A Homily for The Sunday Next Before Advent
November 24, 2019
All Saints Anglican Church, Prescott, AZ
Text: Jeremiah 3:14-18
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
This morning we end our year of studying the Old Testament. I hope and pray that you’ve seen God acting consistently throughout all times, you have seen that it is not as though there is one God in the Old Testament and another in the New, as some have said, but rather that there are two covenants, the first foretelling the second and God’s actions in those are thoroughly consistent. You have seen prophecies about Christ, you have seen types or foreshadows of Christ in some of those who came before him. You have, I pray, seen how important the Old Testament is to the Christian faith.
After this morning we will shift our focus to the gospel accounts. As we study these, It is my prayer that we will grow in our knowledge of Christ, grow in knowing our prophet, priest, and king, grow in knowing our Lord and savior and draw into a deeper relationship with him.
This morning we end with the words of the prophet Jeremiah. Our short reading is packed with significance for us as Christians as we enter into the season of Advent, the season of preparing for our coming king, but it is also packed with significance for us as a small but growing church.
Jeremiah sits at the cusp of the fall of Jerusalem. Someone once told me if we were to summarize Jeremiah into one sentence it would be “you will be taken but, even in that, God will remain faithful to His people.” The promise to Israel through Jeremiah, isn’t so much that they will be okay – but that God’s judgment will finally fall upon them. However bleak the judgment may seem at that point in time, God is always faithful to His people, His judgement upon His people is always to draw them back, to encourage them to repent and cease trusting in false gods.
For Israel – and for many people – the temptation seems to be towards idolatry, I have been reading a little bit about idolatry recently and it is interesting both Jewish theologians around Christ’s time and St. Paul saw the same downward spiral in people who committed idolatry – for the Jewish thinkers and teachers the cause was a failure to rationalize ones self to the one true God, for St. Paul it was not a failed intellectual ascent, but God’s judgment upon the idolater.
Yet, both of them saw the same pattern, idolatry leads to greater and greater sin. So, for the historic nation of Israel in the Old Testament it started with idolatry but then lead into social injustice, lead to treating people poorly, it lead to rampant sexual immorality, and it lead to corruption and wickedness within individuals and within society. For this reason Jeremiah cries out – return, O faithless children! Return to the Lord who is good, who provides, who will care for you and all your needs, return to Him who is your master.
This call to repentance is never an allowance or acceptance of their sin, but a reminder of the cost of their depravity, a call to turn away from it. We live in a time and place where it is unseemly to talk about sin, unseemly to call darkness dark. We do no one any favors by pretending that which is wrong is right, though we also must remember that we are all sinners set free by the grace of God. We must call sin what it is – death – but we must do out of love, not out of a sense of self-righteousness, or unkindness. While we call what is wrong – wrong, and what is right – right, let us also be beacons of hope, and healing, for there is a tremendous amount of pain and hopelessness in the world.
One of my favorite descriptions of repentance comes from the Anglican theologians J.I. Packer – perhaps simply because I enjoy listening to his grandfatherly British accent. In a short video he describes repentance as a turning around. He describes it is as though we are in an army and God has called for an about face march, Packer says, and so we fully turn around and march in the opposite direction. A complete 180 degree turn.
My friends, repentance is not a slight turning away, or a minor shift in focus. Repentance is not doing less of the thing – repentance is a full turning away from whatever our sin may be – whether it be sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissension, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, or things like these.
This list comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians – and there are many like it in his letters. But I wanted to read it, because we will soon see the fruit of this turning away – we will soon see the fruit of residing in the Spirit, but first we must turn away from these works of the flesh and turn back to God.
The puritan theologian John Owen warns against a works based repentance – he says “all other ways of mortification (that is repentance and fleeing from sin) are vain, all helps leave us helpless; it must be done by the spirit… mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.”
Repentance is a part of the Christian life – this is why we have the confession of sins in both Morning and Evening Prayer and as such we are called to repent of our sins daily, this is why the season of Advent and Lent refocus us upon the need for repentance, calling us to seek our hearts to see our own failings. This is why we confess our sins every time we gather together. Repentance is the turning away from death and the turning to life.
All of that is to say – the unease of our conscience, the uncomfortableness we get when someone talks about a sin we struggle with, all of this is the Holy Spirit urging us to repentance, and it is in trusting Christ, it is in longing more deeply for an intimate relationship with Him, through the Holy Spirit, that we grow and turn and flee from our sin. So, today if you hear God’s voice – calling you to repentance, do not hardness your heart, but cling all the more to Him.
God is faithful – in the case of Jeremiah – he is faithful to a small number. Think for a moment what the Jeremiah says here – “I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion.” He is not taking the whole of the people, but a tiny percentage. A couple from a family, or just one from each city. Of course, we are not meant to read this literally – but throughout scripture, when things get bad, we see a remnant remains. We see a small group remaining faithful to God’s words and promises and no matter what culture says they stand firm, they do not sway.
Here we get the first part of the lesson for us as a small church – we are not a remnant in Christendom – but we could argue that we are within American Anglicanism. Still the mainline church persists, heading down a more and more wild path of idolatry, and sensuality – and we pray for them. Still, they are large and financially well off. It would be easy to look over and say “ahh, maybe if we capitulated on this or that things would be better.”
But friends, we are called to stand firm, stand firm in the orthodox Christian faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. As Richard Mullins wrote in his song about the creed – we do not make it but it is what makes us – So, though the world may say over and over again – capitulate! We will do no such thing, rather by the grace of God we will stand for Christ, we will rest in His word, we will proclaim his word. Our goal is not to grow to be some huge cathedral – but rather to remain faithful to the end. By the grace of God may we do that.
He goes on to promise good shepherds – the description of a good shepherd here is important – we often tend to have a worldly definition of our spiritual leaders. We ask – is he charismatic? Does he speak well? Does he have a great visionary plan for 2020? What is it that God says – the good shepherd is one who is after God’s own heart and he feeds God’s people with knowledge and understanding.
Christ, of course, was the best shepherd, the true good shepherd. He both followed the model of Psalm 23 – his rod and his staff comforted God’s people – he beat away the wolves with the rod, calling selfish teachers vipers, and pointing out self-righteousness as it occurred. His staff drew in those who had wandered. Not with soft words, but with words of Love, with words that revealed the nature of the heart, called it to repentance and then showed the even greater nature of God’s grace in which those broke by their sin and the cruelty of the world found hope.
Christ being fully God and fully man had the heart of God, in his humanity he longed for nothing more than to be fully united with God and as such he followed God perfectly in the way in which we faith to do. He is the perfect man after God’s own heart.
Even secularist see the wisdom of Christ – see that he taught well, even pagans know that he taught as one who had shocking authority – though they wouldn’t use such language. Christ taught with the authority of God that the people would know God, would understand His ways, would grow in His ways, Christ taught them and teaches us to turn away from the world and turn to the kingdom of heaven.
Likewise, as the body of Christ we all must desire to have God’s own heart. It is critical for our leaders, for myself, the bishops, other priests, and deacons of the Anglican Province of America to long for God’s heart, to prayerfully be men who follow God’s ways and desire what He desires, but it is equally critical for our leaders at All Saints to long for the same thing, we elect godly men and women to our vestry to make critical temporal decisions for the church, and appoint godly leaders for our lay lead ministries. But same is true for each and every one of you – I pray that each individual person at All Saints is growing in this longing, growing in the desire to know God, to know and do His will.
Therefore, our spiritual food is knowledge and understanding, the spiritual food I hope and pray that I feed you is not fluff, but substantial, that leaves you feeling full, that leaves you in a deeper knowledge of who God is, what he desires for you and all people, and how to walk more intimately with Him. I pray this earnestly for all people, for I am far from perfect, but I hope and pray the Holy Spirit is working in all of you in this.
Recently, I have been working on eating better. I really like pizza and macaroni and cheese, but in eating the right amount of the right things, like veggies, and not cheese, I have noticed that I have more energy, and I am generally in a better mood. The same in true for our spiritual food – if we eat junk, we will feel the effects of it, if we have a solid diet of spiritual pizza, we will not grow, but if we have a theologically rich and healthy diet – we will grow – we will become stronger for the kingdom – we will have more energy for the sake of Christ.
Now, the fruit of this growth is this, Jeremiah says, that we will be multiplied, we will grow – but what does this mean?
It is easy to think – if I remain faithful to God’s word and will, God will bless me with material possessions or in some physical way. That is to say we buy into one form of the prosperity gospel or another – the first fruits of faithfulness to God isn’t getting everything we want – the first fruits of faithfulness to God is getting what we need – spiritual growth.
I do pray that God continue to add to our numbers at All Saints, I pray that we see more people coming through our doors, I pray that we see men and women’s hearts converted to Christ – but first I pray for you all, I pray that the words I say, the direction I give, the fellowship that is had, the love that is shared between us all – builds you up, calls you all to Christ, deepens your trust in Him. Not because I am brilliant, or we are somehow magical or special, but because we reside in the Holy Spirit and he sanctifies our actions and deeds. To us, in our faithfulness given by the Spirit, God is faithful and he gives us spiritual growth, spiritual multiplication.
Secondly, and I think we have hit on this a bit already – but we remain faithful to the word of God because God remains faithful to us. God is faithful and good – but it can be tempting in a world of plurality and sensuality to go light, to tickle people’s ears with easy words – to preach a sermon about self-help, give people “ten steps to a better Christian you.” But we have seen the fruit of this moralistic therapeutic deism, and it isn’t good. No, we are called to stay faithful to the word of God, and God will be faithful to us.
Perhaps, in our faithfulness God will continue to grow His church, and if so, glory to God, or perhaps we will plug along remaining a small church, with a small voice in the community, and if that be God’s will for us – then glory be to God! Let us give glory to God, not by what we can measure in numbers, but by what he is doing in His people’s hearts and life.
And what of this fruit? What do we pray He is doing in our hearts, and in the hearts of our brothers and sisters in Christ?
Earlier I read a small portion from Galatians five where St. Paul describes to works of the flesh – he continues, first about these fleshly doings, and then about the fruit of the Spirit, he says, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things (that is the sin list from earlier) will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”
For St. Paul – the Christian life requires a sharp turn away from the ways of the flesh, and towards the way of the Spirit, but we notice – that like what Owen said – this turning away is not one of our own works, but it is one in which we keep in step with the Spirit. It is the Spirit that gives us the growth. As we grow in Christ we put away our fleshly ways, we put away our childish ways, we turn away from those destructive desires that so often held us before we knew Christ, and we keep in step with the spirit. In our Spirit enabled faithfulness, we will see these fruits grow in our hearts and be manifested in our lives – we will see: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Not as ones who are perfect, but as ones whose hearts have already been captured, and look forward to our sanctification and eternal rest in Christ.
Now we have this peculiar phrase from Jeremiah “they will no more say, ‘the ark of the covenant of the Lord.’”
Does any one remember the Indian Jones movie series? There was one, The Raiders of the Lost Ark, I believe, where Indian Jones battles Nazis to find the Ark of the Covenant first. In her history Israel makes a mistake and trusts not in God, but in the gift from God. The Covenant, and the ark in which it was kept was a gift from God for his chosen people, and it was a reminder to them when of God’s faithfulness. But at some point they saw whenever they carried the ark into war that they won, and they started to think “ah, well, we have the ark, so we will always be victorious.” The villains in the Indian Jones movie present a perfect representation of the problem. They also thought, “ah-ha, if I have this ark which guaranteed God’s people victory, then we will have victory.”
The movie is kind of silly – and certainly completely lacking in any semblance of theological soundness and has almost no basis in historical reality – but it does a strangely good job at telling us how easy it is to trust in the gifts God has given us. The power did not lay with the ark, but with God’s faithfulness to His people.
I wonder – is there something in your life – a good gift that God has given you – that you are trusting in? This might be a good thing to pray about this week – especially as we come upon thanksgiving. Ask God if there are areas that you are trusting in His gifts to you, instead of trusting in Him as the author and giver of life, the giver of every good thing.
If we see that we are trusting in the wrong things – repentance necessary for it isn’t simply turning away from our overtly sinful actions but a turning away from internally sinful actions, turning away from those things that we trust in that aren’t God. As we grow – we will become quicker to recognize those things, and quicker to turn away from them, and turn to God. I pray that we would all be this way. I pray that we would be quick to turn from our sins, and quick to rest in God.
Now Jeremiah describes a new Jerusalem – we get another description of a New Jerusalem in the Revelation of St. John – which picks up on this theme. The theme of exiles waiting for the return to their home land. For we are all exiles, we are all waiting for the New Heaven and the New Earth. We are waiting for this new Jerusalem – which will be adorn like a bride – the bride for Christ. But the best thing about the new Jerusalem will be this – she, we, her residents will dwell with God!
No longer will we be separated from God, no longer will our sin and strife be impediments that make such a great chasm – but God will dwell with us, and we with him. For in eternity we will be finally, fully freed from our sins. Finally, we will worship God with every other nation, and people from every other tongue, and how beautiful will that be? How good will that be?
In these latter days the church has become fragmented, some estimates say there are over 30 thousand denominations and too often these denominations do not get along, and these numbers don’t even include all of the independent churches. God’s vision for his people is quite clear – it is not for a schismatic people, but rather one united people. This vision for unity is part of the reason why we pray for other local, gospel centered churches, as many of them pray for us. This is why on some days you might find me downtown having a cup of coffee with one of the pastors from these other churches. This is why we must be charitable to God’s people and love them well.
There are reasons I am Anglican – I think Anglican theology is thoroughly biblical, I think it is healthy, right, good, and Biblical to have episcopal oversight of parishes, I think Anglican worship is in line with how the church has worshipped for nearly two-thousand years. I am an Anglican by conviction. But, my dear friend who is a Baptist is so by conviction – for very similar reasons I just mentioned for myself, my dear friends who are Presbyterian or Lutheran, or independent are so for the same reasons. So, we talk about our differences, but we do so in love, and we extend each other charity. We seek Christian fellowship with other orthodox believers.
Friends – let us love our brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of what their denominations, or lack there of are, for one day John 17 will come to be, and we will all be one, by the grace of God, in Christ.
This morning Jeremiah calls the people to repentance – calls God’s people to faithfulness. We saw that God is faithful to his people, we saw God wants to draw us in, and that God will bless our faithfulness. So as we enter this season of Advent next week let us turn from our sins, let us remain faithful, and let us look forward to the day when we will all be one on Christ. For Christ came into the world to save sinners, for Christ came, died, and rose again, and on that great last day He will come again.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.