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The "Comings" of God
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Advent I, 2010
Isaiah 28:14-22; Psalm 97; Romans 13:8-14 Matthew 21:1-13
Here we are at Advent season, which means "coming", to remember and celebrate the two comings of Christ, first at the Incarnation, and then at His Second Coming to judge the people and separate the sheep from the goats (see Matthew 25:31 ff.).
I met a new friend this Friday at a meeting of pro-life leaders, who described what he thought was a fundamental reason why the so-called "conservative" pro-life leadership had, for all practical purposes, failed to achieve any significant headway in limiting abortion over the last 37 years since Roe v. Wade. He said that the evangelical world today had a disconnect between the spiritual and the material, the world of God and the world of time and space.
Nevermind that God contradicts that disconnect on just about every page in Scripture, beginning most fundamentally with the creation and fall story in Genesis 1 to 3, right through the life of Jesus, in the Great Commission to convert the world and teach the world what Jesus has taught us, leading then to the Second Coming, back into this world with the final judgement and the separation of the sheep from the goats.
But there has arisen a sense among many Christians, not only evangelicals, that the material world is not of interest to God, and that He will rescue His people in the End Times from the corrupt and fallen world of time and space. So we Christians therefore do not need to pay much attention to this world, and that the task of the Church is to lead worship, not get involved in trying to change society, not be politically involved, not rescue infants from death at the hands of abortionists, etc.
After all, God loves the little babies and will take care of them. So we do not need to bother. Just grow in our own spiritual lives. That is a self-centered and self-protective spiritual life.
This is not a sermon about abortion, but the subject makes a good introduction to the meaning of the comings of Christ into the world. (Persons here may have had painful experiences with that subject, so please understand that God, and His obedient Church, are in the business of offering healing and redemption, that God is not happy at the death of a sinner, but rejoices when we repent and turn back to Him. That is true of abortion as with any other sin. Please see me if you might be wrestling with that issue, either presently or in the past.)
A group of pastors to whom my new friend had presented a strategy for dealing with abortion told him that he ought to get rid of the concept of "blood guilt" because it was not a part of their thinking, and it would only hinder his message to the Christian community. They had so separated the events of this world, however bad, from their concern with the spiritual world, that they could not fathom any reason for their having to deal with the willful deaths of some 52,000,000 babies in America, since Roe v. Wade in 1973. That means an average of about 3800 killings every day for 36 years -- one every 22 seconds. If there had been 3800 adults lined up at a wall by some group every morning, and shot, would not every able bodied man in America reach for his weapon and go to defend them and end the killing?
We talked at our meeting a lot about the failure of the Christian community to understand Biblical government, and the authority of God over all things in the creation, including most emphatically, civil government, and the obligation of civil government to put itself under the law and grace of God.
The early Christians had a simple banner under which they won the whole Roman empire, that "Jesus is Lord and Savior". That phrase was the beginning of the Apostles' Creed. They would not put the required pinch of incense on the pagan Roman altar to honor Caesar as lord, and often paid with their lives.
Neither the Bible nor the early Church recognized the separation current today between the spiritual and the material.
The separation began to surface in the early 1800's when Christians were feeling beaten by the rising tide of secular Enlightenment philosophers who were successfully trouncing Christians in public discussion and debate about whether God was necessary, or even relevant -- in the light of the emerging modernity. It seems that secularized science was able to account for everything in a much more credible way than was the Church or the Bible. It was not able, but that was the illusion people believed.
A German philosopher named Schliermacher in the early 1800's thought he could defend the Christian faith by removing faith from the public arena and placing it only in our private spiritual lives. He may have been sincere, but he was terribly and fatally mistaken. It has led to the near total demise of Christian credibility in the West. It is taken for granted almost everywhere, including in the Church, that Christian faith does not have much to say to public affairs, and that we had best keep our noses out of that arena.
The result is that we have trashed 1500 years of Biblical development of a limited government for a free people -- one of the turning points for which was the English Magna Carta, in which the power of the king was limited under the law of God, leading to a trickle-down effect, eventually freeing every common man in England, and leading to the writing of our own Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
But over the 1800's we Christians lost our public voice, leading to the dismissal of God as sovereign, leaving the public arena open to the destructive fallen-world forces of secularism and paganism, the loss of limited government.
Several Christian attempts to reenter the public arena in the past century have gone awry, such as the "Moral Majority's" attempt to build a Christian political party a few decades ago. All of this has only confirmed in the minds of many Christians that we do not belong in the political arena, not in welfare, not in education, not in any place outside of our church walls. And so we have locked ourselves in.
I know of nothing anywhere in Scripture which will support that belief and practice. When the Roman Christians said that "Jesus is Lord", they meant, lord over Caesar. And Caesar understood it that way. There was no "separation of church and state" in the minds of anyone. What modern secularists want is not separation of Church and State, but separation of God and State.
No one in either the pagan or the Biblical worlds believed that. They all understood that, in one way or another, one had better pay attention to the divinities, whatever they might be.
So, the Comings of the Son of God into the world are not meant to get us out of the world of time and space into a wholly spiritual world. That is good pagan religion, it is not Biblical religion. The world in and of itself is not evil in the Biblical view. It is a creature of God, and therefore good. God is not rescuing us out of that evil world, He is coming to rescue the whole of the fallen creation, right along with us who are in it. Both us and the world are good when we are obedient to our reason for existence.
That does not make sense in the pagan world because the world is not a creature of God, it exists in its own right. But it is chaotic and unfriendly and unfixable. So, if we are to be happy and content, we must find a way to leave it. That leaving of the world is what Eastern religions are about, and what all gnostic religion, with its alleged secret knowledge, is about. Just as with Eastern religions, the gnostic secret was about getting free of the physical world and off to a spiritual world. Gnosticism was the main enemy of Christianity during its early years.
What my new friend was describing was what we Anglicans call the sacramental worldview, which tells us that the physical world is a creature of a Spiritual being, not the other way around, and that the physical is meant to embody and reveal the spiritual -- just as my body reveals me, and the heavens declare the glory of God....
We persons did not evolve out of the material world. The material world is the creature of a Spirit, God. God, our Intelligent Designer, makes the world both orderly and good.
But the Fall, our rebellion against God, distances us from God, bringing us into precisely that condition which the pagans see -- a world which is chaotic, unorderly, unfriendly to persons such as us, and which is locked into power struggle and a compulsive quest for pleasure. We want to feel good to get some relief from the chaos and meaninglessness of our lives -- real or threatening. The secular and pagan worlds are the fallen world.
The comings of God into the world, then, are His rescuing us, not from the world as such, but from the world as separated from Him -- the only being in the whole cosmos who can give (1) an objective natural order to the world, a natural law by which the material world itself is made rational and orderly, a natural law which makes science possible, and (2) a moral order by which both our personal and political behavior are ordered -- so that we do not end up destroying ourselves and one another.
Isaiah, this morning, tells of a covenant with death which the scoffers and sinners thought they had made with death. They thought they could defy God, that God had neither power nor authority to discipline them, and that they could fend off the threat of death. "...when the overwhelming scourge passes through, it will not come to us; for we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter..."
They did not likely think that literally, but that was the effect of their behavior. They had lost touch with fundamental reality, and were living in their own delusion that they could get away with their corrupt and destructive behavior.
But God replies that He is building a new foundation, a stone, a tested stone... "... and I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet; and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and waters will overwhelm the shelter. Then your covenant with death will be annulled, and your agreement with Sheol will not stand...."
The judgement of God will restore reality. And unreality, like a bad dream, will be swept away. When God visits, the light shines in the dark.
The Epistle lesson from Paul in Romans, speaks of the law of love, the fundamental ordering principle for both natural law and the moral law. The whole cosmos is designed for love, it is designed to be the stage upon which the community of love is to happen. God is not trashing the world. Trashing is what we do to it when we desert God and lose our God-given capacity to be the rulers over it and its caretakers. We can no longer give order to our own behavior, and thus no longer to our ordering of either the world around us, to our political order, or to our personal spiritual order. We become inherently chaotic, and drag the world with us. No wonder we cannot find our own way out of this mess. We are the creators of it.
Paul says, "The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light." Paul and his people were expecting the Second Coming soon, just around the corner. It did not happen, of course, and nearly two thousand years later, we still look forward to it, often yearning for it. "But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof." He is not telling them to abandon the flesh, but to abandon the "lusts thereof". Our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit, in a way that would be unfathomable for pagan or secular minds. The secular world makes a god out of the flesh, the pagan world wants to get out of the flesh for a purely spiritual world. Our God unites the spirit and flesh to be His highest creations -- persons made in His own image.
Jesus draws nigh to Jerusalem -- a third sort of "coming". He is greeted outside the city gates by a sizable crowd, rejoicing at what they thought would be their military and political Messiah. But Jesus had plans of which, despite three years of preaching and teaching, they seemed to know nothing at all.
Jesus is coming home to what should have been His place at the Temple, but at which He instead must drive out the money changers with direct coercive force -- the only time recorded of such an event. "All the city was moved..." we are told. But they melted and were persuaded to condemn Him before the week was up. He knew they would.
His first coming was, by all worldly standards, a failure. He should have returned to heaven and reported that we humans are not capable of being redeemed, that we should be abandoned to our own self-destruction. But He knew all along that this would happen, that He would be rejected. He came anyhow because He knew what the world could not know -- that there was a way that He and He alone could show us, back to the Father. This first coming, and its rejection by the worldly powers, was expected, perhaps inevitable.
But there would be a ragtag band of followers who would survive His crucifixion because of what He had done in them. That work was "finished" as He said on the cross. He had done in them what needed to be done, and would spend yet another forty days confirming in them that experience before leaving the earth and sending the Holy Spirit. A fundamental point of His coming was to prepare them for receiving the power of the Holy Spirit so that they could carry on the work, here on earth, not in a lofty spiritual place out of touch with the insanity of the world, the flesh, and the devil. They would indeed drink of the cup which He drank, they too would learn and live the cross life, they too, in some cases, would be crucified. And they, the new Body of Christ on earth, would be the dwelling place of that Holy Spirit.
There were, and will still be, many comings and goings in this salvation process. We pick two as fundamental. We too will be going, as Jesus did, to the heavenly throne. But not in rejection of personhood and individuality and community -- rather in pursuit of them. This realm of time and space is not being rejected, but restored to its rightful place, resting on the Hand of God before the Throne of God. And while we are still here on earth, we are expected to devote all of ourselves, as did Jesus, to that task of restoring Godly order wherever we are able.
That means a Godly Church, Godly civil government, Godly families, Godly education, Godly caring for the needy, and all other aspects of a society which can be said to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. Right here and now.
With all that God has done for us, we only betray Him and one another when we do not dedicate ourselves to the same tasks for which Jesus Himself came to earth, to draw those around us to dedicate their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to living, by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the life of God right where we are. Yes, there is a future in heaven for us, but while we are in this present state, we are to be building the kinds of relationships, the kinds of families, and the kinds of societies which will point others on to God, both here and in the fulfillment of it all after the final Judgement.
All that is what is symbolized and sacramentalized by the Trinity Season -- living the life of the one, holy, & undivided Trinity wherever we find ourselves. We bring to a close the Trinity Season, which we just finished -- to enter again Advent, beginning all over again the cycle of the life of Jesus among us, over the Church year to be more deeply built ourselves again in that life.
So I urge you to pray to God for the power of the Holy Spirit in your own lives. Jesus said as clearly as it can be put that He would baptize us with the Holy Spirit. There is nothing in Scripture to tell us that that does not mean us today -- that we too can live by that power of God which gives us that stability of our own being, and a moral stability for acting in this fallen world -- which will hate and scorn us. If they hate Jesus, they will hate us as well. So be it.
Let us be bold enough to ask with those two rather forward disciples that we drink of the cup from which Jesus drank, and pray that we will be found worthy to do so. And, in doing so, draw with us, not abandon, our own world of personal relationships toward the Kingdom of Heaven.
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