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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fr. Charles McClean: Lent II Vespers Sermon

The following is another of Fr. Charles's excellent sermons, this one from midweek Vespers. Whenever I tell him how much I have appreciated his words, he cheerfully responds, "may God use it!" May God use it for you, as well, Dear Reader.
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THE CREED AND THE PASSION
Immanuel Church
Alexandria
Lent 2011

We continue this evening with our meditations on the Catechism and our Lord’s Passion. Last week we considered the Ten Commandments and saw how in His sufferings (as in His whole life) the Lord Jesus fulfilled the Law of God perfectly, which is to say that He lived a life of perfect obedience. As our Substitute, as our Representative, as the Second Adam He did what we children of the First Adam could not do; and as the sinless Lamb of God takes on Himself the sins of the world - so completely that Saint Paul can say that He was made “to be sin.” All He did and suffered He did and suffered for us. And all He did and suffered is ours through simple trust in Him, in His sure promise: the promise given in Baptism and Absolution andsealed with His truly present Body and Blood in the Sacrament.

Our theme this evening is the Passion and the Creed.

The Creed begins by confessing our faith in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. At first glance this would seem to be the simplest part of the Creed. For although damaged by the Fall, human reason still has a dim awareness that there is a God and that this God is the Maker of all that is. But can we on the basis of fallen reason alone know that the Maker of all things is in fact our good and gracious Father?

Well, no one can deny that creation does in fact suggest that the mysterious Origin of all that is is truly good and gracious: the breathtaking beauty of creation in all its astonishing variety and splendor, the unimaginable vastness of the universe of which we seem to learn more and more with every passing year; and then there is the way in which the whole creation seems to be there forus, for our nourishment, for our life, for our delight. Yes, as we consider the creation there does seem to be ample evidence that the Maker of all things is a good and gracious Father, so much so that we might well join that early eighteenth century philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in saying that this is indeed “the best of all possible worlds.” But Leibniz had been dead many years when on All Saints Day, 1755, the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami placed all of that in question. Nearly half of Lisbon’s hundred thousand residents perished on that terrible day. The epicenter of the earthquake seems to have been about one hundred twenty miles south of Cape Saint Vincent in southern Portugal, but shockwaves from the earthquake were felt as far away as Finland. Tsunamis touched not only the coast of north Africa, but also the coast of Cornwall in England and Galway in western Ireland, and even across the Atlantic Ocean in Martinique and Barbados. And in the wake of this terrible catastrophe the easy optimism of what was called the Age of Reason, the cool light of the so-called “Enlightenment,” came to an abrupt end. The Lisbon earthquake in fact marked a sharp separation between a basically optimistic belief in the essential goodness of God and His creation to afundamental questioning of the nature of God and reality; and many came to the terrible conclusion that since God is all-powerful He must be capricious - and all of this then fed a rapidly developing atheism.

I scarcely need add that the past few weeks have made it easier for us people of the early twenty-first century to understand the state of mind of the people of the late eighteenth century. For the fact of the matter is that the witness of creation is far from clear: so much does suggest a Maker who is a good and gracious Father, but then there is the undeniable presence in the world ofrandom events that make no sense, of meaningless suffering on a staggering scale, of so much unchecked cruelty and monstrous evil.

And it is cruelty and evil that we see outside the gates of Jerusalem, at Golgotha, at the Place of a Skull, where Jesus suffers and dies. Here we see nothing beautiful, nothing that could be called good. Here we see only shame and disgrace and unspeakable suffering, human beings at their worst, taunting One who has already been driven to the limits of endurance by scourging and then nailed to the rough wood of a Roman cross. Here if anywhere - as far as can be seen - is apparently more evidence that “if God is God He is not good, and if God is good He is not God” - utterly indifferent to the pitiful plight of His human creatures. This is all that can be seen. And there have been many down through the ages, and there still are today, who see in the pitiful sufferings of Jesus of Nazareth only more evidence for their atheism, their inability to conceive of a Maker who might be a good and gracious Father.

Well, we learned to say in the Catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel [and] enlightened me.” On the night before He suffered the Lord Jesus said to His disciples in the upper room: “The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” The New Testament Scriptures in general and the four Gospels in particular are the fulfillment of this promise. For there the Holy Spirit reveals the true meaning of what to the eyes of the body and to human thought can only be a meaningless and terrible miscarriage of justice, evidence of the unimaginable depths of the evil in us all. In the Scriptures, and through the preaching of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit shows us that this terrible scene of cruelty and evil is in fact the perfect revelation of the Father’s love. For, as Saint Paul says, “It is the God who said, ’Let light shine out darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” the thorn-crowned face of Jesus Christ - for in that thorn-crowned face we most clearly see the face of God. And as Saint John never ceases to remind us in his Gospel and especially in His account of Jesus’ passion, the glory of God is His love and His love is His glory: the crucifixion of Jesus His glorification because there we most truly see the loveof the heavenly Father in His crucified Son - “very God of very God,” as we say in the Creed. Or, as we shall sing in the closing hymn:

Crown Him the Lord of love!
Behold His hands and side,
Rich wounds yet visible above
In beauty glorified.
No angel in the sky
Can fully bear that sight,
But downward bends His wondering eye
At mysteries so bright.

In perfect love to the Father and in perfect love for all us fallen children of Adam, Christ the Second Adam suffered so that we might not remain lost and condemned creatures but enfolded by pure mercy now, in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment. And because the Lord Jesus so suffered and triumphed over death and the grave we also know that the whole creation, which now mysteriously shares in the Fall and groans as in the pangs of childbirth, will in the end, as Saint Paul says, “be set free from the bondage of decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

Yes, the bare evidence of creation can never bring certainty that the Maker of all things is our good and gracious Father. For we know the Maker of all things to be our good and gracious Father only through the sufferings of His beloved Son; and we only know the Son through the witness of the Holy Spirit, who shows us the suffering Son through whom alone we now by faith see the Father, who does all this “only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me for all which it is my duty to thank and praise serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true!”

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