Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent

December 1, 2019

 

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, our strength, and our redeemer.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

 

Good morning! And, being the first Sunday in Advent and the first day of our Christian liturgical calendar, I can also say: “Happy Liturgical New Year’s!”

 

Our liturgical calendar with its seasons, feasts, vigils, days of fasting, is important to our Christian life: it is a sanctification of time itself, marking our days, setting them apart, reclaiming them for God. It makes important themes, spiritual lessons, and events in the larger, historical story of God’s people a real and present reality in our own daily lives; it centers our lives around the life of Christ.

 

This calendar we begin to pray our way through today moves around two pivotal events in redemptive history:  Christmas and Easter. In the same way we observe Lent to prepare for Easter and the Lord’s Resurrection, we observe a holy season of Advent to prepare for Christmas and the power, awe, and mystery of his Incarnation. Advent has been observed in the Western Church since the 4th century, and it has always had the purpose of cultivating penitence as well as the necessary liturgical preparation for Christmas in its themes and narratives. Advent expanded in the 8th century when it took on the secondary theme of anticipation for the Second Coming.

 

Today in the West, Advent is not quite the season of fasting it once was. But it is important for us to recall that before we can be ready for the Joy of Emmanuel (God with us), we must be once again struck with awe and fear at just what it means to have the Second Person of the Holy Trinity tabernacled among us. In other words, before Bethlehem and Jerusalem, we must stop for a moment in Bethphage, by the Mount of Olives where Jesus wept over doomed Jerusalem and where eventually after his earthly ministry was finished, he ascended to the right hand of the father and sent out the church in the great commission. That is where our Prayer Book begins our yearly journey today.

 

Our Collect this morning - which we will be reciting throughout Advent - perfectly captures the important comparisons we will hear in Advent and really throughout all of the liturgical year. Listen again: Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal...

 

Cast away, put upon; light, darkness; now mortal life, the last day life immortal; great humility, glorious majesty; to visit us, to judge.

 

Similarly, Advent should cultivate in us two equally appropriate but opposite reactions: Joy and Awe.

 

We begin Advent and our liturgical year with an exhortation from St. Paul to wake up and get ready and a gospel lesson in which we encounter Jesus coming triumphantly to Jerusalem as the long-awaited Messiah - but also as Prophet and Judge. St. Matthew presents Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem in the spirit of two prophets: Zachariah and Jeremiah, to two very different effects.

 

Jesus is the Messiah - the anointed one; the Son of David. As gentiles living in modern times, that can be a difficult thing to wrap our heads around. When Jesus sets himself on a donkey to ride into Jerusalem, we get the idea that it’s about humility, but St. Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is claiming to be divinely chosen as king, a clear-as-day claim to the throne of David. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, not a war horse like a conqueror. And instead of being visibly anointed with oil as a king, St. Matthew a few chapters later tells us he was anointed for burial.

 

Seeing him upon the donkey, the people instantly recognized its messianic importance, shouting Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the same words we say as we welcome Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. In 1 Kings, David declared his son Solomon to be the true king, denying his upstart older brother and sent the younger Solomon to his anointing and the throne riding on a donkey.

 

Zechariah prophesied that Jerusalem’s new king would come again on a donkey because, chapter 9 verse 10: “I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations”. In other words, the Messiah came to bring peace to all nations. No wonder the large crowd witnessing his entry would so filled with joy.

 

Upon entering Jerusalem, however, we see that Jesus also came to pronounce a terrifying prophetic judgement, in the spirit of Jeremiah. Long ago at Solomon’s temple, Jeremiah had warned the leaders of the coming siege by Babylon while delivering his own famous temple sermon. Jeremiah pointed to all the social injustice and idolatry in Judah and said, “Has this house which bears the Lord’s name become a den of robbers? Look what God did to Shiloh in the northern kingdom, its destruction at the hands of Assyria - the same will happen here.” And not only for Jerusalem, but many of the surrounding nations. Now Jesus enters the temple and quotes Jeremiah, bringing to mind the judgement God had brought on Jerusalem before at the hands of their enemies. Just a few chapters later, Jesus would weep over Jerusalem, knowing full well the fate that awaited it at the end of a generation: its destruction at the hands of a new Babylon, the Roman empire. As the one Zarachiach prophezied, the coming of Jesus means peace for all nations; but as the fulfillment of Jeremiah, it means judgement of all nations. Joy and Awe both contained within this one Messiah.

 

Thinking on Christ’s second coming when he will “come again in glory to judge both the quick and the dead”, what should be our Advent response?

 

In our lesson from Romans this morning, Paul writes: “...You know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

 

Wake up, Paul is saying. Do you see what time it is? You’ve slept in. The dark age is over. The age to come has already begun. You’re not just waiting for Christ to come back; his Incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension have already clearly declared to you that we are living in his kingdom. I love this verse: “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” What a great thing to remember as we start the new liturgical year: we’re that much closer to our hope.

 

Paul is also encouraging us to cast off what’s going to slow us down, our sin, and instead put on the armor of light and also to put on Jesus. Even though the night is gone and it’s time to wake up, it’s still a little dark out there and we must be ready for the spiritual battle we will find waiting for us.

 

Walk properly, Paul writes. And in Ephesians he put it this way: “I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called”. What have we been called to? We’ve been called to follow Jesus. So Paul - who loved his clothing analogies as much as his sports ones - has a final exhortation for us: to put on Jesus. We are to follow in Christ’s perfect example, and not the example of Esau from the reading we had at morning prayer today, who gave up his birthright to sate his fleshly hunger.

 

If we do this, then Christ will be our strength against the temptations we face this upcoming year, and he is our righteousness through the judgement that is yet to come after. That is the salvation which is one year closer to us today, nearer than when we first believed.

 

Wake up, cast off, put on, and walk properly. If you think about it, these align well to our liturgical calendar. From Advent to the Gesima Sundays we are being called to wake up, hear and be aware of this new world Christ has ushered in. From Lent through Easter will be a time for increased spiritual discipline as we cast off those sins and vices that are not worthy of our calling. And finally, in the long season from Pentecost through Trinity Tide, we will don green again, a time for spiritual growth as we strive to put on Christ more and more each day and cultivate spiritual virtues so that we can walk properly as in the daytime. 

 

We begin our new Christian year in a penitential season. We should want to do better this year than last, sin less and grow in Christ. In the secular world there is of course a somewhat similar impulse: the New Year’s resolution: the earnest decision to be better in the coming year by doing more of the good stuff and doing less of whatever is unhealthy. However much we believe in our resolutions on January 1, it is estimated that only about 8% of Americans keep their new year's resolution.

 

This morning I’d like to challenge us and say that perhaps by the power of the Holy Ghost, we can commit ourselves to a Liturgical New Year’s resolution. Let us take these Advent weeks to wake up and appreciate the Joy and Awe at Christ’s coming and put that into real spiritual practice. Let us dedicate ourselves to examine what the besetting sins are in our lives and commit ourselves prayerfully this month, to cast them off finally, knowing that in order to do so we will need to also put on those better saintly virtues we are lacking.

 

You don’t have to wait until Lent to make a commitment to your own life of prayer and discipline. The basics are pretty simple: weekly mass, daily morning and evening prayer, and then your own private and personal devotions. A resolution this year might also be the study of scripture, almsgiving, or any sacrifice of your time, talent, and treasure for the coming of the Kingdom. May I also encourage us this year to take advantage of the sacrament of penance, making a confession, a practice that is sadly lacking in our parish. In addition to all of its other benefits, regular confession throughout the year, especially in Advent, Lent, and at least halfway through Trinity, can help you look back and see just how far you’ve come in your walk with Christ.  

 

Any of these resolutions would certainly be worth our time and effort this year. In fact, nothing else comes close.

 

On that point, I’d like to close with a short passage I recently read in a novel, The Power and the Glory, written by Graham Greene, one of the best English novelists of the 20th century. The novel tells the story of two priests during the persecution of the Catholic church in the Mexican state of Tabasco. One priest gives up the faith, complying with the laws that he must get married and that he cannot wear the garments of a priest; this reprobate won’t even pray with a suffering family at the death of their child. The other priest, known only as the Whisky Priest, is also a disappointing priest: an alcoholic with an estranged child out of wedlock, and is quite the coward. But he continues to minister there in Tabasco as a priest, preaching the word and administering the sacraments. He’s unaware of the positive effect he has on the lives around him, and would never consider himself a martyr. But at the end he knowingly walks into a trap to offer last rites to a wanted criminal and is then himself arrested and sentenced to death.

 

On the morning of his execution, Graham writes:

 

Tears poured down his face: he was not at the moment afraid of damnation - even the fear of pain was in the background. He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him at that moment that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted - to be a saint.

 

Brothers and sisters, this year, let us live in the Joy and Awe of Advent. The night is far gone, the day is at hand, and our salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.

 

In the Name..