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The following is a sermon preached at the Episcopal Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Placentia, California, on Sunday, December 3, 2006. Parts of it have been expanded to elucidate further the relation between the Church and the State in our own time.
In the Gospel (Luke 3:1-6) we read:
In the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod tetrarch of Galilee.... in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas [that's a rogue's gallery list of leaders], the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. And he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
And then we are shot back earlier to about 520 BC and the prophet Second Isaiah:
The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord, and make His paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
& every mountain shall be brought low,
& the crooked shall be made straight, & the rough ways shall be made smooth,
& all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
This was a picture of the Glory of God, which had left the Temple in Jerusalem some 70 years before as the Exile to Babylon commenced. The Glory of the Lord had gone to Babylon with the Exiles, and was now leading them back to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple.
I want to raise three issues this morning:
1. What is this salvation from God?
2. Illustrate that with an example of learning how to die well;
3. Make an application for the world in which we live on the relation between Church and State.
My quick definition -- salvation has to do with two things, our being and our doing:
Salvation is two things: security of being and security of moral direction.
First, by security of being, we have our existence, our being, stabilized, we are standing on secure ground, we know ourselves to be secure.
That is not a common condition among human beings. We feel anxious, afraid, insecure much of the time. We feel this lack of secure being in front of other people. We are unable freely to be ourselves in front of others. But then without other people we feel lonely. So we are caught betwixt and between. We have a love-hate relationship with people.
Adam and Eve are reported to have been naked and unashamed. That was not a comment on their amount of clothing so much as on their ability to live their lives openly and freely before one another. They were not afraid of each other. They hid nothing of themselves. They were WYSIWYG persons. What you see is what you get. Transparent. Or, as Jesus said of Nathan, "Behold, an Israelite in whom is no guile."
We feel that insecurity when we do not know that we have the approval, nay, the command, of God to be ourselves because He has created us. God does not make things capriciously. So we think we must beg, borrow, or steal our approval from other persons. We think we must DO something to win approval. We try to be ourselves by what we do -- salvation (being, existence) by works, rather than be ourselves by what God has already done in creating us -- salvation by grace. Jesus comes to inform us of God's approval of our being, and to deliver us to the Father where we can receive it ourselves from His hand.
So we have first the ability to be ourselves.
The second part of salvation is moral security, or moral authority -- the right, nay, the obligation, to find and fulfill our reason for existence.
So, we are given existence, and then we are told why we exist. We have the power of being ourselves, and we have the right, the freedom, the obligation to do what ever leads to our fulfillment in the Kingdom.
God creates us to go somewhere with us. He is leading us to a fulfillment, a goal, a completion. That goal of all life is defined by the two great commandments, to love God and to love our neighbor -- "on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." The goal of all life is a community of love between God and ourselves.
Sin compromises both aspects of salvation: the power to be ourselves and the authority to do what is right.
When we sin, when we disobey God, when we separate ourselves from His provision for life, when we think we can do it without Him -- we undercut our stability of being and we undercut our moral authority for doing. A God-less world has no stability of being and no moral authority. Only God can give those two things.
Jesus enters our lives, as in Advent season, to draw us back to the Father, to restore us to that marvelous power of being ourselves and the authority to do that which leads to our reason for being.
Perhaps you recall an incident a few months ago which took place in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. A deranged gunman had several Amish children at gunpoint in a school room, threatening to kill them because he hated God.
David Virtue, whom some of you may know as the author of an online newsletter, lives near Nickel Mines, and sent an email with the details of the event. He wrote:
As the crazed gunman lined them up to kill, the eldest, a 13-year old, stepped forward and said "shoot me first", hoping perhaps to buy time.
After he killed her, her 11-year old sister stepped forward and said "shoot me next".
He blasted her to kingdom come.
Then the killer broke down and cried and asked that the rest of the girls pray for him.
Then he systematically slaughtered the rest.
Some have survived, but most have gone home from nearby hospitals to die.
On the weekend over 1,000 Amish attended the funeral of the gunman and prayed and wept for the wife and preached forgiveness at every opportunity.
I was told that within an HOUR of the slayings they had sent a message to the wife saying they had forgiven her husband.
Because of the closeness of their community the Amish are better able to handle grief. They closed ranks, they prayed and they found the resources for going on from their solid faith in Jesus.
That is what I mean by stability of being -- ability to be their real selves, even looking down the barrel of a gun. They had no fear of death.
The early Christians had that stability, no fear of death -- facing gladiators, lions, or plagues. They sang, prayed, ministered to one another. And loved their enemies. The Romans, who lived amidst constant death, wanted to know how to die well. Many of them concluded, "If that is what having Jesus in your heart does for you, I want Jesus in my heart." That is how the Christians won the Roman Empire for Jesus without ever raising a sword.
Christians all over the world, China, Africa, Korea, know how to die, and are winning souls for Christ in the midst of the most horrendous of circumstances.
And then there is the West. Dying. The Church fractured, fighting with itself, with next to no public witness. No guns to our heads, no prisons, no torture, no starvation. And yet almost no public witness. We cannot say out loud that Jesus is Lord. We are afraid to die, afraid to die to self, afraid of public opinion, insecure in our being, in our Christian identity, and unable, for the most part, to do, to live as sons and daughters of God in the midst of our terribly corrupt society.
And, we are not converting our people to Christ. At least, not so's you'd notice.
If this is salvation, it is a very sorry version of it. God cannot be happy with Western Christianity.
We are well aware of the tragic and terribly destructive failure of the Episcopal Church (among others). Our leadership has failed, on both sides of the fence. Liberals do not liberate, and conservatives do not conserve.
But more than that -- the failure of the Church has done much to set the pattern for the same kind of tragic and self-destructive life in education, politics, welfare, the media, and the rest of the public arena. We have led the way by our rebellion and our apathy, and by our submission to "relative truth".
God gave us in America the beginnings of a Biblically founded society and nation. Our government, excepting only Israel, was the most Biblically founded government in history. As our Declaration of Independence tells the world, our freedoms come from God or they do not come with security at all.
Christians in America should have carefully documented and elucidated that Biblical foundation But we did not, and so the erosion began at least as early as the 1830's, and progressed steadily from there.
America is losing the freedoms with which God had blessed us precisely because the Christian community is incapable of standing up for Jesus in public with truth and grace, and so we are on the road back to the same kind of tyrannical control of our personal lives from which in Europe the colonials sought escape.
We are right now looking down the barrel of "1984", that
society described by George Orwell on the subversion of a whole nation by
Civil government is rightly the referee and the enforcer, the one responsible for making sure that people obey the righteous laws necessary for a functioning free people. Coercion, enforcement, is the righteous business of civil government. But that means that government, which carries the gun, must itself be held accountable for Godly legislation and enforcement. As George Washington said: Government is not reason, it is not eloquence. It is force, and like fire it is a dangerous tool and a fearful master.
And so it must be held down by the chains of the constitution. We in America have a democratic republic under God, as our Declaration states, not a secular liberal democracy, as we hear.
The Church is the conscience of society, responsible for introducing us to God, our Creator, and teaching us the will of God, our purpose for existence, the law and the grace of God. When the Church loses track of the Biblical worldview, a cosmos created by a personal God who has a purpose for our being here, it also loses the Gospel. It has no more good news, and descends back into salvation by works.
The Episcopal Church has grandly illustrated this, but other Churches are as well, unable to reasonably explain why Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. So it collapsed into the relative truth mode of preaching, and an irrational, self-destructive post-modern inclusiveness and pseudo-pluralism.
But the Church does not, in America, carry the weapon of enforcement.
Civil government, when it follows the corrupted Church, puts the weapon of enforcement and coercion behind the perversion of culture. Sin is not only being accepted, it is being coercively mandated. The homosexual lifestyle is not only being permitted, it is being taught by mandate, and those who publicly disagree have already felt the long arm of the law -- here in America. That is a clear sign of advanced spiritual warfare and the activity of Satan.
The witness of Christians in public is necessary not only for our personal salvation, but for the life and health of society as well.
Why is this an application of salvation? Because only a saved people, under the law and grace of God, can sustain their freedom. Only a people secure in their being and sure of their moral freedom and obligation can stand up to tyrannical government. He who appears to hold the moral high ground will win the world. God in fact holds it, and is inviting the rest of us to stand there with Him -- and give our witness to His law and grace.
We have a choice before us. We will live either by "Jesus is Lord", or by "civil government is lord." Either God will give us stability of being and moral direction, or civil government will. Civil government can actually give neither of those things, but it is very good at pretending, and a spiritually gullible people is swallowing the lies.
In 1962, when the Supreme Court, for the first time in our history, declared that prayer was illegal in government-run schools, it was telling God that He was no longer sovereign, that the Supreme Court really was "supreme", and that God was no longer permitted to talk to students on government time, nor they to Him.
And the Church said ... not much.
The Court went on to tell us that it would decide who was and was not a person, and that every person had the right to decide their own personal meaning for existence, that is to say, that truth is relative. The Supreme Court has thus elevated the very meaning of sin and rebellion against God to the highest level of principle in American government.
Why not? Many Christians were doing the same thing, with little effective protest from other Christians. The Christian community led the way.
We are much closer to being the Great Satan, as some Muslims say, than we are willing to admit. Ask 40,000,000 + little babies.
So where is the application?
Christians won the Roman Empire, and are currently winning China and other places, because they were, and are, willing to lay down their lives to be obedient to the truth and the Lord of truth. They understood, and understand that we are in an ultimate contest in which the stakes are everything, winner take all, no quarter asked or given. Only unconditional surrender accepted. That is on both sides. You will not negotiate terms with either Jesus or Satan. But Jesus will reason with you and offer a freewill choice. Satan will not.
Until we Western Christians are so close to God that death has no fear for us, so close to God that no human opinion, no human court, no human military presence, no human torture chamber can make us back down from our testimony to Jesus as Lord and Savior, we will be of correspondingly little use to God in the spiritual warfare being engaged all around us.
Fr. Terry Fullam once said (back in the 1980's), "The Church is not much help to the Kingdom of God, and not much threat to the kingdom of Satan." Indeed.
But if we die sufficiently to ourselves, then we will become part of that triumphant march back to the Temple, to the restoration of the Glory of God in our own midst, to the refounding of America as a nation dedicated to God and His righteousness.
The voice still cries, now in the wilderness of America,
"Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight... And all flesh shall see
the salvation of our God." That is the calling of God upon every nation, every
people group. The Great Commission.
It took me nearly a week to get settled down internally after reading David Virtue's email about the events in Nickel Mines. I was not so disturbed by the death of the children as by the fact that I, at 71 years, was being taught by two young girls how to be a faithful Christian. I knew that I would not have given their responses.
But I want to become the kind of person who could and would. That scene kept coming back, over and over, until the Lord gave me the grace to be able to imagine myself, should the Lord give me the nod, to be able to say, "Shoot me first..."
So I invite you to the altar, to holy communion, to give your life to Jesus as you take His into your body and soul. I invite you to become the kind of person for whom death has no fear because you have already died, and are alive in Christ. Maybe there are people you know who, like the Romans, want to know how to die well.
Let's show them.
See also article on Amish at Nickel Mines, PA. and The Tragic & Disastrous Failure of Western Christendom
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