But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
Sermons from St. Paul's Anglican Church
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This is the Word of the Lord. A-men.Isaiah 61:1-3
January 3, 2016
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
“Beauty for Ashes”
The majestic words read together this morning -- spoken by the Prophet Isaiah 700-years before the Birth of our Lord -- are truly worthy of our daily contemplation. The prophet saw Jesus’ ministry from afar and indicated in stunning language for all who had hope to believe… faith to see… and an imagination to envision… a miraculous reversal in the expected course of events powerful enough to change “fate”… overpower unbelief… and swallow apathy!
Beauty for ashes… we are told. Life for death! Good for evil! Growth for destruction. Grace for perdition! Wonder for ignorance. Service for self-regard!
On the night of December 9, 1914 (over 100-years ago now), Edison Industries was totally destroyed by the ravages of fire. The light of the dancing flames could be seen reflected on the somber and weathered face of the famous inventor, Thomas Alva Edison, who at the age of 67, stood watching his life’s work go up in smoke. The loss exceeded two-million dollars in damages, a considerable sum even today… to say nothing of its value a century ago! And included in the devastation was the vast majority of the great designer’s brilliant work! Edison Industries was insured… but for only $238, because the building had been constructed of “fireproof” concrete.
The next morning, after fire fighters had finally brought the blaze under control, Edison quietly examined the charred remains of his dreams and solemnly sorted through the strewn ashes where once stood lofty hopes and high expectations. He stood in grave silence for some time lost in deep contemplation. Then he finally broke the stillness with his now famous words, “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.” Only someone with vision can say such an audacious thing… And guess what? Three weeks after the fire, Edison Industries produced the first phonograph –which would revolutionize the world of his day!
Every setback is but the stage for a new success – if we can only see it! I’m not engaging in what has been termed the “power of positive thinking.” Every easy highway that the Almighty in His Providence closes to you and me, opens up to our vision of faith a new and inviting challenge – beckoning us forward into previously hidden pathways lined with bright opportunities for growth and development and service… in ways deemed impossible by others.
The difficulties and trials we face, contrary to our natural inclination, develop in us rare and worthy graces for this life, as well as for the life that is to come – selfless humility, personal character, unending patience, enduring strength, resilient faith, heartfelt compassion, love for neighbors, and hope for each and every new day! And we soon recognize the familiar footprints we are to follow on the sacred, upward path. They are none other than those of the Lord Himself Who has gone before us… And it is He Who brings His people what Isaiah promised – beauty for ashes…
We must remember the Hand which penned this phrase (beauty for ashes) was not really the eighth century B.C. prophet Isaiah! Who was it then? The One Who really authored it is none other than the Almighty and Everlasting God we serve – He Who has no name (because He is too great to be summarized by the letters of a small alphabet), Who has no beginning, Who has no imperfections, and Who has no end!
And we must not lose sight of the fact that He has no limitations! If He wants to give beauty for ashes to those who do not deserve it… so be it… more power to Him! If He wants to give beauty for ashes to those who have faith the size of a mustard seed… so be it… more power to those who believe in Him that He can and will do it! Let us not limit the products of faith in our lives this coming year, 2016! In many of our Lord’s earthly miracles recorded by the Evangelists, we do well to remember that Jesus intoned special words upon many of the recipients of His great power and goodness and miracles… saying, “Your faith hath made you whole!”
Dear St. Augustine, the 4th century brilliant mind who was so infected with heresies in his youth… and was famously converted against all odds by the Almighty through the preaching of the Bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose ( a giant of the Faith)… once said, “Faith believes what we do not yet see. The reward of such faith is to see what we have believed.” What do we see for the coming year? In what do we believe?
Those who can believe in the beauty God graciously exchanges for the ashes of our poor decisions… the ashes of our miserable mistakes in life – bring the promised miracle within reach!
Since the first time I heard about it in one of those illustrious Moody Bible Science Videos, my understanding of this phrase – beauty for ashes – has never been the same!
There are plants in this world which the Almighty has designed – as strange as it seems – to survive by fire! What a radical thought! A good example is the Jack Pine found in the northern portion of central and eastern US and Canada!
The Jack Pine cones are thick and hard -- glued shut tight with their own strong resins. The technical term is “serotinous” – meaning “late blooming”… “late opening.” Serotinous cones can hang on a Jack Pine tree for years without opening to release a single seed. But when a fire sweeps through a forest of Jack Pines, the heat from the fire melts the resin, allowing the cooled cone afterward to open up and release the seeds. The new seeds in their new home of nutrient-rich ash soil are thus enabled to germinate and sprout – and new, beautiful, young, green supple shoots reach for the sun! Beauty for ashes!
Many people for many reasons have said they hope 2016 will be a better year than 2015. Christians should stop and think – based upon our text this morning – that perhaps the “disasters” of the past year (whatever they might have been) are but a fresh stage for newer… grander… more beautiful… more godly developments in our lives!
Moses went to Egypt to deliver God’s people from their bondage! But his efforts soon went up in smoke! “Your people are idle… let them make their quotient of bricks without straw,” the pharaoh demanded. But out of these ashes came their deliverance by ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea – which we still read and delight in today. Beauty for ashes.
David was anointed by Samuel to replace Saul as Israel’s next king. He miraculously defeated Goliath of Gath and instantly became his nation’s hero. But jealous Saul chased him into exile outside Israel’s borders – a barren wilderness which germinated in him seeds of faith and dependence upon God… an indomitable spirit and a stubborn conviction that God would somehow see him through! And he became the greatest of Israel’s line of kings! Beauty for ashes.
Our Lord’s breathtaking and fabulous miracle-rich ministry also went up in flames, as it were, at the end – with betrayals… perjured witnesses against him… kangaroo courts… injustices of all sorts… brutality… and finally, ignominious death.
But sacrifices are always supposed to go up in smoke! Sacrifices in the Old Testament -- by God’s Own decree -- always went up in smoke! And no less the greatest Sacrifice of all time… which they foreshadowed! But look at all the beautiful graces… and lush growth… and goodness which has come into the world through the ashes of His sacrifice! Beauty for ashes.
The crux botonée – “budded cross” – says it all. The life of God in Jesus Christ is irrepressible. You cannot snuff it out! The greatest instrument of death merely brought forth the greatest source of life for mankind. Beauty for ashes… Life for death! Good for evil! Growth for destruction. Wonder for ignorance. Forgiveness for condemnation!
There is great value in disaster, as Edison observed! All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.
Let us keep the promise of beauty for ashes close by in 2016!
World without end. Amen.
St. John 21:19-25
Feast of St. John, Apostle & Evangelist
December 27, 2015
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
You may have seen the same bumper sticker that caused me to chuckle a while back. Two times I looked to make sure I was reading it correctly. And each time it spoke the very same words: Don’t Follow me. I am also lost. There is something very refreshing about such a bumper sticker! And over the following months, it soon became very clear as to what it was. Infallible man – surely a modern myth – who is always so confident that he “knows it all” (and trumpets it abroad) was able to tell the truth about himself so that we could all laugh at ourselves! And it is a cathartic laugh, for deep down, we know it to be ever so true – even to the point of man’s “self-sufficiency” being his bane and downfall! It is always refreshing, however, to see the truth again – even from such an unlikely quarter as a bumper sticker. Don’t Follow me. I am also lost.
But this revealing truth is not embraced by everyone – for it does not flatter 21st century sophisticated man! A majority of this world’s problems all come back home to roost on “man” – collective or individual! The proverbs-writer understood this well and put it as plainly as he possibly could, humanly-speaking: There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death (Proverbs 16:25). Man needs help! Left to his own delusions, he will certainly self-destruct.
We are all aware of regrettable incidents in life – based upon faith in the supposed “knowledge” and “expertise” and “abilities” of man – that have, alas, led to the ruin of many. Even to the point of hikers, equipped with maps and compasses and overflowing supplies, nevertheless somehow becoming lost and meeting their dreadful end outwitted by the unforgiving harshness of the great outdoors.
Even the ill-fated instrument flight of the “Lady-Be-Good” in April of 1943 during WWII – caused not by equipment failure… but by navigational error – ending in the tragic loss of the entire nine-man crew in the heat of the Libyan Desert warns us not to take confidence in man too seriously! Sound theology is sometimes even found on bumper stickers! Don’t Follow me. I am also lost.
Mankind is made up of two categories of people. Those who in pride believe they can find their own way through the maze and challenges of life and eternity based upon their own resources. And those who have received grace and humility to chart their course in this life and that to come by reference points external to man that are immovable and will never change.
Certainly, in one of the great statements of the Bible, before us this morning, comprised of only two short words, we find mankind’s salvation. It was Jesus Christ Who spoke them: Follow Me. Not “follow others.” Not follow opinion polls. Not follow the repeated errors of history. Not follow the richest… the most popular… the most powerful! But Follow Me.
There is no denying these are exclusive words. He is the only Name under Heaven by which we must be saved. Nor are they “easy” words. For Jesus set the terms of discipleship: …he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me (St. Matthew 10:38).
These words – Follow Me – were spoken throughout His earthly ministry… and also, as we read together this morning, at end of His earthly ministry! In the final analysis, these words are the crucial watershed in the history of mankind. For they separate those who follow the Son of God and are saved, from those who follow only themselves and end up lost.
These words have always separated the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve into “sheep” and “goats.” These words have silently partitioned families and clans… quietly divided Churches… segregated denominations. They are, indeed, in the final analysis… the revealing litmus test that distinguishes between Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church and those who are on the outside looking in.
Today is the Feast – or Festival Day – of St. John! It is a day that makes many nervous because they feel it distracts from following the Lord Jesus Christ – Whom we are to follow. But we must remember that Christ’s Church is built upon the foundation of the Prophets and the Apostles – Jesus Christ Himself functioning as the Chief Corner Stone. The Apostles show us what it means to follow the Son of God.
The Apostles were faithful witnesses. Without them, what would we know of Jesus Christ? We would have an incomplete record in the Bible. Without the Apostles, there would be no Church. For it was they who criss-crossed this globe taking His message through all barriers to mankind. Without their labors, we would not be gathered together here in this fine House of Worship this morning!
Today, we honor and remember the life of dear St. John – human author of the Gospel account bearing his name… and of the three General Epistles bearing his name… as well as the final book of the Canon – Revelation.
One of the sons of Zebedee and his wife (Salome), he was a fisherman by trade -- a partner in Galilee with his brother, James, along with Simon Peter and his brother, Andrew, in their fishing venture! Originally, he was a disciple of John the Baptist along with his good friend, Andrew. He quit his work in the fishing industry in order to become a disciple of our Lord. He was one of the most intimate of the Twelve – present at the raising of Jairus’ daughter and also at the Transfiguration. He and James were termed boanerges (“sons of thunder”) when they sought (like Elijah, of old) to call down fire from Heaven on a Samaritan village whose inhabitants had refused them hospitality.
He is often thought to have been a priest – because of his easy access to the High Priest’s courtyard (when, as you recall, St. Peter was denied access). At the Last Supper, he occupied the privileged place at the table next to our Lord. He stood at the foot of the Cross. And at Jesus’ Word, he accepted responsibility for the welfare of His mother, Mary. He, with St. Peter, was one of the first visitors to witness the empty tomb. And in one of the great milestones of his own journey of faith, upon viewing the grave clothes in the tomb, he confessed that “he saw and believed.”
He was with St. Peter at the gate of the Temple when a lame man was healed. He was also with St. Peter on the mission to Samaria in order to certify new converts and impart the Spirit to them through the laying on of hands. He, along with St. Peter and St. James (the Lord’s brother) are termed “pillars” in the Jerusalem Church.
St. John lived many years after the commencement of the Christian era. Shortly before the Fall of Jerusalem – upon our Lord’s counsel – he departed Jerusalem, eventually residing in Ephesus of Asia Minor with Apostolic oversight over the Churches there.
While in Ephesus, St. John was exiled to the Isle of Patmos – a penal colony located off the coast of Turkey. There, confined in a small cave, the vision of the Book of Revelation was received and put into writing. The setting has been variously known across the ages – Cave of the Apocalypse, the Holy Cave, the Grotto. Most who visit there testify they felt its holiness… and were drawn into meditation, prayer, worship, and quiet contemplation.
Eventually, St. John was released from his banishment and returned to his humble abode in Ephesus. When he was so old that he could no longer walk, he was carried into worship services by his disciples – among whom were numbered his students, Polycarp and Ignatius – who became Apostolic Fathers. On certain occasions he was accustomed to say no more than this: Little children, love one another! When asked, “Master, why do you say this?” his reply was always the same: It is the Lord’s command. And if this alone be done, it is enough!
How interesting that just as his brother, James, was the first of the Twelve to die, so dear St. John was the last of the Twelve to die – tired and worn out, his allotted strength expended – in Ephesus at the threshold of the second century, A.D.
His testimony to us on this day set aside to celebrate his life’s work and honor him as an Apostle, is to follow Jesus Christ and to love one another. Not to follow one another. Not to follow