Friday, December 28, 2012

The Reason for the Season

You may have heard the phrase bandied about or even on the sign when you entered this building: "Jesus is the Reason for the Season."  This is usually a statement in response to the overcommercialization of Christmas by the culture, and this is true, but the solution to this problem is not just remembering Jesus at this time of the year.  We can remember that he is the reason for the season, we can stop ruining his birthday, but do we understand WHY he is the reason for the season?

The reason is in the words Jesus spoke to Philip in John 14: "I am the way, the truth, and the life."  Before the incarnation of Christ, we were dead in our sins.  There was nothing for us beyond death.  We hit it like a wall, and that was it--the end.  Now, with Jesus' incarnation, his death and resurrection, he has punched a hole through this wall of death to the other side, where there lay a new form of life for his children.  This is an imperishable, everlasting life.  Now, the hole is small, and none of us can find it.  It takes God's guidance to lead us to the pinhole in death and through to the other side.

Christ was with God from the beginning.  He has always been from the beginning.  But it took the incarnation, it took the human form, for the God-Man to do the thing that none of us could do, and that God the Father could not do as the first person--the mind--of the trinity.  It took the second person of the trinity--the Word--to become flesh and take upon himself the sins of the whole world, to distract death, to impute his righteousness to us, and to smuggle his children--the ones who believe in him--through that hole to the other side of death--to everlasting life.

This Christmas season don't just remember that Jesus is the Reason for the Season, also remember that the reason is a single and amazing way for God to save his children from destruction.  We had no way, and now we have a way.  Thank God that we have a way.


In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever." (Luke 1:39-55)

Let's look for the Holy Spirit in this passage.  Often we overlook what the Holy Spirit has done to Elizabeth, because we are too busy focusing on what it does to John the Baptist in his mother's womb.  Look!  The unborn child leaped for joy in the presence of his Lord!  How neat!  But look at Elizabeth now.  "When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting!"  Luke makes a point that it is upon hearing Mary's greeting that she is filled with the Holy Spirit.  And Mary's greeting didn't contain, "It is I, Mary, who has been told by an Angel that I will carry our Lord and I believed the angel!"  Mary didn't send a messenger ahead of her.

No, the Holy Spirit has given Elizabeth the understanding of things beyond her human capacity.  All Mary has to do is share a greeting and Elizabeth is aware of who the baby is in her cousin's womb.  Elizabeth also knows that Mary believed the conversation between herself and the angel.  Elizabeth has an acute understanding of reality beyond what is capable by a human being unaided by the supernatural.

There are three kinds of understanding--three levels, so to speak.  There's purely human understanding, which involves research and study of books.  Usually, purely human understanding ignores the supernatural, doesn't believe in God, and therefore ignores over half of reality.  There is more heaven than earth, so the lack of understanding when we take out the supernatural is way over half.  Sir Isaac Newton is probably the greatest scientist who ever lived, and I believe it was because he was a true believer and took into account the Godly realm when he engaged in science.

Think about a painter who only fills half the canvas and then says he's done.  Try reading a novel and only going through the first chapter before putting it down and saying that you're finished.  We're getting less than half of the whole picture.  Strictly human understanding is inadequate at best.

Then there's the understanding of the externally supernatural.  If we look at the passage before this gospel passage, when Mary is receiving her information from an angel, we see that he fills her in on what is happening on Elizabeth's end.  Mary has not received the Holy Spirit yet.  She is getting her information from external means, but here is the angel filling in Mary on what is happening in Elizabeth's life.  Elizabeth hadn't sent out a Christmas letter to her family--this is new news for Mary, just like the information that Elizabeth gleaned through the Holy Spirit.

Likewise in the gospel of Matthew, Joseph is intent on quietly divorcing Mary, but an angel of the Lord comes to him in a dream.  This is the second level of understanding at work again.  Think of your own dreams.  Have you ever done a repetitive job or activity, like data entry, and then it started infiltrating your dreams?  Think about how much of the worldly culture we intake from day to day.  Then we wonder why we keep having dreams about our favorite sitcoms and don't get messages from the Lord.

Now there's the third and highest level of understanding, which is what Elizabeth exhibits.  The Holy Spirit is so powerful in Mary now that John leaps for joy and Elizabeth is filled.  The Holy Spirit provides perfect understanding of a subject.  We will never see the whole picture that God himself sees, but on a particular subject we can have a more complete understanding by not only accepting the supernatural aspect of it, but by being open to the Holy Spirit's prompting.  When reading scripture, these stories about other people in other times and places become relevant to us, because the Holy Spirit pulls the meaning and message out of the text for us to apply to our lives.

What does being filled with the Holy Spirit look like?  Just one part of Mary's song informs us: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.  What does a soul magnifying the Lord look like?  Well, it is one that rejoices in God as the savior.  We may have assurance of our salvation, but do we find ourselves rejoicing at this knowledge?  And not just our external human selves but our inner souls.  Do our deepest selves rejoice at the knowledge that the creator of the universe has saved us from destruction?  Or are we so numbed by the culture that we can't move ourselves to feel anything anymore?

Let us pray that God continues to fill us with Holy Spirit, so that we may have the fullest understanding possible, and that our souls may magnify the Lord and rejoice in our salvation.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Eucharist and Evening Prayer

Every Sunday Morning at 11am the church meets at 205 E Baltic St in Nags Head for Holy Eucharist.  Our music is quiet and contemplative with flute and/or violin.  We sing in unison.  The service is traditional and liturgical, with reverence for our Lord.  We move through the liturgy of the Word, with scripture readings, a bible-based sermon, and prayers; we provide words of encouragement and testimony; and finally we come to the table together for Holy Communion.  The service lasts about an hour and 15 minutes.  Usually there is coffee and conversation afterward.

Each Wednesday we meet at the Johnson's residence (please call the church for directions) at 7pm for Evening Prayer and Small Groups.  We sing together a few Hymns from the 1982 Hymnal and use the Evening Prayer Rite II service from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.  After Evening Prayer, which takes no more than 30 minutes, we split into small groups that are engaged in scripture or book study.  These groups meet for about an hour.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Pilgrim's Progress

Christiana: There are strange opinions in the world. I know one that said, it was time enough to repent when we come to die.
Mr. Great-Heart: Such are not overwise; that man would have been loth, might he have had a week to run twenty miles in his life, to defer his journey to the last hour of that week.

Resting in God's Love

The theme of all of our readings this morning can be summarized in the first song of Isaiah, the phrase, "I will trust and not be afraid."  In the face of the horrible tragedy that happened in Connecticut a few days ago, this is difficult to do.  How can we trust in God and not be afraid?  When evil like this happens, we focus on it and try to solve it as if God was nowhere to be found.  We demand God get out of our lives, our country, and then we demand to know where God is when the tragedy happens.

We try to rationalize things in our minds.  I talked with a woman who said, "God wanted a bouquet of children, and so he called them home."  Not only was this rationalization disturbing, but it is also biblically wrong.  Our God is not Zeus.  In addition to the rationalizations, we come up with worthless solutions that will never succeed, because we've lost focus on the creator.  Without God, the fear of evil is all we have.  It's our only motivator.  It's tangible.  We can see the evil happen, and the solutions we provide can be seen, too.  All of this politicizing and posturing helps us to keep forgetting about God and to keep him far away from the solution.

Fear of evil and death are unhealthy fears.  The only healthy fear is fear of God himself.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and without that healthy fear, we are running around in circles.  How do we restore the healthy fear of God and put our unhealthy fears of evil and death back in the proper places?

I think the solution lies in a small phrase in Zephaniah 3:17.  The phrase in the NRSV reads, "he will renew you in his love."  The actual translation directly from the Hebrew is closer to "He rests in His love."  Notice that there is no "you" in there.  There's another man-o-centric change we made to the text.  What we are talking about is that God rests in his own love.

When we think about the phrase this way, it changes the meaning of "love" for us.  For us, love always means something that we bestow on each other.  I give you my love.  You give me your love.  God gives us His love.  The implication is, though, that the love can be taken away, too.  I will take away my love.  I know people who grew up loved by their parents but in fear that the same love would be taken away at any minute.  We use the clause, "in love," but we still think of something given and taken away.

Love is not like that, but even as adults, we can't get our minds around what love really is.  We cannot stop thinking of it as an object that can be given and taken away at will.  But here, in this little phrase, "He rests in His love," we have a different view of love.  God is that of which no greater thing can be thought.  We cannot conceive of anything bigger than God, and when we do, we must go one bigger to get to God.  Think of the universe, now go one bigger and that's God.  God is the largest thing in existence.  Now, read the phrase again: "He rests in His love."  Do you see it?  God's love is even bigger than God is!  We know from the first letter of John that God is love, but in this phrase from Zephaniah, we can see the love of God extending in all directions in space and time, from BEFORE the creation of anything to eternity.  God's love is so vast that we cannot help but find ourselves immersed in it.  Remember, He created us and He sustains us.  We are immersed in his love at all times.

Now, these bursts of evil and death, the things we fear as mortals, these things are not vast and expansive like the love that God himself rests in.  Evil and death are staccato.  They are little bits of debris that drop into the sea of God's love and distract us from reality.  In our natural states we seek out these bits of evil and death and we cling to them like flotation devices.  The problem is that we are in advent, and God will scoop those bits of debris out of the water with a big pool net at the judgment day.  We do not want to be clinging to these pieces of debris.  We want to let go and float off into the vast sea of God's love.

Let us pray that God will pry our fingers from these broken pieces of evil and death.  As is says in our Philippians passage, "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."  God, grant us the peace which surpasses all understanding.  Let us rest in your love with you.  Deliver us from evil.  Let us trust in you and not be afraid.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sandy Daniels' testimony of divine help receivied through John Newton's letters

Some years ago Sandy compiled a number of quotations from John Newton on the subject of suffering as a Christian trusting in the Sovereignty of God. It was her testimony then and continues to be. Her husband Rick has made a scan of this and the PDF file is now available online. May the Lord be pleased to use it to help us all to look to Him in every trouble.

Click to view document

Pilgrim's Progress: Fear of the Lord

Then Christian addressed himself thus to his fellow:
Christian: Well, come, my good Hopeful, I perceive that thou and I must walk by ourselves again.
So I saw in my dream, that they went on apace before, and Ignorance he came hobbling after. Then said Christian to his companion, I much pity this poor man: it will certainly go ill with him at last.
Hopeful: Alas! there are abundance in our town in his condition, whole families, yea, whole streets, and that of pilgrims too; and if there be so many in our parts, how many, think you, must there be in the place where he was born?
Christian: Indeed, the word saith, “He hath blinded their eyes, lest they should see,” etc.
But, now we are by ourselves, what do you think of such men? Have they at no time, think you, convictions of sin, and so, consequently, fears that their state is dangerous?
Hopeful: Nay, do you answer that question yourself, for you are the elder man.
Christian: Then I say, sometimes (as I think) they may; but they being naturally ignorant, understand not that such convictions tend to their good; and therefore they do desperately seek to stifle them, and presumptuously continue to flatter themselves in the way of their own hearts.
Hopeful: I do believe, as you say, that fear tends much to men’s good, and to make them right at their beginning to go on pilgrimage.
Christian: Without all doubt it doth, if it be right; for so says the word, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 9:10.
Hopeful: How will you describe right fear?
Christian: True or right fear is discovered by three things:
1. By its rise; it is caused by saving convictions for sin.
2. It driveth the soul to lay fast hold of Christ for salvation.
3. It begetteth and continueth in the soul a great reverence of God, his word, and ways; keeping it tender, and making it afraid to turn from them, to the right hand or to the left, to any thing that may dishonor God, break its peace, grieve the Spirit, or cause the enemy to speak reproachfully.
Hopeful: Well said; I believe you have said the truth. Are we now almost got past the Enchanted Ground?
Christian: Why? are you weary of this discourse?
Hopeful: No, verily, but that I would know where we are.
Christian: We have not now above two miles further to go thereon. But let us return to our matter.
Now, the ignorant know not that such conviction as tend to put them in fear, are for their good, and therefore they seek to stifle them.
Hopeful: How do they seek to stifle them?
Christian: 1. They think that those fears are wrought by the devil, (though indeed they are wrought of God,) and thinking so, they resist them, as things that directly tend to their overthrow. 2. They also think that these fears tend to the spoiling of their faith; when, alas for them, poor men that they are, they have none at all; and therefore they harden their hearts against them. 3. They presume they ought not to fear, and therefore, in despite of them, wax presumptuously confident. 4. They see that those fears tend to take away from them their pitiful old self-holiness, and therefore they resist them with all their might.
Hopeful: I know something of this myself; for before I knew myself it was so with me.
Christian: Well, we will leave, at this time, our neighbor Ignorance by himself, and fall upon another profitable question.
Hopeful: With all my heart; but you shall still begin.
Christian: Well then, did you not know, about ten years ago, one Temporary in your parts, who was a forward man in religion then?
Hopeful: Know him! yes; he dwelt in Graceless, a town about two miles off of Honesty, and he dwelt next door to one Turnback.
Christian: Right; he dwelt under the same roof with him. Well, that man was much awakened once: I believe that then he had some sight of his sins, and of the wages that were due thereto.
Hopeful: I am of your mind, for (my house not being above three miles from him) he would oft-times come to me, and that with many tears. Truly I pitied the man, and was not altogether without hope of him; but one may see, it is not every one that cries, “Lord, Lord!”
Christian: He told me once that he was resolved to go on pilgrimage, as we go now; but all of a sudden he grew acquainted with one Save-self, and then he became a stranger to me.
Hopeful: Now, since we are talking about him, let us a little inquire into the reason of the sudden backsliding of him and such others.
Christian: It may be very profitable; but do you begin.
Hopeful: Well, then, there are, in my judgment, four reasons for it:
1. Though the consciences of such men are awakened, yet their minds are not changed: therefore, when the power of guilt weareth away, that which provoked them to be religious ceaseth; wherefore they naturally turn to their own course again; even as we see the dog that is sick of what he hath eaten, so long as his sickness prevails, he vomits and casts up all; not that he doth this of a free mind, (if we may say a dog has a mind,) but because it troubleth his stomach: but now, when his sickness is over, and so his stomach eased, his desires being not at all alienated from his vomit, he turns him about, and licks up all; and so it is true which is written, “The dog is turned to his own vomit again.” 2 Pet. 2:22. Thus, I say, being hot for heaven, by virtue only of the sense and fear of the torments of hell, as their sense and fear of damnation chills and cools, so their desires for heaven and salvation cool also. So then it comes to pass, that when their guilt and fear is gone, their desires for heaven and happiness die, and they return to their course again.
2. Another reason is, they have slavish fears that do overmaster them: I speak now of the fears that they have of men; “For the fear of man bringeth a snare.” Prov. 29:25. So then, though they seem to be hot for heaven so long as the flames of hell are about their ears, yet, when that terror is a little over, they betake themselves to second thoughts, namely, that it is good to be wise and not to run (for they know not what) the hazard of losing all, or at least of bringing themselves into unavoidable and unnecessary troubles; and so they fall in with the world again.
3. The shame that attends religion lies also as a block in their way: they are proud and haughty, and religion in their eye is low and contemptible: therefore when they have lost their sense of hell and the wrath to come, they return again to their former course.
4. Guilt, and to meditate terror, are grievous to them; they like not to see their misery before they come into it; though perhaps the sight of at it first, if they loved that sight, might make them fly whither the righteous fly and are safe; but because they do, as I hinted before, even shun the thoughts of guilt and terror, therefore, when once they are rid of their awakenings about the terrors and wrath of God, they harden their hearts gladly, and choose such ways as will harden them more and more.
Christian: You are pretty near the business, for the bottom of all is for want of a change in their mind and will. And therefore they are but like the felon that standeth before the judge: he quakes and trembles, and seems to repent most heartily, but the bottom of all is the fear of the halter: not that he hath any detestation of the offence, as it is evident; because, let but this man have his liberty, and he will be a thief, and so a rogue still; whereas, if his mind was changed, he would be otherwise.
Hopeful: Now I have showed you the reason of their going back, do you show me the manner thereof.
Christian: So I will willingly.
1. They draw off their thoughts, all that they may, from the remembrance of God, death, and judgment to come.
2. Then they cast off by degrees private duties, as closet prayer, curbing their lusts, watching, sorrow for sin, and the like.
3. Then they shun the company of lively and warm Christians.
4. After that, they grow cold to public duty, as hearing, reading, godly conference, and the like.
5. They then begin to pick holes, as we say, in the coats of some of the godly, and that devilishly, that they may have a seeming color to throw religion (for the sake of some infirmities they have espied in them) behind their backs.
6. Then they begin to adhere to, and associate themselves with, carnal, loose, and wanton men.
7. Then they give way to carnal and wanton discourses in secret; and glad are they if they can see such things in any that are counted honest, that they may the more boldly do it through their example.
8. After this they begin to play with little sins openly.
9. And then, being hardened, they show themselves as they are. Thus, being launched again into the gulf of misery, unless a miracle of grace prevent it, they everlastingly perish in their own deceivings.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Pilgrim's Progress

Thus they lay bewailing themselves in the net. At last they espied a Shining One coming towards them with a whip of small cords in his hand. When he was come to the place where they were, he asked them whence they came, and what they did there. They told him that they were poor pilgrims going to Zion...  So he rent the net, and let the men out. Then said he to them, Follow me, that I may set you in your way again. So he led them back to the way which they had left... Then he asked them, saying, Where did you lie the last night? They said, With the shepherds upon the Delectable Mountains. He asked them then if they had not of the shepherds a note of direction for the way. They answered, Yes. But did you not, said he, when you were at a stand, pluck out and read your note? They answered, No. He asked them, Why? They said they forgot.

[When we are at a stand, let us remember to pluck out and read our notes (Bibles)!]

Monday, December 3, 2012

On Murals, Novels, and Orbits

"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man." (Luke 21:25-36)

This first Sunday in Advent, we don't yet get to the story of John the Baptist.  We don't get to Mary or Joseph.  That comes later.  This Sunday is a reminder that we are in Advent.  We are in the middle of the second Advent, at the end of which Jesus will come a second time.  We are going to hear some amazing stories in the upcoming weeks, and over the next church year, and this first Sunday is a reminder not to get too distracted by the beauty.  Jesus still is coming.

But look at those verses about the signs that Jesus is coming soon.  We don't know exactly when this is going to happen, but this passage tells us that we will know when it is close.  Of course we are living in a time where we are constantly hearing fellow Christians say, "this is it!"  Times can't seem any worse.  Did you read the news today?  Jesus will probably be here later tonight!

But we have to remember that every generation thinks this.  Oh no!  Rome has fallen!  It's time!  World War II: this must be it!  But it never seems to happen.  What is God thinking?  We've talked about this before: God is the only one who can see the big picture.  There is a vast, beautiful mural that only God can see in its entirety.  Ours are covered with ugly wallpaper, and God peels up a corner for us.  And the more we study scripture and live our lives in God's word, the more of the mural we see, but its always a corner--just a piece--of the big picture.  God is the only one who can see the whole mural.

As St. Peter writes, to God, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day.  Remember those science shows that told us that if we laid out the history of the world as if it were a calendar year, mankind would only take up the last seven seconds?  Well, God takes all that in and can see those seven seconds all at once.  God created everything, and he sustains everything, each moment, and he also keeps in mind each moment coming before this moment and each moment after. He sees the whole mural.  He sees the beginning of creation.  He sees Noah's ark.  He sees Christ on the cross.  He sees your face.  He sees the end of everything--all of this at one time.  He holds everything in perfect context.  He wants to think of each one of us in context with all of creation and the sacrifice of his son.

When Charles Dickens finished David Copperfield, he was sad to have to end the book, he loved the characters so much.  He said that he had written everything there was to say about them, so he was done, but he missed them.  The book is over 900 pages.  Now, imagine God writing a 900 page book about everyone who ever lived or will live, all combined in one book.  Except this isn't an entire novel.  This is only the preface to the actual novel.  The actual novel begins after this second Advent is over.  Some of the characters won't make it to chapter one, even though they were important in the lives of the characters who WILL make it to chapter one.  The characters who will make it seem to be getting fewer and fewer all the time.  Of course, Jesus Christ is the protagonist.  The story is all about him.

Jesus is the gravitational center of the universe.  We all orbit around him like planets orbiting the sun.  Let's say we start in Earth's orbit.  Every decision we make, every thought we think, every action we take brings us into a closer orbit to the sun or a further orbit away from it.  There are no neutral decisions in life.  Some of us are nearing the orbit of Venus.  The saints of history were around Mercury.  A wrong decision could take us out beyond Jupiter.  Some people are like Halley's comet, coming in very close to the sun and then heading out beyond Pluto.  Scientists say that when our sun eventually dies, it will become a red giant, and its edge will then encompass the orbit of Earth.  As a metaphor for our walk with God, we want to be inside the edge of that red giant when the star dies--when the second Advent ends.  Let us find ourselves inside that crucial orbit, where the edge of the sun lay, so that we may find ourselves in chapter one of the great novel.