For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope (Romans 15:4).
It is clear from both today’s collect and epistle that humanity’s great source of hope and comfort flows from the sacred Scriptures the Holy Spirit puts into our hands and into our ears and into our hearts. The most dangerous aspect of living in the 21st century West is that we are surrounded by a culture which simply doesn’t believe this life-saving truth. The hard question the second Sunday in Advent asks us practicing Christians is, “Do we believe it?” Do we believe that God has moved creation itself to speak to us through the Holy Bible? Are we be willing to die to hear and study the voice of God, or as we see in the tragedy of the 21st century West, are we even willing to be slightly inconvenienced to truly come in contact with the divine? Perhaps, it would be easier if someone was actually murdering us for having Bibles, as has been the case in much of Christian history and remains the case in places all over the world. Maybe, if we watched men and women filled with the Holy Spirit give this life for the Word of God we would get some sense of its unique importance for human creatures. But, alas, instead of seeing the members of our community become martyrs, it is the Word of God, unloved and untouched, through which we are encouraged to re-enact the abandonment of the Word made flesh on the Cross.
For years, I have thought about this demonic irony of the modern world: we have unlimited access to the Word of God but also sharply declining Biblical literacy. I suspect, looking into my own redeemed and sinful heart, that we tend to think of the Bible as if it were any other book. We say, “I’ve read it once or twice (or parts of of it), and so I get it.” Or, maybe we are victims of an American education system which has been proven, through peer reviewed research, to teach us to hate reading. Or, maybe we don’t read and study the Bible enough because its hard. Perhaps, we are so used to being titillated and entertained and “sold to” that we just don’t know how to put in the prayerful effort of having our dumb ideas of who we are challenged by the Living God. Perhaps, it hurts to read the Bible; perhaps, we’ve made comfort our god. None of these reasons are good, but taken together they form a tragic wall between us and everything that actually matters. Most conservative Christians say they believe in Satan, so why do we have such a hard time seeing his work as we are drawn away from the oracles of God? Why don’t we fight back? What do we lose if we don’t? St. Paul today tells us what we lose when we abandon the Word of God: we lose hope, and without hope there is only power and excess and the daily march to the grave.
What then do we gain by earnestly seeking our hope and comfort in the Word of God? We gain nothing less than the endurance and encouragement we need to fight our way out of this broken world as one holy people—united in heart and soul and mind. St. Paul is writing to a church in Rome newly created out of the union of God and Man, Jew and Greek, rich and poor—a union made possible through the reconciling death of Christ. He is commanding this group of men and women to be a public refutation of everything the fallen world tries to worship: the idolatry which breaks the unity that can only come from worshipping the true, saving God with one united voice. The Word of God is where we find that voice, so that we no longer speak with the vain tongues of men, but rather sing in the exalted language of Almighty God. By reading and singing and praying through the Bible, we become the human heralds of God’s victory; we discard the discordant arguing of those whose only hope lies in the schemes of men to join with the heavenly choir—praising God with our every breath and thought.
This united front is the living, breathing manifestation of what Christ has accomplished in His sacrificial death. As St. Paul writes, “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God's truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Romans 15:8-9). The more we have abandoned the Word of God the less sense that last sentence makes to us and the less hope we can derive from promises we don’t understand, patriarchs we don’t care about, and a glory we don’t even know how to long for. However, by uniting ourselves to the Word, we see ever more clearly that God the Son has brought history itself to its climax by eternally binding Himself to the humanity of God’s elect people. God the Son became Man, so a new and righteous mankind can keep the unbreakable promises of God given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus Christ is this fulfillment of Israel’s destiny come to life—the great blessing to all the nations of the world, the sacrifice which accomplishes the great saving covenant made between God and Man 4,000 years ago. There is no real hope in our lives which is separated from this assured, God guaranteed hope. Everything else in this world will eventually fail or disappoint us; everything else will eventually turn to ash in our hands or in the hands of our children or their children. We are either connected to God’s saving work (this Bible is either our Bible), or we are as hopeless as every other sad fool who thinks death can be bribed, every poor soul who thinks his collection of accomplishments is worth a damn if it isn’t in service to the Lord of salvation-history.
Today, St. Paul holds up this Lord for all of us to see and then he turns to us and invites us to be united with Him and each other in praise and worship. We have been convinced by the lost and the damned that worship and praise is the enemy of action and accomplishment, but this evil lie couldn’t be further from the truth. When we come together as a worshiping community, we bind ourselves to the one, great, untainted human accomplishment—the one time our selfish, confused race has ever gotten anything perfectly right—we bind ourselves to the glory of the Cross. As St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come.” In our sacramental feast we recite the words of the Word of God made flesh: “Take eat, this is my body…Drink ye all of this; for this is my Blood of the New Testament,”we say those words and then we unite ourselves to the God/Man who first said them; we unite ourselves to all those who faithfully cling to His Cross: Jew and Greek, African and European, Asian and Australian, Republican and Democrat united in the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving with the God/Man who saved the world. There is simply nothing in our lives which will ever rise above our participation in glorifying God for His mercy. The parts of our hearts which try to convince us differently are the parts we should be fighting with unconquerable zeal. The people or activities in our lives which we allow to seduce us away from daily praise and worship, from the loving study of God’s Word and the hope and comfort found there, should be recognized as the terrible enemies they are. The praise and worship of God in our daily lives, and together as the community of faith, is the ultimate sign of defiance against Satan and the evil he loves: the pain and misery more stuff will never cure; our praise and worship is the humble offering of our souls and bodies the Evil One was unable to give the God who gave him everything. There is no gray area here, no cowardly neutrality is available; no, there is only Christ or Satan, good or evil, join or die. Any ideology or belief system or allegiance we have which tells us differently is lying to us, and ultimately, begging us to choose death over life.
And so, how then do we know when we are are being lied to? How do we know when we are being seduced into trading hope and comfort for enmity and strife? We can only be set free from this cycle of living slavery by submitting ourselves to the truth, and we can only know the truth by hearing, reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting all the Holy Scriptures of God. If you are not faithfully executing these solemn duties, you might be a Christian, but you will be one who is constantly falling prey to the lies of the world, the flesh, and the devil. You might be a Christian, but you will be madly focused on the temporary nonsense of a dying world, and you will miss out on the hope and comfort which comes from the God who loves us and speaks to us in His Holy Word. As the 16th century Anglican bishop and theologian, John Jewel wrote, “All that is written in the Word of God is not written for angels or archangels or heavenly spirits, but for the sons of men, for us, and for our instruction; that by them we may receive strength and comfort in all adversities, and have hope of the life to come. [The Bible] is the Word of God: God openeth His mouth and speaketh to us, to guide us into all truth, to make us full and ready in all good works, that we may be perfect men in Christ Jesus; so rooted and grounded in Him, that we be not tossed to and fro with every tempest.”
Whatever tempest may be tossing you to and fro this week, let us join with St. Paul by rejoicing in Christ’s victory over death, and let us see, every day, how Christ’s victory is our victory in the blessed pages of God’s Holy Word.