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Incarnate Grace
Epiphany II, 2012

F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Audio Version

Epiphany II - 12/1/15
Zech. 8:1-8, 20-23; Ps. 99; Rom. 12:6-16; Mk. 1:1-11

Mark starts off his Gospel, The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; as it is written in the prophets, “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.’”

Isaiah was describing the triumphal march of the Lord and His people across the desert and mountains back to Jerusalem.

And then Mark tells us that John the Baptist baptized in the wilderness for remission of sins. John was not a televangelist who curried the favor of his audience. He spoke roughly and directly to them. His honesty apparently drew crowds of Jews who understood that perhaps the nearly 400 year dearth of any prophets or prophecy might now be at an end. “And there went out to him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.”

The people themselves must have understood the need for national repentance.

I know of no record of what actually happened when John baptized, what prayers were said, or what the person being baptized had to affirm – a creed or confession. It may have been no more than a list of sins, and then a dunking for the symbolic spiritual cleansing. In any event the Spirit of God was moving among the Jews, almost as though God Himself were hovering over the land – as was described in the Transformation videos.

Zechariah describes the restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple, how the streets will again be filled with old folks enjoying themselves and children playing in the streets, and how He will bring the exiles from far off back to home again. But even more, the Gentiles themselves will seek the favor of the Lord of Hosts. Many peoples and strong nations will seek the Lord of Hosts. “In those days, ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’”

Beginning with Abraham, the drum beat continues that the Gentiles shall become a part of the blessings from God, that indeed, the Jewish mission was in part specifically for the sake of the Gentiles.

There was a great deal of expectation among the Jews of the first century AD for a renewal of prophecy, some kind of visitation of the Lord among them. It seems strange that just after the return of the exiles from Babylon and the rebuilding of the Temple, that this dearth of prophetic voice would take place. But many new things were happening. Those returning from Babylon would bring with them the synagogue system, with the Torah scrolls marking the center of worship, so that in one sense, the rebuilding of the Temple was already becoming a less central event for the Jews. The local rabbi with the Torah scroll would become the standard place of spiritual education and renewal, gradually replacing the Temple, which, unknown to the people, would again be destroyed, and the Jews dispersed abroad all over the Roman empire.

The synagogue system helped prepare the way for the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Gospel by making Judaism portable all over the empire so that an astonishing ten percent of the Roman population was either Jewish, or at least God fearing, by the time of Jesus.

But something was amiss, as indicated by Jesus’ stinging rebuke:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. Mt 23:15

Jesus must have noticed how the proselytes became more Jewish than the Jews, more set on the law, to the exclusion of grace and truth. There was a pride of race and culture, an attribution of the glory of the law of God to themselves, as though they had something to do with that glory. They had closed the circle around themselves, shutting out God, and making themselves the center of things. They took what God had given them and used it for their own glory.

Something new needed to happen to restore the original spirit of Godly freedom with which God meant to invest human life. The resistance of the God-fearers to becoming fully Jewish may have been a healthy, even if unconscious, insight into just that problem. A word from God Himself may have been holding them back.

The new thing that needed to happen was contained in John’s message, that someone was coming whose shoes he was not worthy to stoop down and unloose. “I indeed have baptized you with water, but he shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” It did not have so much to do with yet another law, as with a deeper personal relationship. Jesus would invite them to become children, not of hell, but of God, mothered and fathered by God Himself.

The Jewish leadership thought and taught that one became holy by obedience to the law. Their being the administrators of the law, of course, thus gave them enormous power over the lives of the people. Jesus was coming to teach them that holiness came from personal relationship, not law by itself, that God valued persons, not laws, so laws were made for persons, not persons for the laws. Laws were to give structure and order to society so that love and grace could prosper. Laws were necessary, given to overcome chaos, but only love and grace can give personal meaning to the structure and order of law. Without grace and love, law is deadly, killing the spirit.

Grace and love do not come by knowing about the Law-Giver, they come by knowing the Law-Giver. Personal relationship. Only in personal relationship does spiritual power flow. The ability to be ourselves comes from living in the love of the Giver – our Creator.

Jesus came among us to give us the full and true meaning of the law, that obedience to God would be our response to His original graciousness, not God’s way of intimidating us, or of threatening us, and also, not by obedience, our way of getting God on our side.

He is already on our side. We, not God, are the trouble-makers for ourselves. We are our own worst enemies. God wants us in heaven, that is, in close personal relationship of trust and obedience. We are the ones who have our doubts about wanting to get close to God. It is there that He can bless us with that peace that passes understanding, with our own ability to be ourselves and to find a purpose for our lives.

Laws by themselves cannot give those gifts, laws are too impersonal and abstract. Only the Law-Giver can give those gifts of personal stability and meaning. The law just sets the stage upon which the drama of redemption and holy communion can happen. The law sets the stage and the rules of engagement so that the actors can work out their roles and relationships. Without love and grace in addition to law, none of that can succeed. Law necessarily begins the process of redemption to create order, but only love and grace can continue and finish it.

John the Baptist is telling his world that the time has come, the Messiah is near. We do not know how much John knew of Jesus personally, whether they played together as children, knew each other, or ever talked with each other about their respective vocations. It seems in the Gospel that John and Jesus were just becoming acquainted, suggesting that Mary and Elizabeth, John’s mother, who lived at some distance in the hill country of Judah, did not see each other often.

The only way that grace can be communicated in a fallen world is by personal presence. Incarnate grace. It is not enough to talk about it. God Himself had to introduce Himself to His people Jesus had to draw the disciples into close relationship, to force their personal decision, to test them to see whether they would trust and obey Him. Knowing the law does not bring atonement and salvation. Only knowing the Law-Giver. The personal presence of the Law-Giver is what feeds and directs the fallen soul.

I have occasionally reflected on the long time it took between God's first choosing of Abraham and the gift of the Holy Spirit – nearly two millennia.  It may be that it took that long to bring the Hebrews to the point where they could benefit by the Incarnation of the Son of God.

How do we translate this into our situation? What would it be like to have all that happen in Orange County? What difference would it make to Orange County? Does Orange County have the same problems that Judea had? What would have to happen to bring such an event about here? We saw in the Transformation videos, and we know from history, that spiritual renewal is not a thing of the past. Such things have happened probably in every century.

It was clear in the Transformation videos that it was the presence of Godly persons and the growth of Godly communities which transformed those cities and nations. Truth and grace must be incarnated, seen in the flesh, in the culture for most people to believe it. We believe through hearing the word of God, but the belief is much deeper and more powerful when we see it not only spoken, but lived. Grace must be incarnated. That is the meaning of holy communion and Christian community. Christian communities are those in which the presence and love of God are made manifest through living, warm bodies.

Every Christian church, every Christian family, every Christian person – is called to be Spirit-filled, standing on the Hand of God and speaking the Word which God speaks to us. Baptized in the Holy Spirit.

The Old Testament describes the nations seeking the Lord in Jerusalem. The New Testament describes the Church bringing the Lord to the nations.

The Epistle from Romans 12 illustrates how to go about doing these things on a daily basis. How do we live as Christian people? How do we live as baptized not only with water, but with the Holy Spirit? How do we live as Pentecost people – incarnating the gifts of the Spirit among the people in Orange County?

We can read it straight from the text:

...let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministering.... he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity (that is openly with no hidden motives).... he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another; not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation...

The list goes on. But it is a list worth thinking about, each and every phrase. Each phrase is a challenge to our own behavior among one another, and with those whom we meet daily. We may be the only Jesus some people will have met. We must incarnate the life of Christ daily, moment by moment.

That means we must repent of our complaining spirits, our resentments, our self-pity, our fears and faithlessness. What is there that can defeat us if Christ is our savior?

We face an implacable foe in the spirit of the anti-Christ abroad today. Our government is anti-Christ. It does not want, and militates against, the lordship of Jesus Christ. And many Christians have made peace with that situation, falling for the unGodly (and illegal) separation of God and civil government.

How would a John the Baptist be treated today? Another beheading? How would the Christ be treated today? Another crucifixion? It does not matter. We need to be the John the Baptist and the Jesus Christ of today. That is the calling of the Body of Christ. To be the Body of Christ means to be both the law and the grace of God incarnated in our time.

To be the Body of Christ means to be extremely stern and firm about the breaking of the law, and it means to be wonderfully graceful about repentant sinners, drawing them into the community of the faithful.

Behold, I send My messenger before thy face... God is still sending such messengers. We may be called to be such a messenger, announcing the presence of God among us. Why stand we here idle? Let us be willing to put ourselves at risk, challenging the world, the flesh, and the devil himself with the righteousness and truth from God.

Audio Version

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Date Posted - 01/15/2012   -   Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012