Friday, January 1, 2021

God is in charge. . .

Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas and the Commemoration of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist, preached on Sunday, December 27, 2020.

We face so many things that cry out for an explanation -- including things in the faith.  When we hear of such things as a six day creation or circumcision or the dietary laws prohibiting pork or shell fish or the calling of women unclean after childbirth or the command to present the first born son to the Lord in the Temple, we wonder about God.  It sounds so ancient and so superstitious and so ignorant.  Why would God command such things?  What does it all mean?  Some Christians reject it and insist that such things they cannot believe and they reduce the Gospel to love, acceptance, and affirmation.  What do you do with such things?  How are we supposed to make sense of it all?

Today we not only observe the First Sunday after Christmas with its account of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple but also the Feast Day of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist.  This John is the one who is always included with Peter, James, and John, who authored the Gospel, three letters, and Revelation -- yeah Revelation.  He is one of the original twelve, one of the Sons of Zebedee or Sons of Thunder, and so he is an apostle but he is also the author of the Gospel that bears his name, so he is an evangelist.  It may seem that the days have nothing in common but perhaps they have everything in common.

The message of the Gospel of St. John is concluded with this statement:  “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.  Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”  It is as if St. John is saying to us what earlier our Lord said to St. Peter – the Lord knows what He is doing.  You don’t have to understand it or even agree with it.  You just have to believe it.  What does it matter that you do not get everything the Lord said and did?  In other words, we do not have to know every detail of Jesus works or understand all of Jesus words, all we need to know is that Jesus is the Son of God, that He died on the cross to save us and that He rose from the dead so that forgiveness of sins might be proclaimed in His name.  That is enough.

Peter was worried what would happen to John.  We worry that creation and science seem at odds, that circumcision is a silly sign of obedience, that things should be called good or bad, clean or unclean, or that we don’t get it all.  We live in fear that vaccines will not save us from pandemics or IRAs will not keep their value or we will not live long enough to accomplish our bucket list or the ways of God seem strangely at odds with the ways of the world.  Peter did not need to understand what Jesus was doing but only to believe Him.  We do not need to reconcile what we observe around us with what God says.  We do not need to understand God’s ways.  All we are called to do is to believe in Him whom the Father has sent to be our Savior and Redeemer.  This is what it means to be captive to the world of God.

Simeon understood this.  He was righteous and devout in a world filled with as much sin and evil as our own.  He stuck out like a sore thumb.  But it did not consume him.  He waited for the consolation of Israel, for the Savior whom the Father had promised.  This was not a conscious act of his own will but the guidance of the Spirit who lived in him by faith.  So he got up and went to the Lord’s Temple day after day after day whether he wanted to or not.  And then one day, the Holy Spirit caused his vision to be cast upon the Blessed Virgin Mary and the child Jesus in her arms and all his waiting ended.  He was ready to depart for he had seen the promised salvation of God, the light to lighten the Gentiles and Israel’s glory.  And that was enough.

Anna was an old woman.  In her advanced years she had known hardship and loss of husband and family and was alone.  Yet she did not depart from the Temple but worshiped and prayed night and day.  She did not understand why her life had been so hard and the world had been so cruel to her.  She was not bitter but turned to the Lord and waited upon Him.  Until the day when the child Jesus came into the Temple in the arms of the Blessed Virgin and she gave thanks that her waiting had ended and Israel’s redeemer was right in front of her.

Joseph and Mary watched and heard all of this and did not know what to say.  Instead they added it to the confusing and often scary history of what God had said and done to bring them to this moment.  They did not get the reasons for all of this but they trusted in the Lord, they pondered these things in their hearts, and they were obedient to the Word of God (which means they believed that Word).  It was enough.  They did not have to understand God’s ways, they were called simply to believe in them.

Friends, we have come through a year of hell which has only magnified our uncertainty. We have seen all things we thought we knew discounted by the experiences of something none could have predicted.  We have heard science speak contradictions to us while we were hoping for unanimity.  We have been polarized by race, economics, and politics.  Our hope has been bruised and broken by all that has happened and by our fear of what might be to come.  The answer is not in trying understand it or figure out what it means or to find where God is hidden in all of this.  The answer is to believe as St. John bids and St. Joseph and Blessed Mary and Simeon and Anna show, trust in the Lord.

God knows what He is doing when we do not.  We don’t know if things will be better or worse, if days of persecution and threat are coming, if violence and protest will define our days, if politics will further divide us, or if toilet paper will ever be abundant again. But we do not need to know this.  What we need to know is what God has done in Christ to save us and how this salvation unfolded by God’s plan when over time and space. What we need to know is that the sorrows we face will be nothing in comparison to the joys that await us, that the loss we endure will be nothing in comparison to reward that awaits us, that the heartaches we endure will be forgotten in the face of the glories that God has prepared for us.  All of these bad things will come and in the midst of it all we will no more understand why or how or even where God is in the mess of things but we know this.  God will use it for good.  He will keep us in the palm of His hand.  He will shepherd us through these days to the eternal day when we are with Him forever.

I cannot explain how God created everything in six days or why He chose circumcision or why pork was prohibited or women were declared unclean after childbirth.  You cannot explain it either.  If I could, I would be God and if you could, you would be God.  But we are not God and God is not us.  We are people of faith who trust in what we cannot see, what we do not understand, and what we cannot explain.  It is called faith.  That is how we meet God in the manger of Christmas, in the Temple on our Lord’s Presentation and Mary’s Purification, in the water that bears His promise, and in the bread and wine that gives us His flesh and blood.  We are people of faith.

The times will test that faith and the world will taunt us for believing but the answer does not lie in trying to piece together a faulty explanation of God’s ways or rejecting God for the things He has not revealed.  The only answer was and is faith.  Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Trust not in princes or rulers or earthly powers but in Christ alone.  There are many other things Jesus said and did but these things are written so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you might have life in His name.  Amen.

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