The grace of God
SERMON: 4 Advent A 12 22 19
On this final Sunday of Advent we find ourselves still in the state of preparation and expectation for the nativity, the birth of Jesus. It's only three days away--or two and a half if you're coming Christmas Eve Tuesday--and yet--we are still preparing.
The practical preparations for Christmas are not insignificant. But the spiritual preparations are really what this season of Advent is about. It is a season to reflect on this miracle and all the attendant miracles which so enrich our faith and provide us with purpose and, yes, delight.
We are warmed to this prospect, this delightful prospect, by our collect in which we prayed that God might purify our consciences. Consider those words. What would that involve? The short answer is that it would involve God granting us the grace to live our lives with the knowledge of our sins and, having been forgiven, not repeat them or commit others. When we pray concerning God's daily visitation we are supposedly referring to our awareness of God in our lives which we focus upon during our daily prayers. But of course God is with us 24/7; it's not like God gets a vacation or takes a coffee break.
But for our consciences to be purified we have to be at peace with our lives and we have to be doing a better job of living them.
How ready are we for God to do this for us? More to the point, if we want God to forgive us, are we ready to do our part and shape up? Are we ready to deserve a purified conscience?
Ahaz wasn't. In the Hebrew Bible reading God urged Ahaz to ask for a sign that he would prevail over his enemies. Ahaz said he wouldn't put God to the test. Now this is ordinarily a good idea, not putting God to the test. But Isaiah needed to convince Ahaz of the rightness of his cause, that God was on his side. And what sign did Isaiah declare when Ahaz declined? "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel."
Isaiah foretold the coming of Jesus--Immanuel, meaning God is with us. And also the demise of the nations with which Ahaz was about to go to war. This was part of the expectation of the coming of the Messiah.
In our Epistle Paul writes to the Romans a most flowery introduction containing his history in the faith and details of Jesus' holiness and power, concluding the reading with a simple salutation: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is this grace that we are interested in today because it is so overwhelmingly present in our lessons and in our Advent hearts.
It is in our Gospel reading that we catch the glimpse of grace that points us toward a holy Christmas. This grace, which actually does enable the purification of your conscience and mine, was visited upon Joseph in a dream.
We know that Joseph was disturbed when he learned that Mary was with child. He was a kind soul and rather than humiliate her with a public rejection he thought he should end their engagement discreetly.
This was an awful predicament in those days. The importance of lineage was very high. Joseph wanted to be kind but he saw no other way. That is, until the angel laid it out for him in a dream.
The grace that enabled Joseph to accept this version of events from an angel in a dream is the same grace which moves us to accept the same story. And not simply to accept it, but to embrace it in our hearts as a key part of the foundation of our Christian faith.
The point here is it is the grace of God, visited on Joseph, reflected in our belief, which gives this story its holiness. That our God could so transform Joseph's troubled heart and our skeptical minds into accepting angelic dreams and a virgin birth reveals to us how much of the Godly is implanted in our hearts and in our imaginations.
That is how our consciences are purified, also. By suspending our skepticism and seeking God's way, God's will, in all our relationships, in all our encounters, in all our doings.
Ask anyone who has ever raised a child, "not their own," and the lesson is likely aligned with today's Gospel: it is a grace-filled relationship, much as Joseph's relationship with Jesus was for those who choose to interpret it that way. Every child is a child of God and those called to raise children "not their own" can recognize the blessing and the potential for grace to play a part in it.
This matter of grace does require some readiness on our own part. One can't really plan for times when grace will be helpful or fitting. But we can choose to pray in our daily prayers for God to grant us grace. Of course there are occasions where we find ourselves in situations where grace seems to materialize without preparation: a generous response to a hostile question, the perfect solution of a nettlesome problem, and so on.
It all comes from God and, at least to a degree, it depends on our spiritual condition. If we are open to God's grace on a daily basis we will begin to recognize it more readily and to acknowledge it when we witness it. This provides others with a glimpse of grace which they might have missed.
There's a lot of generosity in grace and in our readiness for it. There's no such thing as cranky grace or selfish grace, I'm pretty sure. But when we consider all that God has done and is doing in our lives, when we reflect on the season of Advent and the coming of Christ, it is not surprising that our hearts are full of hope and faith and all the spiritual things we would wish for for ourselves and others.
As Paul wrote to the Romans, Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Advent blessings abound! Alleluia!
A sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Dec. 22, 2019, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church,
Poughkeepsie NY by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector