Essay / Theology

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

After the long “green season” Advent is finally upon us! Today marks the beginning of that season in the church year when we anticipate and await the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In the words of the apostle Paul that we read this morning, we “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7). We do not only await his coming as the Christ child in a manger in Bethlehem but we also wait for his coming again in great glory so that we will be made “guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:8). As we prayed this morning in our collect, “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility,” that is, at his nativity, but also “in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead” so that “we may rise to the life immortal” at his second coming. Today in the church year we look both horizontally to Bethlehem, home of the Christ child, and vertically to the heavens from whence comes Christ the King. The Advent season gives us ample opportunity to think about the first coming of Jesus Christ to earth, as well as his second coming, the day and time of which we are unaware.

The book of Isaiah is perhaps the most Christological books of the Old Testament. That is debatable of course because one would have to decide how to judge a book’s Christological content. For example, if King David is always seen as a Christ figure then perhaps 1 and 2 Samuel or the Psalms could be judged the most Christological. But it is Isaiah’s text that gives to us some of the most profound prophecies concerning the Son of God and his nativity on earth. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” so writes Isaiah in one his best-known prophecies concerning the advent of the Son of God (9:6). There is also Isaiah 7:14: “There the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Finally, there is the well-known passage regarding the gifts of the Spirit: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, and Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (11:1-2). Today’s Old Testament reading is in company with these other Christological proclamations of the prophet Isaiah.

In chapter 63 of Isaiah he testifies to God that the people of Israel do “not acknowledge” him. But, says the prophet, this is because Yahweh has “made [them] wander from [his] ways and harden[ed their] heart” (63:17). Things have gotten so bad that Israel is listless, as a nation without a ruler, “like those who are not called by [God’s] name” (63: 19). In light of this Isaiah asks God to “rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at [his] presence, as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil” (64:1-2). Why? Isaiah answers, so “that the nations might tremble at [the Lord’s] presence” (v. 2b). Isaiah asks God to come down in order to make himself known not only to the lost, those outside of God’s chosen nation, but also so that the people will remember that God is their God, that he is their ruler. Isaiah asks that God’s advent upon the people be a reminder that they belong to God and that he is their Lord. Thus, first and foremost, God’s advent reminds us who we are. This Advent season therefore serves the purpose of being for us a reminder that we are God’s people. The yearly remembrance of the Christ-child is a sign to us that we are God’s and he is ours. The season of Advent is intensely personal in that Christ came for us, both individually and corporately. If we do not realize this truth then we will miss at least one part of the purpose of Advent – not only did Christ come but he came for me, for us. Advent is intensely personal.

Isaiah also confesses to God that when the Israelites did not look for signs from God that he made himself known to them. God “came down” and “the mountains quaked at [God’s] presence” (64:3). It could appear that Isaiah is trying to trick God into showing himself to the people, “You’ve come down when we didn’t ask for it, now come down because we are asking you to.” Yet, I do not think that this is the case nor do I think that you think so either. Rather, Isaiah is remembering the past works of God and longing for a similar showing of God’s presence at that time. Isaiah is saying, “because you have done this in the past, we have confidence that you will do this again in the future, even now.” Advent, for us, is similar. We, of course, look back to the first coming of Christ to a lowly stable in Bethlehem. We recall the Christ-child, reminded of the words of the apostle Paul, Christ “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men… he humbled himself” (Phil. 2:7-8). But instead of always looking back, Advent gives us the opportunity to long for God’s manifestation in the here and now. We do not always need to be nostalgic for the past or impatient for the future, but we can and should expect God to be present with us today. And, the good news is that he is present to us today, in the Eucharist, in the lives of all godly Christians and by way of his most Holy Spirit manifesting himself through signs, wonders and his gifts. Thus, the season of Advent allows us to recall that God is present with us, at all times. In the words of Isaiah, “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways” (64:4-5). God is present to those with the eyes to see, the ears to hear and the heart to receive him.

Our reading today from Isaiah also reminds us that there is a need for a penitential reckoning during the season of Advent. Advent is not Lent, of course, but there must be a time of reflection on the sinfulness of humanity during this season. For what other reason did the second person of the Trinity, the Son, come to earth for if not to save us from our sins? This penitential aspect is illustrated well, I think, by the Roman Catholic custom, at least in Europe, that purple or violet is the liturgical color of Advent. Advent must bring to mind the sinfulness of humankind and our need for the Savior of the world. In Isaiah’s words, “We have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is not one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you” (64:6-7a). Notice how Isaiah moves from the collective whole (all of Israel) to the more personal no “one” and “himself.” This suggests to me that we must be corporately aware of our sins as well as individually aware. In Anglican Eucharistic practice the corporate nature of sin and confession is obviously on display when we say together the General Confession. We say that “we confess,” that “we have not loved” God or “our neighbors” and “we are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” The personal nature of sin is best on display in the under-used and under-valued pastoral office entitled “The Reconciliation of a Penitent” (i.e., the rite of confession). There the penitent says, “Bless me, for I have sinned” and “I confess to Almighty God… that I have sinned by my own fault in thought, word and deed.” In light of this, we must also view advent as a season where we spend time reflecting upon our sinfulness and, more than just reflecting, do something about our sinfulness, committing ourselves to God anew who sent his son to be the propitiation not only for our sins but for the sins of the whole world. As the psalmist says, “Restore us, O God of hosts, show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved” (80:7).

Finally, the prophet Isaiah reminds us that Advent is the season when we are to commit ourselves anew to God, to lay ourselves before him in humble availability for service. Just as Jesus Christ came to serve humankind by making himself a ransom for many, we are able to serve God as his agents of love and service here on earth. In perhaps the most powerful image of God’s ability to use us, Isaiah writes, “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (64:8). God will make us into his useful servants if we only allow him; if we give ourselves to the fact that we are merely clay, but not just any clay, precious clay that is able to be worked and formed into useful vessels for God’s service. Just as God made Adam from the dust of the earth, he desires to make us into someone unique and special. We must allow God to mold us and shape us into his image for us and not allow ourselves the false freedom of making ourselves into our own images. As the apostle Paul writes, “Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:20-21). We must allow ourselves to be molded by God into honorable, holy vessels. We belong to God for he has bought us at great price. Therefore, let us give ourselves anew to God this Advent season, asking him to make us into his image and to conform us into the image of his Son Jesus Christ.

So, may this Advent season cause you to remember that God came down from heaven for us, for you. May you remember that God is still present to you, not only in hindsight by looking back to the babe in Bethlehem, but right here and right now in the Eucharist and in the body of Christ gathered together as his church. May you use this advent season to remind yourself that you are a sinner, but, more importantly, that you are a sinner saved by the grace of God. Trust in him, for he came to earth for you. Finally, may you allow Jesus the Savior to mold you into a precious vessel for his use. Give yourself to him who gave himself for you. May this Advent season be blessed, and may it bless you.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

(Preached at All Saints’ Anglican Church, Long Beach, CA)

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