The Presentation

bellini2Purification

Today we celebrate The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple by Joseph and Mary. From the Gospel of Luke:

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”  (Luke 2:22-24)

Let us look at this event as if it were part of a three act play. This was the first act of purification – a ceremonial purification. Mary was considered unclean on the birth of her child, according to Jewish law. After a waiting period of about forty days, she and Joseph were required to offer up their son to God. Mary would then be considered pure and her child would be declared holy before God.

A ritual of ceremonial purification was not without meaning or significance. It was a rehearsal of a spiritual purification which was to come. Today, in many churches, parents present their children to God with the expectation that these children will be raised in the Christian Faith.

At the time of Jesus’ presentation the prophet Simeon blessed the family of Jesus and said to Mary:

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35)

This prophecy foretold the second act of purification – a purification of the Law of God. Simeon prophesied that Jesus will bring about major changes in Judaism. Jesus said that he did not come to set aside the law but to fulfill it. The essence of the Law had to do with loving God and neighbor, but it had become merely an elaborate set of rules to follow. As the Word made flesh, Jesus demonstrated by his life the true righteous requirements of the law. God requires transparency and truth. We cannot cover up our sins by our “good deeds.”

Joseph and Mary were presenting Jesus to God in the Temple. Jesus would soon change the whole temple worship by becoming the temple himself. He would become the new Temple by satisfying all the requirements of the old one. His blood, spilled on the cross, would become the atoning sacrifice for all our sins, once and for all.

From Hebrews we read:

Since God’s children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.   (Hebrews 2:14-15)

The last act of purification has to do with the purification of the saints. We read in Malachi:

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.   (Malachi 3:3-4)

The Apostle Paul writes that Jesus, by his atoning sacrifice, is able to present us pure before the Father:

And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him — provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.   (Colossians 1:21-23)

Mary and Joseph presented Jesus holy to God. Jesus turned the tables. He presents Mary and Joseph and all saints as holy to God. Mary and Joseph offered up their son before God. God, the Father, offered His Son as a sacrifice for us all that we may be made holy before him. The Presentation of Jesus becomes our presentation. Jesus presents us spotless before the Father. He is the only one who can do that because he is the one who paid the price for our sin.

Our cleansing is not a ceremonial cleansing. No, we must allow Jesus to change and direct our hearts. God gave us this promise through the Prophet Ezekiel:

25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.

The Aposte Paul wrote:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

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Conversion of Saint Paul

the-conversion-of-saint-paul-bartolome-esteban-murilloFrom Darkness to Light

Saul was on the road to Damascus to arrest Christian believers. While in route he experienced one of the most dramatic conversions recorded in the Bible. In his own words:

“I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, `Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ I asked, `Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, `I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles– to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ ”  (Acts 26:12-18)

Well, that was Saul. He was persecuting Christians. Do we have any zealous people in the Church today who are persecuting their fellow parishioners? Well, that is another story.

What about those who have grown-up in the Church? Do they need a conversion experience? We need to understand that the Apostle Paul did grow-up in the Church. He grew up in Judaism which was the only church in his day. The rest of the world was pagan. He was living by the rules. He was educated in the best rabbinic tradition. Here is how he described himself:

Circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.  (Philippians 3:5-6)

I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.  (Galatians 1:14)

We understand, of course, that this was the way Saul described himself before his conversion. How did he describe himself after his conversion?

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.  (Romans 7:15-19)

Paul goes on to say:

Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!   (Romans 7:24-25)

Conversion opened Saul’s eyes to reality. His religion had failed him. He needed more than religion. His Lord Jesus Christ did not fail him:

But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.  (Philippians 3:7-11)

Saul became the great Apostle Paul who wrote two-thirds of the New Testament. Does his testimony speak to us today? What is our testimony? Are we merely rules enforcers or are we ambassadors for Christ? The lost in this world are counting on us give a witness to the love and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul was a rules enforcer who grew to understand God’s mercy and loving kindness. He prayed for the Church in Ephesus:

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.   (Ephesians 3:16-19)

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Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Hearing the Voice of God

Listening to the voice of God may be a challenge for some of us. It certainly was for the Children of Israel. Reading from Deuteronomy:

Moses said: The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” Then the Lord replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.”   (Deuteronomy 18:15-20)

Moses was ordained by God to lead his people out of bondage in Egypt into the promised land. Surely God would speak to him and through him. But would God speak to all of Israel? He did so at Horeb, but the people could not bare to hear his voice.

Why was that so? The people explained that if they did they would die. What is remarkable is that God told Moses that they were right in what they said. We read from the Book of Hebrews:

For we know the one who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.   (Hebrews 10:30-31)

Because of their fear of God they did not want to approach him. Thus God would approach them. He gave them a series of prophets, starting with Moses, who would relay God’s word to them. If they would listen to God and obey his decrees, he would bless them. When they disobeyed, they would taste a portion of his vengeance. Unfortunately, the warnings of the prophets were often not heeded.

God’s last prophet was John theBaptist, whom came in the spirit of Elijah. He ushered in God’s last Word to Israel: The Word made flesh. But who would listen to him? Who listens to him today? Before his crucifixion, Jesus stood looking over Jerusalem:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!   (Matthew 23:37)

For those who have given their heart to the Lord Jesus, the fear factor of hearing God’s voice has been removed. Their sins are remitted by the blood of Jesus. From Ephesians we read:

God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.   (Ephesians 2:4-7)

Are we listening to God today? If not, perhaps we are not aware of our heavenly position with Christ. If we do not listen to him, we will surely be listening to the wrong voice. The psalmist wrote:

Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows;
    their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out
    or take their names upon my lips.   (Psalm 16:4)

How do we listen to God. First, we read his Holy Scripture. God speaks through his written Word. And rather than hiding from him when we sin, we need to confess it. From the Epistle of John:

If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.   (1 John 1:9)

We need to keep an open account with God. He will correct us from time to time, as written in Proverbs:

My child, do not despise the Lord’s discipline
    or be weary of his reproof,
for the Lord reproves the one he loves,
    as a father the son in whom he delights.   (Proverbs 3:11-12)

When we listen to the voice of God, the enemy will do everything he can to distract us. Jesus said:

“Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”   (Luke 11:28)

The psalmist wrote:

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly.   (Psalm 85:8)

We need more than ever the peace of the Lord in our hearts. God is speaking that to us now if we are listening. But to listen to him is to turn away from the folly of this world.

Let no one say that God does not speak to his people anymore. Let no one say that we should not hear his words. Jesus said:

“Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”   (John 8:47)

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”  (John 10:27-28)

The voice of God speaks to us on our behalf. These are the promise he made to Israel through Moses:

If you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God.    (Deuteronomy 28:1-2)

Jesus said:

A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But Jesus said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”   (Luke 11:27-28)

The Apostle Paul wrote:

But not all have obeyed the good news;[c] for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.   (Romans 10:16-17).

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Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Turning Away From Evil

The message of John the Baptist was also the message of Jesus. Reading from today’s Gospel:

After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”   (Mark 1:14-15)

The good news of the Gospel followers repentance. It is the repentance part that often obscured. Today’s Old Testament reading will explain:

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.   (Jonah 3:1-5, 10)

Nineveh was a wicked city and very much the enemy of the Jewish people. We remember that Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. He initially ran the other way from his assignment from God to preach repentance there. But when he did something happened. God had a drastic change of mind what he was planning for Nineveh. What happened?

The people of Nineveh repented. They did more than confess their sins. They did more than say they were sorry. They actually turned away from evil. Words of repentance mean nothing when they are not put into action. The action part is difficult. We have to let go and abandon what we have been doing in order to change. How difficult for us is that? How many people are prepared to do that at a moment’s notice. Jesus’ disciples were. Reading from the Gospel of Mark:

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.   (Mark 1:16-20)

What is remarkable is that these fishermen left their nets, they left their livelihoods, they left their way of life. How could they do that on such short notice? How could all of Nineveh do so on such short notice? The psalmist wrote:

For God alone my soul in silence waits;
truly, my hope is in him.

He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.

In God is my safety and my honor;
God is my strong rock and my refuge.

Put your trust in him always, O people,
pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge.

Those of high degree are but a fleeting breath,
even those of low estate cannot be trusted.

On the scales they are lighter than a breath,
all of them together.   (Psalm 62:6-11)

We are all lighter than a breath, In fact, we live only by the breath of God. From Genesis we read:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.   (Genesis 2:7)

Much of what we may hold dear is just a fleeting fancy. Are we possessed by our possessions? Are we captive to our captivations? Or are we ready to turn away from these things? For some of us, in order to turn away from the evil we cling to, we must see something infinitely better. Circumstances in life can bring us to an understanding that what we have falls far short of what God has prepared for us. As it is written:

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
    nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—   (1 Corinthians 2:9)

The disciples saw the glory of God in Jesus and they were immediately drawn to him. Do we see Jesus for who is?

For those of us who are stubborn, there is an element that drives us away from evil, once we clearly see it. The citizens of Nineveh must have seen it, that is the fear of the Lord. They heard the preaching of Jonah and they believed what he said. The wrath of God was coming upon them if they did not heed the warning. The wrath of God is coming in this last day for those who refuse to walk away from evil.

John, the Revelator, was asked a question:

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.   (Revelation 7:13-14)

Do we need a washing today?

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.   (Hebrews 12L1-20

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