Sunday, December 30, 2012

The First Sunday after Christmas Day

The sermon at St. Andrew's this past Sunday, 
by the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright, Priest Associate.

The prologue to John's gospel is a traditional Christmas text, and its theme
of God becoming Man, the Word being made Flesh, is a major part of
Christmas--‘veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity’ and
so on. (Although theologians have pointed out that 'veiled in' hardly does
justice to 'made'--but that's for another time.) It's the classic text,
almost, for the Christian doctrine that says Jesus is fully divine but also
fully human. 

But that easy summary of New Testament teaching about Jesus
doesn't mean we don't have questions about what that means for Jesus's
experience of Himself, and how whatever it does mean affects the way we
understand the things He teaches--especially when we read about Him being
hungry and thirsty, tired, and on at least one occasion angry enough to make
a public scene. Can God be tired and irritable, even when He is made man?
What about the passages in which we read that His soul shrank from the
ordeal of the crucifixion, and that He begged to be spared that; didn’t He
know, we wonder, that He was divine, that death could not hold Him, that
there was nothing to fear?

Fully human and fully divine; these aren’t just two different things, but in
some respects two mutually exclusive things, and it’s no surprise that in
the history of Christianity people have tended to emphasise one and ignore
the other. No theologian has ever explained how they can be reconciled in a
way that satisfies all the other theologians. 

The truth is that it just isn’t possible for us to answer all the questions that arise in our minds as we consider a being both fully divine, the creator of the universe, and fully human, born as a baby and raised in a poor family in a primitive society.

But I’ve found that if, as we read the things He did and said, we ask two
questions, we hear God’s voice to us in both sides of this truth, even if we
still can’t fully understand and explain it. No matter what passage we read,
the best approach is to ask what it tells us about Jesus as God, and what it
tells us about Jesus as human being. And the answers to both questions, in
my experience at least, strengthen our faith, and increase our ability to
live according to it.

One of my favorite examples of this is from another passage that is often
part of the Christmas season, Luke's account of the child Jesus in the
Temple. We won't hear that passage this year, because it'll be trumped by
Epiphany, but it's a familiar story and I think it will help us see how the
theme of Jesus's simultaneous divinity and humanity are at the heart of the
New Testament's account of His life and ministry.

You'll remember that when Jesus was twelve years old He was taken by His
parents to a Passover feast in Jerusalem. He is approaching the year in
which He would go through His bar-mitzvah and become a full member of the
chosen people, a 'son of the commandment', which is what the phrase
bar-mitzvah means. Many Rabbis in those days recommended that a boy do some
special study before his bar-mitzvah as part of his preparation for it, and
that may well be the reason why He was present. Passover in Jerusalem is
special: even today, Jewish families end their Passover by saying 'next year
in Jerusalem'. Unless they are in Jerusalem!

There are lots of things that make Jerusalem special in the eyes of the
Jewish people, and one of them, in Jesus’s time and still today, is that it
is where the great Jewish Bible teachers are. Jesus would have been taught
the Bible by his local Rabbi in Nazareth, and he must have been a good
student and learned a lot, but the teachers in the Temple in Jerusalem were
the best. 

The Old Testament tells us the sort of teachers they were: 'they
were well versed in the Law of Moses', and 'learned in matters concerning
the commands and decrees of the Lord'--Bible teachers, teaching especially
from the books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible. In the usage of
the time, to be learned in the Law was not just knowing the commandments,
but knowing everything in those books of the Bible, and being able to apply
them to the human condition. The trip is an opportunity for Jesus, still a
child, to ask questions of the best Bible teachers in the world.

They ask him questions, too; that was the standard way of teaching in those
days. You didn't wait till the end of the course to give an exam, you asked
students questions as you taught, to make sure that they were getting it.
It's interesting that these great teachers are amazed at His understanding
and His answers. Think about that word 'amazement'; that means He did more
than just give the right answer. If a student gives a teacher the right
answer, he is pleased, not amazed; the only thing that could have amazed
them about Jesus's answers was that Jesus was showing not only a detailed
knowledge of Scripture, but an ability to apply it and explain it, far
deeper than they expected, far deeper than they could imagine in a boy of
His age. Perhaps even deeper than their own; perhaps He taught them, even at
twelve years old.

You can see already the two sides of His nature, the divine and the human,
at work, can't you? As a human being, He is studying and learning from God's
word, and applying Himself diligently to that task; as the Word made flesh,
He is teaching something new even to the greatest teachers in the world.
Even at twelve years old.

The story suggests that even at twelve, He knew He was divine. Remember the
interaction between Jesus and His mother. Jesus had been so absorbed in His
encounter with these teachers, that He had stayed behind when the Nazareth
pilgrims set out on the journey home. At first, He had not been missed--but
this is not parental neglect, let me assure you. His family would not have
made this journey alone; it’s clear that they were part of a larger group of
people from Nazareth celebrating Passover in Jerusalem. On a pilgrimage of
this kind, it was usual for the women and the younger children to travel
separately from the men and the older boys. The two groups could be as much
as a mile apart, and only at the end of the day, when they gathered to eat
the evening meal and camp for the night, did they come together. 

At 12, Jesus was part child and part young man; no doubt Joseph thought He was
travelling with the women and the younger children, and Mary thought He was
travelling with Joseph and the other men, and they didn't miss Him till they
stopped for the night. Then they discovered He was not in either group, and
Mary and Joseph turned back to Jerusalem to look for Him. And they found Him
still in the Temple, still discussing these things with the great teachers.
Mary blurts out, 'Why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have
been searching for you in great anxiety.' And it's in His reply that He
makes it clear that He knew Who His real father was: not Joseph, but the
Holy Spirit, God Himself. 'Didn't you know I had to be in my Father’s
house?' My father wasn't searching for me, I was with Him in His house,
Jesus implies. Luke tells us that they didn’t understand what He meant, but
Jesus referred to God as His father so often once He began His ministry that
anyone familiar with the gospel accounts of that ministry can easily see
that He is here affirming His own unique relationship with God. As the Son
of God, it was crystal clear to Him already. Even at twelve.

Yet He is also, as Jesus the human being, learning it from God's word. It
certainly amazes me to think that at 12 years old, Jesus knew that He was
God’s only-begotten Son. Even more amazing, to me, is to see that what He
knew in His divine nature, He was in His human nature learning the same way
we learn that He is God's son, by studying God's word. That was what the
teachers in the Temple taught: God's word in the Old Testament. When a child
asked questions, they answered those questions by quoting Scripture. When
they asked a child questions to see if he had learned his lessons, they
expected the child to quote Scripture in his answers. 

During those three days that Jesus had sat at their feet, they must have explored many different passages. And because it was the Passover, they would have read
especially those that explained the significance of the Passover sacrifice,
the lamb that was slain so that God's people might live. In three days they
must also have gone on to passages that talked about the Messiah that God
would send to free His people from their sins so that they might live
eternally. I'm sure they looked at the same passages that Jesus would later
show His disciples, on the road to Emmaus, when He explained to them in all
the Scriptures all the things concerning Himself. It's Luke who tells us
that story, too, at the end of his gospel, completing the theme that he
begins in this passage at the beginning.

At Christmas we celebrate the Word made flesh, God become man. The miracles
surrounding Jesus's birth tell part of the story, other passages tell of His
maturing as a man, learning more about God’s plan for Him, a story of

But of course God didn't only have a plan for Jesus, He has a plan for
everyone. He has a plan for each of us here today. The way to live a
meaningful life, a life that satisfies at every level, is to live according
to God's plan. And the way we learn what God's plan is for each of us is to
follow Jesus's human example. We are not God, and we need not expect to know
divine truth simply by thinking about it, or experiencing emotions about it.
We are human, and we can only learn divine truth the same way the human
Jesus did--He showed us the way to do it. 

We are usually taught the basic truths about God and man from our parents, or from others who love us, the basic truths about sin and salvation that apply to everybody; and then we go on to ask, as the boy Jesus must have done, 'what do these things mean in my life, what is God's plan for me?' And we too discover the answer as we read and think about God's word, as we ask about the parts of it that aren't immediately clear, as we talk to others more knowledgeable about scripture
than we are. As we follow Jesus's example, even the example He set as a
12-year old.

If the possibility of new life in Christ is God's Christmas gift to us, the
Bible is the instruction manual that comes with that new life, that shows us
how to put it all together and to enjoy it forever. I still have a couple of
Christmas presents that I haven't yet read, or worn, or played with, but
God's gift to me isn’t one of them. 

I've opened His gift to me, and I've put it on, clothed myself with it, as Paul loves to put it. I'm reading the manual again and again, to make sure I enjoy God's gift for all that it is worth. I'm following the example Jesus set when He was 12, and the instructions He gave in His adult ministry. If God's gift to you is still
not set up and plugged in, let me urge you to read the manual. When you see
all that this gift can do in your life, you'll soon be ready to discover
God's plan for you, and to put it into action.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve

Glories stream from heaven afar, heavenly hosts sing alleluia; Christ the Savior is born.

 In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Good evening, and grace and peace, and the blessings of this night and of the season, and into the New Year.  Grace and peace.  Christ the Savior is born.

Detail, Nativity Window
South Transept, St. Andrew's Church
Highland Park, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Clara Miller Burd

It was in the moon of wintertime,” the poet Jesse Edgar Middleton wrote, “when all the birds had fled.”

And we would know the season perhaps at a sidewise angle this year, as the Shakespearian “winter of our discontent.”  The jingle bells and glittering lights of the holiday festivities doing their best under the shadow of fiscal cliff, and a world shaken by war and rumors of war, near and far.  But perhaps this year anyway their best isn’t quite good enough. 

There will be signs, Jesus said in the reading from Luke appointed for the Second Sunday of Advent, as we heard them in church here a couple of weeks ago.

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.  And perhaps we feel something of all that.  Signs of something. 

We survived the “Mayan Apocalypse,” I’m glad to say. But that doesn’t mean the times don’t feel somehow out of joint, even so.  Not feeling so sure we can count on congress and the President to get it all sorted out for us.

Nightly news from Afghanistan and Pakistan and Somalia and the Congo and the West Bank and the western forests of Burma.  “Man’s inhumanity.”  As we would hold in prayer every mom and dad who has tried to come through to this Christmas while trying to answer a child’s asked and unasked questions about the children of Sandy Hook School during the last week.  Social media and the newspapers and radio and television shows full of advice.  Much of it probably helpful.  But none of it enough. 

Some hard edge of the reality of this world we’d hoped to hold back, at least for a little while.  But sometimes it all gets away from us.  Things we’d rather not talk about, rather not think about.

“In the moon of wintertime, when all the birds had fled.”  So for Mary and Joseph.  Dislocated and distressed.  A shadowed past, a precarious present, and an uncertain future.  Far off on the margins.  In a cave behind a boarding house, too far from home.  And that newborn in the manger as subject to Herod’s sword as any of the little boys born in Bethlehem that year.  A Christmas of dreams and nightmares for them, Mary and Joseph, I’m sure tossing and turning, whatever hour or two of sleep they might be able to find in the midst of things.

How we long for a savior!  How we long for a savior!  Sometimes we get along by pretending we can handle all this ourselves.  But maybe not so much, this December.

 And yet, here we are tonight.  Christmas.  The quiet and beautiful church, soft candlelight, the familiar hymns and carols.  The old story.  The old, old story.  How many times have we heard it now?  Some of our usual strategies and defenses not working this year.  Feeling for the moment anyway a certain vulnerability.  Touch the pause button.  Give just a minute here to catch our breath, and we’ll get back in the game.  A sense of caution.  Hesitation.  Momentarily not much in reserve.  Just let it come for us: the old story.  In the moon of wintertime.

And so yes, Isaiah.  Yes, and yes, and yes.  All the old words, for all the old world we live in: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace, that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation.” 

What we desire to hear, with all our heart.  When the children in C.S. Lewis first discover Narnia they are told they have come to a world where it is “always winter but never Christmas.”  And it feels like familiar territory, to them and to us.  Wanting it, with all our hearts.  A yearning.

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings . . . of Christmas.

Because it is the news of Christmas that is before us this night.  Not news that things will all get better if only we try harder, make ourselves smarter, elect the right leaders, pass better laws.  Which of course we try and try and try.  But sometimes all that trying just doesn’t seem to get us where we need to go.

News of Christmas.   News that God is God.  And that the Baby in the Manger, Jesus himself, flesh and blood, asleep on the hay now and with the whole story of his life ahead of him--he is Emmanuel, God with us.  God with us. God for us.  In the Manger, on the Cross—with us, and for us.  Overturning the power of sin and death, pushing back at Evil and winning the victory.  Calling us to himself. 

I love to tell the story, the old, old story of Jesus and his love.  To hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the only news of all the news that ever was, that is good news.  Not wishful thinking.  Not poetic symbol.  But true from top to bottom, from the beginning to the end.  From the Manger to the Cross to the Empty Tomb, and to this night.  Here and now.  Good tidings of good.  We can trust that.  Stake our lives on it

As for St. Paul in the reading appointed for the Office of Christmas Eve: Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

Which is the Good News.  Which we can be a part of, which we can lift up, however dark the night, however bleak the midwinter of our world.  To be transformed ourselves and as we carry that good news to become beautiful—to become radiant and beautiful, even as he is beautiful.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.  God of God, light of light, very God of very God.  Which we can be a part of: turning from all the powers of wickedness that rebel against God, and choosing instead to tell the story of Christmas.  Not only with our lips, but in our lives.  Answering the great baptismal questions not simply with our words, but every day: Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?  Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?

It is his grace and love that can make a difference, here in this world. In thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.  Because it is his grace and love that is the perfect expression of God’s intention for us, of God’s future for us, which we can begin to live right here and right now.  Because it is his grace and love that is true Christmas.

May there be for us in this Christmas the compassionate heart of Jesus himself, his love, and a tenderness of our hearts, a gentle spirit, kindness, peace.  We would trust in him.  Christmas beginning this night, one Christian at a time, until in Christ it will all be Christmas.  Blessings to you, and with much love.

Christmas Eve

And the Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, saith the LORD. Isaiah 59

December 24

Take a good heart, O Jerusalem: for he that gave thee that name will comfort thee.

Miserable are they that afflicted thee, and rejoiced at thy fall.

Miserable are the cities which thy children served: miserable is she that received thy sons.

For as she rejoiced at thy ruin, and was glad of thy fall: so shall she be grieved for her own desolation.

For I will take away the rejoicing of her great multitude, and her pride shall be turned into mourning.
For fire shall come upon her from the Everlasting, long to endure; and she shall be inhabited of devils for a great time.
O Jerusalem, look about thee toward the east, and behold the joy that cometh unto thee from God.

Lo, thy sons come, whom thou sentest away, they come gathered together from the east to the west by the word of the Holy One, rejoicing in the glory of God.

Put off, O Jerusalem, the garment of mourning and affliction, and put on the comeliness of the glory that cometh from God for ever.

Cast about thee a double garment of the righteousness which cometh from God; and set a diadem on thine head of the glory of the Everlasting.

For God will shew thy brightness unto every country under heaven.

For thy name shall be called of God for ever The peace of righteousness, and The glory of Gods worship.

Arise, O Jerusalem, and stand on high, and look about toward the east, and behold thy children gathered from the west unto the east by the word of the Holy One, rejoicing in the remembrance of God.

For they departed from thee on foot, and were led away of their enemies: but God bringeth them unto thee exalted with glory, as children of the kingdom.

For God hath appointed that every high hill, and banks of long continuance, should be cast down, and valleys filled up, to make even the ground, that Israel may go safely in the glory of God,

Moreover even the woods and every sweetsmelling tree shall overshadow Israel by the commandment of God.

For God shall lead Israel with joy in the light of his glory with the mercy and righteousness that cometh from him.

Baruch 4:30 - 5:9

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Fourth Advent

 Micah 5: 2-5, Luke 1: 39-45

Grace and peace, as we turn the corner to what is this year to be just about the briefest excursion possible into the last week of Advent. There has been so much all in the air around us this year.  Election.  Fiscal Cliff.  The horror and heartbreak of what happened in Newtown, Connecticut.  And the hundreds of stories that have touched our lives more personally.  In our relationships.  Our families. School, work, career.  Life and death events, or perhaps of smaller scale, but still profoundly significant.  Highs and lows.  To think about how one phone call, one word can be so powerful sometimes, even to change the direction of our lives.  All of that.  

Just to take a deep breath here, as the fourth candle completes the wreath and as the Prophet’s familiar words are written out in the sky overhead:  But you, O Bethlehem . . . who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.  

We’ll hear this passage from Micah quoted again a few weeks from now, in St. Matthew, as Epiphany approaches, and as we trace the Journey of the Magi as they follow the Star from the distant East to find the Holy Child, the one “born King of the Jews.   You, O Bethlehem . . . from you shall come forth . . . one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.

And the story of the Visitation.  Another deep breath, as we watch that scene play out on the stage of our imagination:  the young woman Mary, radiant with the light of the angel, heading up into the hill country to be with her cousin Elizabeth—we would say both of them “expecting,” as we too are leaning forward with anticipation this Sunday morning.  A gestational convergence, in a season that is for us all about gestation. 

And I think what we might not be stretching things too far to describe as the first genuine act and service of Christian prayer, devotion, worship, a kind of Eucharistic moment, a pure expression of adoration, as the one not-yet-born who would be known to the whole world one day as John the Baptist leaps for joy, leaps for joy,  in the real presence of Jesus, who is within the womb of his human mother.  

Call it  liturgical dance.  High Mass, with triumphant pontifical processions, clouds of incense. Word made flesh on the altar of the world.  I’m sure it’s Rite One and Merbecke and great trumpets at the offertory, but you can let your own preferences and imagination design the liturgy, selecting only the most wonderful and elegant and beautiful of fabrics for the vestments and paraments, glistening white and gold.  

Even then John knows who it is, in his presence, and offers joyful worship: conceived by the Holy Ghost, the only-begotten Son of God; Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God; being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made.  I don’t know how he knew, but he knew.  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.

That is just a great moment to hold before us, this Fourth Advent Sunday, and Christmas Eve tomorrow and then Christmas Morning, and the eight days and twelve days and forty days ahead, as we mark this great season of Incarnation.  As we celebrate with joy Emmanuel: God with us.  Something that might not be for us just this one season, but 24/7/365.  Ask him, invite him, welcome him, who stands at the door of our world, of our lives, of our hearts.  For all that is going on in our hearts and our lives and in this broken world--welcome him.  As we like John the Baptist quicken with a new life, as we would greet him, and as we in turn like Mary would say yes, yes, yes-- as she said yes first to the Angel, and open our hearts for him.  Yes.  That he might dwell in us, and we in him.

Blessings and peace and joy.  This Advent, this Christmas, this New Year of our lives.

 Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Third Advent: Gaudete

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete: modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus: Dominus prope est. Nihil solliciti sitis: sed in omni oratione petitiones vestrae innotescant apud Deum.

Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.  Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.  Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known unto God.  Philippians 4

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Children's Pageant of Christmas, December 16

Pageant Sunday!  11 a.m. at St. Andrew's . . . .

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Second Advent, 2012

 Malachi 3: 1-4; Luke 3: 1-6

Good morning, and grace and peace.  Second Sunday of Advent already.  Pageant rehearsals happening, and it was really fun to peek in yesterday afternoon to hear some of the first run-through.  Choir working on Lessons and Carols for next Sunday afternoon, Christmas Eve service leaflet in production.  Shopping and holiday gatherings.  Traffic jams at the mall.

Blessings and I trust a sense of mutual care as we all tumble along through these weeks.  Probably everybody gets a little stressed, even when things are going well.  Susy and I were delighted to welcome so many of you to our open house last Sunday, but I know as the month rolls along the calendar becomes even more complicated.  Busyness and financial strain, emotional and social and relational expectations, disappointments.  Memories that bring both joy and sadness.  

In the twelve-step movement there’s a saying, “under stress we regress.”  So it always seems strange to think about how a season all about humility and grace and deep generosity seems inevitably to devolve into news-at-eleven stories about stampedes in department stores and family gatherings that end with fistfights and gunshots. 

Again, grace and peace, and with the thought that this is a season to cut each other and ourselves a little slack as best we can.  Take a deep breath or two.  Find a time of quiet along the way, as best we can.  Humility.  Echo of the Advent Collect.  Give us grace to 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.

In the older traditions and deriving from perhaps more serious times the four weeks of Advent were intended not so much as a preparation and “countdown” for Christmas.  At least not in the Church or from the pulpit.  Instead, as a time of deep reflection and self-assessment, at the beginning of a New Year, in consideration of a larger timeframe, and of our place in a transitory world, and as we as Christians await the Lord's return.  We have purple paraments, and the season of Advent actually evolved on the analogy of the Lent that comes before Easter.  A "little Lent," anyway. For confession and repentance, for prayer and a special immersion in the reading of Holy Scripture.   A time for a spiritual discipline, to take stock, to evaluate not just the present moment, but the content and the direction of our whole life. 

The four Advent Sundays provided topics to preach on what were called the “Last Things.”  Death and Judgment, Heaven and Hell.  And this then, the Second Sunday, to be all about Judgment.  Always a popular topic!  

And that certainly echoes in the readings appointed for the day.  The Prophet Malachi this morning, “Indeed he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.  But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?  For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.”  (I’ve been listening to the Messiah this week and almost want to sing those words as I read them!)  And this word in St. Luke about John the Baptist, the gospel figure who is so significant in this Advent season.  The one who comes to prepare the world for the coming of Christ, and to make an inspired witness to him.  Again, all about getting things in order.   And the quotation from Isaiah to frame John’s message: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  This great moral and spiritual engineering project.  Leveling the hills, cutting through the mountains and forests to engineer a wide highway, as the LORD himself returns to Zion, now as the Child in the Manger,  to assume for himself the Royal Throne of David in our hearts and minds each one of us and for every tribe and nation and language and people a new authority.  Nations will stream to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawning.

That was the True Light that was coming into the world, the Dayspring from on high, the new light of the dawn, scattering the darkness, and of course the reality is that in bright light we see sometimes more of ourselves than we really want to see.  Certainly more than we would want others to see.  We may say the prayer week by week. “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, from whom no secrets are hid.”  To think about that, the devices and desires of our own hearts, every secret and hidden corner, thrust into the light.  Enough to give us pause, even as we rush from one thing to the next.  But what it takes to get ready.

An invitation, we might say, to a holy Advent.  Not to go into hiding, but to offer up what is broken in our own lives, the devices and desires of our own hearts,  things done and left undone.  And I would just invite each one of us this morning and in this season:  to leave them as our offering, and then to seek his grace and power for forgiveness, renewal,  amendment of life .  That we might walk from henceforth in his holy ways.  To be ready for Christmas, really ready.   “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make his blessing flow, far as the curse is found.”  Joy to the world, and Happy Advent.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Advent Sunday

Year C
Jeremiah 33: 14-16; I Thessalonians 3: 9-13; Luke 21: 25-36

Good morning.  Grace and peace. And as we anticipated last week, to say now with much joy, and perhaps in our imaginations hearing the wonderful Guy Lombardo Orchestra ringing in the background and watching as the great ball descends to Time Square, that we turn the page now on our Church Calendar to the first morning of a New Year. 

Advent Sunday.  Moving from Year B and the focus on St. Mark’s Gospel, in our three-year Eucharistic lectionary, to Year C, and the focus on St. Luke.   For those of us who follow the devotional reading of our Daily Office lectionary the move from Year Two to Year One and for the next few months our mornings will be shaped by a wonderful series of readings through a long stretch of the Prophet Isaiah.  A new year.  Turning the page.

And as we are guided once again this week and this season by what I have always believed to be the most beautiful and theologically rich of all the beautiful and theologically rich collects prepared under the hand of Thomas Cranmer for the 1549 Book of Common Prayer.  Beginning with the New Year’s Resolution of all New Year’s Resolutions.  Give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness.  Say that quietly to yourself.  Offer it as a prayer every morning this Advent.  Give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness.

Picture that.  Casting them away with a giant sweep of your arm.  Perhaps the image, such a compelling and meaningful one, of what we heard last Sunday morning, Christ the King Sunday, as Pippa Marmorstein stood by this font with her mom and sister and grandparents and a whole cheering section and answered in our presence the questions that prepare each one of us for that immersion, to die with Christ, and to rise with him: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?  Do your renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?  Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?  Questions that can give you goosebumps.  And I know we prayed our own answers in the quiet of our own hearts, as Pippa spoke for all of us.  I renounce them.  I renounce them.  I renounce them.  I cast them away.

A New Year, Lord.  Give us grace, that we may cast away the works of darkness.  Of which there are plenty.  We don’t have to look far.  Sometimes the front page of the newspaper is enough to curl your hair. War, hatred, violence, theft, lies and betrayals.  The full expression of distorted values and behavior.   Sometimes we only have to look as far as the bathroom mirror to see the whole bad business.  But he will give us strength to get those words out, even if they are sometimes so hard and so costly. Even painful:  I renounce them, I renounce them, I renounce them.

But New Year’s Day, Advent Sunday, and we add a prayer to our New Year’s Resolution, moving on in Archbishop Cranmer’s collect.  Give us grace that we might cast away the works of darkness . . . and put upon us the armor of light.

Put upon us that gift and shield of your protection.  Otherwise all that “casting away” is going to be an empty gesture.  Fill us with strength and courage and singleness of heart, to hear the good news, to claim it and believe it for ourselves, to share it with our families, our friends and neighbors, near and far.  Because it is a story that changes everything.  That scatters the darkness.  The Dayspring from on High, visiting us.  Now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.  Angels, Shepherds, Magi, Joseph, our blessed Mother Mary, the Baby resting in the Manger.  A story that changes everything.  A story that can and will change us from the inside, out, if we will let it. If we will say the same “yes” that Mary said.  Let it be to me according to thy will.

Good News for Advent and the New Year.  Put that garment on as a new garment for the new year.  As a shield.  A bullet-proof vest!  The armor of light.  To know what that is.  Who that is.  That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.  Shining with the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.  Put upon us the armor of Light.  Dress us in the Lord Jesus, God from God, light from light, very God of very God.

If the Old Testament reading from Jeremiah sounded a little familiar this morning, perhaps it is because I quoted it in my sermon last Sunday.  (I knew you were paying attention!)  The reading in this year’s lectionary for Advent Sunday the same as the reading in the old Prayer Book for the Twenty Fifth Sunday after Trinity, the Sunday next Before Advent.  As the world of the Prophet is almost literally falling apart, the City in chaos, the enemy at the gates, the old order upended, the king in chains, the flower of a generation lying dead in a field of bones on the battlefield beyond the walls: exile, defeat, darkness.  As Israel would curse God and die. Then Jeremiah: The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.  And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”  To use a familiar phrase, that’s how we get into the “spirit of the season.”

Give us grace, that we may cast away the works of darkness.  Put upon us, O Lord—put upon us the armor of light.

So this little bit of a prayer in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians.  All about casting away the works of darkness, being dressed instead by God in the armor of light:  May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all . . . and may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

A New Year’s Resolution, in the name of the one who was born for us in Bethlehem, and who died for us on the Cross:  To increase and abound in love for one another and for all; to be strengthened in holiness; to be cleansed from sin; to cast away the works of darkness, and so to be blameless before him when he comes.

As Jesus says, there will be signs.  Sun, moon, stars, and on the earth.  Distress among nations.  The roaring of the waves of the sea.  And people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  

But the old year is passing away.  The new year is upon us.  Advent Sunday.  And there is good news out there—for us to hear, for us to tell.  And to live.  Which is why I don’t mind when I hear the old carols playing in the department store—whether it’s the weekend after Thanksgiving or as it sometimes seems, the weekend after Labor Day.  From my point of view we can sing them 24/7/365.  Come to Bethlehem and see him whose birth the angels sing: come adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord, the newborn King.  Gloria in Excelsis Deo.  Good news.  Sing it around the bonfire.  At Church, at home, while driving in the car or folding the laundry.   And brightly colored lights, beautiful trees, holy songs, acts of kindness, gifts of love. 

Happy New Year to all.  Hark the glad sound, the Savior comes!  Ready or not!   They may not have been quite ready for him when he came to Bethlehem, but may there be a place prepared for him now, this new year, in our hearts and our minds and in our lives.  A New Year’s Resolution to have in mind as we come forward to meet him at the Communion Rail this morning, and as we go forth into the world in his name.

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.