With Help from John Calvin, John Knox and a Few Others

With Help from John Calvin, John Knox and a Few Others
August 11, 2019
Passage: Habakkuk 2:1-4, Habakkuk 2:20, 2 Timothy 4:1-8

"The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!" is a directive to the Choir Director. It is highly doubtful that the Rev. MacLeod, the pastor of St. Andrews when this magnificent structure was dedicated on January 12, 1890, 129 years, 8 months ago used that directive to scream instructions to the organist, Mr. Pauline (not to be confused with "Christine" who like myself was not present on that inaugural day of worship.) What is the message and why has that strange directive adorned our sanctuary for so long? Actually, it is a scripture from the Book of Habakkuk in the Old Testament. Habakkuk was a minor prophet, like Joel, Amos and Hosea. Unlike most of the other prophets whose #1 task was to provide warnings to that their lives were in danger of God’s wrath and judgment based on their sins. Habakkuk had a different message for an entirely different purpose. "The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!" are the closing words of a book written not to lambast people for their sin, but instead to challenge God for God’s seeming absence and inactivity when people were in such dire straits. God was markedly absent while Habakkuk’s people suffered incredibly. Habakkuk implored of God, "Why must good people suffer?" "Why do unworthy people profit?" Habakkuk just could not understand God’s lack of justice. But prior to the end of Habakkuk’s book he remembers, "God’s faithful would be kept safe in times of trouble, sorrow and humiliation.

I wonder if the message from Habakkuk to the congregation at St. Andrew’s over these many years is a personal message, "Hardships come only for a season, but in time God delivers God’s people. Cue the orchestra, Choir Director, "God has provided strength in hard times and will be our hope for ages to come." God is in His Temple and this has been his Temple for the ages.

What has been the story of St. Andrew’s during seasons when her people were unsure if there was any hope left that she would make it?

What has been the witness of countless generations who, like Habakkuk, look around and wonder where God is/has been when the wrong people win and the weak and vulnerable are trampled upon again and again?

It is the story of St. Andrew’s, and especially the parts of the story in which your own narrative becomes a factor that we turn our attention to today and the weeks ahead.

What does it mean that Presbyterians first came to Canada in 1939 after being sent by the Presbyterian Church of Scotland? They represented Dutch Calvinists with roots in the Dutch Reformed Church as well as those who immigrated from Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and America. The early Presbyterians began small, in 1861 with Rev. John Hall, a missionary from Ireland and the Ireland Presbyterian Church who held the first Presbyterian service on the Island not far from here on Government Street with 30 in attendance. Soon the first church split occurred during the tenure of their 2nd pastor when a small group of trustees secretly signed the deed over to themselves, contrary to Presbyterian polity that the church owned the property, as opposed to individuals. The split occurred between two factions - the Scots and the Others – those who made up the church of Scotland and those who came from other groups. The Scots continued as St. Andrew’s with the church up the street on Gordon and Courtney streets. In the 22 years in that early version of St. Andrew’s, they faced the criticism that $11K was too much to pay for a building, lost a pastor who journeyed to Scotland to raise funds to lower the church debt, but who in turn, never returned to Victoria. The leaving of two ministers who returned to Scotland, a crippling depression and bad roads finally reminded the Kirk that, indeed, "God’s faithful would be kept safe in times of trouble, sorrow and humiliation." The new organ, however, installed in March, 1881 lifted spirits considerably and a move from the Presbyterian Church of Scotland to the Canadian Presbyterian, as well as following the call of Rev. Macleod from Toronto, membership finally began to soar. Rev. Macleod, a dynamic preacher, packed them in with sermons of hellfire and brimstone and it was soon time for a new chapter in the life of St. Andrew’s.

Is your story anywhere similar to the story of Habakkuk, ready to lambast God for his inaction and seeming complacence? Perhaps you identify more with the early St. Andrew’s, fledging at times, caught between a wing and a prayer and just hoping to be able to somehow catch a wave that would take you to smooth sailing.

Presbyterians are said to be Reformed, yet "Always Reforming". The Latin phrase was first used in the 1670s by a Reformed preacher in the Netherlands, "ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda." That is, the church, having been reformed, must continue to be reformed according to God’s Word. A Reformed church constantly examines herself to ensure that she is indeed faithful to that Word of God—and reforms herself when she has become deformed. The Reformers never wanted anything more than to 1) reject what was in error, 2) sharpen what was unclear, and 3) retain everything else.

Unfortunately, most of us have long forgotten what the Reformation was all about. The Scottish universities in the 1500’s were inferior compared to those of continental Europe. During the first half of the sixteenth century Scottish political history was dominated by the fear of being annexed by England on the one hand and being conquered by France on the other. The social and political climate caused the Reformation in Scotland progress at a very slow pace. Not so in France during the early years of young law student, John Calvin. Early in his life he began to question his faith and the church. Calvin described his agonizing misery, "condemning his past life, not without groans and tears, and prayed not to be judged for abandoning Scripture in his pursuit of faith. He thanked God for delivering him." This did not mean that his life did not continue to be troubled as Calvin spoke vehemently of the need for reform in the Roman Catholic Church. Rather than honored, he was threatened and spent a year in hiding. Eventually he found his way to Germany where he pastored 400-500 in his church in Strasbourg. He preached twice on Sunday and three times during the week. His sermons lasted more than an hour and he never used notes. In one year, he delivered 200 sermons on Deuteronomy and became a stark defender of Christianity. Calvin's school in Geneva came to be known as, "the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on earth since the days of the apostles." His books and sermons continue to be formative for all looking for a deeper understanding of the true meaning of a reformed faith. John Calvin influenced scores of young theologians during his lifetime. The one we know best is John Knox, from Scotland. Calvin and Knox first met in 1554. Knox had taken refuge in Switzerland during the reign of Catholic ("Bloody") Mary Tudor. Calvin described Knox as a "brother … laboring energetically for the faith." When Knox pastored the English congregation in Geneva, he soaked in the orderly Protestant theology of Calvin’s famous work, Institutes. Thus Calvin, via Knox, gave Scotland the rudiments of its Presbyterian system of church government, its Bible-centered love of learning, its concern for strict morality, and its ceremonial, sermon-centered worship.
Knox was ordained to the priesthood in the Catholic church when he was only 23, but he did not become active in the reform movement until he was well over 40 years of age. When Knox had his first exposure to Reformed doctrine, he was gripped with the feeling that the church he served was contaminated and corrupt and led him to confess, "It pleased God to call me from the puddle of Papistry." For the next two years, Knox devoted himself to the meticulous study of Scripture as he diligently searched for a deeper knowledge of the truth.

In 1557 a group of Protestant nobles, with the guidance of John Knox, pledged to make Scotland a Protestant nation. Knox risked everything for the sake of principles. The celebration of the Mass was totally abolished in Scotland in August 1560. During this period, the Catholic church owned more than half the real estate of Scotland and gathered an annual income of almost eighteen times that of the Scottish crown. John Knox was above everything a preacher of God’s Word. He constantly referred to his preaching as ‘blowing the Master’s trumpet.’ John Knox was Regarded as ‘the Father of the Scottish Reformation’ and ‘the Founder of the Scottish Protestant Church,’ If Martin Luther was the hammer of the Reformation and John Calvin the pen, John Knox was the trumpet.
It would be true to say that Knox’s preaching proved to be the critical turning points in the course of the Reformation in Scotland. John Knox could make Mary, Queen of Scots tremble with even a polished little essay? John Knox provoked rulers, incited riots, and inspired a reformation in Scotland. According to an English ambassador, he put more life into his hearers from the pulpit in an hour than the blast of six hundred trumpets. John Knox, the thundering Scotsman, as he is sometimes nicknamed, was mightily used to bring about the reformation in Scotland. His ministerial labours had been stormy, but by the grace of God he was a man of dauntless courage. In genius, learning, and ideas he may have been inferior to Luther and Calvin, but in boldness, strength, and character he was fully their equal. John Knox died on November 1572 while preaching to his people at St. Giles where he had been physically carried into the pulpit. He died, wearied of life and longing for heaven at the probable age of 67, peacefully without a struggle. Clergy, nobles and the people alike lamented his death. The last words of this fiery man were: "I never hated people, although I had to bring the judgment of God to them. I only hated their sins, and I tried with all my strength to win their souls for Christ." The epitaph on his grave was: Here lies a man who never feared the face of a man, John Knox, the unyielding reformer of Scotland. His death, however was barely noticed and it took 120 years before Presbyterian thought and practice would be firmly established.

Earlier I said that "Presbyterians "Reformed, yet "Always Reforming" and so with the backdrop of this morning, I offer a test case.

Calvin conducted the Sunday service from the Communion table, entering the pulpit only to preach the sermon. He followed that procedure because of his staunch belief that the preaching of God’s Word ought to be followed by Communion, which he believed should be celebrated weekly. In Scotland, however, the Sunday service was read from the pulpit, perhaps for acoustical reasons. Nevertheless, the pulpit and "the holy table"—together—were the most prominent furnishings in the Scottish churches and served as the instruments of God who speaks and gives to His people, and invites them, before all else, to hear His Word, and to receive forgiveness. That, chiefly, underscores the meaning of worship according to the Reformed tradition. Knox’s initial beliefs and writings called for a monthly celebration of the Holy Communion but that was soon overcome by the first Book of Discipline (1560) which declared that "four tymes in the year" was "sufficient" for the Lord’s Supper. (namely, the first Sundays in March, June, September and December were arbitrarily appointed. This drift away from the teaching of Calvin, who encouraged weekly Communion, was caused by the shortage of ministers in Scotland and by the popular reluctance to receive the sacrament so often.

"Reformed, yet "Always Reforming" might be challenged if we continue to cling to communion only 4 times a year based on a practice adopted in Scotland 460 years ago solely because there was a shortage of clergy to serve communion. Would it not cause us to rethink Jesus’ admonition when we come to the table "As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup…" if indeed it is not very often that we come to the table. For future discussions? When Paul wrote to the young minister, we might be reminded of a similar relationship between teacher and student with Calvin and Knox. Basically Paul, the teacher, told Timothy, the student, things aren’t going to get any easier, "But you—keep your eye on what you’re doing; accept the hard times along with the good; keep the Message alive; do a thorough job as God’s servant. And then Paul said about himself, "You take over. I’m I must leave you soon. I’ve run my race faithfully right to the finish, believed all the way. All that’s left now is the shouting—God’s applause!"

It is similar to what Habakkuk told his people (and what St. Andrew’s engraved on it’s Kirk archway, "The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!" Through good times and bad, through bankruptcies and divorces, with church schisms and splits, crazy clergy and erratic elders, God has never wavered, never quit, never given up. God has been our help in ages past and will guide us into the ages to come. Today we remember the "Kirk that faith built" – and why that was, so that we may continue to build, and so our faith may remain.