Possessing All Things
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2021
“…in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses… as dying, and, behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.”
AS HE LOOKED out over the greatest vision of Earth that any man was ever given, he sighed. There were the Chinese, their ancient civilization, billions of human cogs in a machine of great industry under millennia of dynastic rulers. There were the Persians, riding horseback over high plateaus. There were the Africans, Pharaohs in their pyramid tombs, Zulu kings shaking shield and spear in their fierceness. There were the Celts, migrating west, spinning rich tales of nature’s gods. And the Romans and Greeks, mighty of arms, in quest of order, subduing lesser nations. And there were the tribes of the American continents, having wandered from the East, noble on the plains, powerful and wise in the eternal equatorial forest. Then two families from old Abraham, sons of Isaac and sons of Ishmael, populating the middle-East. All the millions, billions of souls, all who had lived and would ever live in their colorful dress, men and women and babies in their homes, cities, rising then falling in ruin, aqueducts, stone bridges, towers, implausible skyscrapers. The seas launching a million great vessels, the skies buzzing with aircraft, not even space forbidding them from exploring and conquering worlds. National boundaries shift and dissolve. Political ideas capture then lose whole cultures. Music of all kinds rises then falls silent. The history of this planet and its myriad creatures, promising greatness, then failing, supplanted by yet another. The vision reached its conclusion when its weaver broke the spell.
“All these will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” There was nothing untrue in his claim of the countless souls leading their lost lives before the astonished and passionate face of Jesus. He felt, “I came for these. I love them all. They have always ignored me. They don’t know. They don’t care. Destruction is coming to them all. Whatever they think they have, they will lose, even their lives, their souls. I am among them as one of them, and yet they don’t know me. I wish them to be with me, and with my Father forever. This vision-caster has stolen them, captured their countries, enslaved their minds, woven falsehoods and beguiled them with visions. But this vision is true. They are the ones I love, and I have come to earth to claim them back.”
“All these will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” The possessions of the devil are great indeed. We think of Judas Iscariot as the archetypal traitor, who sold God’s own Son to His enemies. But even this was a mere shadow of the earlier treason. A high and holy being, entrusted with the care and protection of God’s favorite creature, humankind, two perfect people given a beautiful garden and each other. And this sick, proud and envious dark angel shared his doubts and malignant thoughts with them, and turned them fearful and guilt-ridden, hidden in the lush undergrowth.
“All these will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” It was always his game, and the name of his sin. Worship me. And ever since that fateful day in the garden, our ancestors have done just that. By acts of selfishness, cruelty, cold hearts, violence, lust and greed: we worshipped him, because we copied him.
Jesus later confronted those who considered themselves holy, and who imagined that He was possessed by a devil: “You are of your father the devil,” He told them, “and the desires of your father you like doing. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks his own language, for he’s a liar and the father of lies. Because I tell the truth, you don’t believe Me… He who is of God hears God's words; therefore, you do not hear, because you are not of God.” John 8:44-47 They were not of God, but He wanted them to be. He would declare Himself to them, and they would catch up stones to hurl at Him. The ownership of all the human race still lay in the clawed hands of a fallen angel. An angel who offered us to Jesus, at a price.
A price too high. “Worship me.” Jesus was tempted as we are tempted, but His temptations were tailored to Him, His purpose, His need, His weakness, His desire. He came to save us. He was therefore offered us and our world. At a price. But He didn’t come to barter with the devil, to haggle with the Prince of the Air, the chief inmate of an eternal prison. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that God speaks. I AM that Word of God, so be silent, you liar!” “Thou shall not tempt the Lord thy God. Do not try to tempt me!” “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. I know who I AM. I don’t serve you. And your failure is that you have not served me!” Jesus won that round, masterfully. But the devil would be back to fight another day.
We know what it took for Jesus to win against the devil and his legal claims. All of humanity, and all of our guilt, our sin, our rebellion, our insults, our lies, our murders, our rapes, our conniving ways He took upon Himself and, bearing them all on His shoulders, died for us, taking all sin to the grave with Himself. At that moment, the legal claims of Satan over us died.
Our guilt no longer bound our futures to him. We might freely take Jesus over Lucifer. Take Jesus to get out of this world, and for a moment, one lifetime, have Jesus in this world, and prove that people can live for God. In the world with all its pompous display, the devil’s magic, with the weakness of our flesh, we choose Christ again, and choose Him yet again. The cross between us and our old fate, our sins buried with Him in His tomb, the future lies before us, above us, in light.
Now. We have time. Every life is given some time, and with it we must give something to the Great Cause. We’re not left here in Middle Earth to slog out lives of desperation, to entertain ourselves with tech wonders all the day and night. The Mars Rover and Alexa and WiFi, BluRay and HD plasma, Space-X and Caravel cruise ships bound for nowhere: these are fine human inventions. I’m impressed. Jesus saw all this from the mountaintop as well. Time wasters.
Saul had everything he wanted. He’d been trained by a master, obeyed the Pharisaical laws to a T. He was awarded power to enforce Temple authority over erring Jews, beguiled by a dead prophet’s disciples, led into heresy, opposing Moses. Saul had all he ever wanted. Then he met Jesus in the blinding light and found that he had nothing. “What things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him… that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Phil 3:7-11 Paul was the greatest man of his age because he let go of his world, to live in Christ’s power.
And he wrote Corinth to receive the grace of God, to take this valuable gift—salvation and new life—and not fall back into complacency. Paul found the secret of success. Live intentionally, honestly, passionately, with a cause. It will cost you. You will be opposed. Jesus was opposed. Paul enumerates the many ways it costs a saint, but the cost is sweet to pay, if it comes “by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.” 2 Cor 6:1-10 And it’s that last phrase that caught my attention. Possessing all things. Having nothing, outwardly, as Paul had renounced the former things of title, family inheritance, wife, family, home, wealth. He counted them as rubbish, useless to him. Just Christ, resurrection and eternal life. What could the world compare to that? He lost all so that he could gain more.
The devil gave Jesus a view of Earth and humanity. But Jesus gave us a view of heaven and the saints in light. We can gaze down from a mountaintop and sigh. All those people and riches and ships and colored lights. The casinos and all showgirls and drugs and booze and fame and money and power. These may have called their siren song to you at one time, too. To have, to possess, to enjoy, to amass treasure.
But it will all burn. It’s the hay, wood and stubble St. Paul says will go up in the million-degree flame that will purify the world. Only souls will survive. Only souls matter. The saints, those fortunate enough to embrace the truth, to offer a sacrifice, to believe the promise, they will, we will, know a world without end, without suffering, without loss or age or treachery. And so much more, we will know the true God who set all things in motion. And before that, He was the only existence forever without beginning. All else ticks away to its end. But in Him we last, we live, we love, we have our longings fulfilled beyond every hope. We possess all things. No mirage. No vision on a mountain. No false hope. Real. Forever.
Jesus said No, so that He could fully tell His Father, Yes. Yes to our redemption. Yes to our eternal life. Yes to the resurrection. Yes to you and me.
What do we truly own that we can carry beyond the grave?
Everything else: let it go. Having nothing in this world, yet do we possess all things, and are possessed by Him, the One by whom and for whom they were created.