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.