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Independence Day

John Trumbull's painting, Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress.

A More Perfect Union

On our Independence Day, as we celebrate our great heritage as a nation, let us compare our nation with another great nation. In biblical times, this nation was given a great promise and covenant from God. This is the nation of Israel. Today, both of these nations are in a great struggle.

The founding fathers of these two nations had at least one thing in common, they trusted in and relied upon God for their formation and mission. One nation was to be a great missionary nation. The other was commissioned by God to be a holy nation and royal priesthood.

Let us look at America first. The delegates, who signed the Declaration of Independence, took on great personal risk. They were fighting for what they thought was a higher cause and purpose than any personal gain for themselves. As written in the Declaration, they affirmed:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

As part of this Declaration, they made a pledge:

we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

They did so, realizing the danger this pledge might bring to them personally. Nevertheless, they did not look back. They fully gave themselves to the cause.

The cost was steep. Five signers of the Declaration were captured by the British as traitors and tortured before they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost their sons serving in the Revolutionary Army, another had two sons captured. Nine of them fought and died from wounds or hardships from the war.

Perhaps without realizing it, they were following the example of Abraham and his descendents. Abraham entered into a covenant with God. When he did so he entered into unknown territory. The Book of Hebrews tells us:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.   (Hebrews 11:8-10)

Abraham did not look back. He endured hardship not only for the promise which God had made to him personally. He did so for the benefit of all the generations who would him. Those who followed Abraham endured great hardships as well. Again, from Hebrews we read:

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.   (Hebrews 11:13-16)

The hardships were for a reason. God had chosen Israel for a divine purpose. At Mount Sinai, God spoke to Moses concerning their mission: 

‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.”   (Exodus 19:4-6)

Over the years, God ha been shaping Israel. It has not yet become a holy nation or a royal priesthood. America has not yet become the land which God has called it to be. Nonetheless, what is impossible for humankind is possible with God

After the terrible battle of Gettysburg, which cost so many lives, Abraham Lincoln spoke these words in his famous address:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

We have not fulfilled these words. Despite our efforts, we have fallen short of the dream that our forefathers had for America. We are not yet that one nation under God, which provides freedom and liberty to all its citizens. This does not mean that we should stop striving. Without God the dream would not even be possible.

Our nation is now under attack, both from without and from within. There are people and forces who  wish to destroy America as we know it in order to build their Utopia. While they tear down our institutions and work to destroy the family, they tell us to put our trust in them. They will save us if we follow them, promising peace without the Prince of Peace. The Apostle Paul writesL

When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!   (1 Thessalonians 5:23)

In today’s Old Testament lesson we read:

You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.   (Deuteronomy 10:20-21)

Moses was reminding the people of the true architect of the nation of Israel. Perhaps we need the same reminder?

God is calling us to perfection, but we must be willing to follow him. He is our perfection. In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks about perfection:

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”   (Matthew 5:43-48)

How will we ever achieve this perfection? We certainly cannot do it on our own. We need divine help. The hope for perfection is fulfilled by faith in Jesus Christ alone. It will take the Millennial Reign of Jesus on the Earth before that perfection fully comes.

Israel will one day be a holy nation. Since we are the ingrafted branches, the American dream and experiment will also be consummated as Christians believers the world over join the new Jerusalem. In the meantime, we must press on. We must return to our heritage and, once again, seek to be a nation whose God is the Lord.

Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,
The people He has chosen as His own inheritance.   (Psalm 33:12)

Amen.

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Wednesday in the First Week of Lent

The Sign of Jonah

Jesus told us to look for the signs in the heavens. There are significant signs which tell us the season in which we live, both climatically and spiritually. Spiritual signs are given for unbelievers and not believers. These spiritual signs do not guarantee belief. There is really only one sign that is important:

When the crowds were increasing, Jesus began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.   (Luke 11:29)

What is this sign of Jonah? It has to do with our repentance and the mercy of God.

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 3:10)

Nineveh was a wicked city destined for God’s judgement and destruction. Nonetheless, by the power of God’s message through the prophet Jonah, both the leadership and the people repented and escaped what God was ready to pour out on them.

We have a sign from God that is so much greater than Jonah:

For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation.   (Luke 11:30)

Our sign is none other than the resurrection Lord Jesus Christ. How do we respond to it. Let us take a look at the conditions in which we live. We see the sin of Nineveh all around us. Are we not responsible in many ways?

God tells us:

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.   (2 Chronicles 7:14)

We need a revival. We need a reformation in our churches. We need an awakening and we are starting to see the beginnings of one. Let us pray for our nation, the Church, and ourselves.

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Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Training in Righteousness

In today’s appointed readings from the lectionary we have two very different examples of how people responded to the reading of God’s word. The first example is from the Book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah, the governor, was reestablishing Temple worship after the return of Israel from exile in Babylon. He had the priest Ezra read from the Law of Moses, from early morning until midday. This caused the people to weep as they were reminded of their failure to keep God’s commandments.

This is the power of the word. From The Book of Hebrews we read:

The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.   (Hebrews 4:12-13)

The power of the word can also rejoice the heart. The psalmist reminds us:

The statutes of the Lord are just
and rejoice the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear
and gives light to the eyes.   (Psalm 19:8)

Genuine repentance is the key. From the Book of Nehemiah we read:

Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”   (Nehemiah 8:8-10)

With real repentance there is forgiveness. Ezra helped explain and interpret the Law of God in a way that was more easily understood by the people.

Now let look at Jesus return to his home town of Nazareth:

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”   (Luke 4:16-21)

Jesus, the “Word of God made flesh” was reading and interpreting his own Word. But his listeners would have none of it. His message was not the message they wanted to hear. Jesus was proclaiming the year of God’s favor but that message apparently did not fit their timetable.

The Apostle Paul warned Timothy that he must preach the truth of God’s Word whether or not his listeners were ready to hear it. Paul wrote:

Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.   (2 Timothy 4:2-4)

Are we not living in an age when sound doctrine is becoming a casualty of false teaching and preaching. We remember when Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. Satan quoted scripture but in a twisted and perverse way. He was hoping that Jesus would take the bait. Are we to take the bait of unscrupulous preachers?

Those who preach falsely are placing themselves under a curse. Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Galatians:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!   (Galatians 1:6-8)

We do not want to remain in a church that is under a curse. We want to be taught by someone who is using the scripture for Godly purposes. Paul reminds Timothy:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.   (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

We do not need a watered down Gospel. Are we to obscure the corrective measures of scripture and offer a more pleasing and popular message for worldly people? The psalmist reminds us that the commandment of the Lord is clear. It gives light to our eyes and rejoices our hearts.

Many of us believe that Jesus will soon return. He is looking for a church without spot or wrinkle. All of us need training in righteousness.

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”   (John 8:31-32)

What is our witness today? Are we continuing in the word? Are or we looking for false teachers who will tell us what our itching ears want to hear?

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The Epiphany

adormagiVisitation of the Magi

A moment of epiphany is when we say: “Aha!” We suddenly see a truth that we did not realize before. It may seem to come as a complete surprise, but often a deep preparation within may have been ongoing of which we were not fully aware.

The birth of Jesus almost went unnoticed by most of the world. A few shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem were informed by the heavenly hosts. But the Magi were able to discern that a major event had occurred through vigilant study and dedication of purpose. They had observed the night sky. God had been  preparing them for this great event. They were not Jews but they were acquainted with the ancient writings and had sought out the sayings of the prophets:

“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.”  (Micah 5:2,4)

The wisemen from the East were seeking the Lord. They did not fully understand who they were seeking but it did not stop them from doing so. They traveled a long distance and were willing to make sacrifices. We may look upon our life as a journey. What do we seek? Whom do we seek? And what sacrifices are we willing to make in our day? Will we set aside a time in our lives to seek God with all our hearts? (It is interesting to note that many people today seek God through Eastern mysticism. We must remember that the best of the Eastern seekers of God bowed down to the Lord Jesus.)

God reveals himself to those who are seeking Him. Many people are not seeking God today. Matters beyond their immediate concerns are of little importance to them. They are living in darkness without even knowing that they are in darkness. They have not yet seen the light of Christ. Nevertheless, the light of Christ can break forth at any time. This world needs a spiritual “Aha!”

The good news of Christ Jesus is for all people. From the Isaiah we read:

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the LORD rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.  (Isaiah 60:1-3)

A wise person realizes that he or she does not have all the answers. Wisdom comes from seeking. The Apostle Paul wrote that “the mystery was made known to me by revelation.” Paul had a spiritual “aha!”.He writes:

In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.  (Ephesians 3:5-6)

Paul further writes:

Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.  (Ephesians 3:8-12)

To be fair, Paul had been seeking God through his study of Judaism. He was a scholar of the first order. He needed direction and grace from God.

The wisemen of old sought Jesus. They found Him and worshiped Him. They returned to their own people with joy in their hearts. The Epiphany for them was a great and joyful awakening.

On the other hand, any epiphany of God can be a fearful thing. It was for Herod. From today’s Gospel we read:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened. …  (Matthew 2:1-3)

Herod did not want an epiphany of God. He believed that he was in charge of his circumstances and he wanted to keep it that way. What stops us from receiving our own epiphany? Have we been seeking God on a deep level? Are ready for an “Aha!” If we are holding on desperately to the status quo then we may miss a move of God.

However, we are in the advance stages of the Church age. There is not a lot of time left. God is on the move. He is pouring out his Spirit like never before. This Season of Epiphany may be a special time for us to tune ourselves to God’s frequency and not that of the world. The devil has a frequency that is distracting and discouraging. This is not from God.

We must slow down our worldly pace. We need to spend time in his Word and in prayer. God will speak to us. A great surprise might be coming our way. We read from Jeremiah 28:

Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord…

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