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F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Sermons -- Audio Version
Trinity XIII - 08/29/10
Hab. 1:12-2:4; Psalm 104; Gal. 3:16-22; Lk. 10:23-37
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste
of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.
This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior
all the day long;
this is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.
Assurance has been a subject of some of our in-house discussions here at St. Luke's, so I think it is time to bring the subject out into the light.
Assurance is something we all look for, assurance about the future, assurance that things will go well. We do that because we live in time, because things can change for the better or worse. They probably will not long stay the same. We spend huge amounts of our time, efforts, and resources trying to ensure that our future is "assured". We buy insurance policies, we store up funds, we keep a certain amount of food and other resources on hand. But, as our insurance policies testify, we are not sure that we will stay sufficiently in control of our future to guarantee much of anything at all. We prepare for the worst because we are constantly at risk to a host of negative possibilities.
The nature and reality of spiritual assurance is one of the most important topics we can discuss, right at the heart of any spiritual life.
This assurance has to do with those two spiritual stabilities: ontological and moral. We may wonder if we will be able to keep on existing at all, let alone existing in some kind of style and affluence. There are no guarantees on the matter.
And our moral stability -- how does our behavior determine our future? Is there a moral element which decides our ultimate destination and welfare?
Biblical religion was the first (and still the only) religion to firmly link morality with the law and purposes of God. And so it has been called "ethical monotheism". But even the pagans had some sense that if there was an afterlife, then it had to do with how one behaved here on earth. It had some sort of moral element.
Muslims are left in the dark by the inscrutable will of God. They apparently are given no assurance of going to heaven, other than by dying in the act of killing an infidel.
What kind of assurance can Christians have? Much of Christian theological discussion has tried to answer that question.
Well, what is "assurance"? My dictionary says, "A positive declaration intended to give confidence..." And who, in the case of salvation, would be giving this positive declaration? Well, God, of course. But how do we hear this declaration? How do we know that it is God speaking, and how do we know that He is treating us honestly?
We might hear it from a preacher or evangelist. We might read it in the Bible. We might hear God speaking to us in prayer.
But we probably all wrestle with our doubts. There is, after all, that big world out there in which the often dominating forces mock and berate those who believe such things. We are told that we are fools, that "science has disproven the reality of God...", etc. And scientists are supposed to be experts in determining the truth of things. Pastors and theologians today do not have much credibility in the public arena. So what are we to believe? How can we have assurance, all the more if our own lives have had severe ups and downs? Why are we to think that those ups and downs will not go on forever?
St. Paul gives an answer to that puzzle. He uses the word (RSV) 'guarantee' three times to assure us of the reality of our salvation. 'Guarantee' is a strong word, indicating worthiness of almost absolute trust. In the commercial world, if something is guaranteed, you either get what you bargained for, or you get your money back. How can this word 'guarantee' operate in the spiritual realm?
In 2 Cor. 1:22, Paul says that God "has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee".
In 2 Cor. 5:5, Paul says God.. has "given us the Spirit as a guarantee".
And in Eph. 1:4, the disciples "were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory."
In each of these passages, Paul is saying that the gift of the Holy Spirit is a kind of down payment, a foretaste of what is to come, to encourage us to move forward in hope, blessed assurance.
This, of course, refers to Pentecost, and to the prophecy from John the Baptist (Luke 3:15 ff.) that Jesus would "baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." Then Jesus reaffirms this promise in Acts 1, shortly before it actually happens.
In what sense, then, can the Baptism of the Holy Spirit be a guarantee of our inheritance?
That guarantee-event in our lives must not be hearsay, it must be something we ourselves have experienced, a given fact of our lives, something done by God within us which is so evident to us that we cannot reasonably deny it. To deny it would be to deny our own sense of reality and sanity.
That means it must be a very powerful, life-changing experience. It would also imply that it would be life-changing in our relationship with the rest of the world around us. We would experience ourselves to be no longer vulnerable to those outrageous slings and arrows which life seems to aim at us, that we would find ourselves able to stand up against the worst that the world, the flesh, or the devil had to throw at us.
It would not mean that we could not be hurt, or feel pain, or live in terribly devastating circumstances. It would mean that we were no longer "of" this world, even though we would be very firmly and openly "in" it. We would not be walling ourselves off from contact with the world, quite the contrary, we would be aggressively counterattacking the fallen spiritual forces in all aspects -- intellectual, moral, political, educational, commercial, military, or whatever.
It would mean that those two stabilities, ontological and moral, would be firmly fixed in our lives, coming from a depth that no force on earth could counter. Our being and our moral direction would be coming from outside the world, from the Hand and Voice of God Himself. There would be nothing at all that the negative forces of the world could do to quench us.
It would mean that we would be actually doing what Jesus said we would, greater works than He had done.
It would not mean that Christians would not die at the hands of the enemies of Christ. We might indeed. It would mean that we would continue serve and witness for Jesus Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords, no matter what they did to us.
The revelation of God began with the giving of the law. The power of the Holy Spirit was infrequently given, and to individuals, not to the whole community of Israel. It was not until that power of the Holy Spirit had been given to the people as a whole at Pentecost, the ability to be themselves fully and openly, that they would have the capacity to make true sense of the law, and be able to obey its true sense.
Lacking the Holy Spirit, a person who is insecure in his being will be insecure also in his obedience. If I do not have the mothering gift of graceful and secure being, I will not be able to receive gracefully the fathering gift of moral direction. Moral expectations will always seem like a threat against my personhood, a kind of enslavement. "You're always telling what to do!"
I will not be able to understand, let alone obey, the true meaning of the commandments -- that law and grace are fully and totally wedded, that justice and mercy have met and kissed, that the law is not contrary to grace, rather that the law commands grace. We are obligated to love our neighbors just like we love ourselves. That is grace. Law and grace are wedded, not opposites. With the gift of the Holy Spirit, the disciples became able to understand and obey the law of God.
Why, then, do we struggle with this sense of assurance? Why do we search for it as though it had not been given?
We Westerners have so depersonalized the cosmos into a machine, and have so absorbed that impression into our souls that it is very difficult for us to imagine that the cosmos even permits a loving God to be at the foundation of our being, and issuing commands which affirm, support, and love our being.
God is very far away for most Western Christians today. And so we tend to focus on all the paraphernalia of faith, rather than have a living relationship with the God who gives us the paraphernalia. And when we have something like a "charismatic renewal", we focus on feelings and emotions rather than substantial improvements in our personal stability in the face of the world, or in our moral obedience.
So the sacraments, the Bible, the liturgy, all then tend to get used as crutches, or as pro-forma performances -- rather than outward and visible signs of the life of God.
We then want the Bible to have our faith for us, to give us an undoubtable word, we want the sacraments mechanically to make us spiritual, we want the liturgy to be impressive rather than holy. We lose the meaning of holiness as a personal relationship with God.
The word of assurance can be spoken only by God into our minds, our wills, and our feelings and emotions -- all through a living personal relationship.
The question of assurance is only partly the question of the accuracy of Scripture, or the effectiveness of the sacraments, or the flow of the liturgy. The assurance revolves around -- Does God love me? Do I mean something to God? Is my life valuable to God? Does God care???
Only God can deliver that message. We can read about it, talk about it, preach and teach about it among ourselves. But only God can speak it into my soul. And only then can the Bible, the sacraments, the liturgy, and all the other aids to our relationship with God fall into their rightful place -- pointers on to God.
Until that hearing happens in my soul, the helps are in danger of becoming blocks because I do not see past them to the God who sends them.
I think that that is where we Western Christians are, for the most part, just barely able to sense the presence of God so that He can deliver to us His assurance. We may believe here in church, but as soon as we walk out the church door, the doubts of the world speak louder than the assurance of God -- when we have not moved sufficiently past the world to the Creator of the world.
So that "positive declaration intended to give confidence..." (which we read of in the dictionary) gets muffled in the static of our doubts and blindness to personal relationship reality.
Habakkuk, in this morning's lesson, is wrestling over a moral issue with God. How can God, who will not allow evil into His presence without dealing with it, send a nation more evil than the Hebrews to punish the Hebrews. But Habakkuk understands that God speaks to us about our needs. He says, "I will take my stand to watch, and station myself on the tower, and look forth to see what He will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint."
Like Habakkuk, we must bring our complaints honestly before God, as did Job, but then we must listen for His side of the story. That is an honest relationship with God, that is living in the Light with God. That is the kind of relationship in which we can hear that assuring word. We learn how to do that first in our families and churches.
Psalm 104 is a glorious paean of praise to God, giving a view of God as personally and intimately connected with the whole of His creation. "Who layeth the beams of His chambers in the waters, and maketh the clouds His chariot, and walketh upon the wings of the wind." The creation is not a machine operating on its own independently of God, it is a creation of His in every aspect. God cares about His creation in a manner which Christians have deep difficulty imagining.
In the Epistle, Paul is describing the situation among the Galatians which reflects some of our concerns this morning. The depersonalization of the Jews' relation to God caused by the Pharisaic interpretation of the law led to the same kind of inability of the Jews to understand the grace and the freedom with which God wanted them to live. When we depersonalize our relationship with God, we distance ourselves from Him. And then we must rely upon those things which were meant to point us to God as though they themselves were God. It does not work. They cannot assure us of anything. So we end up with a pretend, pro forma faith.
In the Gospel, Jesus says, "Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see: for I tell you, that many prophets and kings have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them..."
What did those prophets and kings neither see nor hear which the disciples have seen and heard? Jesus does not specify, but it was almost certainly related to our topic -- they could hear no assuring word from God because their idolatry. Their trust in the world rather than God, prevented it. They could not see past the world to the Creator of the world.
The Samaritan in Jesus' parable saw what kings and prophets, and a certain priest and a Levite, did not see, the reality of personhood, even there in a crumpled, beaten heap by the roadside. If you can see the personhood of people behind their bodies, then you are much more likely to see the personhood of God behind the whole of creation -- and thus more likely to hear that assuring word: "I love you."
The Bible, sacraments, and liturgy can tell us about that relationship, about being saved, but only God can tell us that we are saved, give us the assurance of it. God gives us these things to tell us about and point us to Himself because we have so far fallen away from Him. But we perceive our salvation only by directly perceiving our relationship with God.
In the world, there is no substantial assurance of anything. But in God, there is the assurance based on His word, on the Incarnation of the Son of God, on the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and the Ascension, all sealed by the coming and indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The fallen world has nothing like that to offer.
This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior
all the day long;
this is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.
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