Fr. Andrew Armond – The First Sunday of Advent, November 28, 2021
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the world outside of this church service, we bask in the echoes of our American Thanksgiving on this First Sunday of Advent. Perhaps we are still hung over in some sense (not literally) from our wonderful meals, football games, and time with family and friends. Maybe we’ve already put up our Christmas tree at home and begun to string the lights. I bet some of us have even started listening to Christmas music.
And while it’s not my job to be the Advent police, I do hope you have noticed this morning the differences between the coming of the secular Christmas season outside these walls and the readings for the First Sunday of Advent within the Church. It can be quite jarring, can’t it, to go from “city sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style” to “there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”
Simply put, the Church wants us to be thinking about a different set of concerns as we approach Christmas. The Church asks us to consider what it means to be ready for the coming of a Savior, what it means to be ready for Jesus to enter our hearts again, what it means to have made preparations for the coming of Christ, both the coming of the baby God in the manger and for the Living God who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and whose Kingdom will have no end.
There is a good reason for this. There is a good reason for this “Little Lent,” because every time we think about how to welcome Jesus into our hearts and our lives, as we are meant to do upon the Feast of the Incarnation of the Lord, i.e., Christmas, we must consider what we are really getting ourselves into. The emphasis on waiting and preparation in Advent is really meant to put us in a place of self-examination. We need to consider again what our place will be in the story of Christmas to come.
Will we be a jealous King Herod, furious that Jesus is asking us to give up our own power and privilege for the sake of others?
Will we be one of the curious Magi, first recognizing the coming of Christ as merely an interesting phenomenon but then coming away from our encounter with him a changed person?
Will we be a humble shepherd, greeting the Holy One of Israel with joy and welcome, amazed that the King of Glory chose to visit us in our poverty and need?
Will we be like Mary, rejoicing in the God who casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly?
How will we respond to the One who is about to come, who is about to change everything, who demands not just a small part of our hearts, but all of our hearts, so that he can transform them into what God has always intended for them to be?
There are very few places in the storytelling of our faith where we get a good picture at this Jesus, the one who longingly but steadily focuses his gaze on us, demanding that we re-examine our priorities, our motivations, our actions, and our entire lives if we are to follow him.
One of the most memorable and truth-telling prophets in literature is the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The Mis-fit lives up to his name. He is an intelligent and amoral criminal who absolutely understands the Gospel of Grace but refuses it, knowing that he cannot welcome the Jesus who changes lives, the Jesus whose Grace is a free gift, demanding nothing in return except the totality of our very being. The Misfit says, rightly, that “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead . . . and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can.”
The Misfit, like so many of O’Connor’s characters, is haunted by Jesus, haunted by the Grace that he would welcome with open arms were it not that it would change him, irrevocably, forever.
Our readings from today, and the beginnings of this season of Advent, remind us that Jesus has indeed thrown everything off balance. The way of the world, quid pro quo, this for that; simply will not work with Jesus. We cannot bribe our way into heaven, we cannot earn our way into heaven. What this all-demanding Christ demands is our hearts themselves. A profound act of trust is involved, a leap of faith into a future whose particulars are unknown, but which is full of the grace and mercy of God.
And this is why the Church celebrates Advent the way we do. This is why our four weeks before Christmas are full of prophetic and apocalyptic literature. It is because we recognize that the coming of God among us, Emmanuel, Jesus Christ, is the arrival of the Holy One of God, the One who, as Jeremiah prophesies, will execute justice and righteousness in the land.
We long for that day; we await that day in which the evil ways of this world will be put to flight, the day in which the treacherous will be disappointed in their schemes.
If we really want to know how to prepare a room in our hearts to welcome Christ, we need look no further than Luke’s Gospel, from which our two most beloved canticles come: the Benedictus, or the Song of Zechariah, traditionally appointed for Morning Prayer, and the Magnificat, or the Song of Mary, traditionally appointed for Evening Prayer. Both are songs of two people eagerly anticipating the arrival of Jesus. Both name specific expectations for what they believe the Promised One of God will accomplish.
Zechariah anticipates Jesus’s arrival with these beautiful words:
In the tender compassion of our God
The dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of
Death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Likewise, Mary says that
[God] has mercy on those who fear him
In every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm
And has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
And has lifted up the lowly.
What we welcome when we welcome Jesus is the One who throws everything off balance. Jesus delightfully and gracefully shines on our darkness, illuminating all things by his brightness. Jesus guides us away from the ways of this world, full of violence and hatred and negativity, into the way of peace. And the same Jesus fearlessly and boldly helps us to cast off the works of darkness, to cast down the mighty from their thrones, and to lift up the lowly. This is the Jesus for whom we prepare. This is the One for Whom Every Heart Prepares a Room.
I leave you today with the words of the early Church Father, St. Cyprian of Carthage, who wrote these words on the Gospel passage for today. Cyprian shows us that, rather than fear and trepidation, the Kingdom’s arrival as prophesied by Jesus is nothing less than to our Good, to our Eternal and Lasting Good:
“The kingdom of God, beloved ones, is beginning to be at hand; the reward of life, and the rejoicing of eternal salvation, and the perpetual gladness and possession lately lost of paradise, are now coming, with the passing away of the world; already heavenly things are taking the place of earthly, and great things of small, and eternal things of things that fade away. What room is there here for anxiety and worry?”
The answer, of course, is none; there is no room for anxiety and worry, only a heart prepared and ready to receive the blessing of God’s greatest gift, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Come, Lord Jesus, Come.