Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Advent, 2016

 

The safe place. We have heard quite a bit over the last few months about “safe places.” After the election in November, a plethora of news stories circulated about university’s providing times and spaces deemed “safe” where distraught students could go to vent or mourn about the results of the election. Now, many conservatives made fun of these students in wanting “safe places.” Often, they centered on statements such as “they should grow up.” “That is what you get when a whole generation is coddled for their every little need.” “They need to grow a backbone and get on with life.” “We did not whine when things did not go our way in the last election.” Yet, the need for a safe place exhibits the vacuum that has opened through forcing Christ and the Church out of the public square. Students on campuses are taught to trust in self, government, and their universities over Christ and the Church for safety. As Christians, we are taught that in weakness, God cares for us. We are taught to rely solely on Christ and not on self. Yet, to belittle others that seek safe places as if they have the power to support themselves is to give into our culture’s idolatry of self. Rather, our call is to call the lost and wayward to the true safe place, to the place we are all gathered this morning, the Church, the Body of Christ in which we find everlasting safety and comfort. What do we call the building in which we worship? The Sanctuary. Sanctuary means “a place of refuge or safety.” This morning, let us as we close this Advent Season look to how we must rely on Christ’s power over our power to help and sustain us through all we encounter in the world that seeks to tear us down.

God’s Protection

          As we see in our lessons today, especially Philippians 4, the safe place of Christ’s Church is assured through the protection of God. We need a place of comfort and safety from the ravages of this world to be refreshed. This is in Jesus Christ.

          The protection of God is connected to the sense that we are members incorporate in the Body of Christ. This sense of protection becomes distant the more we decline from the Church. When we freely neglect participation in Christ and His Body the Church, we will lack and suffer. When we shy from the Body of Christ, we replace such with seeking the safe places the world, the flesh, and the devil offers. We only find true safety and refuge in Christ and His Church.

          The language of Zechariah 2 is very vivid in terms of God’s loving defense of His people. Verse 4 states the following about the scope of God’s people inhabiting Jerusalem, a picture of the Church, “Jerusalem shall be inhabited as villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and livestock in it.” Now, this picture was foreign to the people of that day in terms of a place to find protection and shelter. In that time for proper protection, thick and tall walls with strong gates were normal.

          The picture of the Church is not as a fortress to hide in and never leave. When we function in this manner, we will lack. Rather, it is wherever we dwell and worship as members of the Body, knowing He protects us through His presence. He is with us through all we encounter, even if that means martyrdom. The picture of the Church is such that we can live freely in Him throughout this world. His protection is through the life He leads us to live through the Spirit as members of His Church. He leads us in the love of Christ to transform the world around us through our love for each other, our neighbors, and even our enemies. He protects us through all we encounter. The imagery of this protection is found in Zechariah 2:5, “And I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the LORD, and I will be the glory in her midst.” We are protected in His glory, not by our glory or the glory of this world.

Protective Discipline

          A large part of this protecting love stems from the grace He bestows in His Law, setting the boundaries for hurtful things to avoid and godly things in which to cling. Proverbs 7:2 states, “Keep my commandments and live; keep my teachings as the apple of your eye.” This is the command. God through His Church helps us in submitting. Protection is found in the Lord aiding us to follow His Word, to love as we ought. This means we cherish the Word as the apple of our eyes. We will speak of the apple of the eye in a moment.

          Part of this protection in the Law involves the discipline and chastisement the Lord uses when needed. In other words, while going astray, the Church acts out of love to admonish and call the sinner to repentance. Sometimes, chastisement is needed. God gave His Law to protect His children.  Furthermore, Holy Scripture speaks often of discipline, that is uncomfortable and hurts for a season such as being under the control of foreign countries, forced exile, destruction of cities, plagues, droughts, and so forth. Note Hebrews 12:7, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” The picture here is of all stages of the faith. In the Christian home, the parents lovingly discipline their children to know right from wrong as given in the Word of God, not by how society dictates such. This is for their protection.

As Hebrews 12 states, proper discipline seems painful rather than pleasant. All of this is meant to guide us to safety. It is not meant to be tyrannical, but loving enough to prevent us from destroying ourselves; whether a fellow member of the Church being warned and even chastised in their destructive behavior or a small child from doing something to harm himself or others. God requires us as the Church to discipline in His love. Discipline implies there are boundaries from Holy Scripture that must be lovingly explained and gently enforced as shepherds, whether the person is 80 or 3. It does not love to neglect instructing others of God’s Law in the opportunities He gives us responsibility … whether with our children or with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Where there is a lack of loving discipline, there is a lack of godly order.

Apple of the Eye

He graciously enables us in our responsibilities through our standing in Christ. He calls us to the awesome responsibility of loving each other, of holding each other accountable. He does not call us to this to say “good luck” to be on His way for us to figure it all out, to get it done in our own strength and power. This standing in Christ is personal and relational as described in Zechariah 2:8, “For thus said the LORD of hosts, after His glory sent me to the nations who plundered you, for he who touches you touches the apple of His eye.” This enabling is assured through the point He defends us because we are His children. This is so vital to God that He treats us as the apple or the pupil of His eye.

This apple of the eye imagery is used throughout Scripture. We first encounter it in Deuteronomy 32:10, “He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; He encircled him, He cared for him, He kept him as the apple of His eye.” It is one thing to say that we cherish someone. It quite another to defend those we cherish. This requires loving sacrifice as Jesus Christ has done for us. We often fail in the duties of protecting those entrusted to us by God. Our call in such failures is not to dig in with pride, but to admit our sins and to repent. It is to ask for the grace and mercy for the help we need to love others enough to give up our lives if needed for them.

          We live in a world that stresses self. We often find these falsehoods seeping even into the faith through people advocating false notions of building up the kingdom of self instead of the kingdom of God. The call of all of us as Christians is to sacrifice out of love for each other. We do this out of gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice for us. We are God’s dear children and He treats us as such. Do we treat each other in the faith as dear to us; people worth sacrificing for, people worth treating with love even with gentle discipline when needed? This is only possible by God’s grace through prayer.

Peace through Christ’s Victory

          This brings us to what the everlasting protection of God in Christ practically bestows upon us, everlasting peace. The fourth candle lit for Advent represents the peace of Jesus Christ. We see this in Philippians 4:7, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is true regardless of what others say about us or even do to us. Too often, we wrap our status of peace in how people talk about us or treat us.  Too often, we let ourselves get tied up in such behaviors to the point we lose sight of our grounding and peace in Christ.

          Christ leads us back from such doubts to Him and His peace in His paying the way for our standing as the children of God. In Christ as our Savior, our peace, we have safety within His Body the Church. He is our safe place.

          We seek peace and pursue it through turning to Him in repentance, being absolved, and submitting to His work of reconciliation in relationships damaged through sin. The only one and true safe place in this world is Christ and His Church. It is to be found in the safety of three graces God gives us by His power through the Holy Spirit. Try to remember the word CAR.

          First, we find safety in CONFESSION. In other words, the basic tenet of the Gospel is that we repent of our sins to God and to each other with the blessed assurance that we will find safety in Christ and His Church. We know when we confess our sins that God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and all unrighteousness as St. John wrote in I John 1:9.

          In the Church, we need to know that when we confess that we are safe in doing so; not having to worry about whether or not the confession will be used against us later out of vengeance or that what we confessed will be spread about in gossip behind our backs. For the Clergy, we are obligated in Scripture and the Church to honor confessions with confidentiality. In other words, what is said to a minister of the Gospel in counseling and confession is “under the seal” and is not to be repeated. The same should be a given between Christians when sins are confessed and forgive.

          Now, invariably people might object here about people that confess yet keep on sinning the same sin against us. Sometimes, this is used as an excuse to slander and gossip. This is the not the Biblical response, though. The Biblical approach to this type of behavior is outlined in Matthew 18. When someone keeps sinning even after we spoke to the person about it one on one, we are called to then bring another Christian along to talk to the person in question. Then, if not resolved, the Church is brought in to confront the person. Never do we see Christ advocate speaking about the matter to others behind the person’s back. Whenever someone comes to us to speak about a problem with another Christian, the proper Biblical approach is to stop the person to counsel them to talk to the person directly. It is never appropriate, especially when a confession has occurred, to speak of the matter without an intention to deal with the person directly.

          Connected to CONFESSION in terms of Christ’s Church being a safe place is the response of the person confessed to, ABSOLUTION or Forgiveness. It is not accidental in the services of worship of the Prayer Book that we are given opportunities to publicly confess our sins together AND then to hear the Priest or Bishop pronounce God’s forgiveness to all those that truly repented. In this practice are we given the blueprint on how we are to live with each other in Christ, to readily confess and to readily forgive. Our call is not to add steps to confession or conditions to forgiveness beyond Holy Scripture. We find safety in Christ and in each other in the Church through forgiveness.

          The granting of forgiveness begins the steps and growth toward renewal of the relationship severed by sin, reconciliation. Christ sets us on this path and gives us the grace to endure on this path.  The world operates in opposition to this way of peace. The world, the flesh, and the devil tells us to find excuses rather than confess; to find ways to make the penitent suffer rather than forgive, and to run away to divide and disconnect rather than reconcile. We are taught to run from our problems rather than confront them and submit to God’s grace of restoring what was torn apart by sin. While our natural impulse is to run and divide, the hard call of the Gospel is to reconcile.

          All of these require Christ’s peace that restores relationships. Without confession, absolution, and reconciliation; relationships will never last. Confession, absolution, and reconciliation throughout our days in the Body of Christ teach us that it is not about me, but all about Christ and His love that binds us. The coming of Jesus among us is as we prayed in the Collect prayer today is in great power, the Incarnation. He in the Incarnation reconciles us to God in reality through His flesh, in our presence. The same is true of our relationships with each other. True reconciliation involves restored presence with each other in the Body of Christ as once again ONE.

          Yes, this is incredibly tough. Yet, nothing that is easy will help in growing us. Everything that comes easy such as not confessing, withholding forgiveness and refusing to reconcile means we choose the path of staying immature and stunted spiritually.

          The safety this world offers is centered in self; which means feeding all the sins of the flesh such as slander, gossip, and a refusal to deal with sin. The safety of Christ in His Church is centered in Christ … that we are safe in readily confessing our sins to Him … that we will be forgiven … that He reconciles us to God the Father as His dear children. All of this is pictured in coming together as the Body of Christ to the Lord’s Supper. Holy Communion calls us to ALL confess. Holy Communion calls us all to receive forgiveness and to forgive. Holy Communion calls us to reconcile. This is pictured tangibly walking together to the Communion Rail, to partake together of the Body and Blood of Christ in His Holy Supper. We do this as dear Children, united in the Faith as the Body of Christ. This is the safe place that we are called to take with us into this world through practicing confession, absolution, and reconciliation as well as calling all we encounter to the same through Jesus Christ. The safe place is not conjured up within self or the things of this world. Jesus is our safe place. Let us close with these words from Zechariah 2:11, “And many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people. And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you.” Amen.