Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Easter – April 22, 2018
“Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.”
AN OLD STORY finds a young prince whose life is so sheltered that he hardly ever goes out of his castle, and he yearns to see the real people, find out how they live, hear and see and smell life in the market stalls and folk music and glasses of ale. The fineries of royalty are his at the snap of his fingers, but he sits there dejected, bored with his wealth, unhappy in his prison of position above and apart from society.
Then circumstances offer him the chance to escape. His carriage stalls in a crowded byway, and he jumps from it into a sea of people. Fortune finds him face to face with a boy just his size and shape, a beggar, and in their amazement, they both discover themselves identical in face and figure, like twins. The prince grasps his chance and immediately the two change clothes. The beggar, in prince’s clothing now, goes off to the castle to pretend he is the prince, and the prince now walks among his people as one of them, no different than a pauper. The adventures he finds, and his trouble in being reinstated, make up the balance of the story. And he becomes a wiser and better king than his father, knowing first hand the life his people lead outside his comfortable throne room.
Such a visitation has happened and is not merely a storybook tale. It is our Bethlehem story of the invasion of earth by its God. We were a darkened world, alienated from our maker by endless sins and neglect. We’d given up hope, invented paths back to His favor, or become twice the problem we’d been. Then God was born a man-child, and suddenly everything was possible. Thirty some years He walked among us, in the likeness of a village carpenter, then a country prophet. Nothing about Him would set His looks or dress apart from anyone else, and yet… There was something about Him. People felt it. His presence was noticeable. His words sank deep in people’s hearts. His smile felt like heaven’s blessing. But to some, His approach was a threat to their very existence.
That’s how a DAY OF VISITATION comes to be a reckoning. This Day of the Lord, great and dreadful, holy and wrathful, joyous and horrifying, is spoke of in both Old and New Testament passages, giving it the hope and foreboding of both doom and salvation.
The word in Greek for this visitation is episcope (e-pis-co-pay), the same as we render episcopal or what pertains to bishops, overseers, rulers of God’s church. Jesus used the term when overlooking Jerusalem: “If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes. . . . because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation.” Luke 19:42,44
When your ruler and maker comes suddenly, looking for the fruit of your life, the proof of your stewardship, many parables tell of a judgment for those who were not ready, a swift retribution for servants who misused their trust, a man with one dirty talent, sharecroppers who had beaten messengers and murdered the landholder’s son. The visitation comes to set wrongs right again. It restores order to earth. It answers the prayer we often pray without considering its power: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Prayer answered: the day of visitation is upon us.
Is that just a day far distant, sometime or other we’ll happily be long dead and enjoying the view from heaven? Could be. But as the chair of Herod was rocked by the news of a baby king, our lives may from time to time be shaken by a visit from God. The Prince walks among us still.
For those who love and seek God, imperfect though we are, a visitation may be awesome, even fearful, but a relief and a joy nonetheless. He has finally come! Hosanna! Son of David, save us! People cried after Jesus in the streets and footpaths of Israel, seeing a part of His glory, enough to know that His first coming was good for them. They were healed. They were taught. They were loved. They were raised to life from death. St. Paul enjoins the Corinthians to “receive not the grace of God in vain. (For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succoured thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.)” 1 Cor 6:1-2 Paul is citing Isaiah in the longer passage that prophesies:
“In an acceptable time have I heard thee, and in a day of salvation have I helped thee: and I will preserve thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, to establish the earth, to cause to inherit the desolate heritages; That thou may say to the prisoners, Go forth; to them that are in darkness, Show yourselves. They shall not hunger nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor sun smite them: for he that hath mercy on them shall lead them, even by the springs of water shall he guide them. Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; and break forth into singing, O mountains: for the LORD hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon his afflicted. . . . and all flesh shall know that I the LORD am thy Saviour and thy Redeemer, the mighty One of Jacob.” Isaiah 49, selected verses
Isaiah finds in the DAY OF VISITATION both blessing for the humble and judgment for the proud. In another passage, he sees a coming DAY OF VISITATION that is borne out with foreign troops and death from afar for those who have forgotten God and who oppress the innocent and poor. Jesus tells of the end times in lengthy passages inscribed both by Matthew and Luke where evil times befall earth and terrible wars are only the beginning of sorrows. The tale that unfolds in St. John’s vivid account in Revelation makes us glad to live in 2018, and not that year, whenever the Beast rises from the ocean and the Antichrist sits on a throne over the inhabitants of earth. Might that happen in our lifetimes? We kinda hope not.
The epic visitations of God are long past and hopefully far ahead, but what about you, and what about Him: now, and in this life? Have you never had a visitation from God? I think you have. He doesn’t have to come in the clouds of heaven for it to be Jesus. Fire and wind need not dazzle your head and inflame your heart for the Holy Spirit to indwell and enlighten you. The Father still speaks from heaven, and what has He said lately? God is alive and we are His people. Has He visited you any time recently?
Just as streets intersect, and people traveling north must pass before or after people traveling east, we come into the paths of others, and others find us in their way. A divine appointment, a word that holds special meaning, a look from someone that penetrates our souls, convicting, convincing, confounding our nonsense, concentrating our thought on something we’d put out of mind: heaven sends messages regularly, often by the messengers called angels.
A visitation from an angel is no second class encounter. Look at the limp that Jacob had, ever after his wrestling match the night in the wadi all alone. It earned him a new name: Israel. An angel shook the fear out of Gideon, who led an uprising to free his people’s homeland. An angel challenged Zachariah to hope for a son, long despaired of, to herald the Lord’s Anointed One. And an archangel bid Mary to accept her appointment to be the Virgin Mother of God, the Son, whose name she would call Jesus.
So the day of visitation is a watershed, the testing of whether the rain will fall on one side of a great divide and flow to the Gulf of Mexico, and finally the Atlantic, or gather in rivulets to travel west, through valleys and gorges, cutting through Grand Canyon, or Columbia basin, or Feather River cascades into the vast Pacific. The great divide separates people from other people, and the time of waiting for such a division is that space in which the grace of God is working on as many as will shape their lives to receive that divine flood and flow with it into His kingdom. We can’t stop that rain. We can only be on the right side of it, and when we are, rejoice in its cleansing waters.
So: St. Peter calls you strangers and pilgrims. This is not your world anymore. It never really was. It always belonged to God, but since the rebellion, it has not been habitable by heavenly creatures. Its charms beguile us and we must make separations from the ways of earth. Steer clear of flesh and lust. They harm your soul.
Be honest and good with non-believers. They judge our faith by what we Christians do. And if they find us worthy of praise, they may rejoice as well when the day of visitation arrives, for it will be their hope too.
Peter goes on to enjoin us to obey law, honor rulers, and not abuse our freedom, using it to cover up malice and deceit, pride and prejudice. It’s the manner that we live in this world, a world that is no longer our home, that may cause other folks to listen to the message of Christ, our Saviour. When we slap a fish on our cars and drive others out of our way, we tell them what Christians really are. Or so they have a right to think. A fish on your business card may only mean your business is fishy. I have known ministers who are equal opportunity offenders of everyone else.
What are we in this world? Again Paul writes: “Wherever we go, God uses us to make clear what it means to know Christ. It’s like a fragrance that fills the air. To God we are the aroma of Christ among those who are saved and among those who are dying. To some people we are a deadly fragrance, while to others we are a life-giving fragrance. As Christ’s spokesmen and in God’s presence, we speak the pure message that comes from God.” 1 Cor 2:14-17 You yourself may be the visitation to someone else who needs to hear a word from God.
What will be your day of visitation? I have visited, as a bishop, two other churches of our Diocese. These have been happy meetings. I didn’t come to bring down the hammer, but to send greetings and felicitations to our member parishes, the sunny kind of visitation.
It is always good, actually, when God visits, even when He comes to judge and send away evil people. It is the same event, but viewed from one side or the other of that great divide. We welcome it. We call for it. We seek His visit, even today, into our hearts, into our minds, into our midst, spoken by the mouths of children, heard in the liturgy, felt as the blessed wine passes over our tongues, hovering over the last note of a hymn. God visits His people. Pray for it. Come Lord, please visit us.
Christ told His Apostles that night: “I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.”