(Proper 28C2) Malachi 4: 1-2; Luke 21: 5-19
Grace and peace. The Christmas decorations have been up at the Mall since before Halloween, but at least in the church we would take a more gradual approach to the unfolding of the story, savoring some of the nuances along the way—and to appreciate this Sunday in what is unofficially anyway right in the middle of a three-week “pre-Advent” season. We don’t quite experience the full scope and flavor of these pre-Advent Sundays because of our observance of All Saints on the Sunday after All Saints Day last week and then of course because of our festival observance of St. Andrew’s Day next Sunday. But for this one Sunday anyway, we can hear it, “pre-Advent,” in the middle of things, as we would begin to prepare ourselves in heart and mind for the turning of the year and the renewal of the great story beginning in Advent and Christmas. All which will be here before we know it anyway.
In 1549 the first English Book of Common Prayer opened the Church year with dazzling fanfare in the great Collect for Advent Sunday—a composition of Archbishop Cranmer and to my mind one of the most beautiful gems of literary prayer ever written. “Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor or 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.” And then the next week, the Second Sunday of Advent, we had for over 500 years until 1979 and our new American Prayer Book the Collect again composed by Cranmer that we have prayed this Sunday, at the heart of the English Reformation and Protestant Renewal of the 15th and 16th centuries, and continuing in our core identity and Anglican DNA to this present day: “O God, who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.” Fun to share just a bit of reflection on that Collect with the kids in the Children’s Talk this morning.
These two great Advent prayers all about how we center ourselves in the central Christian truth of Incarnation. God coming to be present with us, completely and authentically, acting in our time and space of creation, revealing himself to us without reservation, in his Word made Flesh, and in his Word Written, all Holy Scriptures. As we will gather in a few weeks with Mary and Joseph and Shepherds and Angels around the crib in Bethlehem. In the artistic image of the 16th century in stained glass and religious art, the Bible resting in the straw of the Manger. So the hymn that summarizes in a simple rhyme everything that underlies what we have been told, what we have heard, what we have to say, with our lips and in our lives. Peace on earth, and mercy mild: God and sinners reconciled . . . . The Word given to us. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Born for us. Spoken into this world of ours. “That we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.”
Last summer in our reading of Colossians I quoted several times the famous saying from Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”—“the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Which is the bright message waiting for us in Advent. Waiting for us our lives are shaped by daily, weekly, yearly immersion in the sacred story. Filling our minds, our hearts, our imaginations. This little snippet from the Prophet Malachi, and if you are looking for a “pre-Advent ” reading this is it perfectly: the vision of the Day of the Lord. The bottom line moment, the final accounting, the roaring fire burning off the stubble at the end of the harvest, the last great judgment. Maybe you feel like you’ve seen that in the movies. The day is coming, burning like an oven . . . . Sorting it all out once and for all. The definitive death of the old broken and sinful world. The death of evil The birth of the new creation. The time of waiting and hoping at last coming to an end, and the fulfillment of the great promise.
And this from Luke also—another word to get ready for the Advent that is soon to be upon us. Perhaps not the best strategy here as we are in the context of the great effort of a Capital Campaign, but still the message we are called to hear first, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, each and every one of us, and to proclaim. Look around. Look around. The day coming when not one stone will be left on stone, temples and palaces, all the elaborate creations of what seem to have such importance in this age. Our homes and bank accounts, our resumes and careers, all the material and social and psychological and emotional structures that we create—that we create—to give our lives meaning and substance. Not that these are bad or wrong in themselves. Jesus worshiped in that Temple, he overturned the Tables of the Merchants and Money Changers to defend and demonstrate its sacred character and purpose. He would have sung many times Psalm 84, “how lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts, to me.” But to know these things all for what they are. Provisional. Temporary. A brief candle, as Shakespeare’s Macbeth would say. A castle built at low tide on the sandy beach. Where we live in the meantime, in this interval and in-between time, working, building, loving, living and dying, with the great New Morning of the World about to dawn finally in God’s perfect time.
In the meantime. Advent. Thinking here of this wonderful moment in our reading from Second Thessalonians. As Paul encourages those who are waiting in hope for the Coming of Christ “to do their work quietly and to earn their own living,” and to say, “do not be weary in doing what is right.” What Christians are called to do, in light of the judgment to come, in light of the fragility of all these things that seem so permanent, that seem so valuable, so important. To live simply. To persist faithfully, hopefully.
To keep the main thing the main thing. To let the good that God has in mind for us begin right now to be a reality in our lives. The marks of an “Advent Way of Life.” Quietly. Patiently. Confidently. Without fear. Without the need to cling tenaciously to a world that is passing away. But with love--to be free with open hands and open minds and open heart.
Ahead in the far distance of the Bethlehem hills we can just make out the angels singing to the shepherds. And to know him every day, and in all circumstances. Come O come, Emmanuel. Whose name will mean, “God with us.”