Our Lord said, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see it and give glory to your Father in heaven.” St. John said that this light is Christ, and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it. You and I at St. Augustine’s can by God’s grace be such a light, a community where many nations and peoples come to give glory to God, where we find our deepest identity in Christ and truest community in Christ’s body, where we burn with anger at injustice while also loving our enemies, where we find a hope and a joy deeper than any despair and more powerful than any gun, in the Gospel of the Almighty God who created a good world and redeemed us in Christ, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, who reigns even now from the Cross and will reign forever in the Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.
It’s easier if we just think of the parable as about risking your neck to save a stranger. It gets harder when we see that Jesus isn’t just talking about strangers—he’s talking about enemies. He’s talking about the people who get on your last nerve, who make you so mad you can spit, who you can name ten reasons why they don’t deserve the time of day. What would happen if you were beat up and lying somewhere in a ditch, and the people who are on your side, the great and the good people, passed on by on their way to do more great and good things, but then… some sinner who’s got it all wrong is the one who stretches out his hand and cleans your wounds and gives you a place to stay? What then?
When we sow to the Spirit, it’s like we’re reaching out our hand and asking Jesus to deliver us from evil and make us new, born again, set free. When we pray, we’re not just working on ourselves to become more meditative or spiritual. We’re asking the sovereign power of God to reach into our lives and renew our hearts and reach into the world around us and make it more like God’s kingdom. When we worship, we’re not just coming to hear about how to be a better person. We’re joining in the one sacrifice for sin in Christ by which we’re made children of God our Father, making our dwelling-place to be in Christ and he in us.
When Martin Luther wrote his little book on the freedom of a Christian, based in large part on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he wrote that “a Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” That’s the paradox of Christian freedom, perfectly put. A few days from now, I’ll celebrate the freedom of an American like everyone else watching the fireworks. But when we do, let’s not forget what freedom is for—the freedom of a Christian is the freedom for love, to love the Lord our God and our neighbors as ourselves, and that means the freedom to become the servant of all.
That leads me to the second reason we need the Bible’s teaching about evil, which is that no matter how comfortable we may feel, we all need deliverance in one way or another. We misread this story if we think that it’s about someone else, one of those hard cases whom no one knows what to do with. No: this story is about us. Whether we’re too proud to admit it or not, you and I are like the man in the tombs too. The prayer book says that “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Growth in the Christian life, the ordinary season of growth that we’ve just started, is not primarily a matter of good advice and good habits and getting our acts together. We misunderstand this season if we think that everything that we celebrated just past, from Advent to Pentecost, is the season of what God did for us, and now it’s the season for us to show what we’ll do for God. No: before we grow, we have to be delivered from evil powers that are beyond our power to control. We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves, until God sets us free to come to our senses and come back to life again.
God isn’t so high and lifted up that he can’t be bothered by us, except maybe to give us fifteen minutes of his day. God glorified himself in his Son, Jesus Christ, a poor Jewish handyman with no power except the truth. Just like the one God in three persons gave himself to himself in a perfect dance of love and glory, God gave himself to his children in Jesus Christ, and poured his entire life out for us when he was lifted up high on the cross. The glory of God is no distant, abstract majesty. The glory of God looks like a love so strong that it shows up on the streets of the downtrodden and the forgotten, down among the prodigal sons, the sinners, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and gets all mixed up with their hurts and their needs and their problems because they’re his sons, his daughters, and as long as their hearts hurt then the heart of God hurts too.
Why do we celebrate Ascension Day? The story almost seems a little cruel. Jesus had come back to his disciples from the grave, and the forty days he spent with them after his resurrection were a time of healing and joy and being filled up for the new mission Christ gave to his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples. But then, after just forty short days, he left. If Jesus is risen and alive, why doesn’t he stay down here with us? Given my experience of the church and probably yours too, I have no doubt that the church could use better management. Even if we believe that the pope is the Vicar of Christ, why not just give us Christ? Why can’t Christ stay around to overturn the moneychangers’ tables in the temple and tell off the Pharisees and the false prophets, tell us who’s right and who’s wrong in our endless disputes, and run off all of the scoundrels who dare to abuse and deceive God’s children in Christ’s name?
Worship does make us happier and more fulfilled and it should make us better and more moral, but worship isn’t primarily about any human purpose or earthly benefit. Worship is about God. We worship God for no other reason than that God is to be worshipped. We lift up our hearts because it is right and meet so to do. In worship we declare the worth-ship of God. We give God glory and honor because of who he is: the almighty and eternal God, dwelling from before time and forever, Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Lord of lords, source of life and light, the lovely God of love, Beautiful Savior, giver of all good gifts, God of amazing grace. If we saw even for an instant just a fraction of the reality of God, we would fall down in awe and fear and thanksgiving, and then leap to our feet with joy, lost in wonder, love, and praise.