Sermon transcript, 15 March 2015
Come to the Light by Fr. Dana
II Chronicles 36:14-23, Psalm 107:1-2, 17, 19-21, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
Psalm 119, which is the longest Psalm of all, has a section for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet; but the important thing is what it says: read Psalm 119:1-8. And I come out of my prayer closet and I start my day and immediately I fall on face, because I didn’t do that: I didn’t completely and utterly keep His commandments. “How shall a young man cleanse his way?” (Psalm 119:9) God knows I wasn’t going to be able to do that! Read Psalm 119:9-16, 25a. Even though I have all these desires to do what is right, to follow Your commandments, my soul cleaves to the dust – to the flesh, to that which is perishing, to that which is worthless and common. Read Psalm 119:26-31. That’s where I want to be; don’t let me be put to shame. I will fail; don’t let me be put to shame.
Read Psalm 119:32. If you’re in an unfamiliar place and you don’t know where you’re going, you move slowly so you don’t make a wrong turn or a mis-step; but when you know where you’re going and you know you’re with the One who knows all things, then you can run and not worry about falling down. That’s where I want to be. Not that I don’t need Him: I don’t want to get to the point where I say “OK, God, I’ve got it now, I understand everything. You just stand there and watch me do this.” That always fails. But if I’m yoked with Him, we can run: we can go as fast as He wants – and He can go a lot faster than I can, but I can keep up with Him if I’m yoked with Him.
Sin brings judgment
All the readings today describe life: even though we know the Law, even though we know what is right, even though we know Jesus Christ, we sin. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t. Just like the Israelites, He tries to warn us: in the Old Testament it says that God rose early to send the prophets (II Chronicles 36:15). It’s not as if God has a night and day and He slept and then got up at 4 am to send a prophet, but He’s putting it in human terms: “I did everything I could do; I didn’t just do what was convenient – I did everything, and they still didn’t listen.
In fact verse 14 says, “Moreover all the leaders of the priests and the people transgressed more and more, according to all the abominations of the nations, and defiled the house of the LORD which He had consecrated in Jerusalem.” Not only did they sin personally, but they defiled the house of the Lord: the things they did in the house of the Lord were despicable, and unmentionable even – and there are places where that’s happening now. The Lord sent warnings, but His people – including the leaders of the priests and the people – mocked the messengers of God and despised His words, until there was no remedy (II Chronicles 36:16). They had gone so far that God said “I am patient and longsuffering, but you took Me past the boundary. In Jeremiah 7:16 He said, “Don’t even pray for them any more: they’ve gone so far that it’s time for judgment.”
In this case He brought the Chaldeans against them, and they destroyed the people; they even took all the treasures out of the house of God and carried them off to Babylon, and then they destroyed the house of God (II Chronicles 36:17-18). “But this was Your house, God – how could You let them do that?” I would think that would be the one place that would be left standing symbolically to show that You are still there and that you are greater than any army. But He didn’t do that. He said, “Even that has come between you and Me. You raise up the house of the Lord and say “It’s awesome” – and it is – but then you disrespect it by what you do in it. You disrespect Me. You don’t follow Me: it’s only there to give you status. OK, we don’t need that.”
Over time, all the amazing things that had been in the temple of God in Jerusalem – remember all those incredible things that Solomon had made: you can get descriptions of the basin, and the bulls that held it up, and the utensils and the gold and the silver and all the fantastic fabrics – where are they? They’re gone. As far as we know they don’t exist. All of that, the glory of God in the presence of men – it’s gone: we can’t find it. It’s probably been made into copper pipes, and who knows what. That’s profound.
And it remained destroyed for seventy years. Then God called them back, using – amazingly enough – Cyrus, the king of Persia. He didn’t even use a prophet from Israel – He used this king of Persia (II Chronicles 36:23). He acknowledged God more than the Israelites did – that’s like turning on your radio to the worst shock jock rock station and having some DJ call you to the Lord. What?!
That’s a microcosm of the way God works. He shows us His presence, He gives us everything we need; we receive it, we stumble, we fall away… and He calls us back. It is described in Psalm 107:17. They were fools because they knew what God’s blessing was like: they knew it, they experienced, they lived it – but they still went the wrong way. “19Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and He saved them out of their distresses. 20He sent His word and healed them, and delivered them from their destructions.” (Psalm 107:19-20) The second lesson describes the same process (Ephesians 2:1-3). Paul includes himself in “we all”; we are no better: we were there too. Again, we were lost; He came, He rescued (Ephesians 2:4-6).
And then the Gospel (John 3:16-18): Jesus didn’t have to come to bring condemnation, because they were already condemned. We are already condemned if we do not believe in the name of the only-begotten Son of God. Read John 3:19-20. We have a choice: we can come to the light. Jesus is the Light; He has given us the light, the light lives in us. When we sin, we can lie: we can say “I didn’t”. Remember Ananias and Sapphira: they sold the land, and because other people were giving everything, they came and gave then money and said “that’s all of it”. They didn’t have to say that: they could have said “Here’s half of it”; no one would have looked down on them. But they wanted to appear good, to appear better than they were, and so they lied. And they ended up “six feet under, pushing up daisies”: in the grave (Acts 4:34-35, 5:1-10).
So what do we do? We know that despite our best efforts we’re not going to be perfect; however much we want to be, we can never quite get there. So what do we do? We do what the Psalm talked about: we confess. We confess every Sunday in our general confession, which accomplishes a lot. But hopefully we confess at least in our hearts directly to God specifically the things that we do.
How many of you have gone through private confession to a Priest? Don’t be embarrassed; there would probably be a similar ratio in some of the CEC churches in America…. It is a very powerful thing to go through. I would like to let you know what happens in the Rite of Confession, which in the Book of Common Prayer is called “The Reconciliation of a Penitent”. A penitent is someone who is sorry for his/her sins. It has been a while since I have gone to Confession to another Priest or a Bishop (I prefer a Bishop: I prefer the authority, being accountable). I have been a little delinquent; and I really long for that, because it is powerful. No matter how many times I confess my sins to God every day – and I try to do several of the monastic hours, so I confess four to six times a day, and if you do it that often you get a little more specific than if it is once a year: What did I do this last year? What did I do in the past three hours? Well, I spoke to my wife this way… and God can bring some things to mind that you might not get to otherwise – Even though I might do that, there are some things, and some of those individual things are actually patterns, and I might need to confess that pattern, because it is a stronghold in my life.
One of the strongholds in my life is rolling my eyes when someone says something; it is particularly bad when that someone is my wife, especially when my children see it; that is total disrespect: “There she goes again…” It is not because she said something wrong; it’s just that I was expecting something different: the problem is mine, not hers. And it has taken a long time to address that. For example, that is something to confess before God: a pattern. When I do that, I say, “Yes, Father, I know it was wrong; I’m sorry”, and He forgives me. But I need to deal with “What is it that causes me to do that? What is that controlling issue that causes me to think that what’s in my mind is more important than what’s in her mind?”
So let’s imagine: I go to the Bishop. In a perfect scenario, we would be in an empty church, the Bishop would be sitting inside the rail, and I would go up and kneel at the rail. Since we don’t have that, it works in an office with two chairs or somewhere where it’s private. I, as the penitent, say, “Bless me. Father, for I have sinned.” In the Catholic Church you would add, “and it has been six years, four days and thirteen hours since my last confession” (not in that detail, but it has been a long time). And the Priest or Bishop would say, “The Lord be in your heart and upon your lips, that you may truly and humbly confess your sins; in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” So it’s not just you, but the Lord stirring stuff up in there for you to confess. So I begin: “I confess to Almighty God, to His Church, and to you, that I have sinned by my own fault [it wasn’t that woman You gave me, as Adam said] in thought, word and deed, in things done and left undone [it sounds like Sunday mornings]: especially… [now it’s not like Sunday mornings] I’ve been doing this… I’ve been disrespecting my wife… [and whatever else the Lord brings to mind]. For these and all my other sins which I cannot now remember [because there are a lot which I cannot remember] I am truly sorry. I pray God to have mercy on me; I firmly intend amendment of life; and I humbly beg forgiveness of God and His Church [now we’re done, right? No…], and ask you for counsel, direction and absolution.”
There’s the big difference: on Sunday morning when I confess with you, I have control: I listen to things in my mind that I’m confessing, and that’s it. The Priest gives me absolution – and it’s real: I’m not saying it’s not real – and sometimes perhaps God can speak to me individually and say, “You need to do something about that”, and hopefully I’ll listen. But if I’m sitting in front of a Bishop, or you’re sitting in front of a Priest, and that Priest or Bishop is filled with the Holy Spirit – this is why we are the CEC, three streams, and not just the Liturgy: if it’s just the Liturgy, the Priest says “You’re forgiven” – but the Holy Spirit prompts the Bishop to say, “Why do you suppose you do that?” “Well, when I was younger I always got better grades than everyone else, and everyone came to me for advice, so I just got into the habit of thinking I knew more than other people.” “This sounds like pride.” I start squirming. So the Lord leads him to ask more questions. “Do you do this to anyone else?” “I don’t know, perhaps once or twice, but I can’t think of any.” “Then why would you do it to your wife? Why do you think it’s OK to do it to your wife, when you wouldn’t do it to your boss… or anyone else?” Now I’m on the spot: I have a question I can’t answer; but there’s something there… And he will pursue that, and we’ll talk about it, and maybe it’ll take two minutes, or maybe it’ll take twenty minutes; but hopefully he’ll let the Holy Spirit speak, and I’ll let the Holy Spirit speak, and the Holy Spirit will say things to me that he’s not and I’ll share those, and we’ll get the real picture.
And then, before he pronounces forgiveness, he’ll say, “Here’s what I think you need to do” – and it’s not “Put ten pounds for the next six weeks in the offering”: we’re not talking about that kind of manipulation. “Have you confessed to her?” “Well, she knows I do it, and I’ve apologised to her…” “That’s not what I asked.” So he prods me in the right direction, by the nudging of the Holy Spirit, until he gives me good counsel. “The next time it happens in the presence of your children, stop right there and talk about it with your children: talk about what we’ve talked about, and what the problem is, and why it’s not right.” Now he’s given me a responsibility, not just forgiven my sins, but “We need to attack this; we need to overcome this. We need to follow the process, which is to go to the person that you’ve offended and speak to him/her first – and if it wasn’t first, then it’s next.”
After he’s given me counsel and told me some things that I need to do to help overcome this sin – not just the incident but the pattern – then he says, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to His Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in Him, of His great mercy forgive you all your offences; and by His authority committed to me I absolve you of all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And then he says to me, “The Lord has put away all your sins”; and I say, “Thanks be to God”. And then the last thing: he says to me, “Go in peace; and pray for me, a sinner.” This is not a power trip for the Bishop or Priest who is hearing Confession and granting absolution; it’s a ministry that the person giving also needs to receive. That’s humbling, the first time a Bishop says that to you… because the Holy Spirit’s in it. The Bishop knows it’s true, and when the Priest says it to you, the Priest knows it’s true. We don’t confess to you what we do wrong, but we know well that the things you confess to us aren’t any worse than the things we confess: we aren’t any better.
Give God a chance
So I encourage you to go to Confession sometime: give God a chance – especially if there are things in your life that you have been wrestling with for a long time, things that just don’t seem to let go of you; even something in the past that you confessed to God and you were forgiven for, but “No, I still feel guilty; every time I do something the enemy reminds me, and I just can’t get rid of it”: that’s another good reason. Give God a chance; and if you do, I think you’ll find that God uses that, and you might want to do it more often. And that’s OK: I don’t mind being busy.
Read Ephesians 2:8-10. We confess to get rid of the sin in our lives and to get rid of its power over us to continue sinning. But it’s not our works; it’s not that we do better and better – it’s His grace. We are saved by grace, we are forgiven by grace – not so that we can be content; we are saved by grace for works: to do the works of the Kingdom. And God wants to free us up to do those works without the shackles of the past, without the chains of sin or the chains of guilt from past sins.
And so I encourage you, go to Confession. If you want to find out more, feel free to ask, and we’ll find some time to talk about it. It’s powerful: it’s a Sacrament. There are seven Sacraments in the Church. It’s a Sacrament, just like the Eucharist is a Sacrament, just like Baptism is a Sacrament, just like Anointing for healing is a Sacrament, just like Marriage is a Sacrament. A Sacrament is a physical act that has God’s power in it. And so I encourage you. I encourage myself: I need to find someone that I can confess to regularly. It’s hard when your Bishop is far away – but that’s no excuse. Let us all seek His forgiveness, use all the power and the tools at His disposal for our benefit, so that we can follow more closely; and we won’t get into the trap that the Israelites did.