Thursday, February 13, 2020

Sermon for 26 January 2020 Epiphany 3, Year A

St. James’ Anglican Church
Fresno, California
Fr. Carlos L. Raines

[This is the third in a series about hearing God's voice]

Today we are continuing with our series “How do I hear the Lord’s voice and obey?”  We have shifted to a new reality since we were forced off our property.  It was as though, leaving the land, we also left a whole way of doing the work of the Lord.  You seem for many, many years Bishop’s committees, Chapters and now Vestries worked like this:  we start with an opening prayer usually prayed by the rector that said, “Our Father in heaven, grant to us Your wisdom and insight and love as we endeavor to do Your work for our parish.  Come and be present with us in all our decisions and help us to do your will.”  Then we present issues, work our way through an agenda, debate, decide, vote and finish.  At the end, we pray something like “Oh God, thank you for your guidance and direction.  Please bless all we have done and grant to your servants success as we continue to serve you in Jesus’ Name, Amen.”

It’s as though Jesus was given a chair in the meeting off to the side from which to observe passively as we decide the issues of the Church and bring them to Him at the end to ask Him to bless it all.  Yet we seldom if ever simply asked His thoughts and desires anywhere else in the meeting no matter how difficult or contentious the meeting seemed to become!  T.S. Eliot, in his poem Choruses from the Rock describes how the 20th Century viewed Jesus by describing Him as “The Watcher, the Critic, the Stranger….”  So often, that’s the Jesus of our decision making. 

It has not been easy for me to make the transition.  Old habits are hard to break.  But we are learning to break them.  We are learning the things I am about to talk about.  We are learning to pray and ask Him things throughout the meeting as though He occupies a chair.  I mean THE Chair!

But even if we ASK will we recognize how He speaks?  What does He sound like?  What are His ways of communicating to us?  Remember last week the Treasure Hunt I described where Fr. Noah Lawson had a bunch of students pray to discern who God might want them to speak to about Jesus.  After silence and listening to God in their hearts, numerous details came up that sent them out looking for an angry man in a red vest.  But they had no clue where to start looking until a timid voice in the back seat spoke up.  She said “When we were listening for God’s voice I kept seeing a Starbucks, but I just figured that was because I wanted some coffee!”  At the local Starbucks they found the angry man in a red vest.  As a result of their ministry to him, he returned to the Faith...and a whole car full of saints discovered how God can speak if they will but listen!  Alone, each of those clues meant little.  But each one was crucial for God to paint the picture to direct His people for a moment of eternal Kingdom work.  This is surely one way God speaks if we take the time to listen.

In today’s Gospel, we find these words:  “While waiting by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.’  Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.”

To obey God collectively as the church we need unity!  Otherwise we are torn many directions and incapable of hearing and obeying God.  What creates unity in a church?  What happens for example if we ask everyone here “Where should we build our new church home?”  In no time at all, there will be nearly as many places are there are homes in our city: everyone will want the church to be just down the street!  Then we get to fight and see who wins!

Or we can all, like those teenagers we spoke of earlier, get on our knees and start to ask God where He wants our church to be.  Then we start gathering the pieces.  Perhaps a very clear picture emerges of a location or area where He wants us.  And if it is quite stunning, it is likely that we nearly all will see it and come together in one mind, one opinion, to do His will.  And if not, we keep finding ways to seek His will until we have such unity.  But that kind of unity can never come from fleshly seeking “what makes sense.”  Nor can it come from a clergy dictatorship; the clerical “my way or the highway” attitude we sadly see in many clergy.

Once in a quiet time in our old chapel I heard the voice of the Lord speak in my heart and say “Carlos, you are always happy to do My will...whenever it also makes sense to you!”  At the first declaration I smiled...a compliment from the Lord!  Then He finished the sentence.  “Oh...I don’t think that was a compliment, Lord.  But it sure was a sweet rebuke!”  I have tried ever since to remember those words.  And every now and again do a few things I think He is asking me to do that make no sense to me!  Just for practice!

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”

How can this happen without each one of us following Jesus through communion and listening prayer and fasting? 

Here’s another example from today’s Scriptures:

Do two walk together,
unless they have agreed to meet?
“For the Lord God does nothing without revealing His secret
to his servants the prophets.
The lion has roared;
who will not fear?
The Lord God has spoken;
who can but prophesy?”

He deeply desires communion and union with us and invites us to partner, to yoke up WITH him!  We present our whole selves knowing He already knows everything about us:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O lord, you know it altogether.

This surrendering ourselves to His loving embrace enables us to begin to abide in Him and in His love.  He is life: to abide in Him is to have a well of living water rising up from our belly daily and, through our lives, the Holy Spirit can not only speak that life into our hearts and lives, but into those who dwell around us.  To fail to abide in Him is by definition,  daily death, isolation and loneliness.  “You fail to come to Me that you may have life...”

 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.   7  If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.   8  By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.   9  As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.   10  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.   11  These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.   John 15

To abide in Jesus is to share in what He is doing: even to be told as though we are friends (“for I no longer call you servants, but friends, for the servant does not know what the Master is doing.”)  For if we abide in Him daily and surrender to His will as we learn to hear His voice, then He will befriend us and tell us all that the Father is doing.  “Father,” we may then ask, “what are You doing and what can I be doing to do that with You?”

  2  But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.   3  To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.   4  When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.   5  A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”    John 10

God speaks in enigmatic ways that maximize our freedom to listen and choose.  He respects the spark of free will and life He has created in us.  He will never coerce.  Just get used to it!  Many of us wish we could just get clear commands each morning; a kind of divine to-do list!  But that is what bosses give to us!  Their focus is not on us at all, but upon the task.  They want us to obey so they don’t get in trouble with their bosses!  They are NOT interested in a relationship with us! But the one who created the galaxies and who numbers the billions of stars and gives to each of them a name; the One who knows the very number of hairs on our heads and every thought in our hearts before we can even speak them; this One wants to be our friend.  So He wants to whisper to us. 

Like Elijah when he was vexed, depressed and weary, having made his way by a weary and long journey back to the starting place of Israel.  When the nation was forged God spoke to all the people in the earthquake, fire and wind.  And they begged Moses: you go talk to Him!  He’s too terrifying!  And God said, it is well that they said so.  And God promised a mediator in the person of Moses and then in the coming prophet like Moses.  That prophet was Jesus.  And He speaks to us in the still, small voice...often translated as “a whisper.”

Now what happens if I whisper?  You must come very close to hear me.  You must put your ear right nearly against my lips.  Then you can begin to hear.  The One who whispers invites you and me into deep intimacy.  So He can not only speak heart to heart, but also kiss our cheeks like the Father of the prodigal son. 

God spoke to Elijah like this: not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the still small voice; in the whisper tone.  This is not how bosses talk. It’s now how drill sergeants talk.   It’s how parents talk. It’s how lovers talk.  It is how friends talk. 

 11 And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.  13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.  I Kings 19

So how does God speak to us in this whisper?  Well, we gather in order to do “listening prayer.”  We invoke the Holy Spirit and call upon Him who dwells in us to open the eyes and ears of our hearts to enable us to sense Jesus in our midst.  He it is who promises us to “show us what the Father is doing” and to “reveal to us the Father.”  So we carry any needs or concerns we have to Him and then, having done so, we quiet ourselves to listen.  After a time we may share with one another what we “heard” or “saw” in terms of a word or perhaps a picture or anything else that might be a clue.  Frequently we will begin to see confirmations or patterns that start to show us the whisper of our Lord.  There might be a prophecy; a word from the Lord that someone has heard in his or her heart.  Perhaps a word of knowledge.  Various Bible verses might come to someone.  If there is nothing yet to give a clear picture we might write down what we heard so far and continue to meditate over the times apart and seek clarity in our prayers until we meet again in order to gather, be quiet and listen. 

At St, James in the main service once the bread and wine are consecrated, once we have already been fed by the Word as well, we always take time to be in silence in a listening posture encapsuled in these words:  “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” and “Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.” 

We may frequently stop our vestry meetings or any other meeting in order to return to the Lord’s feet in an attitude of listening prayer.  It is our way now.  We follow Jesus who taught us true sonship when He said “I do only the things I see My Father doing” and “I say only the things I hear my Father saying.”  Since we share in His sonship and inheritance, so we want to be like Jesus, our Brother.  Let Him, brothers and sisters, teach you how to enter His Sonship, His brotherhood, His inheritance.

Or God may speak to us in a dream, or vision!

 17 So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?”  18 For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up.  19 Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.”  Matthew 27

If only Pilate had known how God speaks!  Perhaps it was not inevitable that it would be Pilate who must condemn Jesus to death!  Perhaps he really was free to demure and another would have taken the guilt upon himself.  Who knows?!  But we do know this: God can speak to US in dreams as well which we would do well to heed better than Pilate did!

Peter gave eternal witness to this New Covenant expectation concerning dreams and visions within the Church of Jesus Christ! 

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words.  15 For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day.  16 But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:

17  “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;

18 even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.  Acts 2

So another practical gift the Holy Spirit has giving to His church is the very gifts of the Spirit that enable us to minister supernaturally as Mark 16 described:

 19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.  20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs. Mark 16

The supernatural gifts of the Spirit are employed by the Spirit in order to show He is “working with us and confirming the message by accompanying signs” just as the Spirit did in Jesus (“  37  If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me;   38  but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”)   and again, ( “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me,   26  but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.   27  My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”)

So in the same way we may declare boldly “If you don’t believe that we speak the words of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then believe because of the supernatural works and signs that you see in us!

Gary Facciani recently had a kidney stone the size of a .22 caliber bullet.  It was declared by the surgeon to be “calcified” and required immediate surgery.  Some of our brethren prayed over Gary and when the day of surgery came and one more image was taken by the surgeon, he came up to Gary and said simply “What happened to it?”  Gary said “What happened to what.”  “The kidney stone!  It’s gone!”  “Well, you’re the doctor!,” Gary replied.  “You tell me!”  Then Gary went on to tell the doctor about those who had prayed for him and about how permanent damage to his heart was similarly healed several years earlier by prayer.  And then the God-given punchline.  Gary said to the doctor, “Doc, this is not for me; it’s for you!  This is so you can believe in God and in His works in this world.  You can think about it!  I will be back for a last check up.  I will ask you then what you think.”

Gary’s’ boldness is a reflection of the power of the early church to proclaim with God’s direct help, the resurrection presence and power of God in the Church, which is His new creation born on the cross and given life through the resurrection and empowerment through baptism.  This is our identity.  This is who we are when we trust in Him and believe in His presence and power. 

Tongues and interpretation, prophesy, words of knowledge and wisdom, it is by these things that we can also hear God and be directed by Him. 

This attitude is even powerfully demonstrated in the Old Testament when Jehoshaphat the King, facing impossible odds in an invasion of the land by enemies intent on extermination, stood before the people, having declared a fast and prayer, and said  to the God of Israel, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on You!”  The answer from God came when the “Spirit came upon the midst of the Assembly” and he prophesied those marvelous words; “the battle is nor yours, but God’s.”  They needed only to stand firm and watch the Lord supernaturally deliver them! 

Prophecy also directed the early Church to launch the very first missionary journey that we know of.  It occurred during a time seeking the Lord by fasting and prayer as detailed in the 13th chapter of Acts:

1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”  3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. 

So, finally, as we look at the practical ways we can “prepare the way of the Lord” in order to hear and obey Him, we see that fasting and prophecy go hand in witnessed in both Testaments of the Bible!  Notice the church of Antioch was FASTING and praying.  During that fast and prayer as they were gathered together “the Holy Spirit said “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”  How did He say that?  We aren’t told, but almost certainly it seems to me that this was a prophetic announcement from one of the members.  But they did not just do what they were told!  They tested the word with more fasting and prayer!  And THEN they laid hands on the two and sent them off. 

If we want to know that what we are hearing is truly from God we must not be afraid to “test everything.”  Pray over what we think we are hearing.  Ask for further confirmation if it is a big step of faith.  God is happy to offer further confirmation if our attitude is not escape from obedience, but clarification and assurance.  It will still take a lot of faith to accomplish His will, for His works are great and bring great glory to His name.  So asking for confirmation is just godly care taking.  We meet in councils.  We decide corporately.  We employ gifts of discernment and wisdom.  We move in unity.  We are guided and directed by the Holy Spirit who reveals to us the secrets of our hearts and the secrets of God’s heart!

It takes practice to hear God’s voice.  Practice in our families, practice in our small groups and ministry teams, practice among our leaders.  It takes fasting and commitment to fasting.  It takes effort.  It takes patience not to move or be impulsive but to wait on the Lord.  It takes inner healing so that we can both believe and learn our true identity in Christ, discerning our thoughts and desires from His.  But it is WORTH it! 

The bottom line is that our God is relational.  We are not looking at the cosmic boss who wants to be obeyed and cares little about who we are.  Rather, we are dealing with the Father of all, whose FIRST concern is to be in communion and union with us, becoming ONE SPIRIT with us (1 Corinthians 6:17) and forming one Body with Jesus as our head.  If we truly seek to abide in Him, then He will tell us all that the Father is doing and as we strive in the Spirit to obey what He shows us, we become His friends (no longer merely servants!) and we can “ask whatever we will” and “it will be done for us” because His will become our will gladly and we join in unity to accomplish His works even as we delight in His presence! 

“Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine!  Glory to Him from generation to generation in the church and in Christ Jesus for evermore!”

Bishop’s Note – Blessing of the Water for Baptism

Bishop Eric Menees

Following the litany and concluding prayers, the candidates, sponsors, and clergy proceed to the baptismal pool or the baptismal font. I personally prefer a pool which allows for full immersion but the majority of our congregations use fonts for the obvious practical reasons.

Once all are around the pool or font the celebrant bids the congregation to join in the blessing of the water with the invitatory. Note that this is essentially the same invitatory used at Holy Eucharist. This is a wonderful reminder that Baptism, like Holy Eucharist, is not the act of the priest alone but of the Body of Christ, the Church, gathered together.

Following the invitatory, the celebrant continues with the prayer. The first paragraph is a reminder of God’s use of water in creation, the exodus, and the baptism of Jesus.
This reminds us of the direct connection between creation and this particular baptism.

The next paragraph speaks specifically to the waters of baptism. We are reminded of the threefold process in baptism of death, resurrection, and regeneration. Those being baptized will experience these three blessings simultaneously as they are either lowered into the waters of baptism or the water is poured over the crown of their heads. This paragraph also reminds us that one is baptized into and in the name of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A baptism not done in the name of the Trinity is not a Christian baptism.

Lastly, the celebrant asks God the Holy Spirit to bless the water and in doing so bless those who are being baptized with this particular water.

I bid you to take a moment and read through the following, asking God to remind you of your baptism and what occurred at that time. If you are not baptized, I would encourage you to speak with a trusted Christian friend and ask about being baptized.

The Deacon, or the Bishop, pours the water for Baptism.

Bishop The Lord be with you.
People And with your spirit.
Bishop Lift up your hearts.
People We lift them up to the Lord.
Bishop Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People It is right to give him thanks and praise.

The Bishop continues
We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John in the River Jordan when the Holy Spirit descended upon him as a dove.

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are made regenerate by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Here the Bishop touches the water and says
Now, Father, sanctify this water by the power of your Holy Spirit. May all who are baptized here be cleansed from sin, be born again, and continue forever faithful in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior. To him, to you, and to the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.