Sunday, 1 November 2015

An Audience With….God

A sermon of Rev Paolo Castellina, translated into an English context

There is a British (ITV) programme called “An Audience With” which offers a famous singer a platform to perform to a celebrity-only audience. How would ordinary people get a ticket? Have you ever wondered whether you would ever get a ticket for “An Audience With” God?

There are many today who deny the existence of God, therefore the question for them is irrelevant. Recent UK research suggests that 80% are not thinking about God in their lives at all, even though 60% regard themselves as Christians. For a proportion of the 60%, being welcomed by God is not a problem: they take it for granted that God will accept everyone, including themselves, indiscriminately.

In fact most people have a contradictory and overly rosy view of God. They believe they will definitely will be forgiven for their acknowledged failures on the grounds that overall they are a decent person i.e. they never murdered, defrauded anyone or ended up in prison. They may have told a few lies, or been a bit devious, or malicious, now and then. However, God, they believe, does not mind a few ‘white’ lies.

The bad news is that many will be disappointed. God says about Himself in His Word, the Bible is very different from what, today, seems to be commonly-held wisdom. Divine mercy is not automatic, easy or cheap. The question asked by the writer of Psalm 24 v 3 is:

"Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?".

Fake Father Christmas
Let us consider the answer. In shopping malls, during the Christmas holidays, we see children getting excited about a mysterious and magical ‘cave’ (of cardboard) at the bottom of which is a throne on which is seated the mystical deity (invented by Coca Cola) called "Santa Claus ". He is an old-looking man with a thick white beard and dressed in red, severe and at the same time good-natured who gives children gifts.
Father Christmas employee relaxing
The child, standing in line, can finally have a brief conversation with him, during which Santa Claus asks him or her "Have you been good, this year?" If so, then the child will receive a gift and a pat on the head, and if not, he or she will surely be forgiven but told to “Try to do better next year”.

This privilege of meeting Santa Claus is an experience that attracts, and at the same time, intimidates young children as there is a price tag attached and they have had to beg for it. It is a meeting, and a gift, only made possible by the fact that mother or father pays someone to create the fantasy in the cave. Beside or behind it is the “Secretary of Santa Claus" who receives payment (for the generous presents!). Sadly, this fantasy Christmas deity’s generosity towards children is not open to parents on low incomes. Like any business, this business must make a profit. Santa Claus himself, dressed in red is only a (bored) casual employee who has to play along with this ridiculous fiction, because it is the only work that he can find, in this season. One even sees adverts for “an experienced Santa Claus” in newspaper in the autumn! For the child, it is just a beautiful game, one that stimulates the imagination and offers the power of education. Education? Yes, to instill a fantasy idea of ​​the deity (severe, but benign) who forgives and welcomes everyone. This image will endure well into adulthood, giving adults the idea that God is like the Santa Claus or that God is "a fantasy God" to whom to attribute some kind of educational meaning.

Is this just innocuous and harmless fun? Well, the established belief about “God” in the minds of many people corresponds precisely to "Santa Claus" - a God who good-naturedly forgives everyone. Complacent theologians take care to confirm this image. But it has serious and eternal repercussions.

Who gets to meet God?
Where does the idea that God is a kind of Santa Claus come from? From popular culture, or from biblical revelation which presents a very different image of God? Today, we want to focus our attention on a question that David in Psalm 24, asks: "Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?" in other words: "Who will be accepted by God? The Bible's answer is not what many people would like to be able to hear, sadly. Let us read this entire Psalm 24:

(1) The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein
(2) For he hath founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.
(3) Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Who who shall stand in his holy place?
(4) He who has clean hands and a pure heart; who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully.
(5) He shall receive blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
(6) Such is the generation of them that seek him, who seek your face, O God of Jacob.
(7) Lift up your heads O gates, and be lifted up O ancient doors that the King of glory may come in.
(8) Who is this King of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.
9) Lift up your heads O gates and lift them up you ancient doors that the King of glory may come in.
(10) Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory " (Psalm 24).

Getting an audience at Buckingham Palace
In this Psalm, we discover the idea of gaining an audience with God. Imagine that you want to go to meet the Queen in Buckingham Palace. Is it possible on request? No. You would have to have a title, win an honour, have a prominent role in arts, business or government, or win a General Election, like the Prime Minister who meets the Queen, each week. There are all sorts of obstacles, because this unique person, The Queen, cannot be compared to any ordinary citizen. For a start, who is worthy of having an audience with the Queen? Surely only the historically significant, the talented, the brave, the honoured, the mighty and powerful? ‘Winners’ in other words - on the whole (although she meets a wider range of people on her travels). In spite of all this - and human rights - no ordinary citizen (or subject) has open access to the Queen.

"Queen Elizabeth II March 2015" by Joel Rouse/ Ministry of Defence
If the Queen is so inaccessible to most of us, think how much more so this is the true of God, His Holiness, entitled to call Himself "Thrice Holy". How can we approach such Majesty, the Majesty of God, King of the Universe? Who can claim to have ‘the right‘ to an audience with God? To be heard by Him? To talk with Him? Who could ever be worthy to address a single word to Him? God is not only our Creator, but out of our human league. Who could muster the gall to answer the piercing questions of someone who knows what is in our heart, in detail? Who would ever have the strength to even approach the divine, blinding uncreated light that surrounds Him?

Motivated to meet God
Here's what the question that David, King David, asks: "Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?". Why is it so difficult to have an audience with Him? Because He is the Mighty God and we are not only small, human and insignificant, made from dust. But more than anything else, because we are wicked in his eyes - rebellious against His holiness and authority.
"Go up to the mountain of the Lord". This signifies the way of the eternal salvation of our soul, life forever with Him, in glory and in worship and prayer. Some people believe they can attain this with ease - gain their own access to God and His many benefits - but this deception is only for those who do not know God for what He is, and who do not know themselves. "Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?" is a question our generation simply does not understand. It does not understand it for at least two reasons ..

A question that rarely arises for most people. First, most people do not want to get closer to God to ask for an audience with Him. God, for around 40% of people in the UK does not exist, or if there is a God, He just does not concern their thoughts. About another 40% think if He exists, He will accept them, as they are. They do not think about Him except possibly in extreme danger, poverty, illness or times of loss. Rather than ask Him for an audience, they want to sit as far from Him as possible and do life “their way” not His way, which they presume, without having much considered the evidence, will restrict their freedoms, and ruin their life (which is the opposite of the truth). The fact is that they will meet Him whether they like it or not, to give an account of themselves and their lives, to Him.

A presumption of His welcome. Secondly, fully imbued with a modern democratic spirit, many want to treat God equally on a par with them, as if He were their favourite first cousin, as if He were their friend to whom they have right of access day or night to His inexhaustible, undeserved, unconditional love. They claim that God will hear their prayers, when, how and where it suits them convenience. They claim that God will grant His help to protect them and automatically save their souls. They think this is earned by being who they are - a right - and they will protest loudly if God does not grant them what they expect. “It will go to appeal” they say, forgetting that there is no higher court or justice than God.

How can God not to listen to us? they say. God should be at our service -yet they admit no duty to God themselves. This relationship is a "one way street". There is a feeling that He is almost lucky to be loving them. However, Jesus said to some “Away from me - I never knew you”. The truth is that God, at best, will only give most of these people His common blessing - the same as that He gives to the wicked - since they have never given Him anything: such as their allegiance, their respect, their obedience, their time, their thoughts, their lives and their glory.

So who is this God?
The true God is the One spoken of in the Psalms and in the whole Bible. God is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Before His Glory and Majesty: we are less than nothing. Yet David knows he needs God, in spite of God’s greatness.  So he still asks the question: "Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?" i.e "those who never will be worthy to have an audience with him?" In fact "The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof, the world and all those who dwell on it" (1).He is unapproachable, the ultimate authority on which everything depends. David is aware of this: "Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle" (8). Who can dare to appear in His presence, approach Him in prayer?
Isaiah 40 states, in poetic form, the greatness of God:
  • "Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales. Behold he takes up the coastlands like fine dust. Lebanon would not suffice for fuel, nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering”. All the nations are as nothing before Him, considered nothing and vanity. 
  • “But do you know, do you not hear?” This was announced from the beginning. “Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers. He stretched out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them like a tent to dwell in”. 
  • “Who brings down princes to nothing”.  He makes earthly judges, governments and Prime Ministers unnecessary. 
  • Scarcely is something planted “scarcely has a stem taken root in the earth, but He blows on them and the tempest carries them off like stubble”.  He is in control of Nature 
  • “Lift up your eyes and see who has created these things? He who brings out their host by number and calls them all by name? For the greatness of his strength and power of his strength”. He is in control of the Universe.
Luther’s right attitude to God
This question that was posed by the faithful at the time of the Protestant Reformation was similar to this. Access to God was the question asked by Martin Luther who had experienced the deceptive answers that religion had given up to that time. Luther had tried everything : fasting, pilgrimages, good works, mortifications of all kinds. But like St Paul, who was equally zealous, he knew he could never be worthy enough, holy enough, for God, innocent enough to get closer to God, from such a distance. This feeling was correct, and we would do well to share it today. luther.jpg"Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk" by Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder - 1./2. The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 2922803. Germanisches Nationalmuseum4. Unknown. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.
Luther's is the right attitude to God, based, as it is, on the Scriptures. It is reverence and humility, not presuming anything, taking anything for granted. The fact is that Martin Luther had become aware of his own sin. He knew he was not ‘right’, or ‘righteous’ before God. He still felt unclean, in his inner being. There are those who say: "Don't worry, you try your best, don't overdo the holy life …”. However, the sentiments of Luther were healthy and correct. His false advisers were reading Scripture in a sloppy way, making presumptuous claims about God. Martin Luther rightly knew that the answer to the question in Psalm 4 is:

"He who has clean hands and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive blessings from ' eternal justice and the God of his salvation"
(Psalm 4 v 5).

Luther knew, as we know in our hearts, each of us, that we can never be right with God who is perfect justice, holiness, perfect love and innocence. No recommendation about us is enough, no therapy will put us right with Him. Luther also knew he could not get a 'preliminary hearing' or 'plea bargaining session' with God. He had no rights at all before God:  not his baptism, nor offers of money, nor religious practices, nor rituals, nor rosaries, nor sacraments or his so-called "good works". A culture of (self) recommendation did not work in the Kingdom of God. Luther rightly knew that no one could gain for him an audience with God - not the saints, nor Madonna, nor priests, nor bishops, not even the Pope. Luther knew the Word of God:  he was not fooled by cheap tricks invented by human religions, seeking to boast, before God.

Luther, continuing to study the Word of God found the answer to the question: "Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord". His response could be summed up in one word: "Grace". It is the grace of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ as a personal Lord and Saviour. Psalm 4, at some point, introduces the image of a "King of Glory" who enters triumphantly. "Lift up your heads O gates, and be lifted up O ancient doors that the King of glory may come in" (Psalm 4 v 7). This text was applied prophetically to the triumphal entry of the Saviour Jesus into Jerusalem, shortly before his arrest, suffering, death and resurrection.

Jesus enters triumphantly, like what - a celebrity or President? No. Riding on a donkey like an ordinary poor man. Jesus is God with us - the God who did not stay in His unapproachable palace, but in the midst of humanity, to meet us there, where we are located. Is this not wonderful news, the Good News?
Of course, Luther had previously cultivated a false image of Christ. He had thought of Christ as a merciless judge. He had read the New Testament and he understood the gospel in these terms: "The righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith; as it is written. The righteous shall live by faith"(Romans 1:17). The Gospel had revealed to Luther "God's justice" and he thought that "justice" meant the perfect righteousness which man would need to get close to God. Like Paul, Luther knew this justice could never be achieved. This is why at his heart, as human beings in their natural state do - Luther hated God and Christ. But one day, the true meaning of this text came to him like wonderful, illuminating light. The justice of which we speak is not ours - but the righteousness of Christ - which we are given as a gift, by the grace and mercy of God.

Dress Code for Heaven - wedding clothes
No one is worthy to approach God at all, not even the so-called great and good, so not even her Majesty, The Queen. There is a heavenly dress code that even Buckingham Palace cannot satisfy. God manifests His compassion for humans, who are all distorted and corrupted by sin, by sending the Saviour Jesus Christ. That righteousness that no one could ever achieve themselves or earns for themselves is open to anyone who reaches out towards it, receives it confidently, in faith. Scripture speaks of God's justice as a garment. Heaven has a dress code. As in the parable of Jesus, to enter the presence of God requires being dressed in a white dress, immaculately.This robe or dress comes from God, in Christ. It is the dress of Jesus Christ. No one can enter the presence of God, without this white dress. If someone wants to counterfeit it, he or she will be thrown out.
Jesus says in this parable about the Wedding Banquet in Heaven: "But when the King came in to look at the guests, He saw there a man who who had no wedding garment and He said to him "Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?" And he was speechless. The the King said to the servants "Blind him and go and cast him out into the outer darkness. In that place will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 22: 11-15).The same happens as the Father welcomes the prodigal son who returns home repentant after having turned his back on his father and wasted all his father’s generous resources. "But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe and put it on him, put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet" (Lk. 15:22).

The price of an audience with God
Martin Luther and, with him, all those who discover the true message of the wonderful, enlightening truth which is the Gospel, discover what the Apostle Paul in Romans announces. After describing the tragic situation of human guilt unsurpassed, corruption and injustice, "None is righteous, no, not one" (Rom. 3:10) he says: "But now, the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law although the Law and Prophets bear witness to it” (Romans 3:21). Now a righteousness has been made manifest which is unattainable by any human creature (it does not matter what we try to do). To this, all Scripture bears witness.

What is this justice? "The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all for there is no distinction" (Romans 3.22). This is the righteousness of Christ. His death and what it won is the gift to all those who, without distinction, receive him in faith, giving up their claims of self-righteousness.
In fact, says the Apostle: "... for all have fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3. 23).  All are unworthy for an audience with  God, as we are, and to receive anything from Him.

"... I am justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3.24). Yes, what none of us can obtain by any means imaginable, God, His mercy makes to us as a gift. Jesus Christ was sent for this purpose: "Whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness because in His divine forbearance he had passed over former sins "(25).He , Christ, is the only one who could pay the price for our salvation, the price of our audience and acceptance before a Holy God.

Indeed, Christ came "... to show His righteousness at the present time so that he might be just and the justifier of him who has faith in Jesus" (Romans 3.26). Christ the righteous gives the believing sinner His righteousness and covered with His justice, a justice that is not his, that did not belong to him nor, the believer can appear before God - can gain an audience with God.

Concluding, then, the Apostle says: "What then becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of (good) works? No, but by the law of faith" (Romans 3. 27). Nobody can ever boast of anything before God, nothing that he or she has been able to achieve with his 'own' effort - moral, intellectual, athletic, artistic, religious or social ability, even by faith, which, in any case, is a gift from God. Paul says triumphantly: "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the (Jewish) law” (28).

This is what in technical terms is called 'justification by faith', the act by which, through faith in Jesus Christ, the sinner is declared by God 'right', in His eyes. Only in this way will we then be able, gradually, to be purified and put straight inside (which brings great comfort and relief from existential discomfort and anxieties about life). Without this, a good and acceptable human being is just wishful and deceptive (self) delusion. 

A gospel to proclaim with courage 
Here is the answer to the Psalm which is relevant to every conscientious person: "Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?". "He who has clean hands and a pure heart; who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully" through the righteousness of Christ.

Who can be considered such? No one who has not first received immaculate justice, the dress of Christ, which is the only requirement for an audience with God, who will never will give us an audience otherwise, or hear our prayers. It is the Good News we must proclaim with force. The world, with its self-righteous claims and religious rituals in many ways seeks to silence this truth. But this is the Gospel forcefully proclaimed by the true followers of Christ and Protestant Reformation which should never be compromised, for any reason -  even the most seemingly noble. It's about having the courage to be exclusivist, to go against the current trend of 'the mixed salad' of those who say that 'anything goes'. Here is the essential meaning of the expressions that characterize the faith of every true Christian:

1) Only by grace - Only the grace and mercy of God can make us worthy to be in His presence, no human is entitled in this own right.
2) Only through Christ - Because it is the only Saviour Jesus Christ who lived, died and rose again for our salvation. This work He has not shared with anyone, nor with other human character, such as saints, nor with the supposed virtues of religious rituals or ceremonies, nor with religious institutions, though they boast of it.
3) Only by faith - Because there's nothing we can do to achieve the right to be admitted before God, but only the confident and passive acceptance of what God has done in Christ.
4) By Scripture alone - Because the knowledge of the truth is in the Bible and nothing and no one else in the world. Only the Bible can offer the rule of faith and every work that is pleasing to God. This is because it is the revealed word of God.
5) Only for the glory of God - Because the glory of human salvation cannot be ascribed to any other thing or person.

Through this Gospel, anyone can go now to God for this gift of His person and His wonderful love and obtain an audience with the Most High.

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