A little something different for you today, and you’ll see the humor in that statement here shortly. I’ll also apologize for the amount of reading I have, but…
The liturgy we follow during our service is almost the same every week. The exact words, same order, even those serving are in the same places wearing the same vestments. For some, this is just boring, but for many of us, the liturgy—the ritual of a Sunday morning—brings comfort. We don’t have to worry about what we’re going to do next, which frees us up to worship without fretting over what we should be doing. It brings comfort. The same idea applies to children.
Even those without children know that many children like to hear the same story repeatedly. Read a bedtime story to them, and the following night, there’s a good chance they’ll ask for it again. Why is that? Those who study such things tell us that it is ritual. The repetition of crawling into bed, pulling up the covers, snuggling in, and hearing the same story becomes a ritual that brings comfort. I suppose I haven’t gotten past the comfort of this type of ritual because I’ll read the same books over and watch the same movies time and time again, even if I only recently finished them. I know how it will all play out, so all I have to do is sit back and enjoy. All this to justify the story I’m about to tell you. It is a story about me and one I’ve shared before when we worshipped with our AME friends. I’m not sure if I’ve shared it here before.
When I was a junior in high school, I attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Shreveport, Louisiana. I was active in youth programs, but some unfortunate circumstances rolled around, and I found myself sitting alone at the Christmas Eve Mass. For many reasons, that upset me, so just before the service began, I walked out and didn’t step foot in another church for over a decade. What brought me back?
I had several Christian friends who would talk to me about Jesus, but I more or less laughed at them and changed the subject; however, some of them were quite persistent. Because they knew I loved to read, they constantly gave me Christian-based books, all of which went unread until one Friday night when the bookstore had closed. There was nothing else to read in the house but those books, so grumbling, I took one off the shelf: This Present Darkness, a novel by Frank Peretti. It is all about spiritual warfare, angels, and demons; crazy fun to read—I highly recommend it to you all. It was such a fun read—and that’s all I saw it as—that I wanted to read the sequel, Piercing the Darkness.
This one was also fun, but what made it also interesting and more than just fun was the main character, Sally Beth Roe. The life this woman had lived was remarkably similar to mine. Reading about her life was a bit like reading an autobiography of my own life, so I engaged with the book on a different level. Toward the end, when it came to the critical climax of the story, Sally Beth Roe recognized her need for a Savior—for Jesus—so she went into a secluded area and prayed, “Jesus… I want You to come into my heart. I want You to forgive me. Please forgive me.”
As I said, the book was about angels and so on, so Peretti always told you what was going on in the spiritual world while things were happening in our world, so other things were happening while she prayed. He writes:
“All around her, like spokes of a wondrous wheel, like beams of light emanating from a sun, angelic swords lay flat upon the ground, their tips turned toward her, their handles extending outward, held in the strong fists of hundreds of noble warriors who knelt in perfect concentric circles of glory, light and worship, their heads to the ground, their wings stretching skyward like a flourishing, animated garden of flames. They were silent, their hearts filled with a holy dread.
“As in countless times past, in countless places, with marvelous inscrutable wonder, the Lamb of God stood among them, the Word of God, and more: the final Word, the end of all discussion and challenge, the creator and the Truth that holds all creation together–most wondrous of all, and most inscrutable of all, the Savior, a title angels would always behold and marvel about, but which only mankind could know and understand.
“He had come to be the Savior of this woman. He knew her by name; and, speaking her name, He touched her. And her sins were gone….”
At this, the angels of the Lord began to shout with joy and strength, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain… He has purchased Sally Beth Roe,” and at the same time as I read those words, I believe an angelic shout went up around me, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain. He has purchased John Forest Toles.”
In the novel, a lost sheep was found, and so was I.
The book may just be a story to some, but it is one that I like to retell to myself because from the moment I read those words, “He has purchased John…,” my life has never been the same.
Our Gospel tells us that the religious leaders were angry with Jesus because he ate with tax collectors and sinners. He ate with Sally Beth Roe and John, and through the workings of the Holy Spirit, they believed in his word, so there was this angelic rejoicing in Heaven. As Jesus said, “I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Because of the work that Jesus began in my life, what Saint Paul said to Timothy, I can say to you, “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
Saint Peter tells us, “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” This is my defense and the reason for my hope.
Jesus tells us the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin, both of which were found, so Jesus says to us, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost, my coin that was lost.” Jesus says, “Rejoice with me because I have found a soul—a part of me and a part of you—that was lost. Rejoice with me.”
When I look at the world around me or read the news, I see all the work that must be done, and much of it will only be done through the response of us fulfilling our responsibilities and calling as a Christian people. Because of this, I tend to preach sermon after sermon on choices, serving, sacrificing, caring for souls, preparing the soul, and so on. I firmly believe that these are necessary messages and these things must be said and accomplished, but… I can sometimes get so caught up in the needs and the work that I forget: “Rejoice with me!”
For our offertory hymn this morning, we’ll be hearing, Morning has Broken. The last stanza:
Mine is the sunlight! Mine is the morning
born of the one light Eden saw play!
Praise with elation, praise every morning,
God’s re-creation, of the new day!
The day the angels sang for me and the day they sang for you is a day of re-creation. Every day since is a day worthy of rejoicing and praise, for we were purchased and re-created as God’s own children. Continue with all the work set before us, but don’t forget to rejoice, for you have been given a great gift in Jesus who redeemed you and made you his own.
This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.
Let us pray: Precious Blood and Word of God, You are our eternal salvation. Lost in sin, You liberated us. You lifted us from eternal punishment. Treasuring our lost souls, You excused our constant failings. Forever, we are indebted to You. Your cost can never be repaid, for You bought our freedom with your very own Blood. We will always seek You out, Lord, Who are our beloved Deliverer! You are the Lamb of God! Amen.