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Christmas 2016

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A Sermon for Christmas, 2016

The Epistle, Titus 2:11-14 – The Gospel, St. Luke 2:1-14

The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett

We say in the liturgy that we believe in “One God the Father Almighty,” but this affirmation does not seem to match up with the Christmas story. Almighty God makes his grand appearance in history as a baby in a manger—and everything seems out of control. The Holy Family is in Bethlehem because Caesar Augustus decreed a census, and not even the Mother of God, “great with child,” was spared from the hardship it caused. As we follow the Christmas story to Epiphany, we learn that another tyrant, Herod the Great, is anxious to kill the one “born King of the Jews”—turns out Herod was unwilling to share the title.

During his ministry, Jesus would exhibit power over sickness, death, sin, and evil. But these were all temporary victories. Those he healed and raised got sick and died again. His ministry pushed back against sin and Satan, but only temporarily. The Son of God exercised almighty power in a definitive and final way only on the Cross and in the Resurrection. Death came for him and he conquered death. Thus, we must wait until Good Friday and Easter to understand how this baby is really the Son of the Almighty Father, and how he merits for eternity the title, “Lord.” Christmas makes Easter both possible and inevitable. That is its primary importance.

Our lives as followers of Jesus reflect similar themes and questions. If God is almighty and we are his children by baptism and faith, why do our temporal circumstances so frequently contrast with his omnipotence? If he is in control, why does it so often seem like he has taken a break or decided to focus on another universe for a while? The difficult answer is that, as with Jesus, he is aiming at a larger victory for us. God can and does intervene in countless ways to make things better for each of us in time. He can and does crush enemies, relieve pain, and extend lives. But these are temporal mercies. There will be another enemy, more pain, and another cause of death.

His primary gift, which we receive through baptism and faith, is to renew the Christmas miracle of Incarnation in us. The Son of God, who took up residence in Mary and in Bethlehem, takes up residence in us. If Christ lives in us and we live in him, then we can expect our lives to follow the pattern of his life. It won’t always seem like God is in control. But our lives are moving slowly and surely towards the ultimate and eternal victory.

This is the meaning of Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23). “God is with us.” He is not with us in some magical, make believe way that makes every problem vanish. He is with us in a real way. He is with us in our pain so that it is literally impossible for any temporal thing to separate us from him. As Romans says, “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39).

Jesus has conquered death for us and in us. Baptism and faith make Easter possible and inevitable for us also. As 1 John says, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (5:13).

Faith is not only or mainly about the future. Only when we are reconciled to God and set free from the fear and reality of death can we begin to really live now. Faith is the beginning of life, and Christmas is an invitation to faith; an invitation to trust that God is in control even though it may not appear that way. Christ lives in us, and we are destined for Easter. Therefore, we can begin to live eternal life right now. As 1 John says, “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (5:11-12).

2nd Sunday in Christmastide

Notes for a Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas, January 3 2016
For the Epistle, Isaiah 61: 1-3 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 2:19-23
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett

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St. John’s Feast

Notes for a Sermon for St John the Evangelist, December 27, 2015
The Epistle, 1 John 1:1-8 – The Gospel, St. John 19:21-25
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett

A. The identity of St. John
1. St. John’s identity. Brother of James, the sons of Zebedee. The tradition is that he wrote John’s Gospel, 1, 2, and 3 John and Revelation. Though some dispute this, the common themes of these writings make a strong for unity of authorship—in my opinion. Died a natural death in AD 90’s.
2. St. John in Ephesus. At the cross, Jesus committed his mother to John’s care. The tradition is that John took Mary to Ephesus with him. Acts describes St. Paul’s work in Ephesus. After Paul’s martyrdom in the late 60’s, John would become the undisputed leader of the Ephesian Christians.
B. St. John and the Incarnation
1. The feast of St. John complements Christmas because St. John emphasizes the Incarnation, God becoming man, in his writings.
a. John 1:1. The Christmas Day Gospel highlight the right doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
b. John also emphasizes the genuine humanity of Christ. From John 1: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Today’s epistle mentions his divinity and highlights the physical humanity: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life” (1 Jn. 1:1).
C. St. John and the Gnostic heresy
1. St. John wrote in opposition to the “gnostic” heresy—from the word for knowledge. Gnostics believed that we are saved by secret knowledge or “gnosis.” Gnostics believed in:
a. The separation of spirit from body; salvation was spiritual; to be saved from the body.
b. That behavior in the body could be disconnected from belief. Rigorist and libertine Gnostics.
2. The epistle can understood fully only against this backdrop.
a. “What we have seen, looked at, touched, handled.” Insistence that Jesus is Incarnate. The connection of this to the Sacraments. The Sacraments are the extension of the Incarnation to us.
b. “If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not practice the truth.” Insistence that how we live in the body reflects our belief in Jesus.
D. Applying the message of St. John to our lives
1. Believing the physical reality of the Incarnation—not a spiritualized Christ. In the Sacrament, we also see with our eyes and look upon him. Our hands also handle him who is from the beginning.
2. The evidence of our faith: a life of prayer resulting in changed behavior in a community where we experience forgiveness and grace. “If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 Jn. 1:7).

2nd Sunday After Christmas

A Sermon for The Second Sunday after Christmas, January 4 2015

For the Epistle, Isaiah 61: 1-3 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 2:19-23

The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett

A. The travels of the Messiah in the gospels for Holy Innocents and Christmas 2.

1. The gospels for the feast of the Holy Innocents last Sunday and the Second Sunday after Christmas today are a continuous narrative from St. Matthew’s Gospel of the travels of the Holy Family (Matthew 2:13-23). Last week St. Matthew described how Joseph, Mary and Jesus went to Egypt to avoid the wrath of Herod. Today, Matthew describes how they returned to Nazareth after the death of Herod because it was not safe for them in Bethlehem.

2. This continues the Christmas theme of Incarnation. Jesus is really human. He suffers the indignities that are common the the human condition. Surprisingly, the newborn Son of God is continuously opposed by those he came to save. There was no room in the inn, and he was not welcome in Israel because those in power were threatened by him. 

B. The larger theme of Christmastide narrative

1. St. Matthew portrays the inconvenient travels of the Messiah as the fulfillment of prophecy. This fulfillment is not the prediction of specific events. Rather, the travels of Jesus fulfill prophesy in the sense that Jesus brings the Israel’s story to its intended fruition. 

2. The most startling prophetic implication of the story is subtly imbedded within the details. Jesus traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of the decree of a tyrant; then from Bethlehem to Egypt because the local ruler wanted to kill him; then from Egypt to Nazareth, and not Bethlehem, because the ruler’s son might still want him dead. This seems so unjust and unfair, yet this is the very narrative God has prophetically ordained. God’s hand in the story is highlighted by the fact that every movement fulfills prophecy. So, who is in control here? Caesar Augustus? Herod the Great? Archelaus? Or God?

2. This is how God works in the Bible.. Oppressors, or God’s own people, oppose God or do bad things, and God’s will is accomplished nonetheless in and through the human rebellion (for example., the Joseph story, Genesis 37-50, where the brothers sell Joseph into slavery and this is how he becomes their savior in Egypt). God works his purpose in all things (Romans 8:28). Even the evil is used for God’s good. This is how God rules the world. God is always in control, even when it does not look like it.

3. Thus, life of Jesus that begins at Christmas is headed towards its climax on Good Friday and Easter. Many adversaries will arise to try to stop Jesus from fulfilling prophecy and reaching his appointed destiny. They will all fail. In fact, the adversaries and enemies all become necessary parts of the plot development. God has become man, and no created thing can thwart his will and purpose.

C. The application of this point to our lives

1. When we describe our lives as being “in Christ” we mean that our lives share the themes of his life and we share his destiny. If God is with us, if Christ lives within us through the baptismal gift of the Spirit, if we try to follow Christ and do God’s will, then we can expect experiences of opposition and exile; we can expect to spend time in the wilderness and we will be assigned our cross. We will fall from time to time. Our weakness will occasionally cause us to sin. But God will remain in control. He will use our travails and failures to humble us and form new virtues in us. His presence with us with cause us to grow in faith and perseverance. When we look back we will see that the very worst things we faced were used by God to make us what he wants us to be and accomplish his will in the lives of others as well. Evil, and God’s conquest of it, become necessary parts of our redemptive story.. Above all, Easter is inevitable for us as well. We will conquer and we will rise from the dead.

2. If we take this to heart we will begin to look at life in a different way. We will become less concerned about all of our carefully constructed plans and goals, and we will become more attentive to what God is doing when our plans and goals fail. 

–An example: A flat tire that derailed my plans for the day became the opportunity for unexpected and important conversations with others. This pattern can be seen constantly when we open our eyes to see.

3. This does not mean that we shouldn’t have plans. It means that all of our plans should be made with great humility and one great contingency, “Nevertheless, Thy will be done” (Luke 22:42, cf. James 4:13-17).

4. When we look at life this way we begin to look at our enemies in differently. Our “enemies” are those who seemingly have power to disrupt our lives and make them painful and difficult. We can, by prayer and discernment, come to understand how God is working in and through adversarial events and people to accomplish his will in us and in them–part of our purpose is to be witnesses for Christ even to our enemies. Once we realize that God is in control we will feel less need to win temporary battles, and we will develop a greater ability to pray for those who oppose us. For we know that all evil will be receive its due reward in God’s good time. Sometimes it looks like evil is in control in the world and in our lives—it appears this way in Matthew’s infancy narrative—but this is illusion.

 

D. The New Year, freedom and Jubilee.

1. The lesson for the epistle, Isaiah 61, is significant because it is the passage Jesus read at the beginning of his ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth. It fits the theme of opposition. After Jesus read it and proclaimed himself to be its fulfillment, the synagogue congregation tried to throw him over a cliff (Luke 4). 

2. In Isaiah 61, the gospel or good news is proclaimed in terms of the Jubilee year. In the Old Testament every fiftieth year was a Jubilee year. Debts were supposed to be cancelled, slaves were supposed to be set free and land was supposed to be returned to its original owner. This was supposed to happen. It doesn’t appear that it happened very often.

2. Jesus proclaims the fulfillment of Jubilee in his life and ministry. The Spirit of the Lord is upon him to preach the good news of liberty to those who are being beaten up by the world—just like the world tried to defeat Jesus. The meaning of Jubilee for us is that we are freed from sin, guilt, fear and all the things that bind us. We experience the freedom of God’s jubilee proclamation when we begin to live in the new story God has revealed in Christ—the story of God’s triumph through suffering. If we live “in Christ,” then the themes of Christ’s story are the themes of our story. Our enemies serve God’s purpose. Our captivities are purifying and redemptive. We always look forward to an Exodus or return from exile—in Christ our story will always move in that direction. Our narrative is always moving toward an ultimate Easter triumph. We have already won, we are winning and we will win. We can rejoice even in our sufferings because we know that God is with us.

3. We don’t always view life this way because we don’t enter fully into our new story. There are a few reasons for this. We may want something other than God’s will and so we fight with God. We may try to run from our pain rather than trying to find out what God is doing in the midst of our pain—and thus we choose pain killers rather than the cross. Or it may be that we are unwilling to forgive and let go of the past. We choose resentment and bitterness rather than forgiveness and grace.

4. But the big issue is trust. Can we really trust that God is in control in the midst of all we are going through and all we see happening in the world? We can pray for increased faith. “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). As we learn to trust God more, we learn to see more clearly what God is doing. Yet, the really good news that we see in story about the newborn king is that God is in control, where we believe it or not.

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Christmas Eve 2013 – Sermon

When people try to solve the problems of the world, they typically propose a new philosophy or “program.” The modern world has been full of “isms” and schemes. They have all failed to do all that they promised. Some “work” better than others because they take more accurate account of sin. Nonetheless, the fall of man, and the enduring flaw in the human condition that results from it, remains the problem that no idea or plan can solve.

The birth of the Son of God on Christmas is the beginning of the answer to our condition because he will solve the problem of sin. We need new people, not new philosophies or ideals, and Jesus Christ in the manger on Christmas is The New Man. He has God for his Father and the Blessed Virgin for his Mother. He is fully God—as he always has been; but now he is also fully human.

The word “human” is, for us, synonymous with words like “flawed” and “sinful.” We excuse our foibles and failures by saying, “We’re only human.” Christmas reveals this to be a false premise. For Jesus is human, but not flawed or sinful. In fact, our sins reveal that we are yet fully human. We are only in the process of becoming by grace what Jesus is by nature.

Jesus is fully human. He will eat, drink and celebrate. He will fast, weep and mourn. He will experience pain and pleasure, joy and anger, disappointment and frustration. He will be popular, then rejected by all. He will suffer and die; and then he will rise from the dead—because he is God and God cannot be held by death. Easter is the inevitable result of Christmas.

But Jesus will never sin. He will never worship an idol or act in malice. He will never use another person to get something for himself. He will never gossip about others to make himself feel good. He will never ignore the will of God and the good of others in order to make a profit. He will never mistake lust for love. In the words of 1 Corinthians 13, Jesus will suffer long and be kind. He will not envy; he will not show off or behave rudely. He will not seek his own> He will not rejoice in iniquity, but will rejoice in the truth. Jesus will bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). In other words, Jesus will be fully human.

In our Christmas collect we ask God to “grant…that we, being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit” (BCP 96). Through the baptismal gift of the Spirit, our fallen humanity is renewed so that we can now be like him. We are no longer stuck in sub-human and beastly patterns of behavior. By grace we are sons and daughters of God.

However, grace is a gift that we must receive by faith—by continual prayer and trust in God—if we are to become in daily life what God has declared us to be in baptism. Therefore, as we begin to celebrate the twelve day feast of the Incarnation, let us set aside our doubts and fears and let us receive Christ into our hearts with new faith; let us be renewed by God’s Holy Spirit to become living members of the Body of Christ; let us be the incarnate presence of Jesus that changes our homes and families and the places where we work and play. Let us be new people who love in new ways. Let us be, not “only” human; let us be fully and genuinely human. As St. John writes, “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the children of God, even to them that believe on his name, which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).

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First Sunday After Christmas 2012 – Sermon

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A few years ago, our son called and excitedly told us that they were expecting the birth of their third child, their first son, and that they had decided to name him Joseph. Diane and I immediately thought of Joseph in the Old Testament.  We thought a baby quilt of many colors might make an appropriate gift.

We were then informed that our grandson was being named in honor of St. Joseph, the husband of Mary and foster-father of Jesus. As you might suspect, other than some child-sized woodworking tools, nothing immediately came to mind. We perused several Christian internet sites for something associated with Joseph and eventually found a St. Joseph tee-shirt that read, “Not your average Joe.”

Neither St. Mark nor St. John wrote about Joseph in their Gospels. St. Luke, in his Infancy Narrative, wrote extensively about many persons involved in the coming of the Messiah. He mentions Zacharias and Elisabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, as well as Simeon and Anna at the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. However, St. Luke has almost nothing to say about Joseph other than making an occasional reference of his physical presence at selected events in a few passages. Quote, “…and Joseph was there…” It certainly makes for a good start, but is that really all that’s expected of a father – just show up? Just be there?

God did not think it wise or prudent that a father be merely a bystander in the life of a family. A child needs the love and active involvement of both a father and a mother. With as much care and thought as Mary was selected to be the Mother of our Lord, God prepared Joseph for his important role as a father.

St. Matthew describes Joseph as a “Just Man” meaning that he conformed his life to faithfully and conscientiously observing the commandments of God. The Law forbade a man to marry a woman who had been guilty of fornication with another man during the time of their betrothal. It provided two remedies. Joseph could opt for a public divorce stating charges and possibly subjecting Mary to death by stoning or he could divorce her “quietly” without providing a cause for the action. His intent was to do the latter and spare her public shame. The virtue of Justice applies the requirements of the God’s Law with compassion and mercy. Joseph was indeed “just”.

Joseph also lived the virtue of Obedience. This morning’s Gospel tells us that while Joseph thought on these things, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream telling him that the child was from the Holy Ghost and that he should take Mary as his wife. This was the first of three dreams Joseph received and he humbly and obediently responded to each one in faith.  To obey requires listening, accepting what is said, and following through in action, even when it is difficult or challenging. Joseph was obedient and as such he modeled obedience for the child Jesus as he grew towards manhood and the Cross.

Following God can be inconvenient and require a change in thinking. Being asked to be a foster father and human role model for the Messiah was not a job one would normally volunteer for. Joseph the husband had to be helpful, caring, sensitive and reliable. He took full responsibility, caring for a very pregnant wife on an arduous three or four day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. As protector of his wife and child, he had to endure rejection, accept lodging in a lowly stable, welcome strangers and live among animals – and that was just the beginning!

Later on, Joseph the family man had to endure fleeing his ancestral home, becoming a refugee and reestablishing himself in an expatriate community.  He knew what it was like to search for a job and to provide for his family’s needs. Joseph the worker was a “tekton”, which in Greek refers to being a craftsman or artisan, one who works with wood, stone or metal. He labored hard physically, on a daily basis, to provide for the needs of his family.

Nonetheless, Joseph was faithful to the call of God upon his life. After a time, when it seemed the danger was over, there appeared to be nothing to keep Joseph in Egypt.  But Joseph the patient remained in Egypt without complaint, continuing his work as though he would never leave. He stayed there for no other reason than that of being faithful to the Angel’s instruction to remain (Mt. 2:13) “there until I bring thee word.” He resisted the temptation to get ahead of God’s will and timing, exercising trust and endurance.

Scripture does not record one word uttered by Joseph. It only tells us of what Joseph the silent did in his life. However, as Jesus teaches us, quote, (Mt 7:16) “By their fruits you will know them.”

Twenty centuries later, Joseph still provides us with an example of what it means to live as a godly man. We learn from Scripture that Joseph was faithful and obedient to all that God asked of him. He was a protective husband and father who placed the well being of his wife and child above his own wants and desires.

He was certainly “Not your average Joe.”

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