Stirred up by God

“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” – Eph. 5:14

Introduction

Our God is a god of resurrection, of rebirth, of new life.  He takes that which is null and void, utter nothingness, and creates light and dark, earth and sea, and all the cosmos.  He takes that which is dead, be it mud or dust or stones or dry bones, and he breathes his Spirit upon them and they become living beings.  He takes that which is evil, sinners like you and I, and gives them a spiritual bath, and they become holy, as He is holy.  This is the message of Easter, and one of the causes of our celebration not just last Sunday, but throughout this whole season of Eastertide.

Although we are starting a new preaching series through another book of the Old Testament, we remain very much on topic with this Easter celebration.  The book of Ezra is the story of God giving his people a new life, a rebirth, a resurrection.  You may recall a few weeks ago we read about the destruction of Jerusalem and the conquest of the Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians.  That was the death of Israel as a country; God’s people would never again be an earthly kingdom.  But now, in the opening chapter of Ezra, we see Israel rising again from the dead.  And, just as Jesus’ resurrection body was somehow a little different from its former life, so too is Israel being restored in a different manner than its previous state.

Actually, this had already happened before in the life cycle of Israel.  Roughly a thousand years earlier, they entered into Egypt as a family of less than 100 people, and eventually emerged a small nation.  Now, they entered into Babylonian captivity as a kingdom, and are emerging as a religious organization – a church!

The Story of Ezra 1

We begin around the year 538 BC, about fifty years after the destruction of Jerusalem.  You may recall that Jeremiah’s prophecy for this exile was that it would last seventy years.  It’s difficult to get exact chronologies with ancient history like this, but it does seem that, in God’s great mercy, he relaxed his sentence of exile just a little bit, and allowed the exiles to begin to return home twenty years early.

Whateverso, it is critical to note that in the very first verse of this book, Ezra tells us that God “stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia.”  Just like in the other historical books of the Bible, we find the emphasis that God is also the god of history.  He oversees events and guides people toward the decisions that advance his will and his plan for salvation.  In this moment of history, Israel was dispersed and as good as dead, so it required a powerful king to make their restoration possible.

Why would Cyrus do such a thing?  Sometimes people read his proclamation, note how accurate his description of God is, and conclude that he was a convert to Judaism.  As awesome as that would be, it was not the case.  He honored the gods of many cultures, especially the Babylonian gods.  In his polytheistic worldview, he seemed to believe that all the local gods were responsible for his phenomenal rise to power, and so he sought to honor and thank them by having their temples repaired and their respective worship patterns properly restored.  He did this in Babylon, in Egypt, in Jerusalem, and likely other places too.  As far as he was concerned, as long as he makes all those gods happy, they’ll continue to support him and his dynasty.

Verse 4 has some features in its wording especially tailored to pop out to the reader of the Bible.  First it mentions “survivors,” highlighting the trial of God’s people under an oppressive exile, and second it mentions “silver and gold” as gifts that people should give them to assist their return home.  Both of these are major echoes of the story of the Exodus!  There, Egypt was plundered as the Israelites up and left that land.  Now the same kind of thing is happening again; God’s people are going home, and are given a kick-start in money and supplies.

The discerning reader may at this point may propose an objection.  Verse 5 notes that only the leaders of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin are mentioned; what about the other ten tribes?  This is the reality of what is called “the faithful remnant.”  Already in the book of 2 Chronicles, members of the ten northern tribes were increasingly invited to unite with the tribe and kingdom of Judah for the purpose of worship and obedience to the Law of Moses.  Now it’s final; God’s faithful people, the true Israel, is just the tribe of Judah and whoever joins with them.  This also sets us up for the situation found in the New Testament: Judea is the region faithful to the Bible, Samaria is the northern region that rejects the teachings of the Prophets, and Galilee is sort of a northern colony that’s faithful to the ways of Judea.  The true Israelites are not God’s people according to flesh and blood anymore, but by faith.  The same is true today: none is born a Christian.  And even though infants and young children are baptized, salvation comes to those who have faith in Christ.  God’s people are not just a remnant, they are the faithful remnant.

And so the final few verses of this short chapter continue on with an inventory of Temple articles that are collected, mostly from Babylon, and assembled to be brought back to Jerusalem.  Again, Cyrus was doing this sort of thing for lots of other temples too.  In most cases he was making sure that the statues and idols and images were being restored, but since the Jews didn’t use those things, he had to settle for these pots and basins and other utensils instead, which were prescribed for use in the worship of God.  We in the liturgical tradition can appreciate this sort of thing – it is difficult to celebrate the Eucharist without a chalice and paten, for example.  And while it can be done with an ordinary plate and cup, there is a certain air of appropriate reverence that’s lost when you do that.

So that’s the story of the beginning of the restoration – or resurrection – of Israel.  We’ll look at more of this book over the next few weeks to see how God’s people experienced set-backs and triumphs in the process.  I think we’re going to find some very ripe and useful analogies for our own day and age, now that much of the Church has been devastated by the ways and whims of the world and we find ourselves having to rebuild.

Exhortation

For now, though, how does this opening chapter speak to us today?  The heart of the message, as I see it, conveniently sits in the heart of this chapter: verse 5.  There, we find it says “Then rose up the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem.”  Who rose up to answer the invitation of King Cyrus to return home?  Yes, some leaders are mentioned, but the middle of the verse clarifies this more carefully: everyone whose spirit God had stirred up to go.

Just as God “stirred up” King Cyrus to add the Jews to his list of people to allow to go home, God also “stirred up” his people to answer that invitation.  This is very important to take note of.  Remember, they had been living scattered throughout the Babylonian and Persian empires for fifty years.  Most of them had never even seen Jerusalem before!  When I was small child and learning American history in school, I went home one day and asked my mom “why didn’t the slaves go home to Africa after they were freed?”  Surely, I naively thought, they’d want to get away from their former oppressors and back to their ancestral homes.  But as my mother briefly explained, and as I came to understand as I got older, it wasn’t that simple.  It was a long, dangerous, and expensive journey to take a ship from America to Africa.  And in many cases they had been living here for over one hundred years – this was their home now!  So they had neither the means nor the desire to go back to Africa; they had a new life here, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

For the Jews in Babylonian and Persian captivity, yes, the distance to Jerusalem was shorter and their removal from their homeland more recent, but the same problems apply.  Indeed, Jeremiah himself had told them to invest in their captive lands and make themselves comfortable.  In 29:5-7, we have a letter that he wrote to the exiles, in which he instructs them “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  This doesn’t conflict with the promise that God would bring them home again; it’s simply a reminder that they’re in exile for the long haul.

This issues a challenge for each of us.  Although, like in Jeremiah 29, we are called to invest in this world, be wise with our money and resources, raise families, care for the needy, pray for our government leaders, and so forth, we are also taught that our true citizenship is in heaven.  While we are called to be obedient and respectful to our earthly kingdoms, we are also called to be builders of a heavenly kingdom.  So here’s the big question: what happens when God stirs up our hearts to rebuild Jerusalem?  How do we faithfully answer God’s calling upon our lives to pay homage to our true spiritual home?  What do we do in this life to “come home” to God?

One of the first things this involves is simply putting our faith in Christ.  Do you know and love the Lord Jesus?  Is his sacrifice on the Cross something you believe and accept on behalf of your own sins?  Is his resurrection life what you desire and accept for yourself?  This is, as I said last week, the beginning of the Christian life.  It is the faith of the newborn Christian who freshly says “Yes!” to Christ.

Perhaps the very next thing that we do to answer God’s stirring is to worship him.  One of the biggest emphases in 2 Chronicles that we saw earlier this year was the central importance of worship, and it will also feature prominently in the book of Ezra.  As God calls us to himself, our appropriate response includes “not failing to meet together,” as the book of Hebrews puts it.  Come to the celebration of God’s Word and Sacraments, where Christ is proclaimed and offered.  I don’t say this out of self-preservation, like I’m concerned about my own interests and income, but out of love and concern for all of you: the spiritual life of each of God’s people is fed through a regular engagement in worship with the rest of the Body of Christ.  When we absent ourselves from congregational worship, we starve ourselves.

But then there is yet another level of response to God’s call, God’s “stirring up” of our spirits, and that is the call to ministry.  No, I don’t mean this just in the sense of becoming clergymen or pastors or prayer ministers or Vestry members, but in any of the broad aspects of ministry.  When the Jews were called back to Jerusalem they had a Temple to rebuild, so they needed Priests and Levites.  But they also had a city to rebuild, so they needed builders, specialists, and political leaders to organize them.  They were also rebuilding a society and culture, which required people from all walks of life, not just the scribes and lawyers to teach them the Law of Moses which would order their civil life.  It is the same today: God has called Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, and Pastor-Teachers.  Some ministry is outward-focused like the apostle and evangelist types, who get out into the world to find new people who need the love of Christ.  Some ministry is inward-focused like the prophet and pastor-teacher types, who help make sure the Church grows healthily and faithfully.

So there are these three movements of response to God’s calling – in, up, and out.  We first respond within as we put our faith in Christ and commit ourselves to him.  We then respond upwards as we join our brothers and sisters in Christ in the public worship of the Church.  And finally we respond outwards and we look to the work God has given us to do; to love and serve him as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.

Have you heard the stirring of God’s Spirit within you?  How have you responded thus far?  Have you stagnated in your response?  Have you jumped ahead to get involved without first tackling the basics?  I’d like to encourage you all to be brave and take the time to pray and listen to God on these matters.  When God’s people do this, it not only benefits us as individuals, but as a whole church.

“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” – Eph. 5:14

 

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Praying Psalm 51 in Lent

Psalm 51 is probably the most famous of the penitential psalms.  Unsurprisingly, it has been set to one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written by a human being.  Traditionally it is sung (or just read and prayed) as part of the Ash Wednesday service every year.  Apart from its liturgical use, though, it has been a favorite prayer of penitence for Christians the world over for centuries.

It was originally written by King David, according to its introduction in the Bible, as an expression of his penitence after he was called out by Nathan the Prophet for his heinous crime of adultery.  To match this, medieval devotional books suggested this psalm as a particularly fitting biblical resource to combat (or repent of) the deadly sin of lust.

Additionally, the structure of this Psalm reveals a three-part movement of confession consisting of contrition, absolution, and penance.  Contrition is the surrender of the heart to God, recognizing one’s sins and being truly sorry for them.  Absolution is the cleansing act of God that removes the guilt of sin from the person.  Penance is the joyful (though sometimes also painful) process of healing one’s relationship with God in light of His gift of forgiveness.

Part One: Contrition

The first six verses describe the cry of the contrite heart.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.  Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!  For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.  Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.  Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.  Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

Here we recognize our sinfulness and turn to God as the only one who can blot out our transgressions and wash us from our iniquity.  This is not only true of our sinful acts, but also true of our sinful nature.  “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” is part of the Scriptural basis of the doctrine of Original Sin.  This is the teaching that every human being is tainted by sin from the very beginning of their existence; children and infants may be “innocent” in the ways of the world, but even they are not entirely “innocent” from sin.

Part Two: Absolution

Verses 7-12 form the appeal for absolution.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.  Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.  Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.  Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.

Sometimes Christians are hesitant to pray for the forgiveness of their sins, arguing that God has already promised forgiveness, or better yet, has already forgiven them on the Cross, or on the day that they were first converted to Christ.  This Psalm shows us both that we should ask for forgiveness constantly, and how we should ask.  Remembering that this is a psalm of David, who had been a devoted follower of the Lord God all his life, we find that prayers of confession like this are most certainly appropriate for all Christians to make.  And, as these verses reveal, we are to ask for forgiveness with confidence.  “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” it says, having the uttermost trust that if God’s people honestly ask for cleansing, God will do it.

These verses also contain the words that inspired a modern song of worship.  Again, sometimes the words “take not your Holy Spirit from me” come under fire as inappropriate for Christians, as if they only belong in the Old Covenant of Law and fear, and not in the New Covenant of grace and hope.  Stereotyping issues with the covenants aside, suffice it to say here that the Psalms are just as valid as Christian prayers as they were Jewish before Christ.  Whether it’s possible or not for a Christian to “lose” the Holy Spirit, or whether it simply means to lose some degree of the Spirit’s active presence within us, it should be of every believer’s concern to remain in full communion with God’s Spirit at all times as well as possible.  Any turning from God should be a grievous event that causes us to seek Him out, looking to “restore the joy of Your salvation.”

Part Three: Penance

With the contrite heart established, and the plea for absolution made, we finish in penance.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.  Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.  O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.  For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.  Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Two acts of penance, so to speak, are highlighted as a response to God’s absolution and cleansing.  One is to “teach transgressors your ways.”  This is not elaborated on beyond that verse, but it seems to show that by the penitent’s example and testimony, other sinners will be encouraged to “return” to God also.  The rest of the final verses focus instead on worship.  In light of God’s forgiveness we are moved to “sing aloud,” and “declare” God’s praise, and offer “right sacrifices” of “burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings” and “bulls.”

Some of this is generic worship language that could translate into just about anything today.  Singing of God’s righteousness and declaring His praises are acts that can take many forms and in many styles.  Freed from the burden of guilt, the Christian is able to praise God with joy through music or Bible-reading or prayer or even other acts of good work and service to others, though the emphasis in this psalm is definitely on verbal acts of worship.

But the final verses that deal with the topic of sacrifices point us to something rather more specific in the Christian context.  Despite how many Protestants today use the word “sacrifice” to describe worship offerings of music or money or self-commitment, the Christian sacrifice is rather more defined than that.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.  Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”  Considering this alongside his other teachings, such as in later in the same book, we’re directed to see that the Christian sacrifice, centered on Christ on the Cross, is “our Passover” feast, Holy Communion.  Just as the Old Covenant animal sacrificial offerings were signs of peace (or communion) with God, so too is the New Covenant bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist a sign of peace (or communion) with God.  Thus, one of the most appropriate things for a freshly-forgiven sinner to do is to come forward to the Lord’s Table and receive Him in the bread and the wine.

Or, to consider this the other way around, it is valuable and important to make sure that we have undergone self-examination for the purpose of confessing our sins to God before going to Holy Communion.  As this psalm says, “a broken and contrite heart [God] will not despise.”  Plus, St. Paul said the exact same thing.  Don’t you just love the consistency of the Bible throughout the ages of its writing!?

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The End is not The End

This is a homily on 2 Chronicles 36 for Grace Anglican Church upon Passion Sunday 2016.

Passion Sunday begins “Passiontide,” a relic of days when Holy Week had a warm-up week beforehand.  We’re all familiar with Palm Sunday which brings us through Christ’s triumphal entry and his death; Passion Sunday prepares us for that by speaking of Jesus as our great high priest in the book of Hebrews.  For us today, though, we’re using a different story to shed more light on the Passion story: we’re finishing the book, 2 Chronicles, in which we find a brilliant parallel or typology prefiguring the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  Historically, chapter 36 shows the avalanche of Judah’s last 22 years, hurtling toward its end, but typologically or spiritually, it shows us that four-part movement of Christ: suffering, dying, being buried, and rising again.

Suffering (verses 1-10)

The first ten verses summarize the stories of the last three J’s – Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Jehoiachin.  As you may have noticed in going through them, it’s the same story retold with all three of them: 1) they live lives of evil, 2) they suffer exile, and 3) the Temple is plundered in the process.  Not only does this reinforce the common saying that history tends to repeat itself, but the author is also trying to make a certain point.  This emphasizes that the blame for going into exile is not localized upon any one particular bad king or generation, but is universal and intergenerational.  We say the same thing in the Church about the last judgment: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Let’s run through those three stories very briefly with a political commentary.

  1. Jehoahaz was deposed by Pharaoh Neco and replaced with an Egypt-friendly ruler.
  2. Jehoiakim was captured by Nebuchadnezzar, who’d just defeated Assyria
  3. Jehoiachin was deposed by Nebuchadnezzar and replaced by a Babylon-friendly ruler.

Notice the frequent practice of interrupting royal succession to destabilize the Judean kingdom!  As we’ve seen in previous chapters of 2 Chronicles, international politics have dragged God’s people into a number of unfavorable situations and conflicts, and here it’s getting worse and worse for Judah.  A modern analogy for these foreign kings installing kings of Judah would be when secular governments see fit to choose or approve Bishops and clergy in the Church.  This has happened in many times and places, often with disastrous results: the Investiture Controversy in the Holy Roman Empire back in the 1000’s, it’s happening in China right now, and even the Church of England has to get royal approval when electing the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Sometimes the Church and states have worked well together, but such relationships seldom remain favorable for long.

Death (verses 11-16)

After many years of this foreign meddling in the Judean kingship, the suffering of that kingdom results in its death under King Zedekiah.  He receives a heavy condemnation in verses 12 & 13: he did what was evil, he didn’t humble himself, he rebelled against his oath to God, he stiffened his neck, he hardened his heart, and he wouldn’t turn to the Lord.  In short, he was utterly unfaithful to God and to his over-king Nebuchadnezzar.  Remember, it was Nebuchadnezzar who had gotten him onto the throne in the first place; Zedekiah was a vassal king under the Empire of Babylon, and even that arrangement he couldn’t respect.  If he couldn’t abide an earthly king over himself, how could he ever abide his heavenly king!

And it wasn’t just Zedekiah.  The people of Judah also were very unfaithful – their entire spiritual life had gone awry.  Verses 14 through 16 describe their thorough abandonment of God.  They rejected the Law, living in unholiness.  They rejected the Temple, turning to idolatry.  They rejected the Prophets, holding God’s word in scorn and derision.  These three areas, Law, Temple, and the Prophets, represent the three areas of faithful living.  The Law refers to behavior and lifestyle, the Temple refers to worship and the heart-relationship with God, and the Prophets refers to the knowledge and teaching of God.  By contrast, good discipleship address all three of these areas.  Christians are taught to believe in God (the teachings), belong to God (in worshipful relationship), and behave like God.  If you haven’t read our Catechism, To Be A Christian, I urge you strongly to consider doing so; it follows this very pattern, and is very useful and helpful at expressing the basics of the faith.

Anyway, the result of all this unfaithfulness is the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah; the death of God’s people as a sovereign people-group.  Verse 16 says there was “no remedy;” there was no healing for the land.  Judgment had come and the time to repent was over.  That’s what happens when you turn your back on God’s compassionate love!  For remember the great promise from God when the Temple was first built – if my people repent and return to me I will restore them and heal their land.  The other side of the coin was that if God’s people refuse to be God’s people, then God will cease to be their God; and thus their existence as a country came to an end.  And as you go through verses 17 through 19, you’ll find that the words “all” or “every” appears 5 times.  The destruction is total.

Where was God in all this?  Is it fair to say that he abandoned his people?  Even in the midst of all this suffering, collapse, and defeat, God was with them.  His faithful prophet, Jeremiah, was ministering all throughout these years, as verses 15 and 16 mention.  Also, if you read through the Book of Jeremiah, you’ll find a great deal of interactions with these last few kings of Judah.  But it was no good; God’s words fell on deaf ears.  After Jerusalem’s defeat, Jeremiah went on to write the book of Lamentations, earning himself the nickname “the weeping prophet.”

Burial (verses 17-21)

Something the Babylonians picked up from the Assyrians before them was the practice of genocide by mass emigration.  Rather than kill off a valuable labor force, they would take the majority of a conquered city, and spread them out through other parts of their empire so the people would still live and be productive workers, but would be separated from one another such that they would pose no cultural or military threat by organizing themselves together again.  That is the exile, or dispersion, that God’s people experienced.  In many ways that exile is like a death – Israel no longer existed as a country; it was now simply a remnant of people scattered here and there across Mesopotamia.  It’s also similar to the Church today – we, God’s people, still don’t have a homeland.  Our Holy Land, our Promised Land, is a heavenly inheritance in the New Creation which is still coming into the world.  Thus we are, in a sense, dead to the world, yet alive in Christ.

For the Judeans at this time, exile affects Temple, land, and people.  The Temple is destroyed and its accoutrements taken away; no more worship according to the Law of Moses can happen anymore.  The land, too, is a part of this exile, experiencing what verse 21 calls “enjoying its Sabbaths.”  This is a reference back to Leviticus 26:34-35,43, where “Sabbath years” for the land are prescribed.  Every seven years, a field was to be left fallow.  This is, in part, an extension of applying Sabbath Law to the earth, and, in part, a wise practice of crop rotation.  As for the people, we read elsewhere in the Bible that only a tiny remnant of poor people were left in and around Jerusalem; everyone else was gone.

This exile has two aspects to it.  It is both restorative and punitive.  It’s restorative partly in that the land gets its Sabbath rest as I just described, but also in the sense that the people get to be restored to the land at the exile’s end.  Jeremiah prophesied “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place” (Jer. 29:10).  In the meantime, the exile is definitely also punitive, a punishment.  Jeremiah also said “This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.  Then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chalde’ans, for their iniquity, says the LORD, making the land an everlasting waste.  I will bring upon that land all the words which I have uttered against it, everything written in this book, which Jeremiah prophesied against all the nations.  For many nations and great kings shall make slaves even of them; and I will recompense them according to their deeds and the work of their hands.” (Jer. 25:11-14).  So the Babylonians also will eventually be punished for their treatment of God’s people.  This may seem strange at first – if it’s God’s will to overthrow Judah, how can Babylon be sinning by doing so?  We have to remember that the Babylonians were hardly a righteous bunch of people, themselves, and will also have to account for their own deeds before God in the end.

This exile is said to have lasted for 70 years.  Psalm 90 says the years of our lives are seventy, noting that to be an average healthy lifespan.  So an exile lasting that long makes sure that basically everyone who was taken away from Jerusalem will die in exile.  It will be at least one full generation before anyone gets to go home.  Historically, measuring those 70 years is tricky; some scholars think it was from the destruction of the first Temple until the beginning of the Second Temple’s rebuilding project, but otherwise 70 was an approximate number for symbolism’s sake.

Resurrection (verses 22-23)

Finally, the story ends with the glimmering sunrise of restoration.  The people that seemed to be dead was coming back to life.  There is a future because God promised it.  The people had reached a dead end; only God could get them past it.  The same is true for us and for our salvation; as Jesus himself said, “With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

The final verses of the book of 2 Chronicles essentially echo the beginning of the book of Ezra.  By God’s grace and inspiration, King Cyrus of Persia devises an alternative plan to the old genocide-by-migration model of empire building.  Instead, he invites conquered peoples to live in their own homelands to improve local morale; making for a happier and more stable empire.  We see this same model used very effectively by the Roman Empire a few centuries later.  Anyway, the final sentence in the book is a quote from Cyrus’ edict: “let him go up.” Only one word in Hebrew, v’yah’al, this was an invitation to any of the Hebrew people in his empire to return to Jerusalem and Judah and rebuild their Temple.  This is very much the message of Jesus: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me.”  This is also the message of the Church to this day: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17).  This is the final invitation to faith in God unto salvation!

Conclusion

We’ve made it to the end of the book!  I want to summarize the lessons of this chapter and the whole series in 2 Chronicles with five points, and you can follow them on the fingers of your left hand: JESUS PROMISES SALVATION through FAITH despite EXILE.

First (the thumb), we see the Old Testament attests to Jesus.  (Thumbs up!)

Second (index finger), we see God keeps his promises, both the curses and the blessings.  (Pointing to what’s ahead.)

Third (middle finger), we see God alone saves his people.  (This is a tall order!)

Fourth (ring finger), faithfulness is critical to our spiritual life, and it begins with worship.  (Whether you’re wearing an earthly wedding ring or not, you will be wearing a heavenly one.)

Fifth, Many of you have felt to be in exile, here in this small congregation.  Despite worldly success or decline, the Gospel always remains the same.  (The circumstances of this life are of small consequence in eternity.)

Jesus promises salvation through faith, despite exile.  Amen.

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the Integrity of Word and Sacraments

a homily on 2 Chronicles 35 for Grace Anglican Church, upon the 4th Sunday in Lent 2016

Introduction

            We’re a “bottom line” kind of culture.  We want to know the “basic requirements.”  Tell me what I need to know, don’t waste my time on unnecessary details.  In many cases this has had a negative effect on Christianity as we have repeatedly tried to simplify our teaching and worship and message.  There is a fine line between “boiling it down” and “watering it down.”  But some things are able to summarized in short and sweet statements.  For example, to the question of how to know if a local church is a real church, the Protestant Reformers said “The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered” (Augsburg Confession, Article VII).

This dual dynamic of Word and Sacrament continues to be a significant factor governing the worship liturgies of many traditions to this day, including our own.  But it also seems to be a significant factor in telling the story of King Josiah.  Last week we read of his positive handling of God’s Word, and today now we hear of his positive handling of the Passover, which is essentially a Sacrament in the Old Testament – it was a means of grace: participating in that meal meant you were a member of God’s covenant community.

Today we’re looking at chapter 35 of 2 Chronicles, in which there basically are two stories: first is the great Passover celebrated in King Josiah’s time, and the second is the story of Josiah’s death.  The first story is about Josiah’s relationship with God’s Sacraments, and the second is a re-visitation of his relationship with God’s Word.

Josiah’s Passover

            The story of Josiah’s Passover has four movements to it: the preparation, the provision, the offerings, and the obedience.

The preparation for the Passover, described in verses 1-6, give us several hints that this is very similar to the Passover that King Hezekiah had brought back nearly seventy years earlier.  Like his forebear, Josiah encouraged the Priests and Levites to be faithful to their duties, and referenced the authority of God’s Word especially through the mouths of Moses and David and Solomon.  It’s interesting to note that the King made a point of encouraging these ministers; they were following God’s word and will, and still needed encouragement.  How true this is for ministers in every age, and indeed all Christians, as we strive to follow in the Narrow Way of Christ!

The comparison with Hezekiah’s Passover is also met with a significant contrast: verse 1 identifies the date of Josiah’s Passover to be the fourteenth day of the first month.  This is the correct date!  You may recall from chapter 30 that Hezekiah’s Passover was a month late.  He had an emergency Temple rededication to perform.  Josiah, however, was more prepared, and ready to get things going on time.

Next comes the provision for the Passover.  Like in previous instances of this sort of story, the King set the example for everyone else by giving generously.  Other leaders and officials followed suit, and eventually even ordinary people were giving lavishly to the Temple for the proceedings.  If you compare the numbers of animals and amount of grain and oil being provided here in verses 7 through 9 with the numbers in chapter 30, you’ll find they’re almost double what they were before.  Hezekiah’s Passover was a huge breakthrough for the kingdom of Judah, but Josiah is blowing that out of the water!

Then verses 10 through 16 direct our attention to the offerings for the Passover.  You may recall that the Passover was supposed to be celebrated with a lamb to be eaten by each household, and yet there are other offerings involved here too.  That’s because originally, the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Passover were two different holidays on consecutive weeks, but over time they got merged into one big holy week.  What’s important to note in this story is that verses 10 and 16 both declare that “the service had been prepared.”  This is a particular phrase in Hebrew that was the Chronicler’s way of saying that the requirements of God’s Law were met.  Everything was prepared properly, and everyone did their proper tasks.

An interesting change to note is that instead of the Passover lamb’s blood being sprinkled on the doorposts of the peoples’ homes as directed in Exodus 12, the blood is instead sprinkled on the Altar in the Temple.  This shift from household religion to Temple religion is a result of God’s revelation to His people that they are His people.  Instead of talking about “the houses of Israel,” they could talk about “the house of Israel.”  In the same way today, we don’t emphasize “the churches of Jesus Christ” as much as we emphasize “the Church of Jesus Christ.”  This is especially important with the Passover, as it was one of the primary means of covenant participation – eating that lamb meant you were part of God’s people.  And it’s the same with the Christian Passover, the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion or the Eucharist or the Mass – eating that bread and drinking that cup means you’re a part of God’s people.

Plus, one fun fact that I’ve been meaning to point out for a while, but have been waiting for an opportune moment, is about the clean-up after everyone has eaten.  Just as the Passover meal was commanded to be eaten in full and leftovers were to be burned by nightfall, so too do we take care to consume the consecrated bread and wine, and clean the paten and chalice of crumbs and wine drops.  It’s one of the many Old Covenant / New Covenant parallels in our ritual actions, and I thought it’d be fun to share that with you as a quick explanation.

Anyway, finally, this Passover story concludes in verses 17 through 19 summarizing the obedience of Josiah and his people.  Verse 18 specifically declares this to have been the greatest Passover celebration in the entire history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah!  Plus, when you combine the statement that “all Israel and Judah” came and participated with the enormous numbers of offerings for this Passover, one can conclude that this event drew an even bigger crowd than the great reformation and Passover events under King Hezekiah.  This was the most Law-abiding Passover at the Temple ever!

Josiah’s Death

            After such a great happy story, it may be jarring to read on through the end of the chapter.  Verses 20 through 27 tell the brief story of Josiah’s untimely demise.  But this story is not just a sad or tragic story, it is also riddled with some very clever irony.

Again following in the footsteps of King Hezekiah, the happy reign of Josiah eventually runs into trouble, and again it involves complex international politics.  The Assyrian Empire, so powerful in previous generations, had continued to decline; by this point it was in deep trouble.  They no longer ruled over Egypt, they’d been forced to move their capitol city, and one of their easternmost cities was rebelling.  Interestingly, that city was the same place that had sent some ambassadors to Jerusalem during Hezekiah’s reign, and he proudly showed off his wealth to them.  That city was called Babylon, and we’ll hear more about them next week at the conclusion of this book.

In the present story, Josiah doesn’t have to worry about Babylon or Assyria.  Instead it’s the Egyptian Pharaoh, Neco, who has shown up.  He was traveling North with his army to help Ashur-uballit, the Assyrian King, fight against a Babylonian uprising, and that meant he had to travel through Judean lands to get there.  Josiah doesn’t trust him, however, and insists on fighting him rather than granting safe passage.  Neco invokes God’s word, saying “What have we to do with each other, king of Judah? I am not coming against you this day, but against the house with which I am at war; and God has commanded me to make haste. Cease opposing God, who is with me, lest he destroy you.”  We don’t get any details of why, it’s clear that the Chronicler expected Josiah to have been able to recognize the prophetic word of God.  God did, after all, speak through foreigners from time to time (the King of Tyre in chapter 2, the Queen of Sheba in chapter 9, and King Cyrus of Persia in chapter 36 are other examples just in this book).  Whateverso, Josiah engages Neco in battle, is wounded, and dies when he returns home.  And, as I said before, this story is riddled with irony.

  • Previously, Josiah was incredibly faithful to God’s word, and suddenly this one slip-up does him for good.
  • When Hezekiah was threatened by Sennacherib, the enemy army was much larger, and yet Hezekiah survived and Josiah was defeated.
  • Pharaoh Neco was on his way probably to fight against a Babylonian uprising, and Josiah fought Neco instead of the Babylonians – a decision that will come back to bite Judah in the very near future.
  • Even though Josiah disguised himself in battle, he was still mortally wounded.  And even more bizarre, the exact same thing happened to Ahab, the most wicked King of Israel.  Several details are identical: the disguise, the injury from an arrow, the cry “I am wounded,” being propped up in a chariot, and dying soon after.

Unlike the story of King Ahab, though, Josiah survived until he got home, so he could die in Jerusalem and be buried in the tombs of his fathers.  Despite that wound in battle, he had a peaceful and honorable end to his life befitting his life of faithfulness to God, and in accordance with the prophecy of Huldah in the previous chapter.

And when you think about it, the Gospel of Christ is also full of irony.

  • The Jewish religious leaders mostly disbelieved Jesus, while the poor and the sinners often did.
  • Gentiles poured into the Church while many Jews rejected the Gospel.
  • Jesus’ kingly Triumphal Procession into Jerusalem, led to his death.
  • Christ, the Lord of life, was killed.
  • Jesus’ death on the Cross was actually a victory over death.
  • Our victory over sin is found in surrender to Christ.
  • We’re brought out of death into life by dying.

Let it never be said that God doesn’t have a sense of humor.

The Last Verses

            The story of Josiah concludes in verses 25 through 27.  He is lamented by his people, including by the Prophet Jeremiah.  Don’t confuse this with the book in the Bible called Lamentations – those are laments written for the destruction of Jerusalem.  Josiah was also remembered for “his good deeds according to what is written in the Law of the Lord.”  What a great legacy to be remembered by!  Should that not be an epithet we all hope to have attributed to ourselves someday – that we were faithful to God in life, anticipating his faithfulness to us in death?

And this memory of faithfulness is the lesson that I want us to think about as we finish the story of King Josiah.  The kingdom of Judah had been going downhill for two or three centuries.  Its northern counterpart, Israel, had already been conquered by the Assyrians.  Idolatry and paganism were rampant among God’s people, and all sorts of sinful behavior went along with that.  Hezekiah and Josiah were moments of relief in a long succession of failures.

In a number of ways that is the situation we see around us today: Western societies and culture has been on a steady decline for the past hundred years.  Appreciation for the arts, literature, music, and so on was one of our first losses in the early 20th century, cutting us off from much of our cultural heritage.  Next went our ideologies and values as societies polarized into Fundamentalists and Modernists, paralleled by our political situation of Republicans and Democrats being at each other’s throats, both parties become a caricature of what they once were.  Churches have split, first over doctrines like creation and end times, then over the nature of the work of the Holy Spirit, then over the nature of ministry, and now even over things like worship forms and musical preferences.

The Church’s response to this has often been to engage in “culture wars,” fighting to restore the place of Christianity in public discourse and our way of life.  But it’s been a spectacular failure, both in Europe and in America.  It’s not for lack of zeal that our attempts to change the world have failed, but for lack of priorities.  The lesson of the books of Chronicles is that the people of God’s first concerns should be the service of God.  Rather than looking to the organization of political events, we are to look to the organization of worship.  Rather than rebuilding the palace, we are to rebuild the Temple.  Rather than re-discovering the national governing documents we’re called to rediscover our religious documents – the Bible.  Rather than investing our identity in a political party, we are to invest our identity in God’s Word and Sacraments.  Hezekiah and Josiah were great lights of faithfulness in their days because they put first things first.  Political and social change followed religious revival, and as Christians today we desperately need to learn that lesson.  It is good to engage in politics and engage with society with an eye toward their improvement, but unless they’re outflows of devoted lives of worship, they’re only going to go as far as any other earthly endeavor.

First Things First

Consider the Gospel story of the feeding of the five thousand.  Jesus didn’t want his disciples to focus on the food that they didn’t have, but to distribute just the five loaves and two fish.  They didn’t have the means to address the needs of five thousand hungry people.  Neither do we.  The Church can’t solve world hunger, or cure AIDS or Ebola, or find the perfect presidential candidate.  We can do a lot of good things toward those ends, but the bottom line is this: all we really have to offer is the Gospel.  Lined up against the many problems of the world, it seems like we only have a couple fish and a few breadloaves.  Certainly in the eyes of the unbelieving world the Gospel looks quite useless.  But we know that it is the power of Christ we offer.  The Bible is God’s Word written and the Sacraments are God’s Word enacted.  They don’t look like much on the outside but spiritually they are the most powerful things in all of creation.  Like the boy whom Andrew brought to Jesus, King Josiah focused on what he had: the Book of the Law and the Passover Meal, and he did his best to be faithful to God with those things.

To us, this is both a comfort and a challenge.  It’s a comfort because the call to faithfulness is actually a lot simpler than we sometimes fear it to be.  Here is the Bible: hear it, read it, learn it, study it, take it into your heart and mind.  Here are the Sacraments, receive them, participate in them.  In both Word and Sacrament, receive them by faith, and open yourself to the work of the Holy Spirit within you.  They are God’s most powerful tools to transform you.  And that’s also the challenge.  Do you trust that what God has provided is actually enough?  Is the Bible sufficient for telling you about God, or would you rather rely on other writings?  Are the Sacraments sufficient for putting you in connection with God, or would you rather rely on other experiences?  Christians of every tradition struggle with these challenges in one way or another.  Josiah was a good example of someone who trusted in them, though he did make mistakes at times.  Jesus, of course, is the perfect example; even though he redefined them for us, he also trusted in God’s Word and Sacraments.  He was the Word of God, yet he learned the Bible.  It is his death and resurrection into which we are baptized, yet he himself was baptized.

Do you trust that what God has provided is actually enough?  His grace is indeed sufficient for us, and he has shown us where to find it.  Come to the throne room with Josiah and hear the Book of the Law read to you.  Come to the Temple, and participate in the Passover with God’s people.  Come to the Church, not because it is a club for holy people, but because it is a hospital for sinners.  And there you will find that the prescriptions are the Bible, and the medicines are the Sacraments.  Come, let us be healed and strengthened by Christ; only then we can go and do likewise for others.

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Praying Psalm 38 in Lent

Have you ever felt guilty, and sorry for something that you did wrong?  Has the sting of your own sin ever pierced your heart?  This is an experience that can be tricky to handle.  Our culture generally encourages us to pursue a life of self-fulfillment, giving no place to guilt in our lives at all.  If we have wronged someone, sure, we should apologize, but in the end it’s more important that we move on and be happy again.

Even among many Christians, this sort of mentality has been taken up and given pious language.  God is a God of forgiveness and mercy, we’re told.  As far as the East is from the West, so far has he removed our sins from us.  There is no condemnation in Christ; we are set free from the penalty for sin!  Most of these are direct Scriptural quotes, not mere sentiment.  But does that mean a Christian should never feel guilty?

PSALM 38 – THE PRAYER OF A GUILTY CONSCIENCE

It’s probably best if you just go read this Psalm before continuing reading this blog post.  For those of the “live a guilt-free life” mindset, this Psalm will probably come across sounding rather foreign to their sense of spirituality.  Let’s break this down into sections.

  1. Verse 1 contains a plea for mercy.
  2. Verses 2-14 describe the misery of knowing one’s own sinfulness.
  3. Verses 15 & 16 express the reality that only God can deliver one from trouble.
  4. Verses 17-20 express our human inability to save ourselves or rely on one another.
  5. Verses 21 & 22 return to the beginning, offering to God a plea for mercy.

Now, perhaps the combination of ingredients in this psalm make sense to everybody.  You’ve got recognize your sinfulness in order to repent and turn it over to God, after all.  But to spend more time wallowing in the misery of your own sin… isn’t that un-Christian?

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free image from Pixabay.com

Despite the current fads in Christian devotions, this miserable self-examination is actually very biblical and appropriate for a Christian to undertake.  In my favorite pastoral manual, The Country Parson, by George Herbert, chapter 27 contains this interesting advice for pastors:

The Country Parson is generally sad, because he knows nothing but the Cross of Christ, his mind being fixed on it with those nails wherewith his Master was.  Or if he have any leisure to look off from thence, he meets continually with two most sad spectacles: Sin (God dishonored every day) and Misery (man afflicted).

This flies in the face of popular devotion today which insists that Christians are to be living a life characterized by joy.  Joy, after all, is a fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5.  However, a quick search through the New Testament for the word “mourn” reveals that there is indeed a proper place for mourning in the Christian life; and almost every reference to mourning is linked to the present reality of sin.  You see, if we are seeking to conform our mind, will, and heart to Christ, then sin will be truly grievous to us.  If we are to be desiring perfect union with Christ, then we will come to despise anything that holds us back from Him.  And, of course, nothing separates us from God more than sin.

With that in mind, take another look at Psalm 38.  It turns out to be a very godly and pious lament over how awful sin is.  When we dig into our hearts (with our spiritual eyes open), we always find sin, and when we’re in our right mind, that discovery is saddening.  Being sinful is like:

  • being shot by God’s Arrow of the Truth (or the Law). [v2]
  • loss of health. [v3]
  • a burden too heavy to bear (exactly as Anglicans pray in corporate confession). [v4]
  • having an infected flesh wound. [v5]
  • having collapsed in misery. [v6]
  • intense stomach pain. [v7]
  • the turmoil of feeling emotionally crushed. [v8]
  • longing and sighing for something lost. [v9]
  • losing all motivation to do good. [v10]
  • being separated from friends. [v11]
  • being marked and hunted by enemies. [v12]
  • being unable to express your pain or even to accept comfort. [v13]
  • being too overwhelmed even to lash out at anyone anymore. [v14]

Has your sin ever made you feel like this?

If not, then perhaps it’s time to have a careful heart-t0-heart with Jesus.  And I would strongly recommend seeking the help and guidance of a Priest or Pastor or Elder or other mature Christian leader.

If you have felt that misery due to your own sin, good.  Don’t feel guilty about feeling guilty.  We ought to mourn our sins as we discover them!  Allow Psalm 38 to help you express that guilt and mourning; may its words provide you with the words that perhaps you struggle to find on your own.

But, finally, don’t forget the last few verses of this Psalm!  Confession is not just about wallowing in your sins, but about handing them off to Christ on the Cross where they can be dealt with properly.  Our sins are more than we can bear, but Christ has borne them on the Cross!  When, as verse 17 says, you are ready to fall because the pain of your sin is constantly eating at you, then the time is ripe to confess your sins to God in your sorrow (verse 18).  Go ahead and name them out loud to Him.  Even do this with a Priest so you can hear God’s response of forgiveness audibly!  For, as the last line of the Psalm proclaims, God the Lord is “my salvation.”  We mourn and lament and confess in the complete trust that God can both handle it, and solve it. Real grief, properly worked through, is transformed to real joy.

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Funeral Colors: Black or White?

Funerals are one of the trickiest church services out there.  The person with whom the service spends the most attention (after God Almighty, of course), is no longer around for consultation on what the service should be like.  There is frequent tension between having a formal service with its comforting traditions and an informal service with a more personalized character.  How do we memoralized the dear departed adequately and appropriately, while still worship God only and keep the focus on Him?  A lot of people say that they want their funeral service to be happy, but for those who actually attend, it’s often their only chance to work through their grief and mourning together.

For some people, the subject of debate that I’m about to explore will seem strangely attentive to minutia that doesn’t matter: liturgical colors.  But, as I hope to explain along the way, the reasons behind the traditions of the Church carry not just aesthetic appeal, but serious theological conviction and even (at times) a didactic (meaning “teaching”) value.  The question I’m working through here is whether the liturgical color of a funeral should be black or white.

The Contemporary Option

Since the 1960’s, a massive movement known as the liturgical renewal swept across the Western Church.  This is responsible for much of the content of the revolutionary 1979 Episcopalian prayer book, the Roman Catholic Mass in languages other than Latin, contemporary music  introduced into many previously hymns-only congregations, a simplification of liturgical calendars, and the adoption of new lectionaries in many different traditions, including even some Protestant denominations that previously hadn’t used any lectionary at all.

One of the more specific details that came out of this movement was that funeral services changed from having black-colored vestments for the clergy and church décor to having white instead.  What does white signify here?

White is a picture of holiness.  It’s the color used for Easter and Christmas and several other major holidays throughout the year.  It portrays the sanctity of Christ, the holiness of His Bride the Church, and the perfection that we Christians are headed for at the end of the age.  In the book of the Revelation, all the saints are seen to be wearing white robes for this very reason.

White emphasizes the resurrection.  Rather than dwelling on death, white points the liturgical participants’ attention toward the resurrection of Christ which gives us the solid hope of our own bodily resurrection at the end of the age.  It takes us away from mourning the departed and directs us toward rejoicing in the victorious work of Christ.  Rather than emphasizing the power of sin and evil that is death, we emphasize the power of God that overcomes death.

The Old Requiem Black

Black, as one might expect from a number of Scripture’s illustrations, is a picture of sin.  As a liturgical color, black was particularly used for funerals (or requiem masses), Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and probably some other similar days of intense fasting and penitence.  I say “was used”, because one of the simplifications that came with the Liturgical Renewal Movement was the almost complete elimination of black vestments across the board.  You have to find a particularly traditionalist parish who’ll still use the black on such occasions.

Anyway, as a picture of sin, black as a liturgical color emphasizes the need for repentance.  We are all sinners before God’s feet, and the fact that evil and death exist in the world is the most vivid reminder of the reality of the reign of sin in this present world.  Therefore death is a time of mourning – not only emotionally, but spiritually as well!  Yes, we grieve the loss of loved ones, and need time to work through that pain.  But in addition to that, deaths remind us that sin is still a power that has a nasty sting, and we’re reminded that we, too, will die someday.  It is a somber and sobering thing!

Black acknowledges a victory of the Devil.  Despite the Christian knowledge that Jesus reigns and shall overturn and defeat even death itself at the end, the present reality is that death still happens.  And not only that, death is the just punishment for our sins!  Yes, we have faith in the salvation wrought for us by Christ on the Cross, and yes we have a reasonable hope of escaping the Second Death, but for this limited time, evil and death have their way with us.

Shortcomings

As I’ve presented them thus far, both the old and new traditions have their positive values.  Now we turn to the shortcomings of each color.  And, as is often the case in many areas, their strengths tend also to be their weaknesses.

White is a very forward-looking choice for a funeral.  It points us past the present reality of death, past the grief we are experiencing, and towards the Day of great joy when the dead are raised and God’s people are bodily reunited with one another and their Lord for ever after.  The problem is, it all-too-easily pushes out all room for mourning and grief whatsoever.  “Yes your beloved friend died, but she’ll come back at the end of the age, so you should be happy!”  It’s emotionally discordant with the hearts of the people in the congregation.  As one celebrant observed, the funeral service is most folks’ last opportunity to say goodbye.  No matter how you slice it, that is a very sad moment, and the joyful message of liturgical white creates cognitive dissonance.

The problem with black, on the other hand, rather than false and forced joy, is excessive morbidity.  If the visual reminders of human sinfulness are over-emphasized, the Christian’s reasonable hope of resurrection to eternal glory may end up obscured.  After all, if Christ is supposed to be our victorious King, why should we spend time dwelling on the interim period where His reign is not yet fully manifest?

Grief & Hope

The primary dynamic in this white v. black debate, I think, is the reality of grief on one hand and the reality of our hope on the other.  In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, we read:

But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.

Saint Paul notes both grief and hope as proper Christian responses to death.  Our hope is in the Resurrection of the Dead.  Our grief is in the separation from our loved ones caused by death.  Sometimes people misunderstand these verses, and assert that Christians should not grieve death at all.  That is a horrific misunderstanding of this verse.  What Paul wrote is that we should not grieve as other do who have no hope.  We definitely do grieve!  The important thing is that our grief exists alongside a joy-giving hope of resurrection beyond death.

So the value of white’s hope and black’s grief are both Scriptural and pastoral.  Is one better than the other, though, and why?

My Opinion: Black is best.

There are two reasons I prefer the message of the black vestments at funerals over white one is cultural, the other theological, and both with pastoral concern in mind.

Culturally, we in the West have a strange relationship with death.  In one sense we’re obsessed with it – killing babies in the womb, producing increasingly violent TV shows and movies, and almost obsessed at times with zombies and vampires and post-apocalyptic story settings.  But at the same time we vehemently ignore death as much as possible.  Talking about one’s own future death is practically a taboo.  We fill our fantasies with death because we want death to be fantasy, and not a reality.  As a result, when someone we know and care about actually dies, we don’t know what to do.  With infant mortality so rare compared to much of world history and so many of our elderly population hidden from sight in special care facilities, death is almost always a surprise when it confronts us publicly.  And with that limited exposure to real death, we don’t learn how to mourn properly.

In church, at a funeral service, is one of the only opportunities people have to mourn together.  Pastors, I think, need to provide people with that space, and help walk them through that process.  This is not to say that one funeral service will ever suffice to bring people through the whole grieving process and give them immediate closure!  But the funeral is the only opportunity (in most cases) to provide a public expression of grief that can be shared.  After all, both good times and bad times bring people together.  The emphasis on grief represented by liturgical black provides exactly what the culture around us does not, these days.

Theologically, the death of a human being is evil and unnatural.  It is a result of sin, nothing else.  God did not create humans to whither and die, but to live forever with Him; only the human acceptance of sin in the Garden of Eden brought decay and death into our otherwise-perfect human nature.  Therefore, even though death can be appreciated as a release from suffering, and even though the departed souls remain in God’s hands, it is still wrong.  Humans weren’t meant to have their souls and bodies separated!

A frequent mistake we make concerning death is to act as though the Resurrection on the Last Day is merely a spiritual event that occurs with death.  The body dies and the soul is “freed of its burden” to be with God in Paradise.  That is not the Christian Gospel, that is Gnostic heresy.  The body is good, and our souls belong with our bodies!  By wearing white vestments funerals to celebrate the future resurrection all-too-easily ends up being a miscommunication about the departed soul’s state.  Heaven and Hell are not where dead people go, but where the Resurrected people go on the Last Day of Judgment.  Yes, the souls of the faithful departed are “in the hands of God” enjoying foretastes of their respective final destinations, but the final definite entering into glory face to face with Christ does not occur until they get their bodies back at the End.

In all things, charity

Of course, the preference to express the funeral reality with black vestments is my own opinion, and I may well be in the minority.  I don’t condemn those who choose and prefer white.  I would not refuse to wear white vestments if I were assisting another clergyman at a funeral.  But insofar that I get to have a say in the matter, I will advocate for black.  I write this not only to explain my reasoning, but also in the hopes that I may help this “old” tradition make a proper come-back.

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Praying Psalm 32 in Lent

When I first being introduced to the liturgical tradition of prayer (while serving as pianist at Roman Catholic Masses during college), something that struck me as strange was how much time the prayers spent telling God what He had already done.  “Why are you telling God what already did?  Why don’t you just get on with making the petitions you want to ask Him?”  What I eventually learned is that this is not only healthy for the people praying to rehearse God’s deeds in prayer, but it’s also a very biblical pattern of prayer to preface requests with remembrances.  We highlight some aspect of God’s being, character, or works, and on that basis we make our request(s).

Psalm 32:1-5, The Remembrance (or Memorial)

Psalm 32 is an excellent example of this pattern played out.  The first five verses are all about the past.

Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”;
then you did forgive the guilt of my sin.

Of course, this need not be past-tense only, but a reminder that when we fail to repent and “declare not [our] sin” to God, we waste away, and when we “acknowledge [our] sin” to God, He forgives the guilt of our sin.  By remembering the pattern of how God has worked in the past, and more importantly, what God has promised he will do, we spur ourselves and one another on to the right and godly discipline of confession.

We think back on the days of our impenitence – our bodies “wasted away”, we groaned “all day long”, God’s hand of discipline was heavy on us, trying to make realize that we needed to stop and look up, because our strength was “dried up,” having turned away from His ways.  It is when we repented and sought amendment of life through God’s mercy and transforming grace our lives turned around for the better.  Even on a simpler level, the days on which I pray more are the days that I feel less stress and discouragement, even if I’m still just as busy.  Even temptations to sin are often less enticing when I’ve spent time in prayer.  If I pay attention, and “acknowledge my sin” and not try to “hide my iniquity,” it makes a real difference.

Psalm 32:6, The Sermon (or Homily)

Sometimes when people pray, it sounds like a mini-sermon.  This can happen both in formal liturgical settings and in contemporary worship scenarios.  Stereotypically, the lead member of the church’s band might pray an awkwardly long prayer that sounds more like  preaching than praying while other band members have time to change their setup.  This can often come across as tacky, but even this does have its scriptural precedent.  The next verse of Psalm 32 is basically a one-sentence homily.

Therefore let every one who is godly offer prayer to thee;
at a time of distress, in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him.

This takes the memorial of God’s faithfulness in forgiving sin in the past and applies it as a lesson for everyone: it is a godly thing to pray when distress (and, implicitly by the context of the previous verses, to confess our sins to God), for when we do, the rushing water of disaster caused by our sins will not reach us.

Psalm 32:7-11, Responsive Reading (or Dialogue)

Another feature of liturgical worship that has fallen by the wayside in many Evangelical churches today is the practice of responsive readings – where one person reads a short verse (sometimes called a versicle) and the whole congregations responds with another short verse.  And this goes back and forth.  Once again, Psalm 32 gives us an example of this, as it mulls over its mini-sermon.

[Me] You are a hiding place for me, you preserve me from trouble;
you encompass me with deliverance.
[God] I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not keep with you.
[Me]Many are the pangs of the wicked;
but steadfast love surrounds him who trusts in the LORD.
Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

I inserted where the voice of the prayer is from “me” and from God.  This happens a lot in the Psalms, actually – this switching of voices between God speaking, and the person praying speaking.   And even the audience shifts sometimes, such that the person speaks to other (like the mini-sermon in this Psalm, or the rebuke against Evil in Psalm 6).  Sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes it’s confusing to keep track of.

This dialogue at the end of Psalm 32 begins with a sort of thank-you from the person praying, acknowledging God’s provision of safety in times of trouble.  Sin might have gotten the better of me at those times, but you, O Lord, were my “hiding place”!  In that hiding place, God then says that He will teach and guide us and watch over us so that we can learn how to live better.  But we have to be smart, pay attention, and not respond like an animal as if God’s just trying to control us “without understanding”.  He wants us to be actively part of our sanctification, our growth in Christ to become like Christ.

Finally, we respond in agreement, acknowledging that trusting in God is the best way to live.  If we don’t trust God, then we won’t be surrounded by his love.  Does this mean that people who don’t trust God aren’t loved by God? Think of it like a hug.  If you are hugged by someone you trust, you feel like “steadfast love surrounds” you.  But if the one hugging you is not someone you trust, or worse, someone you hate, then that hug will be a source of fear, even pain.  As this final part of the Psalm says, “many are the pangs of the wicked.”  But we who trust in God can be glad in Him and rejoice and shout for joy.

The End (or Goal or Telos) of Penitence

One of the reasons that so many modern Christian traditions have almost completely abandoned prayers of confession in their worship services is because they sound gloomy, morbid, and unhappy… and the Holy Spirit is supposed to make us rejoice in the power of Jesus!  But that is a misunderstanding of penitence and confession.  While they are indeed moments of seriousness and even sadness, they properly lead to the true Christian joy of forgiveness.  From beginning to middle to end, Psalm 32 teaches us this great lesson of true spiritual worship:

Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit…

Therefore let every one who is godly offer prayer to thee;
at a time of distress, in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him…

Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

The movement of contrition to joy is clear throughout this Psalm.  As we examine our guilty consciences, bare our hearts before God together, and verbally confess our sins, we release their power over us and find that they are no longer sins counted against us, but are instead the nails that affixed Christ to his Cross.  Thus our initial sadness over own sins turns to a mix of sadness and joy we see our sins removed, but our Savior pierced for our transgressions, and finally, turns to pure joy as we recall his glorious resurrection and ascension to God’s right hand.

The gloomy and heart-wrenching work of confession leads us to the true joy of forgiveness.  This is the good news of Christ, after all – the way of suffering leads to the way of glory.  Let it never be said that the Psalms don’t preach the Gospel!

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