The two-fold coming of Christ
Sermon: 2 Advent A Dec 8 2019
Isa11:1-10;Ps72:1-7,18-19;Rom15:4 -13; Mat3:1-12
I have it on very high authority that you have started the season of Lent without me. I am not surprised. I am pleased. And I thought of you last Sunday as I sat in a vaguely familiar church--I attended All Saints Episcopal Church in Anchorage Alaska in the 1980s--and I heard the same lessons you did.
This week I found myself thinking about the language of Advent--asking for the grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, as we read in our collect last week.
What an affirming and hopeful suggestion that prayer represents in this dark and chilly season!
What clear intention it asserts on our behalf to live in the light, the light of Christ which we will eventually proclaim at our Easter Vigil.
Did you notice the reference to Christ coming twice? Once in great humility, at his Nativity, once to judge the living and the dead? I found that extremely thought provoking, even stimulating. We think of baby Jesus as Advent gets underway, not the judgment of Christ. But there it was in the Collect last week. And I thought about it. And not just because there was a sermon to prepare. Rather, because this is a fantastic way to begin Advent.
This week we acknowledge God's prophets who "...preach(ed) repentance and prepare(d) the way for our salvation." They tell us to give up our old ways and to follow the ways that Jesus taught, the ways of loving God and loving our neighbor.
Before I left for Alaska last month I picked out the graphic for the 10 am bulletin today. It's a very striking image of John the Baptist. It reminded me of what an odd guy he must have been and how desperate people were for his message of the very redemption we seek. They came to him even though he lived outside regular society, in the wilderness, and "...wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey."
What could it have been that drew people to him? Who wants to give up their earthly ways and follow this Jesus John the Baptist is talking about? As we know, it turned out a lot of people did.
In the collect today we asked God to "...(g)ive us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins." So we clearly are among those followers, those who followed John the Baptist as he foretold the story of his cousin, Jesus.
But when we line up these two points we realize that as Advent gets underway, we are not just waiting for a cooing infant in a manger. Or rather, we realize that we've been set up, in a manner of speaking, to both welcome the baby Jesus and forsake our sins. It's not just the cooing infant. It's not even Santa. It's penitence. It's confession. It's ...it's...it's...major work.
Some of the people who came to see John the Baptist thought the way was already paved for them by virtue of their religious authority. John declared their claims null and void, calling them a brood of vipers, and asked, "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"
This of course is a question you and I can answer fairly easily, since we come to church, we know our commandments, and every now and then we recite the Baptismal Covenant which contains what I like to call the job description of a Christian. So we have been warned. The religious authorities had many of the same sources, but they rather publicly and unabashedly ignored some of them. This led to the prophets to condemn them and Isaiah, especially, to bemoan their indifference to God's will.
Unlike the Jewish authorities, though, we lack the excuse of not believing in Jesus. If we were before John the Baptist and declared, "This is not for us," and we did not adhere to Jesus' teachings, no one would be surprised. But since we are baptized Christians and because we know the Baptismal Covenant, we have no excuse. This is one of the reasons we have the confession every Sunday, so people can get clear on where they have gone wrong and make plans for correction.
Not only that. Consider this: we know that the church and its members are the body of Christ in the world. That's you and me, folks. Some even say that the church represents the Second Coming, Christ renewed and carrying Jesus' message around the world. So if we consider this notion and look into it a little we realize that judgment day is already upon us. Our very lives are subject to evaluation, such that "we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer."
And lo and behold, we are given again in Advent a fresh start, the opportunity to live into our faith as we track the birth of our Savior and the birth of our Redeemer. This is a new year in the church. It is a beginning of our new life in faith. And it invites us, as Jesus invited us, to live in the hope and the faith that we share.
Now it's pretty clear that John the Baptist was using scare tactics. That's how sales pitches went in those days. But we are of the belief that Jesus was inviting us into a new way of believing, one of hope that transcends all difficulties and fulfills all his promises.
Our Advent meditation book this week actually speaks to this matter of hope and reminds us to put our faith in God and be filled with hope. One meditation in particular got my attention because it acknowledged that hope sometimes seems a little improbable, especially in those particular situations where the odds against a specific hope being realized seem stacked against us.
"Hope springs from a desire for more (from life)," the meditation said. It is a confident expectation that something good will come one day out of a difficult or undesirable situation through steady effort, often struggle, and always grace. Hope is not simply wishful thinking; it is a virtue that finds its source in God and can be developed by all people of faith."
"Messages of Hope" is the title of the meditation booklet. At a time like this when there is division and strife throughout our society and around the world, when our principles are being tested and our confidence might tend to flag a little, lo and behold, we are filled with hope. Even though we know the story, how it progresses and, for that matter, how it ends, we are filled with hope for the baby Jesus and all babies. When we think about it, about the new year in the church beginning in Advent, we find ourselves filled with hope for ourselves, that we might indeed heed the warnings of the prophets, especially John the Baptist and Isaiah, and forsake our sins.
And we can also be encouraged to hope and believe that however dim the prospects, that a new spirit might visit our country and spread around the world, a spirit that inspires grace and giving and trust and honesty and working together to heal and foster all of God's kingdom.
A sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent, Dec. 8, 2019, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church,
Poughkeepsie NY, by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector.