live in obedience, and by the grace of God, we are becoming more and more conformed to the image of Christ.  Though the Christian fails in many ways, nevertheless, if you look at the life of the Christian as a whole, he can be described as one who walks uprightly, one who works righteousness, one who speaks the truth, one who loves his neighbor as himself.  By confessing our sins, being cleansed, approaching this holy God and gazing upon his glory, we are transformed into his likeness.

Whenever we read Psalm 15 and Psalm 24, we may think there is no hope that we meet the requirements to worship such a God.  But because of what Christ has done, because he has cleansed us from our sin, and because of the change he has made in our lives, then we truly are those people who can abide in his tabernacle, worship in his holy presence, and ultimately, dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  Amen.

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Past Feeling–A Sermon

Past Feeling

A Sermon

Preached on Sunday, October 10, 2010, by

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

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

(click here to listen to the audio recording of this sermon)

This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind,  Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.  But ye have not so learned Christ;  If so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus: That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind;  And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. (Eph. 4:17-24)

From time to time we hear of some people who commit such cruel, atrocious acts that we wonder how anyone could be so cold, heartless, and pitiless, that they would be capable of doing such things.  We hear of people who murder women and children and wonder how people could be so vicious.  We hear of reports from the battlefield of how people are tortured and killed in the most agonizing manner, and we wonder what kind of person is capable of doing such things.  But we are not only talking about people who commit atrocities such as murder.  Even in our polite, civilized society, we see people who don’t care what emotional damage they might do to other people, whether in families, or in churches, or on the workplace.  We see people who are concerned about their own pleasures, their own happiness, their own welfare, and they are willing to stab other people in the back, walk away from their commitments and responsibilities, just as long as their own desires are satisfied.  How do people reach such a point in their lives?   In our Epistle reading for today, St. Paul describes such people for us and how they come to behave in this manner.

In Ephesians 4 St. Paul is talking about the Gentile world, those people who do not have a relationship with God.  He describes them as walking in the vanity of their minds, having the understanding darkened, people who are blind in their hearts and work all kinds of uncleanness and greediness.  One of the words that he uses to describe these people helps us to understand how people can commit such terrible acts that we hear of day by day.  He describes them as being “past feeling.”  The word that is used here means “to be insensitive to pain,” “to become callous.”   The English Standard Version translates this verse as, “They have become callous…”   Most of us are familiar with what it means to become callous.  We become emotionally and spiritually callous.  We are drawing an analogy from the physical world where people get calluses.  On certain parts of our bodies, especially hands, fingers, feet, and toes, the skin becomes toughened, and in some cases, may reach a point where we don’t experience pain in those areas.  This can also happen to us in an emotional and spiritual sense.  The Good News Translation has it, “The have lost all feeling of shame…”  The NIV translates it, “Having lost all sensitivity…”  I am told that there is a rare medical condition called “congenital analgesia” in which people are born with insensitivity to pain.  It is a very dangerous condition because such people do not know when they are hurting themselves or when other people are objects may be hurting them.  In this passage of Scripture, Paul is telling us of people who have this kind of insensitivity to pain in a spiritual sense.

Such people are incapable of feeling any kind of guilt, such as the guilt caused by their conscience telling them that what they are doing is wrong.    In I Tim. 4:2, Paul described some people as “Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron.”  I am told that when cattle are branded, the skin where the brand is located is hard, toughened, and there are no more nerve endings there, so that on that particular spot, the animal could feel no pain.  Paul said that in like manner, some people’s consciences have been seared with a hot iron.  How does this take place?  Well, in a normal human being, when a person does something wrong, his conscience bothers him, telling him that what he is doing is wrong.  When the conscience convicts us, it is like a hot iron being applied to a sensitive part of the skin.  If a person continues to ignore his conscience, if a person fails to listen to his conscience and repent of his sins, and rectify his mistakes, then the next time the conscience speaks to us, we are a little less sensitive.  We do something else wrong, and conscience comes again, but this time, we don’t feel as much pain.  We are just a little harder now.  This process goes on and on until we get to the place where we can ignore the conscience altogether.  We become so hardened, that we can even increase the heinousness of the sins we commit.  We may start out committing what we consider the small sins, like lying and cheating.  But we silence the voice of conscience in those matters, and then we move on to bigger things.  After a while, we can reach the point where we can do things that we would have never dreamed we were capable of doing, and not feel the least twinge of conscience about it.  Our consciences have been seared with a hot iron.  We are now insensitive to pain.

Another way of saying this is that we become insensitive by continually saying “no” to the voice of God that has been placed within us.  Those of us who have lived in place where we have the word of God, have heard the voice of God in his word by which he reveals to us what is right and wrong.  Paul tells us in Romans that all people have an inner sense of what is right and wrong.  Even in those places where they have never heard of the Ten Commandments, they still know deep down inside that it is wrong to steal and to kill.  St. Paul writes, “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;).”  Even those Gentiles who never received the Law of Moses, have the law written in their hearts.  They know what is right and wrong, and they still have a conscience that accuses or excuses their behavior.  But what very often happens is that people say “No” to this conscience.  They say “No” to this law that is written in their hearts.  After continually saying “No”, they reach that condition that Paul described in Romans 1 where he says that they are “filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful” (Romans 1:29-31).  If you look at that description, I think you would agree that that is a perfect description of our world, even our own country.   We have come to this point because we have silenced the voice of God, we have hardened ourselves against the voice of conscience, and now we can commit all of these kinds of horrible acts and never feel even the least amount of guilt, because we are past feeling.

As bad as this condition is, it is a state of mind that many people want to achieve.  People want to be able to disregard the law of God and never feel the accusing voice of conscience.  We have different methods of silencing this voice.  We may do it by just continually refusing to listen to God and committing those sins over and over, thus causing deep moral and spiritual calluses.  As most of you know, I try to play a little guitar though I can only strum a few tunes.  I don’t get to practice as much as I would like, so I may go weeks without picking up a guitar.  Then, when I come back to it, it is painful.  Those of you who play guitar know that a guitarist needs a good set of calluses on the ends of his fingers.  When you first start playing guitar, it is quite painful pressing down those strings, but after continual friction and pressure, you eventually develop calluses, and it no longer hurts to press the strings.  In the same way, if we continue to sin and do not listen to the voice of God, the voice of conscience, we develop spiritual calluses.

If that method doesn’t work, some people turn to drugs and alcohol in order to silence the voice of conscience.  Some people adopt a different religion, a different philosophy of life in order to stifle the voice of conscience.  Very often, we see young people give up the Christian faith, turn their backs on God and Jesus Christ.  These young people will usually tell you that they have become educated, and they just can’t believe in God now that they have become scientifically and philosophically enlightened.  But if you could look into the deep recesses of their hearts, you would find that all of that talk about doubt and the inability to believe is just a camouflage.  If you really knew the truth, you would see that there is a lifestyle they want, there is a sin or sins that they want to commit, and rejecting the Christian faith is merely their way of becoming insensitive to the voice of God.  They want to be “past feeling” in this spiritual sense.

As we look at our world, we see all of these methods in place and they are producing a culture, a society, a world, that is past feeling.  Certainly, these people are not past feeling all forms of desire and pleasure.  After all, Paul describes these people who are past feeling as working all kinds of uncleanness and greediness.  They still have strong feelings in the sense of wanting to live an immoral lifestyle, and they are filled with the desire for more and more things.  They are very capable of feeling lust, anger, hostility, bitterness, and vindictiveness, but they are past feeling in the sense of having any desires to do what is right and good in the sight of God.  They are past feeling in the sense of feeling any need for repentance and being cleansed from their sin.  They cannot feel sympathy and compassion for other people.  They have no problem feeling hatred and animosity, but when it comes to mercy and compassion, they are incapable of feeling it.  When people reach such a condition, you cannot reason with them.   You may point out to them that what they are doing is wrong, but all you will get in the way of response is a cold, blank stare.  They are past feeling.  Societies around the world, including ours, are producing a whole generation of people who fit this description of being past feeling.  As we see our world in this kind of decline, can we hold out any hope for it?

There is only one hope, and that is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The primary problem with these people who are past feeling is that they are “alienated from the life of God,” as Paul states it in verse 18.  When people are alienated from the life of God, when they have no daily fellowship and communion with God, when people are not trying to live a godly and holy life by the power of the Holy Spirit, then they eventually become past feeling, hardened, and are capable of these atrocities.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ brings those who are alienated from the life of God into a living, organic union with God.   People who have this relationship with God through Jesus Christ are the opposite of “past feeling.”  Rather than having their consciences seared with a hot iron, the Christian has a sensitive conscience.  The Christian does not view this sensitive conscience as a curse, as something to silence, but as the gift of God.  The Christian doesn’t want to be past feeling.  He wants to know when he is living in a way that is not pleasing to God so that he can repent and live in a manner that will be pleasing to God and helpful to others.    The Christian is not one who wants the freedom to commit all kinds of sin, all kinds of cruel acts without feeling any remorse.  Rather, the Christian wants to look at all the suffering, all the pain, all the injustices done in this world, and seek to alleviate it.  The Christian is someone who has a tender heart, one who wants s to minister to the suffering in this world rather than being a means of causing more suffering.    The promise of the New Covenant was that God said, “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.  A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.   And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them” (Ezek. 36:25-27).  The stony heart is the one we have been describing this morning—the heart that is past feeling.  But the Christian has a heart of flesh, a soft heart that can be touched by the Holy Spirit, touched by the word of God, touched by the sin and suffering that is in the world.

This heart of flesh, this heart that feels, represents the great contrast between the Christian and the rest of the world.  The whole thrust of this passage is that Paul is telling us not to walk as the Gentiles walk, not to live as those who do not know Christ.  Their lives are marked by being past feeling.  The Christian is to be the opposite, a person who is full of feeling, full of love, and full of compassion for others.   Being past feeling is the characteristic of the old man, the old man dominated by greed, lust, and anger.  The Christian is to put on the new man, the new man who is conformed to the image of his Savior who did not steel himself to the suffering that was in the world, who was not past feeling, but who looked upon the suffering multitudes with compassion.  This is one of the reasons why we want to spread the gospel of Christ around the world, why we want to see all people come to Christ, for without this gospel, the whole world would eventually degenerate into this condition of being past feeling.   Pick up your newspapers this afternoon and read there of all the atrocities that are committed in this nation and around the world and realize that these acts are becoming more and more commonplace.  Realize that we are headed for a time when these acts will be the normal, expected behavior.

Yes, Christians are trying to save the world.  We are trying to save the world from being past feeling, for unless people embrace the Gospel, our world is going to continue to descend into a state where unfeeling brutality will totally dominate our world.  We are getting close to that condition now.  How we should pray for the success of the Gospel, the only power that can take away the heart of stone, that heart past feeling, and replace with a heart of flesh, a heart that is filled with the love, mercy, and compassion of Christ.  Amen.

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Snobs–A Sermon

Snobs

A Sermon 

Preached on Sunday, October 3, 2010, by  

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D., 

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

 And some of them would have taken him; but no man laid hands on him.   Then came the officers to the chief priests and Pharisees; and they said unto them, Why have ye not brought him?   The officers answered, Never man spake like this man.   Then answered them the Pharisees, Are ye also deceived? Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him?   But this people who knoweth not the law are cursed.   Nicodemus saith unto them, (he that came to Jesus by night, being one of them,)  Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth? They answered and said unto him, Art thou also of Galilee? Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet.  And every man went unto his own house. (John 7:44-53) 

     All kinds of snobbery exist in the world. City people are snobs, looking down their noses at the country folk.   Rich people are snobs, thinking they are better than the poor.   Even poor, country people can be snobs.   They often hold deep prejudices against rich, city people and treat them with a great deal of disrespect. Educated people can be snobs, but so can uneducated people. If a man with a Ph. D. goes to a small, country church, he is often treated with a great deal of disrespect and often hears comments such as, “Well, our last pastor wasn’t well educated, but he just preached the word,” as though a man who was well-educated could not “just preach the word.”  Episcopalians often have the reputation of being snobs because of wealth and ancestry.  At any rate, snobbery is a universal phenomenon.   We all have the idea that we are better than other people, and if people are not like us, then they are simply beneath us.

     Christians are often accused of being snobs, and I suppose we do project that image sometimes. But actually, the greatest snobs of all are the those who reject Jesus Christ, and if you listen to them give the reasons why they reject Christ, you will see that snobbery really come shining through.

     In our second reading for Morning Prayer today, the Pharisees come across as typical snobs, and they use the techniques of snobs in order to embarrass other people, especially those who have been impressed by Jesus. As you remember, the Pharisees sent the officers of the temple to arrest Jesus. Now, these officers are Levites, people who should be quite familiar with the Scriptures. When they go to arrest Jesus, they hear him speaking, and they are so overwhelmed by the manner in which our Lord teaches, they just walk away without having made the arrest. When they return to the Pharisees, the Pharisees ask, “Why haven’t you arrested Jesus and brought him to us.” The officers give the reply, “No one ever spoke like this man.”

     The Pharisees cannot stand the idea of giving Jesus any kind of credit or glory, and they use a common technique of the intellectual snob.  They say, “You haven’t been deceived too, have you?”  They are saying, “You have been led astray, as well.” In other words, to be impressed by Jesus is to have been deceived.   To further insult these officers, they say, “Have any of the rulers or the Pharisees believed in Him?” Here is another example of snobbery. If Jesus was really the Messiah, then surely one of the rulers, or one of the Pharisees, people who are the real intellectuals, people who know the Scriptures, surely they would have believed in him. In other words, “We are the experts. We know more than you do, and if none of us have believed, then surely you shouldn’t either, because you don’t know nearly as much as we do.”   

     People are treated with the same kind of snobbery by the new experts of the modern age.  Whenever we say what we believe about God, they often respond by saying, “None of the great scientists believe there is a God. None of the great scientific minds accept the idea of the special creation of man. None of the great scientists believe in the possibility of the incarnation, the resurrection of the body. Since these great experts don’t believe it, anybody who does is stupid.”  As Bishop Ryle writes, “When the enemies of vital religion cannot prevent people flocking after the Gospel, and cannot answer the teaching of its advocates, they often fight with the weapons of the Pharisees in this verse. They content themselves with the cheap and easy assertion that those who do not agree with themselves are ignorant and know nothing.”  

     The Pharisees and chief priests were saying what many intellectual snobs today continue to say, “Real thinkers don’t need Jesus.”   It is always embarrassing for an intellectual to admit he is impressed with religion. If he does so, his peers and superiors will make fun of him. A few years ago, Alister McGrath wrote a book entitled, Intellectuals Don’t Need God and Other Myths.  In this book he talks about how difficult it is for an atheist to come to Christ, not because Christianity is not intellectually feasible and satisfying, but because the pride of the atheist keeps him from admitting what he knows to be true. McGrath puts it like this:

Suppose you are talking to a lifelong atheist about his ideas. The superficial agenda may be about whether or not God exists. But beneath the surface, there may be a conflict going on within this person, unnoticed. Thoughts like this might be flashing through his mind: “I’ve been an atheist for twenty-five years now. That’s a long time. And everyone knows that I’m an atheist. If I change my mind now, people will laugh at me. I’ll lose face. My personal reputation is tied up with my atheistic views. I’m locked into this situation. Somehow, my atheism and my personal identity have become mixed up with each other. If I change my mind on this one, I’ll somehow be condemning my whole past.”

  When any kind of unbeliever is converted, he runs the risk of being held up to ridicule by those who had formerly respected him. 

      To add further insult to these officers, the chief priests and Pharisees says, “But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.” Here is another common technique of the snob– shame by association:  “If you believe in Jesus, you are like the common, ordinary, ignorant people.”   The word for “crowd” in verse 49 has a very special meaning. It refers to what the Jews called “the people of the land.” “The people of the land” were those common, ordinary people who did not study the law as much as the chief priests and Pharisees in Jerusalem, and there was a very deep-seated prejudice against these people of the land.  Because they didn’t know the law of Moses and they didn’t know the law contained in the oral tradition that had been handed down, the people of the land were considered to be ignorant, and not only ignorant, but very sinful.  Since they didn’t know the law, they couldn’t keep the law.  The Pharisees believed that these people could be easily deceived. Since they don’t know the law and don’t keep the law, a curse rests upon them. Deut. 27:26 says, “Cursed is the one who does not confirm all the words of this law.” That condemnation rested upon these people of the land.   The Pharisees were looking at these officers and saying, “Yes, people like that can be deceived and believe in Jesus, but surely not you, not you Levites, not you officers of the temple.”

     Again, this is the typical technique of the intellectual snob.  They say, “Look at most of the people who believe in Jesus.   Aren’t they the poor and uneducated?   You don’t want to be associated with people like that, do you? Surely, someone who is educated and can think would not want to believe the same things that these common people believe.”   One of the oldest criticisms of Christianity has been that not many of the rulers, the rich, the powerful, and the well-educated have believed. We must admit that, on the surface, this critique is true. After all, the apostle Paul said, “For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble are called” (I Cor. 1:26).   But people may jump to the conclusion that the mighty, the noble, and the well-educated reject Christianity because it is irrational.  Actually, the most logical, intelligent thing a person can do is believe in Jesus. But men are blinded by their sin and can’t see the truth.  The only way that a person, educated or uneducated, ever comes to see the truth is by God opening his eyes to see the truth.  St. Paul writes, “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence” (I Cor. 1:26-29). The sin that God hates more than anything else is pride, and God is out to humble the pride of man.  One of the ways he humbles us is by revealing the most important truths we can know to the simple people of the world.  Remember how Jesus once prayed, “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in your sight” (Matt. 11:25-26). If only educated people came to Christ, people might think, “Oh, that is a religion only for the intellectual elite–you have to have a Th. D. in theology in order to be a Christian.” If only the rich and powerful became believers, the common people might think it was an elitist religion. But on the contrary, it has always been the case, that most of the people who have been Christians who have been poor, uneducated people, not because they are the only ones who “fall for it,” but because God, by the power of the Holy Spirit has revealed to them the truth.

     While it is true that not many wise, not many noble, are called–it is not true that NONE of those kinds of people have been called. God does call some of these people, I think, just to show the great intellectuals that God does indeed reveal these truths even to the great minds. We have a case of that here in our text. We see John’s irony once again.  Right after these snobs say, “Have any of the chief priests or rulers of the people believed in him,” Nicodemus stands up. Who was this Nicodemus? Look at John 3:1:  “There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews…”   That’s embarrassing, isn’t it? Notice how John takes a little dig at them here with that phrase in verse 50:  “being one of them.” That’s bad when one of your own snobs deserts the fold.    It was much like when C. S. Lewis became a Christian.  That conversion was an embarrassment to many of his colleagues.  It just couldn’t be true that a great intellectual could give up his atheism and become a Christian.  Then, the passage says that Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews. That’s even worse!  Nicodemus was probably a member of the Sanhedrin.  Did this man know the law? Yes!  In John 3:10, Jesus asked Nicodemus, “Art thou a master of Israel and knowest not these things?” Nicodemus had the reputation of being one of the great teachers of his generation.  Here is this man, with a great intellect, a great reputation, a scholar, and yet, this man believes in Jesus. True, he is not professing it loudly here, but by the time we come to the end of the Gospel, we find him much bolder, asking for the body of Jesus.

     Just as these Pharisees  are saying, “None of the real thinkers believe,” one of the real thinkers does step forward–Nicodemus. We might call him an honest intellectual. But there were others. In John 12:42 we find: “Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue.” Intellectuals like to deceive themselves that no other great thinkers are religious. They ignore them.  If great thinkers do believe in Jesus, they are dismissed as those who simply need some type of comfort or psychological crutch. 

     Here is a lie that the intellectual snobs want you to believe:  no great minds, no great intellects believe the Gospel.  Actually some of the greatest minds in history have been believers in Jesus Christ:   We have great thinkers in our history such as Augustine, Aquinas,  and Pascal, and there are many other Christian intellectuals today who are following in their footsteps—philosophers and theologians who defend how rational Christianity is.  Down through the centuries, great scientists, engineers, philosophers, educators, and business leaders have been conservative, Bible believing Christians.   The intellectual elite would like to have you believe that no great scientist believes the Bible. Nothing could be further from the truth. Let me encourage our college students and those who are about to go to college not to be deceived. When you go to a major university, some of the professors will be unbelievers, and it is easy for a college student to begin to think, “Why is it that the great intellects of the day are not believers. Is Christianity only for stupid people?” To the chagrin of the intellectual elite, some of the greatest minds in the world today are Christians. As a matter of fact, it is quite disconcerting to many people that we have people in our congregation who have advanced degrees.   I am very happy to see in our own day how more and more highly rational, intellectual Christians are writing books and publishing magazines, and these are people who believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God.  Let me sound a little like a snob:  anyone today who says that only the ignorant accept Christianity are certainly only revealing their own ignorance.

     It was quite embarrassing for these Pharisees when one of their own appeared to be sympathetic toward Christ, because it raised the question, “Who really has the great mind after all?”  Nicodemus really points this out to them. Nicodemus says in effect, “You say that these people of the land don’t know the law. But aren’t you revealing that you don’t know the law. Does our law condemn a man before it has even heard him?  You, who are priding yourselves on being experts, are not living by the law yourselves.” These men were revealing either that they didn’t know the law, or that they were unwilling to obey the law. They had decided Jesus was a deceiver (John 7:47). They had concluded he should be arrested (John 7:32). They had even decided already that he was worthy of death. This kind of treatment was a denial of the law of Moses which taught that a man should be given a hearing before these kinds of conclusions are made. In their hatred for Jesus Christ, men often reveal that they are living in contradiction to the very principles that they say they hold.

     You notice that whenever these great intellectuals are presented with the facts, they don’t try to answer Nicodemus.  They resort to name-calling once again:  “Are you also from Galilee?” When someone does believe the truth, even if he has impressive academic or intellectual credentials, he is treated with contempt:  “Are you from Galilee?”  As you know, these snobs held Galileans in great contempt, so when they can’t argue with Nicodemus, they just try to put him down by name-calling. 

`           Sometimes, when these snobs cannot give a logical response, anger takes over. Here the chief priests say something very puzzling.  They say, “Search the Scriptures and you will find that no prophet comes from Galilee?”  That was not true. Jonah was from Galilee, and it is almost certain that Nahum was, as well.  How could these people who knew the Scriptures so well make such a gaff as that? There are two possible explanations. One is that this should read, “The prophet does not arise from Galilee.”  In other words, “the Messiah would not come from Galilee.” That translation is possible based on some of the earliest manuscripts of the text.  Or, it could be that they are so infuriated by Nicodemus and what is happening, that they just lash out in so much anger that they forgot their facts.   Could this be John’s irony once again, illustrating that when people in anger reject Jesus Christ, the arguments they use are a product of anger rather than rationality?

      When people think that only fools are Christians, they only reveal that they are misinformed.  Although the great intellects of the day think we are fools who believe fables, the Bible tells us that it is the Christian who is truly wise.   In our culture, coming to Christ will often mean being looked upon as one of the people of the land. In Alister McGrath’s book Intellectuals Don’t Need God, he has a section entitled, “Make It Easy for Them to Change Their Minds.” I don’t know if it is really possible to make it easy for people to believe.  Part of becoming a Christian is to admit your error, deny yourself, and take up the cross.  The cross is an emblem of shame. Paul said in I Cor. 3:18, “Let no one deceive himself.  If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” The world will always consider those who believe in Jesus to be fools, and we must be willing to take that posture before the world. This world is never going to admit that Christians are wise and intelligent, not because we aren’t, but because this world will always hate the Gospel, and they are blinded to the truth by this hatred.   We must be willing to be thought of as fools. But for the man who comes to Christ, it makes no difference if they think he is a fool, for he knows that he is wise. By becoming a fool in the eyes of the world, he has become wise. If the world said, “It is wise to drink strychnine,” who would be wise:  the one who followed the world, or the one who knew that it was poison and would kill you?” Would you care if people thought you were foolish for not following the wisdom of the world?  Well, we are talking about matters far more important than poison. We are talking about your immortal soul. Let the world think that you are a fool, not a great intellect, one of the common ordinary people deceived by superstitious fables.  On the last day, those who have believed in Christ will be seen as those who are wise.  Amen.

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Unmoved by Inevitable Adversity

A Sermon

Preached on Sunday, September 26, 2010, by

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

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

(click here to listen to the audio recording of this sermon)

Why standest thou afar off, O LORD? why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble?  The wicked in his pride doth persecute the poor: let them be taken in the devices that they have imagined.  For the wicked boasteth of his heart’s desire, and blesseth the covetous, whom the LORD abhorreth.  The wicked, through the pride of his countenance, will not seek after God: God is not in all his thoughts.  His ways are always grievous; thy judgments are far above out of his sight: as for all his enemies, he puffeth at them. He hath said in his heart, I shall not be moved: for I shall never be in adversity. (Ps. 10:1-6)

In our society, we spend most of our lives trying to achieve some kind of security, some kind of stability that we think will be permanent.  We save money and try to invest wisely so that we will never have any financial worries.  We exercise and diet, hoping to maintain a healthy body, and though we know that these bodies are going to get old and sick, in the back of our minds we still think, for a very long time anyway, that we are going to be different, and the passing of the years will never catch up with us because we are so healthy.  Certainly, there is nothing wrong with trying to achieve some kind security and stability in our lives, but we deceive ourselves if we think that we are never going to experience any kind of hardship, any kind of loss or disappointment.    It is a very foolish person who thinks that he will never experience any kind of adversity.

In this tenth Psalm, we find a description of a man who is boasting that he will never experience any kind of adversity.  The man portrayed for us in the tenth psalm is called a “wicked” man.  He is described as proud, a persecutor of the poor, someone who loves covetousness and does not seek after God.  He is someone who doesn’t fear God or any kind of future judgment that may come upon him because of his evil deeds.  Verse 6 describes him as an arrogant man who boasts, “I shall not be moved, for I shall never be in adversity.”    The Hebrew word that is translated “move” in this verse literally means “to shake,” “to totter,” or “to slip.”  This word was used to describe a state of insecurity or a state of feebleness.  We still speak in those terms today.  If we say that a person has been really shaken by something that happened we mean that he has been emotionally upset.  If a person’s confidence has been shaken, we mean that whereas he used to be very confident, his confidence now is wavering.    We use the same words when we talk about our faith.  We speak of someone’s faith being shaken, meaning that his faith has been weakened.  He is not as firm in his beliefs as he was once.  We use the word “totter” to refer to feebleness in the elderly.  If we live long enough, most of us are going to begin to totter.  I remember a few years ago watching a home movie that one of my uncles had made back in the late 1950s.  There was a section where my grandfather walked out of the house, and he was so spry, straight, with a bounce in his step.  I don’t remember him that way.  My earliest memories of him were of a man who was bent over by age and illness, someone who had difficulty getting around.

This man described for us in the 10th Psalm says that he will never be in such a condition.  He will never be moved.  He will never be in a state of insecurity.  He will always be strong, confident, self-assured and will experience no fear.  He will never be made to tremble because of bad news.  His heart will never quake because of doubts and uncertainty.  He is confident, in control, and cannot be moved.  The NIV translates this verse, “He says to himself, “Nothing will shake me; I’ll always be happy and never have trouble.”  These sentiments were not just words with him.  Sometimes we say things like this to try to convince ourselves that we are confident, that we aren’t worried, but deep down inside, we are shaken, insecure.  Our so-called confidence is just a front to hide our real fears, but that was not the attitude of this man.  You will notice that he says these things “in his heart.”  The heart means the inner man, the real man, the seat of the mind, will, and emotions.  In his heart, he says, “I will never be moved.”  This boast is no play-acting for him.  He really believes that he will never be moved.

We laugh at such a boast, but doesn’t this man express the desire of us all?  We want to be in total control of our lives and the events that have influence on our lives.  We want to believe that we will never experience any kind of weakness.  In some ways, we may even admire this man, saying to ourselves, “ I wish I could face life with that kind of confidence.”  But how did this man come to be so confident that he would never be moved.

Don’t admire this man’s confidence too much, because he is under a strong delusion and believes a lie.  He says, “I shall never be in adversity.”  The Hebrew word for “adversity” in this verse is from the word “ra,” which is quite often translated in the King James Version as “evil.”  Sometimes it is translated as “distress,” “misery,” “injury,” or “calamity.”  In this verse it seems to mean physical evil.  This person is boasting, “I will never experience any kind of distress, physical or emotional.  I will never know what it is to be miserable.  I will never experience injury or be involved in a calamity of any sort.”  If you were convinced that none of those things would ever happen to you, you would be pretty confident, wouldn’t you?  You could boast, “I shall never be moved,” if you were convinced that you would never experience distress, misery, injury, or calamity, because those are the things that move us, that shake us, that make us totter.  To have such complete confidence we must convince ourselves that those kinds of terrible things are never going to happen to us.  Many people do convince themselves that nothing will ever happen to shake them.    Even nations and cultures try to convince themselves that they will never experience any kind of adversity.  In Rev. 18:7, Babylon is presented as saying, “I sit a queen, and am no widow, and shall see no sorrow.”  No matter who or what you think Babylon represents in the book of Revelation, the point is that Babylon boasts that it will never experience any kind of sorrow.  Our sinful hearts often succeed in convincing ourselves that we will never experience such distress.

Just how successful we can be in convincing ourselves that we will never see adversity is found in that little word “never.”  In the Hebrew it reads, “from age to age,”, or “throughout all generations.”  In other words, from age to age, from generation to generation, into the endless future, in all times to come, I will never see misfortune.  I would say he has done a good job of convincing himself.  On a good day, we might persuade ourselves that we are going to be without trouble for a few days, a few months, but certainly not age to age, generation to generation.  A person must be under a strong delusion to believe such a lie as this.  If there is one thing that common sense teaches you, let along Holy Scripture, it is that in this life you will inevitably encounter adversity.  To my knowledge, no one has proved Job wrong when he said, “Man who is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble” (Job 14:11).  Even the godly person must say with the Psalmist, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous” (Ps. 34:19).  If you haven’t experienced trouble and affliction, just live long enough and you will.  But we try desperately to convince ourselves that these misfortunes will never happen to us.  We know that adversity moves us, shake us, makes us totter, and such thoughts ruin our happiness and destroy our peace of mind.  But in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, the unrighteous man convinces himself that he will never be moved, because he thinks he will never experience adversity.

Sometimes, we convince ourselves that we will never know adversity because our present circumstances seem to indicate that we won’t.  Things are going so well right now.  What could go wrong?   As one commentator puts it, “Prosperity begets presumption.”  If a person has been accustomed for some time to prosperity, if he has grown accustomed to seeing all of his plans and schemes succeed, he begins to think that it is impossible that it will ever be any other way.    Even nations think that they can guarantee this kind of stability.  If the economy is booming, we assume that it can continue.  Democrats and Republicans always try to convince us, especially around election time, that if things are going well, they can keep it that way.  Or, if things are going badly, they have the principles will get us back on track so that we will never be moved again.  “Prosperity begets presumption.”

Let me mention one other reason why we often feel that we will never be moved.  We believe that we are smart enough, strong enough, in and of ourselves to prevent anything bad from happening to us.  The gospel that is preached in America today is a gospel of self-reliance.  “You can make it all on your own,” we are told.   Listen to the radio and TV talk shows, especially the ones who have psychologists.  Their advice boils down to this:  “Look to yourself.  Look within.  Feel good about yourself and your self-worth, and if you do this, you will be able to stand up to anything.”  This “Gospel of Self” teaches us to say, “I shall never be moved because I, I, I, I am strong enough o face any problem which might come my way.

By using these techniques, we reach this stage of being able to say, “I shall not be moved.”  We believe adversity will never come our way.  We shall never be moved because things are going so well right now, and it seems as though they always will.  I shall never be moved because I am strong enough in myself to stand.  If you believe any of those three things, the Scripture says that you are very foolish.  These are lies, and only a person who is blind and deceived could believe them.

After all, there is nothing in this world that doesn’t grow feeble with time.  To make the boast that you will always be strong from age to age, generation to generation, is very foolish.  The strongest of men grow old and their muscles deteriorate.  I try to run a little bit every day, but the more I run, the more it seems like my legs are becoming like lead.  A while back, my wife and I were in the home of an elderly lady, and on the wall was picture of her and her husband on their wedding day.  I told my wife that life is just too cruel for words.  How could that person in that picture be the same person that we were visiting?  Of course, now I do that with pictures of myself.  I get out my high school yearbooks, look at the pictures and then look in the mirror and say, “How did this happen?”  I have reached that age when I wish I was like a vampire and cast no reflection in the mirror, incapable of being photographed.  Youth and strength are certainly unstable and fleeting.   If you are a believer in this gospel of self-reliance, you are going to be very disappointed in yourself one day.  Though you may be strong today, there will come a time when you will not be able to stand against the adversities of life.  They will move you.  So far, nothing, no person, no establishment, no institution, no government, no empire, no matter how strong has been able to remain strong, except for one, and I will say more about that later.  Death and decay are built into this world, and sooner or later, you will find that adversity does come.  Adversity will shake you if your confidence is based on the things of this world.

The people who lived just before the Great Depression thought that the economy was strong, that the stock market was strong.  They were presuming.  People with large stock holdings believed that they would never be moved, never be in adversity, but things changed quickly.  A group of people who thought that trouble would never come their way lost everything.  They were shaken, they tottered, and they fell.

But we don’t have to go back to the Great Depression to find such examples.  How many people do you know whose plans for the future have been ruined by the recent financial troubles?  All of us know people who worked for companies all their lives, were looking forward to that big, fat pension when they would be able to live the rest of their lives in leisure.  Suddenly, they were told that the company couldn’t afford to pay them what they had promised.  We all know people who had done everything just right.  They had put their money away in what they thought were solid, secure funds, and they woke up one morning to find that it was gone.  There was an article in the paper just this week about how the people of my generation, the Baby-boomers, may never be able to retire.    Of course, some people get very wealthy and they will be able to retire, but the ordinary, middle class people can forget it.  When I first came to Baton Rouge, I knew many men who had worked for companies like Ethyl and Exxon.  They worked for one company all their lives, and retired in comfort.  That may well have been the last generation that will be able to do that.  You may have seen that commercial on television about the financial advisors who will help you get to that number, that amount of money that you need to retire.  I look at some of those numbers and say, “Forget it.  I’m not getting close to that.”  That American dream of my generation that you will work and then retire when you are 65 is just about gone.  If you are looking to the economy, to the banks,  to the stock market, to be able to say, “I shall not be moved, I shall never be in adversity,” you will tremble and fall one day.  No economy has ever lasted in a state of continual prosperity, and I venture to say that this one won’t either.

Nor can we put our confidence in countries and nations, believing that because we are citizens of such and such a nation, we will never be moved.  As great as it is to be an American, this country cannot protect us from all evils.  Nothing lasts forever.  Our nation is on the path to ruin unless we repent.  We can’t look at the Stars and Stripes and say, “I shall not be moved.  I shall never be in adversity.”  All of the kingdoms of this world will perish.  All kingdoms of this world will be shaken until there is only one kingdom left standing, secure and unmoved—the kingdom of God.  There is nothing in this world that doesn’t totter and fall. If you place your confidence in those things, you fall with them.  It is so foolish to boast, “I shall never be moved, never be shaken.”

One of the reasons it is so foolish to make such a boast is that God is in control of the moving and the shaking.  You boast you will never be moved, never shaken, but God decides who will be moved, who will be shaken.  No matter how firm someone may look, no matter how stable a nation may appear, God can shake it and bring it down.  All of the things in this world that you trust to make you unmovable, God can crush in a moment of time.  Jesus taught us this principle in the parable of the rich fool.  If you read that parable, you would have to say that things never looked better for that man.  The barns were full.  He had worked hard.  He had done well, but God took his life that very night when things were at their best:  “This night, thy soul shall be required of thee.”  Whether you look to yourself for confidence, or someone else, remember, God can take you or them away in a moment’s time.

Throughout history God has proved that he is in control of what nations stand firm and what nations totter and fall.  When God described how he was going to bring judgment on the ancient kingdom of Babylon,  he said:   And thou saidst, I shall be a lady for ever: so that thou didst not lay these things to thy heart, neither didst remember the latter end of it. Therefore hear now this, thou that art given to pleasures, that dwellest carelessly, that sayest in thine heart, I am, and none else beside me; I shall not sit as a widow, neither shall I know the loss of children: But these two things shall come to thee in a moment in one day, the loss of children, and widowhood: they shall come upon thee in their perfection for the multitude of thy sorceries, and for the great abundance of thine enchantments.  For thou hast trusted in thy wickedness: thou hast said, None seeth me. Thy wisdom and thy knowledge, it hath perverted thee; and thou hast said in thine heart, I am, and none else beside me. Therefore shall evil come upon thee; thou shalt not know from whence it riseth: and mischief shall fall upon thee; thou shalt not be able to put it off: and desolation shall come upon thee suddenly, which thou shalt not know (Isa. 47:7-11).  Notice how the Lord says that this destruction, this judgment will come upon them in a moment, in one day.  It shall come upon them suddenly.  Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar, “They shall drive thee from men, and thy dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field, and they shall make thee to eat grass as oxen, and they shall wet thee with the dew of heaven, and seven times shall pass over thee, till thou know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will” (Daniel 4:25).  Do you see those words?  “The most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will.”  You may have confidence in a person, a country, or an institution, but God can bring it down in a day.

I have spent this whole sermon talking about how foolish it is to make this boast, “I shall never be moved,” but I need to say now that I hope you can make this boast, for the godly person should be able to say, “I shall never be moved.”  You may think I am really confusing you, but godly people have made this boast.  Psalm 15, which talks about the kind of person that can approach God concludes by saying, “He that doeth these things shall never be moved.”  In Psalm 16:8, the Psalmist said, “I have set the LORD always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.”  In Psalm 62:6, the Psalmist said, “He only is my rock and my salvation: he is my defence; I shall not be moved.”  Then, in the book of Acts, we find the testimony of the Apostle Paul who knew that he was about to be put on trial, face further imprisonment and possible death, and yet he says, “And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: Save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me.  But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:22-24).  Paul says, “I know that the future is going to be filled with bonds and afflictions, but none of these things move me.”  The Christian can say, “I shall not be moved,” but not because he shall never be in adversity.  The Christian says, “I shall never be moved, even though I encounter all kinds of adversity.”  Unfortunately, many false preachers of our day have taught that being a Christian means you will not have adversity in your life.  They teach that if you have enough faith, then no distress or adverse circumstances will ever come your way.  But the message of Scripture is that you will have plenty of adversity, but if you have made the Lord your rock, if you have made the Lord and his commandments the foundation of your life, if you have surrendered your life so completely to Jesus Christ that you can say with Paul that you don’t even count your life dear to you because all that you want is Christ to be glorified, then you shall never be moved, no matter what circumstances come your way.

Jesus said, “Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:  And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock” (Matt. 7:24-5).  The rains are going to descend, the floods are going to come, the winds are going to blow.  There is nothing that can prevent that.  The only question is whether you are going to stand or fall when they do come.  Jesus said that if you believe in him, if you keep his teachings, then let the worst come, you will not be moved.  If you make the Lord your solid foundation, you have these promises that no matter what happens to you, to nations, to countries, to friends, or to institutions, if your trust is in the Lord, you will never be moved.  Don’t foolishly boast that you will never be moved because you have money in the bank, you live in a nation that has a good economy, or because you have good health—all those things will perish themselves and you with them.  Only the one who has faith and trust in the Lord will never be moved.  Amen.

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The Cure for Worry

A Sermon

Preached on Sunday, September 12, 2010, by

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

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

(click here to listen to the audio recording of this sermon)

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.   Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?   Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?   Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:  And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.   Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?  (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.   But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.   Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. (Matt. 6:24-34)

In our Gospel reading for today, we read once again our Lord’s teaching concerning the futility of worry.  When our Lord says, “Take no thought for the morrow,” he is not saying that we shouldn’t think about the future, plan for the future, or even save for the future.  In once knew who preacher who refused to buy any kind of insurance.  His philosophy was that Christ might return at any moment, so why should he prepare for a day that might never come.  But the Scripture does not forbid us to plan for the future.  Actually the Scripture teaches us the opposite, for in Proverbs we are told to imitate the wisdom of ants, little insects who know by instinct that they should prepare for the future:  “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest (Prov. 6:6-8).   Paul lays down the common maxim in II Cor. 12:14, “for the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children.”  There is nothing wrong with thinking about the future and planning for the future.  When our Lord says, “Take no thought for the morrow,” he means that we should not worry.  We should not be filled with anxiety and care about the material things of this world and what is going to happen in the future.

Yet, in spite of our Lord’s teaching on this subject, we are still filled with worry and anxiety.  We do worry about the very things our Lord told us not to worry about.  We worry about what we are going to eat, what we are going to wear, and how long we are going to live.    In some sense, it is only natural for us to worry about these things.  We derive so much pleasure from these things, and some of these things are necessary just in order to sustain life.  The fear that we might somehow, someday, be deprived of them naturally fills us with care.   There is a sense in which a certain amount of fear is a good motivation to cause us to do what we can to provide for ourselves and take care of ourselves.  But this care, this concern, this fear about the future and material things, becomes sinful when it paralyzes us, or when we obsess about these things so much that all of our lives are wrapped up in getting the things of this world and holding on to them.  If we value these things more than anything else in the world, naturally, we are going to worry about losing them.

I think we can say that our entire culture is geared toward encouraging us to worry.  We can almost say that the media of our day are in the anxiety business.    Anxiety is good for business.  Even advertisers, in many cases, want us to worry.    Our news programs and our talk shows want us to worry about political events and the outcome of elections.  Worry keeps us tuned in to their programs and keeps the ratings high.  Worry keeps us listening to their sponsors who will usually encourage us to worry about something else.  We are constantly bombarded with messages about how we are losing our beauty, our good looks.  We need this product in order to stay young and healthy.    There are so many diseases, and we are worried about which one we are going to contract.  Infomercials tell us that so many people are coming down with this ailment and if you take this supplement you will be less likely to have it.   We constantly hear of wars and rumors of wars.  We are worried about possible terrorist attacks.  We hear the latest stock market reports, and we are filled with dread that an economic downturn is going to spoil our best laid plans for the future.    We are constantly bombarded with statistics about teen-age drug use and teen pregnancies, so we worry about our children and what the future may hold for them.    No wonder we are filled with anxiety.  Every moment of every day somebody is telling us about something we should be worried about.

Jesus, in this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, shows us how futile such worrying is.  If your concern about the future compels you to take action to prevent certain things from happening over which you have come measure of control, good.  But the exercise of just thinking about it with all kinds of anxious care solves nothing.    Jesus tells us that this kind of worry does no good.  For example, he asks, “Can all of your worry add a single moment to your life?”  I don’t think Jesus was as fatalistic as the bumper sticker I saw the other day that said, “Eat right, exercise, stay fit, die anyway.”  I sometimes think that such an attitude is just an excuse to let ourselves go physically, but there is a grain of truth in it.  Certainly it is a good thing to take care of one’s health, eat right, get plenty of exercise, but we shouldn’t do it because we are so obsessed about living a long life.  After all, you could be killed tomorrow in an accident.  Haven’t we all known health nuts who got cancer anyway and died at a very young age?  It is right to take care of yourself so that you can live a long healthy life if the Lord so wills it, but it is pointless to worry about it, for so much of whether we live or die is beyond our control.  Do what you can, but don’t worry about it.

Then, Jesus also tells us that worry reflects that we don’t really have faith and trust in God.  He goes into this brief discourse about how God provides for birds and clothes the grass of the field.  Then, he concludes his argument by saying that you are worth more than birds and flowers.  Since you are worth so much more than these things, don’t you know that God is going to provide for you? Not only has God promised that he will provide for us, but he has also promised that  he will answer our prayers when we call out to him in time of need.  Paul uses this same wording in Philippians 4: 6-7:  “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.   And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”  One of the modern translations has it, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.”  In our liturgy, we close every service with the blessing that the minister pronounces over you, “The peace of God which passeth all understanding, keeping your hearts and minds in the knowledge of God and of his son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Where does that peace come from that keeps our hearts and minds? It comes from trusting confidently in God that he will supply all our need.

Those arguments and instructions sound simple enough, don’t they?  Worrying is stupid, and there is no need to worry because God will provide for us.    The problem is that you already know those truths.  You have known those truths and promises nearly all of your life, but just knowing those two truths has not delivered you from your tendency to worry, has it?  I know that we sit around with truths like these and try to convince ourselves that they are true.  We say to ourselves over and over, like some kind of mantra, “I’m not going to worry.  It is stupid to worry.  God will provide.”  Then we go through the Bible and find all the promises of Scripture about how he will provide for us, and yet, at the end of the day, we are still filled with worry.  Our trying to talk ourselves into faith and trust is very rarely successful.  So, what is the cure for worry?  Do we just adopt the philosophy of Bob Marley, and simply sing, “Don’t worry, be happy.”  Anybody who ever tried to overcome worry just by saying, “From now on, I’m not going to worry, I’m going to be happy,” knows what an exercise in futility that can be. One of the dangers of a sermon like this is that you will go home and worry that you worry too much.  The goal of not worrying can become a detrimental obsession.

What is the cure for worry?  Certainly, these two truths, that worry is futile and that God will provide for our needs, help us in the battle against a sinful kind of anxiety.  But something else must be added to these truths.  If we really want to be free from worry, we have to get straight, first of all, what it is that we are seeking in life.    Some people worry because they are seeking the wrong things in life.  On the other hand, some people have been freed from worry because what they are seeking drives out their worries.  Jesus mentions seeking twice in this passage.  When he talks about not worrying about what we shall eat, drink, and wear, he says, “For after all these things do the Gentiles seek.”  When our Lord uses the word “Gentiles” here, he is speaking of non-Jews, pagans, heathens, who do not know the true and living God.    If we were to put this in our contemporary setting we would say, “For after all these things do non-Christians seek.”  You can understand why our Lord makes this point.  If people do not know God, if people do not have a relationship with him, if they are not looking forward to having fellowship with him throughout all eternity, then there is nothing else to seek but these material things, these present pleasures.   If this world is all there is, then it only makes sense to seek these things.

But there is a cost to this philosophy of life, and that cost is worry.  If this is all there is, then you are always going to be worried because you are always going to be afraid that you are going to lose these things.  If life is about money, gaining riches, wealth, lands, property, if that is all there is to life, then you are always going to be worried that you might lose them, that they might be taken away from you through disasters, wars, and any other of the many countless things that always take away our possessions.  If life is just about living a long and healthy life, then you are always going to be worried, for nothing is more fleeting in this life than youthful energy, health, and vitality.  Disease or accidents can take all these away.  If this life is all there is, then you are going to be constantly worried that this life is going to come to an end, because there is no future after this life.

The cure for this kind of worry is found in what Jesus said in verse 25:  “Isn’t life more than food and clothing?”  Jesus is saying, “Life is more than this.”  Since we have still not settled in our hearts and minds what life really is, we are filled with worry.   In the parable of the rich fool, when Jesus illustrated that a man may amass a fortune, and, then, must nevertheless, relinquish it because of death, he concludes that parable by saying that he told that story to illustrate that a man’s life does not consist in what he possesses.    Jesus is telling us that the cure for worry is to realize that life is more than this.

Well, if life is more than this, what is life?  Life is the second kind of seeking he mentions here.  After all these things do the Gentiles seek, but you are to be different.  “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.”  According to Jesus, life, real life, is seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness.  Seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness means living a life that aims to give glory to God in all that we do, to live under his rule and reign, and to live in obedience to what he has commanded us to do.    Seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness means doing the will of God in our lives and accepting the will of God in our lives.    Seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness means that I submit in every area of my life to what he wants me to do and to be submissive to his plan for my life.  The Christian overcomes worry about all these material things, because the one great concern of his life is living in obedience to Christ.  That great obsession drives away all the other worries and fears.  This purpose for life prevents us from just stewing about the sin of worry.  Stop worrying about worrying.  Get up and be doing.    The Christian is seeking the kingdom of God.  He is working toward seeing that kingdom of God established in this world, bringing this world in conformity with the will of God, working toward what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Seeking the kingdom of God means seeking to bring not only every area of my life in conformity with the will of God, but working toward that goal of seeing the will of God carried out in every person and in every institution, until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ, until all the world recognizes the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.

Jesus promises that if we keep our minds and hearts focused on putting his kingdom first in our lives, then all of these other things will be taken care of.    The person who is seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness will necessarily be a hard worker, industrious, providing for his needs and the needs of his family.  Being a disciplined provider is a part of seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness.  These material things come to the Christian not because he is seeking primarily those things.  They come to him as by-products, in the natural course of events as he is seeking with all his heart and soul to bring every area of his life in conformity to the will of God.

If we are seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness, it means that we are submissive to his sovereign will, and if that means we live, or if it means we die, we submit to his sovereign rule in this matter.    This great obsession of living for Christ and his kingdom takes care of our worries about life and death, for as Paul put it in Philippians 1:21-23, “ For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.  But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not. For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better.”   Paul isn’t worried about whether he lives or dies, for he is a winner either way.  If he stays here in this world, he will bring glory to God by spreading the gospel.  If he dies, he will be with Christ, which is far better.    Paul could feel this way because his life was not food, clothing, or a long life.  Life was Christ.  Paul said in Philippians 3:13-14, “This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,  I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”  The cure for worry is “this one thing I do.”  Paul was concerned about doing one thing—seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness.  The Christian is just too busy to worry.

Occasionally, even in the secular world, we find people who are not filled with anxiety, because they have a grand obsession.  They don’t worry about food, drink, or clothing, sometimes to the detriment of their own health, because they are so obsessed with reaching their goals.  We have seen portrayals of the great musicians who neglected their health because they were so obsessed with their music.  We have seen people who have thrown caution to the wind to climb a mountain such as Everest.    Things that worried normal, everyday people had little influence on them.  How much more should this be true of the Christian who has the loftiest of goals to achieve, the greatest of obsessions to drive out all the other worries of life!  A few months ago, there was an article in Psychology Today written by Eric and Ann Maisel entitled, “Go Ahead, Obsess.”  The article described how there is a difference between an obsessive compulsive disorder and a healthy kind of obsession.  The author writes:

Forget life balance:  Throwing yourself 110 percent into a complex project could be the key to creative breakthroughs—and to a meaningful life….These healthy preoccupations are an antidote to boredom and passivity.  They aren’t just for people driven to accomplish something out of the ordinary.  They are for everyone.  We firmly believe that doing things by half—merely dabbling in a hobby or professional endeavor—produces sad human beings….When you obsess, you learn how to extinguish distractions so that you can concentrate…You retrain your brain, asking it to halt its pursuit of fluff and worry, to instead embrace its own potential. (Psychology Today, June 2010, pp. 79, 80)

If there is ever a person who should obsess in this way, it is the Christian.  Let us do what this author encourage us to do, but from a Christian perspective.  With Paul, let us say, “This one thing I do.”  Let us free ourselves from boredom and passivity.  Let us stop living the Christian life by half, just dabbling in it occasionally.  By giving ourselves completely to Christ, by “obsessing” about advancing his kingdom, we will eliminate distractions, such as worrying about fluff, and we will find that life is more than these inconsequential things.  We will find, instead, that real life is the glorious of adventure of seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.  Amen.

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That Will Be a Glad Reunion Day

A Sermon

Preached on Sunday, September 19, 2010, by

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

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

(click here to listen to the audio recording of this sermon)

And it came to pass the day after, that he went into a city called Nain; and many of his disciples went with him, and much people.   Now when he came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her.   And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not.   And he came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise.   And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother.   And there came a fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people.  And this rumour of him went forth throughout all Judaea, and throughout all the region round about. (Luke 7:11-17)

As the years go by, we will often be a part of, or be observers of a variety of funeral processions.  Depending on the person who died, and the culture in which we find ourselves, the emotions and actions of those involved in funeral processions will differ.  We have different ways of paying our respects.  Where I come from, if you are driving down a road, and you encounter a funeral procession, you pull your car off the road, stop, and wait until the last car in the funeral procession passes.  Sometimes, when a head of state dies, the funeral processions are carried out with precision, great dignity, and patriotic symbolism.    Other funeral processions may be quite small, with little or no ceremony involved.  Sometimes, funeral processions are accompanied by great emotional displays.  There may be extreme emotional reactions as people mourn the loss of their loved ones.  Whether there is a great display of emotion, or little at all, almost all funeral processions are accompanied by heartfelt grief at the passing of those we have known and loved.

In our Lord’s time, funeral processions were usually quite elaborate events.  In our Gospel reading for today, we find one of these funeral processions.  Jesus is about to enter the city of Nain, and as he approaches the gate of the city, he encounters a funeral procession.    In these days, the body of the deceased would sometimes be carried in a coffin, but in most of the cases it would be carried on a bier, something resembling a stretcher.  In most cases, the bier would be accompanied by a large company of mourners, some of them professional mourners who were actually paid to weep and wail for the deceased.   In the story before us, we observe the funeral for a young man.  At the head of the funeral procession would have been his mother.  All funerals are sad, but this one is particularly heartbreaking.  We are told that this woman was a widow, and now she has lost her only son.    In those days, when there was nothing like Social Security, retirement, or survivor benefits, this woman would have been in a terrible condition.  She had no husband to support her.  After her husband died, no doubt the son had taken over the responsibility of supporting his mother, and now he was gone.  She would be totally dependent on other family members and friends, and, perhaps, she would be reduced to a life of begging.  The loss of a son alone would be enough to cause great sadness, but to lose a son who was also your only means of support would have filled this woman, not only with grief, but great fear and anxiety concerning the future.  For many reasons, we can understand why this woman at the front of this funeral procession is weeping.

But at this moment, in her extreme agony, Jesus walks up to her and says, “Weep not.”  What a strange thing to say at such a moment.  If anyone ever had a good reason to weep, surely it was this woman, and yet Jesus tells her to stop crying.  We sometimes tell people going through such periods of grief to stop weeping.  Very often at funerals, we don’t know what to say, and what we do say is of little or no comfort.  What we often tell people during that grief is true, but it is of very little comfort to those in mourning.  We say, “Well, it was just the will of God.”  Or, we say, “At least he is not suffering anymore.”  But Jesus simply tells this woman to stop weeping.  Now, if you tell someone in grief such as this to stop crying, you had better have a good reason for doing so.  In this case, we find the best of reasons why this woman is told to stop weeping.  Jesus tells her to stop weeping because he knows that he is about to take away the reason she is weeping.  He is going to bring her son back to life.

Jesus reaches out and touches the funeral bier and tells this dead man to arise.   In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has already performed some amazing miracles, healing many sick people, but this is the first recorded incident in which Jesus raises someone from the dead.  In the Gospel accounts, we have three incidents of Jesus raising the dead:  this one, the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and the raising of Lazarus.  No doubt, the other miracles he performed caused a great deal of awe and astonishment, but in this case, our Lord demonstrates that he has not only power over diseases, but he also has power over life and death.  No wonder, after he performs this miracle, the people say that a great prophet has risen among them and that God has visited his people.  When they say that a great prophet has risen among them, they may have been doing so because the raising of this young man has made them think of Elijah.  You will remember that in I Kings 17 we find the story of how Elijah raised a boy from the dead.  There are so many parallels between that incident and this one in our Gospel reading.  The woman in the Elijah story is also a widow.  Her son dies, and Elijah raises him from the dead.  After he raises her son from the dead, the woman says, “Now by this I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in thy mouth is truth” (I Kings 17:24), which is very similar to the people saying in reaction to the miracle of Jesus, “a great prophet is risen up among us; and, that God hath visited his people.”

While it was true that Jesus was indeed a great prophet who had risen among them, their assessment of who and what he was did not go far enough.  Yes, Jesus was a prophet, but he was more than a prophet—he was very God of very God, with power over life and death.  It is interesting that in verse 13 Luke says, “And when THE LORD saw her…”  Other people had addressed Jesus as Lord, but this is the first time that Luke has referred to him as “the Lord.”  It is little wonder why he has waited until now to refer to him by that title, for in this miracle he demonstrates that he is, indeed, the Lord, Lord even over life and death.  He was more than a prophet.  He was not only like Elijah, but greater than Elijah.    In the story of Elijah, we find that he stretched himself out on top of the boy three times and finally the life was restored to the boy.  In this case with Jesus, there is no wrestling in prayer, no elaborate agonizing or strenuous action involved in restoring life to the boy.  The miracle Luke records for us just before this one is the account of the healing of the centurion’s servant.  In that miracle, Jesus did not even go to the house of the centurion.  He merely spoke the word, and the servant was healed.  In this case, Jesus merely speaks the word, “Young man, I say unto thee, ‘Arise,’” and the young man is instantly returned to life and health and begins to speak.  This man is more than a prophet.  This one is the Lord, God in the flesh.

It is for this reason that Jesus can tell the woman to stop weeping, for he is the Lord of life and death.  For that reason, he is able to comfort us in our time of grief at the passing of loved ones.    Certainly, it is not sinful for us to be saddened at the passing away of those we love, but the Apostle Paul told us in I Thessalonians 4:13 that we should not sorrow as those who have no hope.  There are many people in the world who believe that death is the end, that there is no life after death, and that we will never see our loved ones again.  They have no hope, and the weep as those who have no hope, for they do not believe in the Lord of life and death.    One of the reasons that Jesus came into this world was to overcome death so that would we would no longer be in bondage to the fear of death.    In Hebrews 2:14-15 we read, “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;  And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.”    Whenever we read this story of the raising of the widow’s son, Luke tells us that when Jesus saw this sad scene, and the pathetic plight of this widow, that he had compassion on her.  Jesus raises her son because he had compassion on her.  In the way that he had compassion on her, he has had compassion on us, and he came into this world to give us hope in the face of death.

Jesus had so much compassion on her that he was not even concerned with ritual defilement.  Notice that verse 14 says that he touched the bier.  As you know, according to Jewish law, coming in contact with a dead body made one ceremonially unclean.  But Jesus was not concerned about those kinds of things when compassion for those in need was involved.  When it came to our fear of death, when it came to our hopelessness in the face of death, he was not concerned with his own welfare, his own comforts, or his own safety.  He went to the cross, suffered all the agonies of the cross, even experienced death itself in order that he might defeat death, so that he could look at us and say, “Weep not.”  When the apostle John had his vision of the glorified Christ on the isle of Patmos, Jesus said, “Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.”  “Hell” there may be better translated as “Hades” or “the grave.”  Jesus is the first and the last, the Lord–the Lord of life and death.  He was dead, but he was raised from the dead, and has the keys of the grave and death.  In other words, he is absolute master now of death and the grave, so much so that Paul can say,

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?   The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (I Cor. 15:53-57).

Because of what Christ has done, one day these bodies that are subject to corruption and decay will be transformed, and death, which seems to be victorious, will be swallowed up by the victory that Christ has purchased for us.    Our victory over death has been secured by the victory of Christ over death, and for that reason we do not weep as those who have no hope.  Death is not the end, and while there may be a temporary separation from our loved ones, a separation that does cause a great deal of grief,  at last, we will be reunited with them.

It is comforting that in this account, the description of the miracle does not end simply with the words, “he that was dead sat up, and began to speak.”  No, Luke adds these beautiful words, “And he delivered him to his mother.”  This family that had been ripped apart by death is now restored by the power of Jesus.   Have you ever noticed that in all three accounts of Jesus raising people from the dead, families are reunited?  In the raising of Jairus’ daughter, Jesus takes Peter, James, John, and the girl’s parents into the room.  He raises her from the dead, and commands that she be given something to eat.  Family life has been restored.  In the healing of Lazarus, we have all the discussion about Mary and Martha and how they are so distressed at the loss of their brother.  Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and Lazarus, Mary, and Martha are united again as a family.    In many ways, the nature of the afterlife is a great mystery to us.  We don’t know the answer to all the questions about what our relationships with one another will be like.  But we know that in some sense, we are going to be reunited to one another in Christ.  Our separation is only temporary, and one day, we will be reunited in Christ in relationships that will be even more wonderful than before.    We will be reunited with one another to never be separated again.  The raising from the dead of this young man, Jairus’ daughter, and Lazarus, were all amazing miracles, but these miracles were not as wonderful as that miracle that will take place when time has ended, and we are reunited with one another in heaven.  Though these families in the Biblical accounts were reunited, it was temporary.  This young man and his mother were eventually separated again by death.  So were Jairus and his family, as well as Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  But there will come a day when all separations will be past, and we will have fellowship with Christ and one another throughout all eternity.

In my part of the country, some of the cemeteries still have memorial days when people come to the cemetery, have a church service, and remember those who have gone on before.   These memorial days are usually combined with family reunions that take place on the cemetery grounds.   I was talking with my dad the other day, and he was saying that these reunions are getting smaller and smaller.  So many of the family members are dying, and the reunions aren’t being well attended anymore.  These reunions themselves are a little sad, because we realize that more and more of us are dying.  When I was a boy, I used to play the piano for my mother, her sisters, and my cousins as we would sing old gospel songs all through the night.  One of our favorites was, “That Will Be a Glad Reunion Day.” Just as in this story there was a glad reunion day between mother and son, there is coming a glad reunion day when this scene will be repeated in a way that we cannot even begin to imagine, when we are reunited with loved ones we have known before, and united to those we have never known before.   No wonder that we do not weep as those who have no hope, but as those who believe in the victory of Christ over death and the grave, those who look forward to a glad reunion day.  Amen.

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