That was what we had at this years CHristmas Eve Service. It kinda blew our minds – the pageant was packed with kids and people just kept walking in. God is always good and his goodness was very evident tonight. Thank you Lord.
I am very fortunate. I serve as a priest under one of the most godly men and Bishops I know. He is certainly the best Bishop I know, for many different reasons. But one small, yet I think powerful, indication of the type of leader and pastor my bishop is comes on a day like today – Christmas Eve. This is the second Christmas as Rector of my parish and this is the second Christmas Eve that my Bishop has called me to see how I was, and to pray for me over the phone. He is doing this with all the clergy in his Diocese. It is both a blessing and a wonderful affirmation that just hours from a Christmas Eve service my bishop has prayed for me, for the service and for the ministry. I am very fortunate and blessed indeed.
One of the privileges I have is sitting on the committee which examines those who feel God is calling to them to ministry in the Anglican Church and our Diocese as well as the committee which examines those graduating Seminary and about to be Ordained.
I have been swatting up on Anglican Theology and on the 39 Articles. In reading one book, “The Very Pure Word of God: The Book of Common Prayer As A Model Of Biblical Liturgy” by Peter Adam, a strong reformed Anglican, I was amazed to see him quote from “Wolf Hall”, Hilary Mantel’s novel on Thomas Cromwell and the Reformation period in England. Some have labeled Wolf Hall and Mantel’s follow up novel “Bring Up The Bodies” as advocating moral relativism. Yet here is the very conservative Adam quoting from her novel. He quotes this bit: They have seen their religion painted on the walls of churches, or carved in stone, but now God’s pen is poised, and he is ready to write his words in the books of their hearts.
The tragic killings of young lives today will live in the memory of this nations history. The town will become infamous and famous because of this horrendous event.
However, the pro-gun lobby are already subtly preparing the sound bites to defend gun ownership in the aftermath of this event. The call for gun reform will inevitably come. But this time I hope that the pro-gun lobby simply bow their heads and take the hit. There is nothing to say. It was as bad as bad can be. No defense. No sound bite. No argument. Children died at the hands of a man with a gun.
Pray for the families.
The world we live in right now looks scary. Watching the news is a task of endurance as you go from one crisis to another crisis, with no apparent solution or end in sight.
For many, it appears that the world has become a different place – an strange place – it has changed beyond recognition from their childhood.
Many feel they are living in a foreign land.
Daniel faced something very similar.
He and his nation were in exile, in captivity in Babylon. Everything Daniel had held dear to him had been ripped away – his way of life, how he worshipped, his culture, what he ate, how he dressed, even how he spoke. The Babylonians even took his name away from him – Belteshazzar.
What happened to Daniel and Israel was effective Armageddon – the end of the world.
Daniel’s people, the Israelites, had a very simple worldview. They had always believed that the stability of the world was guaranteed by the fact that Yahweh, created the world and ruled over the world. Yet Israel faced a crisis. Daniel, I believe, himself faced a crisis. The stability of the world had fallen off a cliff. When a nation was defeated – so was your god. So when you believed that you had the most powerful god in the universe, and then this god does not rescue you from defeat, the question is – was the other nations god more powerful than your god.
Daniel believed Yahweh to be the one true God – creator and sustainer of all things and that all other gods were subject and under the power of Yahweh. But the defeat by Babylon meant that this worldview was being severely tested.
Had God forgotten Israel? Was he able to defeat the Babylonians? Why was evil prevailing? What was going on?
The future looked grim for them. It looked hopeless – and it looked like a future without Yahweh.
It is in this contextual background that Daniel gets this vision in Chapter 7 V9-14. The vision has one simple point – God has not abandoned his people to the will of their oppressors. Those who remain faithful to the end will see the consummation of God’s Sovereign purpose.
Yahweh was a “to go” God – He was not restricted by the temple, or national boundaries – God – Yahweh was right there in Babylon, with the people of Israel, and even working on the King of Babylon himself – but that is another sermon.
Boy, did they need to hear this. God had not abandoned them. He is not powerless to stop what had been happening.
A similar thing was happening with the apostle John. John had served his God and his master Jesus, but was now, banished to the island of Patmos during a time of persecution. Christians were being killed – the world ruled by a mad and insane man. Jesus had not yet returned. What was delaying him? What is going to happen? Then John receives this revelation – revelations of things that have happened that are happening and that will happen.
I want you to notice something. We often call Revelation the revelation of John. But that is not accurate. Look at the first line of our reading this morning.
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants what must soon take place; and he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John.
This is a the Revelation of Jesus – given to Him by the Father, and then given to John. This is directly from the Father to the Son, and then to us!
Daniel and John are given two incredible visions which take us into a place which is quite remarkable – a glimpse into the heavenly perspective of time.
And these visions, given by God are not here in scripture to satisfy human curiosity about heaven but to affirm faith and give hope in the midst of difficulty and encourage obedient service.
The vision of Daniel 7 is of a court room – the Ancient of Day has taken up his place in the court of justice, and this court, the court of God, is always convened. In fact it is convened right now – his justice is always flowing; even as the earthly kingdoms exist – God has already passed judgment on these Kingdoms, and on the Kings, prime ministers and Presidents of the world – and in due course, the sentence will be passed into the physical realm of this world.
God is on the heavenly throne, even when it appears that earthly thrones are occupied by tyrants.
There is a story of two friends used to play basket ball in a public school after they had finished work. On the side lines, an elderly janitor waited patiently until the two finished playing. Invariably he sat there reading his Bible. One day one of the players asked him what he was reading. The man answered, ‘The book of Revelation.’ Surprised, the man asked if he understood it. ‘Oh, yes,’ the Janitor assured him. ‘I understand it!’ ‘What does it mean?’ the man asked. Quietly the janitor answered, ‘It means that Jesus has won, Jesus has won.’”
What is your view of the world right now? Do we look at the world with hope or fear? Do we see a future which is bright or dark? Do we have confidence or are we uncertain of what is to come.
Our future as Christians is entirely controlled by the past. The past, of course, is the victory of Jesus on the cross. When Jesus rose from the dead and defeated death, and ascended back to heaven, the Kingdom of Christ won – and it began to conquer. As people give their lives to Jesus, when they trust in Him alone, and live under HIS kingdom, his government, the Kingdom of God is conquering. It is running parallel with other kingdoms, but all other kingdoms and governments will fall, just as Babylon fell, the Med & Persian Kingdom fell, Greece fell and Rome fell. Christ’s Kingdom will continue forever and ever.
Faced with suffering, injustice, and oppression and with no deliverance or remedy at hand, hope has to lie in the belief that there is more to reality than is apparent – that there is a righteous, holy and mighty God who does sit on his throne and who acts to deliver the faithful.
There is a Kingdom coming and the Kingdom’s of this world cannot stand against it.
Our Gospel reading is a fabulous illustration of this.
Right here we have the confrontation of two kingdoms – the Kingdom of Rome, of the world, of which Pilate is a representative and the Kingdom of Jesus, the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is the visual image of what Daniel and Revelation is illustrating. Visually, the Kingdom of Rome appears to be winning. Pilate is interrogating Jesus. He has the authority. Pilate believed this. He tells Jesus in Chapter 19: 10 Pilate therefore said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” The oppressor, the ‘evil’ man appears to be in control and to have won the day. Pilate had no doubt that he was in a place of power – for it was his kingdom that ruled on earth.
But how wrong Pilate was.
There is another Kingdom – and even here, Jesus is speaking to Pilate about this kingdom. Jesus is ministering to Pilate and even now, in Pilate’s palace, is offering him the chance to take hold of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus’ response to Pilate is so amazing – Jesus asks Pilate, why are you asking me whether I am the King of the Jew? Your motive for asking will determine the answer i give.
In other words, If Pilate is truly asking because he wants to know then Jesus will say yes. If Pilate is just repeating the charge of the Jews then the answer is no, because he is not the King of Jews that the people expected.
No, even here – even as Jesus is about to be judged and sent to the cross, Pilate is not in control. The ruling government is not in control. Jesus is. The Lord is. God is.
Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world. It does not operate like the kingdoms or governments of this world. And it has been Jesus role and the Churches mission, to tell the world about the truth of the Kingdom of Heaven.
N.T Wright is a very well known theologian and scholar, as well as being the former Bishop of Durham in the UK. He said that the Gospel is the declaration of four things which stem from the prophets:
• That on the cross Jesus defeated all evil & the power of sin and death
• In Jesus a new age has dawned of the fulfillment of the prophets and scriptures and that the whole world would be addressed by one God
• That Jesus is the long awaited messiah and King
• That Jesus is the Lord and one true King of the whole world to whom one day every knee will bow to.
The Gospel is a declaration of truth – of fact – of the Kingdom of God.
And this kingdom is returning – he is coming back. Jesus has won. Evil will not win.
CS Lewis said that If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.
Do we live in this knowledge despite what our world shows us – despite what life is throwing at us right now? Do we know that God’s kingdom has arrived? Even though it is not yet here in its complete fullness? Do we see the wars in the world today and the conflicts and the evil people and political empires who oppress and kill and know that God has judged them and that sentence will be passed soon. Do we know that in the struggles of life that face us through illness, or hardship; in our work places or families, that we belong to Christ’s kingdom and that our future is with Him.
The message of Daniel and John is the same, and it is illustrated by Jesus as he stood before Pilate.
If we base our faith only on the realities we see here and now, we will flounder and lose hope. But if we place our hope deep into God’s future promises, which he has revealed to us now, it will hold us through the very worst of storms. As the Psalmist said this morning: The LORD reigns; he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed, he is girded with strength. Amen!
One of the accusations of those in the Episcopal Church is that those who have left are schismatics who show no tolerance for others view points.
Of course that is not true – but even more ironically, that is now what the established Episcopalians are doing with the Church of England.
Of course, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lambeth Palace have no actual ‘authority’ over the provinces of Anglicanism. But there is this ‘bond of affection’ which revolves very loosely around the use of the Book of Common Prayer, the 39 Articles the acceptance of Bishop, Priest and Deacon and attendance at the Lambeth conference held every 10 years.
The issue of marriage, and it’s re-definition to include same sex couples has been one of the issues which has divided anglicans and episcopalians. And now, the Church of ENgland has published a paper on this issue in response to Prime Minister Cameron’s belief in allowing same sex couples to marry in Churches.
The irony is the attacks which the writer(s) of this paper have come under for expressing their position. You may not like it. You may not agree, but the inability of liberal episcopalians to engage and to exercise the tolerance they themselves call others to exercise is stunning. Mark Harris, who is a liberal, but often a thoughtful and in many ways at least tries to be objective, writes a post with this as it’s title: Innies, outies, complementarity and other mind boggling foolishness about men and women.
Really? This is an approved paper by the Church of England. This was not written by 12 year olds, but by those who do understand theology, even if one disagrees with their position. To use a title such as this I think is very unfair, and a tad contemptuous and makes fun of the traditional view of marriage, as if the traditional view has been created by traditionalists, rather than stated squarely and clearly in the Holy Scriptures!!
And then another blog writes a post entitled Has the established C of E outlived its usefulness? So here you have it. The Liberal / progressive view point is this: We, the tolerant faction of the Episcopal Church and Anglicanism, who welcome all people, suggest that you agree with us, or you will be ridiculed. And if you don’t agree with us, your view is not only invalid but has outlived it’s usefulness and so either you go or we leave!
The question that is first on our lips when we read a passage like Genesis 22 is Why Does God ask Abraham to Sacrifice Isaac?
There may be a number of reasons but I my view one of the key reasons that God asks this of Abraham is because God is teaching Abraham the principle of First Fruits.
And the Principle of First Fruits is this: the FIRST born – or the FIRST of something belongs to God. It is His. And it must either be sacrificed to God or redeemed.
Where does this idea come from? Well, to find the answer to this we need to go back to the very first Passover in Egypt. The Passover is a time of judgment. God declares that he will judge the Egyptians for ignoring Him and Him ways. If you remember, the Israelites are commanded to put blood on the door posts of their houses. This was a sign for the angel to Passover that house and so the first born in that house did not die. Every other first born – both man and animal, died that night. This was about “the Egyptians and Israelites.” God passed his judgment over ALL the people in Egypt – and only those who followed the command of God were not killed. If an Israelite ignored the command to put blood on the door post, all the first born of that household would have doed. Being an Israelite by birth would not have saved them.
Now the fact that no Israelite died that night did not mean they had been let off. God’s judgment came upon everyone in Egypt – and the Israelites were no better than the Egyptians – they were sinners. So a price still had to be exacted from Israel. God is a just and righteous God. Forgiveness without justice is not righteous. Therefore God does not forgive without a price and the salvation of Israel from Egypt required a price.
In Number 3 verse 11 we are told what that price was to be.
The LORD also said to Moses, 12 “I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine, 13 for all the firstborn are mine. When I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I set apart for myself every firstborn in Israel, whether human or animal. They are to be mine. I am the LORD.”
So the result of the first Passover was that every first born male Israelite, instead of dying like the Egyptians, had to be given to the Lord. But so that families did not have to hand over every first born child, God chooses the Levites as a first born offering among the tribes, this meant that first born males did not have to be given to God, the Levites took that role and that place.
However, the Israelites were required to give to God the first born male of their flocks and animals, or the first fruits of every harvest.
Exodus 13:12-13 says: you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the LORD’s. 13 Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem.
Ex. 23:19 “Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God.
Thus, every first lamb born to your flock had to be sacrificed. If it was an unclean animal, like a donkey, you had to redeem it with a spotless lamb, or a monetary offering or you had to break its neck. Kill it. And every first harvest from your crops had to be given to the Lord.
Why? It was to teach the Israelites total reliance on God. The risk of giving God the first fruits is that you had no idea that you would have any more flocks or harvest. God does not say “ Let your ewe produce 9 lambs and then give me the tenth”. No, God says, “Give me the first one and then trust me that you will have more” It was a statement of faith that if we give to God the first, he would provide all that is needed.
What then is God asking of us?
Faith. It ALWAYS requires faith to give the first, because you have no idea what is coming. This is the point of faith – we do not see but we trust. Most of us would prefer that our faith is based on what we can see. But scripture is very clear:
Romans 8:24 says: Now in this hope we were saved, yet hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees?
Hebrews 11:1 says Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
And we know, don’t we, that we say paraphrase this verse as – Faith is the reality of things fully expected, the certainty of things not seen.
God asks us to give HIM the first even before we see if we are going to have enough.
This is because we are trusting that God will redeem the rest – when the first is given to God, God redeems the rest.
And this is not just about money.
The question is do we give God the first of everything.
For example – Do we give God the first of our day – do we give him the first 15 – 20 mins of our day to him in prayer, and a devotional time? By giving him the first minutes, we let him redeem the rest of the day for us.
Prov 3:9-10: Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; 10 then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.
We don’t have time to go through ALL the passages of scripture which show this, so we will take two. Joshua 6. In Joshua chapter 6 God prepares the Israelites to attack Jericho.
What is the significance of Jericho?
It’s the first city they are to attack in the promised land.
Josh. 6:18 But you, keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction, lest when you have devoted them you take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a thing for destruction and bring trouble upon it. 19 But all silver and gold, and every vessel of bronze and iron, are holy to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD.”
Do you see? This is the FIRST city – and everything IN that city is dedicated to God. Here again is the first fruits principle. And when the Israelites give God the first city he could Redeem the other cities. The next city they defeated they could have the loot!
Another example is Genesis 4. We all know the story of Cain and Abel and that Cain’s offering is rejected and Abel’s is not. Why? Well, lets read it she [Eve] also gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel became a shepherd of a flock, but Cain cultivated the land. 3 In the course of time Cain presented some of the land’s produce as an offering to the LORD.a 4 And Abel also presented |an offering|—some of the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions. The LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but He did not have regard for Cain and his offering. Cain was furious, and he was downcast.
Abel offered his first fruits – Cain did not and so God rebuked Cain. Notice this. Cain makes an offering – but he has not given God the first and it is for this reason that God rejects Cain’s offering.
Now, the scriptures are totally consistent is EVERY way and the first fruit principle is found in the New Testament, perhaps in it’s most remarkable way.
Luke 2:7: And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Jesus we know to be the firstborn of Mary. But he is also the firstborn in other ways;
Col 1:15: He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
What does the principle of first fruits tell us? That the firstborn, must die to redeem the rest.
What does Jesus do? He dies that we might live. As one theologian has written: When Christ redeemed us by his sacrifice he brought us back to God. He is literally a first fruits offering. In a very real sense, Jesus was God’s tithe!
In fact, the day that Jesus rose from the dead was the Jewish feast of First Fruits – the third day of the Jewish festival of Passover, 16 Nisan (Lev 23).
The first of everything we have – finances, time, family, work, all belong to God. Our hearts should say “ God, I am going to give to you first in every area of life and trust that you redeem the rest.”
And the giving of our first fruits to the Lord must not be begrudgingly but joyfully. Most of you know that I think the guilt driven stewardship campaigns of many churches are utterly unbiblical. It’s not about us wanting your money. It’s about God having your heart. If this Church were to have a motto for stewardship it would be 2 Cor 9:7: Each person should do as he has decided in his heart—not out of regret [or reluctantly] or out of necessity [or compulsion], for God loves a cheerful giver.
God wants us to be joyful in what we give. Why? Because that helps us to be spiritually healthy. Joy in our giving, whether it be money or our time, or energy helps us to be spiritually healthy.
We see this in our gospel reading. I think this is one of the most misunderstood texts in the New Testament.
What on earth is the good eye that makes your body full of light and and the bad eye which makes your body full of darkness? In the Hebrew scriptures and rabbinic tradition the term good eye – ayin tovah – means generosity while the term bad eye – aiyin ra’ah – means stinginess or selfishness. A rabbi would say, “If a person gives a gift, let him give it with a good eye.”
We see this in proverbs 22:9 – A generous person will be blessed, for he gives some of his food24 to the poor. Some translations will have a footnote which says that the word generous is literally good eye.
Jesus was saying that generosity is the light of the body. If we share ourselves and our resources with others, we will be full of light because we have good eye, just as to be stingy and selfish with resources and ourselves is to have a bad eye.
As I have said before this is not just about money. Sharing wisdom can be as, if not more valuable than giving.
But the key is – will we be a fellowship who stands on the principle of first fruits. God asks the first of us, The first of every thing!