St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
+Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Advent – December 9, 2018
“Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.”
MADAM RUBY plies her trade on Mangrove Avenue because people are afraid, not knowing their future. She casts a future for them that gives them mental and emotional calm, a realization that their lives are planned, and that the outcome will be good. So they can wait for the better times she sells them, and in the meantime they’ll endure whatever they suffer at the present, be it loneliness, or strife, or the consequences of poor choices. They all suffer from poor choices I know, like going to Madam Ruby. Even I can read that in the tea leaves.
People want the story of their lives shown to them. It may feel exciting to scream along blind at times, charged with Sierra Nevada courage, caring less what may happen to you. But, as a wise man once said, good judgment comes from experience, and experience often comes from bad judgment. Like going to Madam Ruby. But even rats in a maze want to peer over the wall and see where this all leads.
We are driven by stories. We love to learn how the hero got started on his quest, the heroine set toward the golden challenge, and how they struggled and won the day. Every Columbo episode begins with a wealthy, powerful and intelligent person commits a murder too well concealed for police to find out, but the dogged, rumpled little Italian detective gets a whiff of their superior attitude and tracks down the tiniest clues to unlock the mystery. Every time. And it’s the same story, but we love it. And oh, sorry sir, but just one more question, if you don’t mind…
If we’re so wired for stories, it’s an indication we were set into a story ourselves, a clue that the One who left us here loves and writes stories for us to live in. And the fascinating thing we discover is that, while we do decide our motions, take our own turns, choose well or choose badly, and self-determine some of the outcomes – to an extent – yet there is a major story building from a higher place and it’s certain to bring a greater outcome, in terms and rules and authorship that is above us and beyond our making. There is comfort in knowing that. Injustice, pain, loss and evil will not go on forever. This universe is not a cold, senseless existence. There are eyes on us, even now. And those eyes are filled with love. And keen interest. And thank God, mercy.
The story of every life is known best to the Lord above, but we find ourselves as characters in the drama. The greater story, the mega-story of life itself, is written for us to read, all the themes of many lives interwoven to explain much of what we all experience in our lives, up close and personal. It may, at first glance, seem a distant and ancient tale of people in robes and sandals, nothing much to do with the 21st century advanced and civilized people that we are. But the more we study the scriptures, the more we find ourselves in these stories. And the better the picture we get about who He is that made us, and what He wants from us. Most of all, we know how it all ends. And that’s a true comfort. We can wait for it.
The Holy Bible took 1,500 years to collect various inscriptions of 40 human authors. Real events, personal histories, actual places and the words of both God and people are set down in the record. Every discovery in dust and stone confirms that the Bible is factual. We keep digging up what has been written aforetime. And the Bible’s own testament of itself is that a dual authorship brings these writings to us: the Word of God, through His Holy Spirit’s inspiration, and the language and experience of people. In every word, the invitation to get to know our God is expressed.
We get the guidelines of good living. A modern philosophy says it’s possible to live a good life without God. But how would you then know that it’s good? By what standard? Every dictator, every master villain, has thought, by his or her own perverse standards, that he or she is doing ‘the greater good’. We use the Bible to test such theories as the Third Reich or Communism, and find them sadly wanting.
The best news the Bible has for us is that there is an invitation to join God in another life, after this one, and that He has done the heavy lifting to make the path to come to Him, through His Son, Jesus Christ. The way is before us, and we may travel it without paying the cost to build it.
But isn’t that pie in the sky? Are we being taken in by a children’s story, some fable imagined by people long ago to entertain their kids at bedtime? We keep finding out that the answer is ‘no’. Every dig in the Near East finds the exact location of every event described. A glass plain near the Dead Sea where something very hot melted the sand where Sodom and Gomorrah were described to be. Chariot wheels on the ocean floor of the Red Sea. The pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed a cripple. A hill where crucifixions were held. A tomb cut out of limestone. Empty still.
The travel log called the Acts of the Apostles, written by St. Luke, names 32 countries, 54 cities, and 9 islands, all exactly where they were and still are. Archaeology consistently confirms the historical accuracy of the Bible.
Corruption of texts can happen when a body of writing is copied from a copy, and that from another copy, over time. But the tens of thousands of Bible documents we have from the earliest days have all been translated from the original tongues into our languages, from the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek sources into Latin, English and every language on earth. And the most recent versions of the ancient originals match the oldest fragments – the record is unchanged.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls found manuscript evidence 1,000 years older than any we had previously, and 99.5% of the words matched our own versions, none of the variances making any difference to the meaning of the story. No other human writings have lasted so long with any such accuracy. It sets the gold standard in consist record of events and lives and stories.
People challenge the authenticity of the Bible because it tells of miracles. Since miracles can’t happen, they allege, we can’t trust the rest of the story. But don’t you think the authors of the Old and New Testament knew they were writing about fantastic, impossible things that nevertheless they had witnessed? Matthew and John were the Lord’s own Apostles who saw what they wrote about with their own eyes. Luke and Mark were early disciples who got the story from Peter, the Virgin Mary, and other eyewitnesses.
Why write about something that was everyday? If Jesus did not actually walk on water, but found a path of shallow stones, the fishermen in the sinking boat would have known that and would not have imagined a miracle. Why make your story less believable?
But miracles do happen. They still do. Miracles, as C. S. Lewis points out, are things already done miraculously, like life is a miracle, or the maturing of grapes by water, sun and plant life. If the Lord of this world invades His creation and speeds up the processes of healing, molecular solidity, or water becoming wine, He is still within His realm of nature, showing Himself suddenly where we normally experience His handiwork without noticing the Hand that works our everyday miracles. Every child born is a miracle. Every life form on earth. Nature herself. How can we not believe in miracles?
Not only is the story of Jesus consistent within the Gospel accounts and the correspondences of the New Testament and other early Christian writers, but the contemporary Jewish and Gentile historians of that day tell of Jesus, of His cousin John the Baptist, of Pontius Pilate and Herod, of the taxing that brought the Holy Family to Bethlehem, and even the death and resurrection of Christ. This thing was done under the sun.
Scholars sometimes doubt that Jesus really said all the words that are written in the Gospel accounts. These words testify that He is God’s Son, that He lived already when Abraham entered the world, that He will come again in the clouds of heaven, and that He will judge our souls. The words of Jesus have laid the storyline of our civilization. By the path that He laid for us, we have made a better world. More people follow this path than any other religion on earth. If He didn’t say these words, it would make sense for us to find out just who did and believe him to be God. But Jesus said and did these things, and the transformative power of His words on billions of souls is ample evidence that there is power in the words, what Peter called Words of Life.
Archbishop Robert Sherwood Morse would often say that, if we don’t know the content and meaning of the Bible record, and if we can’t hear the voice of Christ read in the New Testament, we meet a stranger at the Communion rail. And if that record is untrue, then all the ceremony, vestments, liturgy and trappings of church worship and our devotion are no more than the shell of the serpent’s egg. We worship a God who consistently proves Himself faithful. I stand here in simple vestments, which are only to glorify Him and sanctify this time through a visual cue as a meeting with God and His holy people.
If this story were untrue, I’d be the first to pack up and go home. Why waste my time? There’s football on. We may watch football because there is a story being played out and an outcome, a final score, with joy and defeat. It’s a true story. Yet it matters very little. There are four pages of sports in the paper every day, and one page of religion per week. Our story is not getting newsprint. It isn’t newsworthy. That’s our camouflage and it’s working.
But today’s paper ends up in the recycling bin by nightfall, and the story of God goes on being printed and distributed at all points on the compass in every language in all nations, more copies printed and sold than any other book ever written. And it’s read over and over. It is treasured. It is sure. This is your story, and you should read it. It ends wonderfully. God wins.
Comfort yourselves with the knowledge that our source document is the truth. It was written long ago, and ever since has been confirmed repeatedly with history and even science. It has guided the best lives we know of. It helps us live with confidence that we are not alone. And it makes all Christians One in the Beloved. Forget Madam Ruby. Your future has already been written aforetime.