A. The liturgical change of seasons
1. A change of seasons is upon us. The seasonal changes in the calendar add texture and depth to our spiritual disciplines. They take us through the life of Christ in an annual cycle and through the various moods of faith: from penitence to forgiveness; from expectation to incarnation and revelation; from death to resurrection, ascension and life in the Spirit.
2. This is the last Sunday in Trinity season. Advent begins next week. The prayer book calls today, “The Sunday next before Advent.” It often goes by the name of “Stir up” Sunday” in our tradition, after the collect for the day (BCP 225). As we end the long green season, we ask God to “stir up” our wills—to get us ready to get ready for coming of Christ.
B. The prayer book lectionaries
1. The seasonal changes are highlighted by the lectionaries in the Book of Common Prayer. The lectionaries are the ways the prayer book arranges for us to read the Bible. We follow two lectionaries. One is the Sunday Eucharistic lectionary. This consists of the epistles and gospels appointed for each Sunday, which are complemented by thematically connected Morning Prayer lessons. The other is our Daily Office lectionary. This is the way the prayer book arranges for us to read through the Bible at Morning and Evening Prayer on Monday through Saturday of each week.
2. We read the Bible as a story rather than as a series of isolated passages. In the Eucharistic lectionary, we work our way through the life of Christ. In the Daily Office lectionary we read through the whole Bible story from creation to redemption. Knowing the story is important because it is our new story in Christ. If we do not read the Bible we get lost. We forget our new story of forgiveness and redemption, which leads to joy and peace, and we digress into the world’s old story of sin and death, which lead to guilt, anxiety, fear and despair.
C. The theme of exile and return
1. In the late Trinity season, our lectionaries highlight the theme of exile and the promise of return or re-gathering. The Bible describes the consequences of sin as exile from God’s presence, and describes redemption as the promise of return to God’s presence. Adam and Eve sinned and were exiled from the Garden of Eden as a consequence (Genesis 3:23-24). Then God called Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and brought their descendents to the Promised Land, a place where God’s redeemed people were to live in harmony with God (Genesis 12:1-3). The exile of sin was ended when God gathered his people back to him in the land (1 Kings 8:56-60).
2. This pattern was repeated when Israel became unfaithful to the covenant. The consequence of Israel’s sin was that God sent the people into exile in Babylon and throughout the world. The Old Testament readings for Morning Prayer last week told how the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem, destroyed the temple and carried the people away (2 Kings 25:1-21). God promised to redeem his people once again by sending the Messiah to re-gather Israel. This is the focus of the lesson for the epistle from Jeremiah. God promised that his chosen king would do a new work of re-gathering that would replace the Exodus from Egypt as the focus of Israel’s faith:
They shall no more say, The Lord lives, who brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; But, The Lord lives, who brought up and who led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries whither I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land (Jeremiah 23:7-8).
3. The Gospel for today picks up this theme. Jesus, the promised king, re-gathers and feeds Israel with the loaves that symbolize the Bread of Life. At the end of the feeding, Jesus says, “Gather up the fragments that remain that nothing be lost.” St. John tells us that they gathered up twelve baskets, which represent the re-gathering of the twelve tribes of Israel.
4. By the time of Jesus, the exile of Israel had, in one sense, ended. Israel lived once again in the Promised Land. However, something was not right because the fullness of God’s blessing had not yet been restored to the nation. Jesus revealed to Israel that exile was not merely a matter of geography. It was quite possible to live in the land, claim membership in the people of God, attend the place of worship and, nonetheless, remain distant from God. As God said through Isaiah, “This people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips, but have removed their heart far from me” (29:13).
5. Jesus revealed that things were not as they appeared in Israel. Many religious leaders, whose positions presumed a certain status with God, were, in fact, distant from God. And many of those labeled “sinners” were, in fact, closer to God because they were willing to acknowledge their sin and change. As Jesus went about Israel preaching the gospel and re-gathering the remnant of Israel, it was a rather motley crew of people who actually responded to the call to repent and return to God. The new Israel looked different than the old one.
D. The lesson for us
1. There are important lessons here for us. Our identity is rooted in the experience of having been called by Jesus to return from the exile of our sins back into union with God. We are part of the new Israel, the new people of God created by Jesus. Yet, our day to day experience reveals to us that it is not as simple as that. Exile and return are recurring themes and movements in the Christian life. We who have been re-gathered by Jesus are prone to drift away yet again. When we drift away, Jesus calls us again to return—again.
2. The long season of Trinity can be just such a time of drifting. After the concentrated spiritual exercises of Lent and the celebration that stretches from Easter through Pentecost, we enter into a long green season of ordinariness. There is a tendency to lose zeal and fall into bad habits. We can enter into a kind of spiritual malaise, in which there is, perhaps, no flagrant violation of the commandments, but also, perhaps, no profound experience of God’s presence and glory.
3. We repeat the pattern of exile and return in the Eucharist. Each week we leave church and enter back into the world where we face temptation and sometimes fall. Each week we return to Christ and participate again in the New Exodus. Each week we re-enact the pattern of the feeding miracle in the gospel. Jesus, the Messiah and King, re-gathers the remnant of Israel in fulfillment of the promise of Jeremiah.
4. Our part is this drama is to remember that we must return inwardly as well as outwardly. We must return to God “spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24). We are not close to God just because we come to church, or because we’ve been Christians for a long time, or because we are leaders in the church, or because we have a good reputation in the world. We are close to God, we return from the exile of sin, only when we hear the word of God as it applies to various circumstances of our lives, repent for our failures and begin to live in a new way. Thus, as we get ready to get ready for the coming of Christ, we pray,
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may, by thee be plenteously rewarded.