Sunday, June 21, 2020

As God Was With Our Fathers

Picture the scene: The king's knees ached from kneeling on the stone steps before the altar of the Most High. He'd been on his knees there quite some time, praying in the presence of the visible cloud of God's glory. Now Solomon stood, stretching his legs. This was the big day, the day he'd been working for, the day his father David had longed to see. David had wished he could be the one to build a house for God. But David had been too involved in making war. His hands were not the hands for the job. So it fell to his son and heir, Solomon, to fulfill his father's dream. And now the dream of the father was a reality in the life of the son. A house for the Lord. The temple. It was fully built, and this was the day of its dedication, its consecration. And God had already moved in.

On his feet, Solomon turned to face a waiting nation. As their king, he knew he was no priest – through priests a-plenty flanked him. But in his own regal way, he stood before the tribal chiefs and elders of all Israel, as they gathered in the temple court. Solomon's eyes surveyed their waiting faces, their imploring eyes, their listening ears. Stretching out his hands, fresh from an encounter with the light of the Lord, the king shouted words of blessing and favor: “Blessed be the LORD who has given rest to his people Israel, according to all that he promised! Not one word has failed of all his good promise which he spoke by Moses his servant. The LORD our God be with us, as he was with our fathers!” (1 Kings 8:56-57a).

What can we say about Solomon's faith? Solomon's faith was rooted firmly in history. Shake it loose from that ground, and it would not be the same. Cut it out from that frame, and it would be emptied. You cannot divorce Solomon's faith from the history of those he calls 'our fathers.' Now, earlier, in his prayer of dedication, King Solomon had referred several times to “David my father.” But here, he speaks to all Israel of 'our fathers,' the fathers they've shared. Abraham was one of their fathers – God was with him throughout his journeys, God promised a family and a land, and not one word of that promise failed. Moses and the generation of the exodus were their fathers – God was with them at Sinai and in the tabernacle, God promised a clear-cut roadmap to blessings and curses, and not one word of that promise failed. And Joshua and the generation of the conquest were their fathers – God was with them as they moved into their inheritance, and God made good on his unfailing promises of old. These all were 'our fathers' to Solomon and the nation gathered in the temple that day. This is what Solomon meant as he praised God and hoped that God would continue to be toward them and among them the kind of God the history of their fathers had revealed.

Solomon's faith, Israel's faith, cannot be divorced from the history of their fathers – those who held that faith before, those who passed it down to them, those who stood up and seized the hope held out in the promise. And the same is true of ours today. Just as Solomon's Israel could look back to their fathers' stories of life with God, so can Jesus' Church do the same. The problem is that we don't often do it. The church today has a tendency, I'm afraid, to forget the big family tree. We've so longed for simplicity that we've flattened our faith and neglected our fathers, the fathers whose legacy we share. No wonder we behold the church so divided. No mystery we frequently meet the church so demoralized. It's the consequence of the church being dehistoricized! Just as Israel looked back to its fathers in the day of Solomon, the Church today, especially today, is called to recollect its Fathers.

We look back, of course, to the apostles. After the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – a gift we celebrated a few weeks ago, while we were still ungathered – the New Testament tells us something of the ministries that the apostles held. Paul is a prime example, since Luke's history follows first Peter and then him. Luke's focus is on Paul because Luke aims to trace the spread of the good news of Jesus from Jerusalem to all Judea, to Samaria, and then out to the ends of the earth – represented here by Rome, the heart of Gentile power. Along the way, Paul founded and nourished many churches. And wherever he went, he described his interaction with believers as being “like a father with his children” (1 Thessalonians 2:11). He explained to the Corinthians, “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15). Paul is our father in Christ, too. Was God with the Apostle Paul? Absolutely! The New Testament screams that loud and clear.

But eventually, Paul's work here was done. He gave his life for the gospel in Rome. How many of us know the story's next step? Paul had plenty of co-workers – he names some in his letters. Timothy we of course know, and Titus. Paul also briefly mentions a young colleague named Clement. And sometime after Peter and Paul had been martyred in Rome, Rome became Clement's field of operation. Among the network of Roman churches, Clement became a leader and an overseer and a spokesman, following in Peter and Paul's footsteps. Around the same time that John was on Patmos, writing down that revelation for the seven churches in Turkey, Clement got word that there was trouble in the Corinthian church yet again – that a younger generation there was rebelling against their pastors and causing trouble. So, like Paul would have, Clement wrote them a letter to set them straight. And he said to them:

Let's fix our gaze on the blood of Christ and realize how precious it is to his Father, seeing that it was poured out for our salvation and brought the grace of conversion to the entire world. … Let's look steadfastly toward the Father and Creator of the whole world, and hold fast to his magnificent and surpassing gifts of peace and kindness to us. … He does good to all, and more than superabundantly to us who've found refuge in his mercies through our Lord Jesus Christ – to whom be glory and majesty forever and ever, amen!

Amen indeed, Clement! Church, Clement is one of our fathers – a father we all share. Our spiritual family tree isn't complete if we don't have his name and his story and his witness on it. Was God with our father Clement? Yes, yes he was. God spoke through Clement to restore a troubled church to order, and to point them back to the good news. May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our father Clement!

At the same time Clement stood up in the churches of Rome and John was still writing to the churches of Asia, the churches in Antioch, the city in Syria where the word 'Christian' was invented, were led by a pastor named Ignatius. As a young man, he'd met Peter and Paul; it wasn't long after they died that he rose to his call of ministry there. He guided and parented the church there for decades. But about twelve years after Clement's letter, Ignatius was arrested and shipped toward Rome, there to be put to death for the gospel. A team of ten Roman soldiers escorted him as prisoner over land and sea. During the long trip, Ignatius received care from churches in the cities of Asia, and he wrote them letters. He reminded the church to “frequently come together to give thanks to God and show forth his praise, for when you assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed...” And as he drew closer to his destiny of being thrown to the lions, Ignatius announced:

I am the wheat of God, so let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts so that I may be found to be the pure bread of Christ. … Let fire and cross, crowds of wild beasts, tearing, breaking, dislocating bones, amputation, shattering of the whole body, and all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me – only let me reach Jesus Christ!

Church, Ignatius is one of our fathers – a father we all share, as much as Clement and as much as the apostles. Was God with our father Ignatius? Yes, he certainly was. God inspired in Ignatius a mighty yearning for the presence of Jesus at any cost, and God granted him his faithful desire, letting nothing obstruct his way. May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our father Ignatius!

As Ignatius marched toward martyrdom, one of the pastors he met was Polycarp, who led the church in Smyrna. As a young man, Polycarp had been mentored by the Apostle John, and Polycarp had spoken with numerous other Christians who had seen the risen Jesus with their own eyes during those forty days between Easter and the Ascension. And a few years after writing Revelation, John had handpicked Polycarp to lead the church in Smyrna, one of those seven cities. As a student of John, Polycarp carried on the living voice of the apostles, and he became a revered teacher, a father in his own lifetime to the churches throughout all Asia Minor. Defending his faith to a local city councilor, Polycarp declared:

[Jesus is] the Eternal One..., through whom the church is enriched and increasing grace recurs within the saints. This grace bestows understanding, reveals mysteries, proclaims seasons, rejoices over the faithful, is given to seekers, to those who don't break the promises of faith or disobey the restrictions of the fathers. Then respect for the Law is sung, and the grace of the Prophets is recognized, and the faith of the Gospels is launched, and the tradition of the Apostles is maintained, and the grace of the Church abounds. … Don't bring this grace to grief!

After a long ministry, Polycarp was finally arrested by his persecutors, and burned at the stake. His allegiance was pledged all to Jesus, and he died courageously with prayer on his lips. And church, Polycarp is one of our fathers. Was God with our father Polycarp? Yes, he certainly was. God's peace was at work in Polycarp's life, cementing him in a daring commitment to the grace of God that comes through Jesus. Polycarp marveled at the faithfulness of Jesus all his life long. May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our father Polycarp!

About midway through Polycarp's ministry in Smyrna, one of the families in his congregation gave birth to a precious baby boy they named Irenaeus, from the Greek word for 'peace.' Irenaeus loved listening to his pastor Polycarp, looking at him as a father in discipleship. And after Polycarp was martyred, Irenaeus – like plenty of other Greek Christians from Asia Minor – moved to what's now France. Irenaeus became a junior pastor in the churches freshly planted there. But as false teachers started troubling those churches with all sorts of outlandish ideas, Irenaeus was sent to Rome to deliver a letter asking for help. And while Irenaeus was gone, persecution broke out, jailing and then killing many of his fellow Christians, including his senior pastor Pothinus. By the time Irenaeus got back home, he saw a church deeply wounded and had no choice but to step up and fill those empty shoes as the senior pastor of Lyon.

When the persecution died down, he set to work writing a definitive answer to all those false teachers. And as he did that, God used Irenaeus to help the whole worldwide church shape how it understood what it believed. Irenaeus proclaimed the church's faith in “one God, Maker of heaven and earth and everything in them; and in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who – because of his abundant love for the work he fashioned – submitted to birth from the Virgin, in order through himself to unite man to God; and he suffered under Pontius Pilate and rose again and was taken up in glory and will come in glory as Savior of those who are saved and Judge of those who are judged...”

And Irenaeus declared that in his own church, he had himself seen demons driven out, had himself heard prophecies of the future, had known sick people healed and even the dead restored to life. Irenaeus rejoiced, “It's impossible to tell the number of gifts which the church throughout the world received from God in the name of Jesus Christ, crucified under Pontius Pilate, and uses each day for the benefit of the nations...” Church, Irenaeus is one of our fathers. Was God with our father Irenaeus? Yes, God certainly was. God spoke through Irenaeus to solidify our understanding of the good news that fills us with hope today. As we continue in that same faith, may the Lord our God be with us as he was with our father Irenaeus!

A couple years before Irenaeus finished his time on earth, across the Mediterranean a boy was born in the North African city of Carthage. Cyprian was raised in paganism and became a lawyer and public speaker. The church was a prominent force, but Cyprian just didn't think the gospel was good news for him – “In despair of better things, I indulged my sins,” he remembered. But in his mid-thirties, he befriended and came to live with one of the pastors in his city, and those encounters broke down his resistance to the gospel. Shortly after he was baptized into Jesus Christ, he told a friend, “When the stain of my past life had been washed away with the help of the water of regeneration, a light from above poured itself on my chastened and pure heart. Afterwards, when I had drunk of the Spirit from heaven, a second birth restored me into a new man!”

Shifting gears in his career, the lawyer soon became a pastor; and, by his late forties, he was bishop of the city. But almost immediately after he took office, times got pretty tough. The emperor gave an order of persecution. Some Christians were killed, but a lot of Christians gave in to the pressure, signing statements saying that they'd sacrificed to the Roman gods. Cyprian, nervous what would happen to the people without their bishop, went into hiding, a decision that caught him a lot of flack. And as the persecution wound down, the church ripped itself apart over the question of how to deal with believers who'd stumbled and lapsed in their faith. Some, dissatisfied with the way it was being handled, split off into an alternative church. Cyprian was heartbroken, crying out, “There is no other house for believers except for the one church!”

And while Cyprian tried to deal with this, a familiar situation cropped up: a pandemic. Cyprian had to pastor the city through the disease, and assured Christians who became seriously ill that the sufferings of their symptoms were letting them “advance to Christ by the narrow way of Christ,” that is, conformity to the cross. As the pandemic lifted, the new emperor decreed another wave of persecution, and Cyprian himself was placed on trial. Exiled for a year, he refused to recant his faith, and so he was sentenced to death. When he heard the verdict, he had just one thing to say: “Thanks be to God!”

Church, Cyprian is one of our fathers. Was God with our father Cyprian? Yes, he certainly was. Cyprian faced down just about everything that troubles American churches in 2020, and if we have ears to hear, he bequeathed his spiritual children a strong commitment to the church – “Someone cannot have God as a Father who does not have the Church as a Mother,” he said. And in difficult days of disease and division, Cyprian not only spoke it but lived it. May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our father Cyprian!

While that persecution was still going on, a boy was born in an Egyptian village and given the name Antony. He was still young when Cyprian was martyred, and the two never met. But when Antony was about 19, his parents died. A little while later, going to church, he heard Jesus' words, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Antony's parents had been rich, leaving him with great wealth. But in answer to the words of Jesus that hit his heart, Antony gave away 207 acres of property and sold all his family belongings and gave the money to the poor. He then moved into the desert to learn the ways of God in the wilderness, committing himself to a life of prayer. This put a target on his back, and as Antony prayed, the devil tried to disturb him with memories of all he'd left behind, interrupting his prayers with intrusive thoughts, temptations, even visions and apparitions. But Antony filled his mind with Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus. His earliest biographer declares that “the Lord was working with Antony – the Lord who bore flesh for us and gave to the body the victory over the devil.”

It was the first of many battles Antony had with the spiritual forces of darkness. Antony persevered and eventually mentored others who settled in the wilderness. He reminded those who approached him that “all things are in the hand of the Lord, and a demon has no strength against a Christian. … So if we want to scorn the enemy, let's always contemplate things that have to do with the Lord, and let the soul always rejoice in hope! Then we'll see the antics of the demons to be like smoke, and we'll see them running away instead of chasing – they're cowards!” Antony continued lifting up the world in prayer and fighting the good fight in the desert until he died, having passed the age of 100. A few years after he died, his bishop commented, “He was held in affection by everyone, and all asked to have him as a father.”

Church, Antony is one of our fathers. Was God with our father Antony? Yes, absolutely – God was working in Antony to overwhelm the devil's temptations and distractions, a lesson we sorely need today no less than then. May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our father Antony!

As for that bishop and biographer, his name was Athanasius. A generation younger than Antony, Athanasius grew from a bright young boy into a youthful leading bishop. And in the wake of new forms of false teaching that aimed to demote Jesus, Athanasius devoted his whole career to reminding the church – even when the church got confused and misled and bullied – just who Jesus is: not merely the top dog of the creation, but the very presence of Almighty God come to save us. Even as a young man, Athanasius wrote:

God made [humans] out of nothing, [but] turning from eternal things to corruptible things by the counsel of the devil, they'd become the cause of their own corruption in death. … Having invented wickedness in the beginning..., adulteries and thefts were everywhere..., law was disregarded in corruption and injustice..., the whole earth was torn with factions and battles. … Was God to let corruption and death have their way with them? … For this purpose, then, the Word of God entered our world... in a new way, stooping to our level with his love … Taking a body like our own..., he surrendered his body to death in the place of all, and offered it to the Father. He did it out of sheer love for us, so that in his death, all might die and the law of death thereby be abolished … The Son of God, living and effective, is active every day and effects the salvation of all; but death is daily proved to be stripped of all its strength, and it's the idols and evil spirits who are dead, not he!

Sticking to the truth of Christ, Athanasius was sent into exile five different times. His enemies never tired of trying to steal Athanasius' pastorate away from him. Once, they went so far as to put him on trial for murdering a monk for dark magic; Athanasius then brought the alleged murder victim alive into the courtroom. Another time, his enemies tried to arrest him during a church service, but he got away safe. And by the end of his life of perseverance, he had protected the beliefs that all Christians share today. Church, Athanasius is one of our own fathers. Was God with our father Athanasius? Yes, absolutely! May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our father Athanasius!

Much more could be said about the Fathers of the Church; many more could be named (but this sermon is long enough). Still, we should know them. We should know them because not one word has failed of all our Lord's good promise to establish his church, his new temple, such that the gates of hell have never prevailed, will never prevail, can never prevail! May we walk in the faith like they did, as worthy sons and daughters of the Church Fathers, that all the peoples of the earth might know that the Jesus they proclaimed is still Lord today, still God today, still saving today, and still with us today! Thanks be to God our Father – Father of the Church's Fathers!

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