Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Sermon on St. John 1:29-42

St. John 1:29-42

I think it is always a good idea that we challenge ourselves. It is healthy to ask ourselves questions we would not normally ask. For example, I think it is healthy for us to ask ourselves this question–"Why do we come to church like we do?" Why is it a regular part of our week? I suppose we could cite several reasons such as, "we did it when we were kids. We watched our parents come to church regularly. Coming to church may help shape our children's morals. We have friends here at church–it's a place to be social."

But as society continues to shift and become more ungodly, there will be less and less people who can say that they watched their parents go to church week in and week out. Fewer people can boast that they went to church as children. There are also plenty of atheists who have good morals and teach their children proper behavior. Church is also diminishing as a place to find social activity.

How does the church respond to an increasingly ignorant and independent populace? The church has not always enjoyed praise and honor from society. The church catholic has not always been looked upon with favor. We have plenty of examples from church history that demonstrate outright hostility toward Christ, the church, and its message for the world.

In those times of persecution amidst the world's denial of the holy things, the church still carried on, it still had a message, and there were people who gathered around altars to hear an ordained man adorned in robes preach a message and celebrate the Holy Eucharist. What was the dynamic that kept a people coming to church even when the world mocked the faith? I am going to suggest that the reasons the saints gathered around an altar amidst persecution is much the same as the reason that you gather around the altar on a regular basis.

In other words, there is one, fundamental reason that is at the root of it all. You may be able to cite several reasons you come to church, but there is one predominant force. This reason can be found in the Bible, in the Old Testament and the New Testament. John the Baptist tells us what it is in our gospel text. John says, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit'"(St. John 1:32-33).

Then John says, "And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God." The reason is simple--revelation. John said, "I did not know him," but this is hard to believe considering John's mother and the virgin Mary were relatives. So, what does John mean when he says, "I did not know Him?" It must mean that John did not know that Jesus was God beyond a reasonable doubt apart from revelation. In other words, John's faith that Jesus was God came not from his reason or his human speculation. He didn't "put the pieces together."

John came to believe that Jesus was God because of revelation. Faith in Jesus was revealed to John through something holy and divine. It came through a verbal word, which John received from God: "Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit." John, being a prophet, received this divine revelation from God and then he saw it come to pass before his very eyes.

The prophetic and apostolic apprehending of the faith is not the result of speculation or careful investigation like the world thinks. Secularists write books and movies to try to paint Christianity as a myth. By doing so, they demonstrate to the church that they have no idea what all of this is about. Prophetic apprehending of the faith comes through revelation(that is Old Testament). New Testament apprehending of the faith comes upon the gift of the Holy Spirit of truth.

John is telling us in our gospel that this comes from something heavenly and holy. Faith comes by God entering our world and landing upon us. John is telling us that his faith in Jesus being God comes from divine revelation. "I did not know him but I saw the dove descend and land upon Him." St. Paul can't help but come off the same way when he writes to the church at Corinth. You should go home and read 1 Corinthians 2 in its entirety.

At one point St. Paul says, "we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written: eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him. But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God.

This is what the world doesn't understand. Belief in Jesus Christ as our God and Savior comes not through worldly speculation. This salvation and faith comes to us through the power of the Holy Spirit. This faith to which we all hold comes today through preaching. So, to get back to my question at the start–"Why do we come to church like we do?"

What is this that we are doing? If you said that you have something in common with John the Baptist and St. Paul, then you are on to something. Holiness comes through God's revelation to the world. Today that revelation comes to us through the message that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead on the third day. He did this bearing your sins. He died for you. You won't have the voice of God thundering to you from the sky like it did for the prophets. You will not have a road to Damascus moment like St. Paul did.

For you and me, God's revelation comes through the Holy Scriptures and this holy preachment. This is why St. Paul says "I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified." You come to church to hear the divine message. The Holy Spirit comes to you through this preaching and it changes your heart and cultivates your soul. We gather to hear God's revelation through the scriptures that we are set free from our sins and we are holy.

This is what Epiphany means–it means that God is made known to us through divine revelation. It means that God is revealed to us. It happened to John, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Moses, Abraham, Zechariah and all the prophets. It happened to St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Luke, St. Mark, St. John and all the apostles. It has happened to the saints who have gone before us in the faith, and it happens to people who hear the Gospel, finding peace in Christ's love and forgiveness and salvation.

You have heard it today through John's message that Jesus is the Christ, the Lamb of God and the message will continue to ring through the air, and where that message is heard the Holy Spirit will bring life to a dying people and make them saints, just as He has done with you. In the holy name of Jesus. Amen.

+Fr. Chadius
2nd Sunday after Epiphany

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Bells and Pomegranates

I am fascinated by the elaborate nature of the tabernacle, the holiest of holies, the temple furnishings and Aaron's robe. Moses gives us explicit detail as to the character of Aaron's priestly robe.

We are told, "You shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue. There shall be an opening for his head in the middle of it; it shall have a woven binding all around its opening, like the opening in a coat of mail, so that it does not tear. And upon its hem you shall make pomegranates of blue, purple, and scarlet, all around its hem, and bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, upon the hem of the robe all around."

I suppose if one were to poll Missouri Synod Lutherans as to the meaning of this, one would get many answers. The most "bronze" among us would sound much like the Reformed and Evangelical exegetes who would probably tell us that this was a cultural thing, or a mere historical occurrence with little meaning for us today. I beg to differ.

In terms of Biblical interpretation, there are the two schools of thought in the early church--the Alexandrian school and the Antiochian school. Though many scholars today may squabble over the differences between these two schools, I would like to point out an area where they would find common ground. Both schools of the early church saw the Old Testament in terms of Christ, and both would look at Aaron's robe and find deeply spiritual interpretations of it. I echo that hermeneutic, or, interpretation.

I find it very interesting that God would prescribe woven pomegranates alternated with bells on the bottom of this beautiful robe. First, what of pomegranates? Pomegranates are referred to only a couple of times in the Bible. When Israel sends spies into to scout out Canaan, the land they were to enter, they grabbed pomegranates and figs to show the people what they had found. Here is what the spies said upon returning, "We went to the land where you sent us. It truly flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit"(Numbers 13:27).

The figs and pomegranates are the sign and evidence that what God said was true--it was a land flowing with milk and honey. Pomegranates and figs were the signs of fruitfulness and growth, prosperity and God's favor. It was the symbol of the growth and fertility of God's people, Israel--a symbol of God's promise to make for Abraham a great multitude of descendants.

The question, of course, is still this--why does God command that pomegranates line the hem of the priestly robe. To answer this question, we really need to think about the use of the robe. Aaron is to wear this robe when he goes into the holy place before the Lord when he ministers. Aaron wears the robe when he goes in to make sacrifice for his sins and the sins of the people. Blood is shed to cover the people's sins. It is in these atoning sacrifices that the people live on in God's favor. Hence, they are fruitful and fertile through the blood of a sacrifice. More on this in a minute.

Now to the question of the golden bells. Why would God command that the hem of Aaron's robe alternate the pomegranates with these golden bells? It says in Exodus 28:35, "And it shall be upon Aaron when he ministers, and its sound will be heard when he goes into the holy place before the Lord and when he comes out, that he may not die."

Interesting. Its sound is to be heard when he goes before the Lord. What is the problem? Is God afraid that He may not know that it is Aaron coming in to the holy place? Being that God is ominscient, "all-knowing," it is hardly possible that God needs to know who it is. It is also hardly possible that the bells would be used to arouse God from an occasional nap. There is something more to these bells than we may first realize.

When Aaron enters the holy place, he will by his very actions "sound forth" when he is ministering. He shall sound forth or he will die. He is not to enter the holy place without this robe. He is to be properly dressed while sacrificing. Why must he be properly dressed? Aaron comes face to face with God. He must have on the proper clothing when meeting God. After all, God and man coming face to face in the holy place is the prefigurement of heaven. Those in heaven must have on the proper clothing as well.

This parallels the parable of the wedding feast. Jesus tells us that when theh king came in to see the guests, he saw a man who did not have on a wedding garment. The king asks the man, "Friend how did you come in here without a wedding garment?" We are told the man was speechless.
Not properly clothed for heaven and speechless. Hmm. Sounds similar. The man was to be bound and cast into outer darkness. Likewise, Aaron would die if he were not properly dressed and in his case, if not properly dressed, then Aaron would be speechless or without sound.

One can only imagine what it must have been like to be Aaron going into the holy place. Aaron would hear the groans of the animal and the sound of his bells as he walked and nothing else.

The pomegranates and the bells point us to the spiritual aspect. The all-atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ covers the sins of all. Jesus is the good fruit. He is the land flowing with milk and honey. He is the very substance of life, but the lives of many will only be spared eternal death if those cleansed by the blood of the Lamb are properly clothed. We cannot enter heaven if we are not properly clothed. We will be cast out. How shall you be clothed and ready for the wedding banquet of heaven? Holy baptism now saves you. This is the white robe of righteousness that Revelation 6 tells us the saints are wearing in heaven. This is baptism. This is what it means to be clothed with Christ.

With baptism comes a sounding forth. The movements of the Holy Spirit through baptism bring forth the confession of faith in the Apostles Creed. Where there is no confession of faith, there is no life. Where there is silence, there is only judgment.

Perhaps this is why we see what we see in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Both departed this life, Lazarus to the bosom of Father Abraham and the rich man to the torments of hell. What part of the rich man's body burns the most? What does he want quenched? It is his tongue which burns. Where there is silence, there is judgment.

But when one sounds forth, there is life, there is mercy. It comes in the quiet ritual of doing what God bids us to do: meeting Him in the Divine Service and letting the atonement of Christ cover us thereby making His people a fertile land, flowing with milk and honey. And how does God do it? Through preaching Christ crucified, forgiving sins, baptizing, and giving the body and blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.

My dear Christians....sound forth.

+Fr. Chadius