A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 18, 2016
The Epistle, Philippians 4:4-7 – The Gospel, St. John 1:19-28
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
- The Gospel
Today’s gospel describes the mission of emissaries from Jerusalem who were sent to ask John the Baptist, “Who are you?” John had very popular ministry in the desert—people were flocking to him—and the authorities in the nation’s capital felt threatened. John made it clear, “I am not the Messiah.” The interrogators proposed two other options. First, “Are you Elijah?” This proposal stemmed from two sources. First, John dressed like Elijah, with a leather belt and a camel’s hair coat (cf. Matthew 3:4, 2 Kings 1:6). Second, the last prophesy of the Old Testament from Malachi said,
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers (4:5-6).
Elijah did not die, but was taken up into heaven in whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). The belief was the Elijah would return to introduce the Messiah. This is the reason Jewish people make a place for Elijah at the Passover. John said, “No, I am not Elijah.”
His response merits additional comment. In St. Luke’s Gospel, the angel Gabriel appeared to the father of John the Baptist and stated explicitly that John would fulfill the Malachi prophesy:
He (John) will also go before [the Messiah] in the spirit and power of Elijah, to “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,” and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord (1:17).
Jesus also said that John fulfilled the Elijah prophesy. “All the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matt. 11:13-14). Elijah made a personal appearance at the Transfiguration (Mathew 17:1-4), so we know that John was not literally Elijah, but John did fulfill the Malachi prophesy. He was “Elijah-like”
The interrogators proposed a second option. “Are you the prophet.” This is a reference to Deuteronomy 18. God’s appearance on Mt. Sinai to give the Torah had so terrified the Israelites that the people pleaded with Moses saying, “Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die” (Deut. 18:16). God responded by saying,
What they have spoken is good. I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him (Deut. 18:18-19).
God speaks through all his prophets, but God spoke definitively through Jesus, who is “the prophet” of Deuteronomy. As Hebrews says,
God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds (Heb. 1:1-2).
John said, “No, I am not the prophet either.”
John identified himself by quoting the prophesy of Isaiah 40, “I am the voice of one crying, ‘In the Wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.’” We can read the fuller text of Isaiah 40 for effect:
Comfort, yes, comfort My people! Says your God. Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. The voice of one crying “In the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Every valley shall be exalted. And every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places smooth; The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken (Isa. 40:1-5).
John identified himself as the one who would prepare the way for Christ by removing every obstacle to his approach; that is what is means by filling in the valleys, leveling the mountains, and making the roads straight.
- Our Advent Preparation
The primary obstacle to God’s approach, the thing that gets in the way of Christ coming to us more fully, is our sin and our impenitent hearts. As Isaiah wrote,
The Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; And your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear (59:1-2).
Thus, John calls us to prepare to receive Christ by repentance.
Of course, to be a Christian to have already repented. We cannot have received Christ in the past unless we have already been sorry for our sins. But we are called to grow in our repentance. Our initial repentance consists of sorrow for outward sins—for anger, immorality, stealing, lying, covetousness and such. As we grow in our repentance the focus shifts from behavior to motive. We realize that we do things that look good outwardly, but we do them with selfish motives. As we grow in our repentance the question changes. We begin by asking, “How much can I get away with without it qualifying as sin?” Eventually we come to ask, “Does what I am doing fully reflect love for God and love for my neighbor?”
John said, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” You had to go out into the desert to hear John. We must get out of our normal routines to hear God’s voice and change. A good Advent confession is the result of solitude and prayer. We need sit in silent prayer and listen to what God is saying to us. As we detach ourselves from the distractions of the world, and focus our attention on Jesus, we see ourselves more clearly his glorious light. He reveals to us the areas of our life where our surrender to God is not yet complete—where Christ does not yet fully reside in us. He reveals to us the areas of weakness where we have not yet received Christ’s strength—where we have not fully embraced the cross, and, so, have not yet fully experienced the resurrection. We prepare for the coming if Jesus when this awareness of sin that God gives us leads us to confess our sins and change our behavior—when we remove an obstacle and open our lives to Jesus is some new way.
Are you ready for Christmas? Our typical answer focuses on whether our shopping is complete and we are ready for the social events on our calendar. But John asks us the only important question. Have you prepared your heart to receive Jesus in a new way at the Feast of the Incarnation? Have you heard what God is saying to you? Have you made a good confession? Have your removed the obstacles that stand in the way of a closer relationship with Christ? Jesus is coming. Are you ready?
A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent, December 4, 2016
The Epistle, Romans 15:4-13 – The Gospel, Luke 21:25-33
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
- Bible Sunday and the Bible
The Second Sunday in Advent is called Bible Sunday. The epistle says that the Scriptures were written to give us spiritual strength and the virtue of hope. The collect turns this into a prayer that we may so “read, mark, learn, inwardly digest” the Scriptures that we may be “embrace” and “ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.” The gospel proclaims the enduring power and truth of God’s word. Jesus said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away. But my words shall not pass away.”
The Bible is not always viewed positively because some people misuse it. Some use the Bible as a weapon with which to beat up their enemies. Some Christians seem incapable of having a normal conversation without inserting numerous Bible quotes, most of them out of context and only vaguely related to the point they are trying to make. I do not trust of any Bible teacher for whom the Bible is not, first and foremost, the source of his or her own profound interior transformation.
There is also a mysterious linguistic disease that plagues many people of faith; the inability to utter three simple words, “I don’t know.” To say that the Bible contains the authoritative revelation of God is not to say that it can answer every question. Too frequently, some notable Christian has insisted that an opinion is biblical only to have subsequent biblical or scientific study reveal that this person was simply wrong. This casts doubt upon what the Bible does teach us—for if this person was wrong about the Bible here, might not the Bible be wrong everywhere? Like the three words, “It is finished,” the three words, “I don’t know” are good words. Every Christian should learn them.
- The Bible as narrative and meaning
The Bible is a story—the story that gives our lives their true meaning. It is the story of the creation, fall, and redemption of humanity. Its tells how humans mess things up, and how God enters the messiness to accomplish his will anyway. As Joseph said to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
This story, this narrative, competes with other narratives for control of lives. It competes with the economic narrative, which tells us to live for the maximum profit. It competes with the pleasure narrative, which tells us to avoid pain and pursue what feels good. It competes with the esteem narrative, which tells us to compete with others for status and attention. It competes with the happiness narrative, which tells us to pursue what will make us happy—whatever that means!
Too often Christians live in the wrong story. We drift away from the story of our redemption and begin to live for something other than Christ. The spiritual discipline of Bible reading and study brings us back to our true story. As we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Scriptures, we remember again who we are, why we are here, and where we are going. Bible reading confronts us and convicts us. It exposes our faulty motives and aims, leads us to continual repentance, and re-orients our lives towards the kingdom.
The collect and epistle focus on the virtue of hope— “that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” The Christian virtue of hope is not merely the general belief that things will work out somehow. It is the interior knowledge that God is working in our lives to prepare us for resurrection and eternal life in his kingdom. This is not only a doctrine that we “believe in.” It is an organic reality that is taking place within us through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Christian hope is analogous to the hope that a seed planted in the ground will become a mature plant. We “hope” the seed will become a plant. If it is planted in good soil, and if it is watered, fertilized, and receives sunlight, it will become a plant. This is not the same thing as saying, “I hope the Rams will win the game.” That kind of hope is merely a wish for one result among several other, perhaps more likely, possibilities. It may not happen. But God will do what he says he will do. “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.”
Thus, the main challenge to hope is our own lack of patience and perseverance. If we continue in faith and faithfulness, if we never stop returning to confess and receive grace and surrender again to God’s will and word, the life of God within us will continue to grow towards its eternal destiny. God is faithful, but sometime we are tempted to give up.
The main source of discouragement is living in the wrong story. We pursue things in the world, and become discouraged when we don’t get them; then we blame God for it. Many people do not need an answer to prayer as much as they need a change of story. The narratives of the world set us up for disappointment and discouragement. They cause us to live for things we may or may not get. They cause us to live for things which, in any event, we will lose by age or death, rather than to live for the sure and certain hope of resurrection and life.
- Bible Reading as daily narrative
It is hard to live faithfully in the story of redemption if we do not have some regular habit of Bible reading and study that brings us back to that story. The spiritual battle is precisely the battle to stay in our prayer and in the word of God—to stay in the narrative of redemption in Christ. Each day we are tempted to turn our focus towards money, to try to escape from our pain with some unfaithful painkiller, to aim at some sense of happiness as the world defines it. The Bible brings us back to our true story, to what God is doing in us, and to hope.
Any endeavor in life that is worthwhile takes time to learn and time to practice. Consider the time you devote to your favorite hobby, t.v. show, or sport. Consider the time you spend preoccupied with various forms of electronics and media—and consider how much anxiety you take on because of this immersion into the story of the world. Since heaven and earth— all these things—will pass way, but God’s word will last forever, what we really need is to change our priorities and our story. As we pray on Bible Sunday:
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
A Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, November 27, 2016
The Epistle, Romans 13:8-14 – The Gospel, Matthew 21:1-1 3
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
- The Epistle and the Advent Collect
Today’s epistle calls us to change to get ready for the coming of Jesus. St Paul writes,
Knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. (Rom. 13:11-12).
These words from the epistle are embedded in the Advent collect, which we pray throughout the season:
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour 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.
This is the glory of Advent: Excited expectation for the coming of Christ, combined with a challenge to repent and change to get ready to meet him. However, there is a human nature problem in the Advent call to change. We often get excited about some new thing and plan to change, but when the excitement wanes our lives resume their former patterns. The change was motivated by the temporary enthusiasm and, thus, went away along with when we were no longer excited. Thus, the challenge of Advent is to change our foundational habits and patterns; to aim at the overarching structure of our lives and not merely to try to change a few surface behaviors.
- The Gospel and the coming of Jesus
The gospel story of the triumphal entry reflects the recurring biblical pattern of God coming to his people. Some might wonder why the Psalm Sunday story is being read on the First Sunday in Advent. It fits because it describes the coming of Jesus to Jerusalem—and Advent is about the coming of Jesus. Jesus comes to the temple. This is often called “The cleansing of the temple.” However, it was not really a cleansing. It was only a temporary change. Most likely, the tables were righted rather quickly and it was back to business as usual the next day.
Jesus’ actions signified condemnation rather than cleansing. Jesus was marking the temple for destruction. Roughly forty years later the temple was destroyed, never to be built again. God’s plan was to replace the temple building with a new temple, the temple of the Body of Christ. God’s Spirit once filled the Holy of Holies in the temple. Now, God’s Spirit dwells in his people.
God has taken up a partial residence in us. The baptismal gift of the Spirit is a down payment (Ephesians 1:13-14) on the promise that Christ will one day come to us in the fullness of his glory. We will see him face to face and our change into his image will be completed. Thus, there is tension between the way that Christ already dwells in us, and the way we are waiting for Christ to come. We experience this tension in the Eucharist. We already live in Christ, but Christ also comes to us in the Sacrament. He comes as food—the bread of life—to nourish the life that was planted at baptism. He comes to cleanse our temple; to make our bodies clean and to wash our souls. He come to us in time to prepare us for our future glory.
We get ready for Christ’s ultimate coming on the Day of the Lord by preparing to meet him on the Lord’s Day. We prepare to meet Christ in the future by meeting him now in the word of God, in the Sacrament, and in prayer. If we are in the habit of responding to Jesus when he comes to us each week and each day, we will be ready to meet him face to face on the Last Day. The danger of religion is that we might go through the outward motions of piety, but fail to hear and respond to the word of God in our hearts. This is what happened in the first century temple. The people were outwardly religious, but they did not hear or respond to the word of God. Thus, when the “Word made flesh” came to them, they were not prepared to meet him because they did not know him.
- Prayer is the foundation for change
When we talk about change we usually think about our outward behavior. If we have been impatient and unkind, we will try to be patient and kind. If temptation has overcome us, we will try harder to resist. This does not result in lasting change because it focuses on mere human will power in the moment of challenge, and we cannot overcome sin by the power of our wills. We can only overcome sin by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, which come to us through prayer.
Our main problem is busy-ness, distraction, and anxiety about the concerns of life in this world. The routines and urgencies of life keep us on the treadmill. Various forms of media and entertainment sidetrack us. The cares and concerns of life make us anxious. Consequently, there is no space in our lives to hear and respond to God’s word. To establish lasting change, we must aim at this disordered pattern of life, not merely at the behavior the results from this disordered pattern. This means, as a foundation, reordering our lives so that prayer and the reading of God’s word come to have a preeminent and formative place in our lives.
A faithful pattern of life begins with faithful habits of prayer. When we begin our time in prayer, our behavior flows out of our prayer. Habitual prayer comes to change our habitual behavior. The Bible refers to “The fruit of the Spirit” (cf. Galatians 5:22-23). Virtue is what the Spirit produces in us over time through our habits of prayer. Without a commitment to prayer, to life in the Spirit, there can be no fruit of the Spirit, and God can only be an emergency responder—a 911 call.
- Time and prayer
For real change to take place, our time must be governed by our prayer. Prayer leads us into our work and then we return to our prayer. This is the Benedictine pattern of the Book of Common Prayer. We do not just “say our prayers.” We listen for the voice of God each day. Each morning we commit the day to God through prayer. We ask for guidance to know and do his will. We return to prayer after our day to give thanks for Christ’ presence with us, to confess our failures and receive grace, and to consider what God has taught us in the day. As we establish a pattern of prayerfulness, we develop the habit of responding to Christ now, in anticipation of his coming in glory
Some people protest that they don’t have time for spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible reading. This is precisely our disorder—and it is a lie. We all do what we really want to do. If we do not make room in our lives to worship God and listen for his voice, it is because we are not willing to do so. Or it is because we do not trust him. We do not trust that if we commit our lives to God through prayer, he will be faithful to meet our needs. Prayer is the way we express faith. A lack of prayer is the way we express a lack of faith.
- Our lives are upside down. We do our own stuff first. We allow ourselves to be governed by anxiety and distraction; we try to shoehorn God in at the gaps and margins; then we wonder where God is and why our lives never change. The failure to commit ourselves to disciplines of prayer is the failure to commit to receiving Christ now. If we will not receive Christ now, how can we be ready when he comes in glory at the end of time? As the epistle exhorts us,
Now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.