December 1, 2013 First Sunday in Advent
The Necessity of Advents
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 50, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 21:1-13, John 6:44
HAPPY NEW YEAR! Happy New Year? Have I lost my mind? I hope not. Today is the first day of the new Church year. The First Sunday in Advent is always the first Day of the new church year. So, for the Church, today is New Year’s Day.
Sometimes on the church calendar we celebrate certain events that are joyous for us; sometimes we commemorate sad events such as Herod’s killing of the children of Bethlehem, the Holy Innocents; but sometimes we have seasons that we observe, such as Advent, Epiphany, the Gesimas and Lent. These seasons may have to do with preparation for an event or for teaching us certain spiritual disciplines. Advent is one of these multipurpose seasons that looks forward to several events as well as backwards to other events, which we celebrate and observe.
First, let me give you a little history, and no, there won’t be a test on this after the service. The history of Advent as a season is a little strange. It began in the first two centuries as a six-week season of preparation for converts who were to be baptized at Epiphany (January 6th). Now, Epiphany is the Great Feast that celebrates the appearance of Jesus to the Gentiles when the three wise men came to visit Him. In the Gentile churches of those early times Epiphany was considered to be second only to Easter in importance. It was from this period of preparation for the catechumens that we got the season of Advent and its penitential emphasis.
Christmas did not begin to be celebrated until the fourth century, and the date of the 25th of December was not settled on for Christmas until about 400 AD. Over a couple of centuries after that, the emphasis in Advent changed to what it is today.
So, that is how we got the season that became Advent, but how did the season get its name? The Roman Church spoke Latin. The verb for to come in Latin was venio. The Romans stuck the prefix ad, which means to or toward, on the front of the verb, venio, to get the verb, advento, which means to come toward, to approach, or to arrive. Then they made a noun out of it by sticking an ending on it to get Adventus. All that the English did to get Advent was drop off the ending Advent is often spoken of as simply a coming, but that is not completely right. A better translation is, a coming to, an approach, or an arrival.
The question is who or what is coming toward, or to, whom or what.
Because our season of Advent has an emphasis on preparation, we might sometimes get the idea that an advent is always a time of waiting, but that’s not true, because an advent is not always a “coming to, but not yet here”; an advent can be an arrival. With that in mind, for us, we need to recognize that there are several Advents we need to look at, more than you might expect.
The First Advent is, of course, that of the Incarnation of the eternal Word, God the Son, who took on flesh, was born in a stable as a helpless baby in an event that just boggles our minds. As St. John put it in his gospel in John 1:14 "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." We celebrate the event of Christ’s birth with great joy, and we should; for God came to us in the flesh as Emmanuel, as God with us. We should celebrate it, even though we know it leads to the Cross, because we know the story does not end there, but goes on to the triumph of the Resurrection on Easter morning and His glorious Ascension 40 days later. What’s more, we know that without the Cross, we would not have the possibility of salvation because Jesus is the only sinless person to have ever lived, so His death was the only sacrifice that could redeem us.
If we have studied the whole Bible and not just the New Testament, we can see that the events of Jesus’ life are the culmination of God’s Plan to make for Himself a people from all the nations and tribes of the earth, a people for whom He could say, as He said many times in the Bible, "I will be their God, and they shall be My people."
However, there is another Advent that is coming toward us, that is not here yet; and that is the arrival of the Son of God, Jesus Christ in glory to judge both the quick and the dead. And so in this Advent season we look toward two events: The first event is the commemoration on Christmas Day of Jesus’ Incarnation and birth 2000 years ago; the second is His coming again in glory to judge the world on the Last Day, we know not when.
Two Advents mixed together in one short season, how can we handle that? How about with joyous anticipation at the birth of Christ tempered by the penitence of preparation, not preparation for baptism, but for judgment, for knowing that on that Last Day each of us shall have to stand before Jesus and be given a perfect memory of every one of our millions of sins. Even if we can stand in the confidence that that we have been saved by grace through faith, that still has to be a sobering thought. I just wonder how could any of us dare to stand before Jesus under any conditions. When I think of this I am always brought back to that picture in Revelation 1:17 when St. John the Evangelist turns to see what he thought was an angel and recognizes Jesus: "When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, "Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” Then there will be that moment on that Second Advent when every knee shall bow at Jesus’ Name, believer or nonbeliever.
So what we have in the season of Advent is both a beginning and an end. Advent begins the Church year in which we go through all the seasons: Christmas; Epiphany; the Gesimas; Lent
Easter, the Ascension, Pentecost, the day of the arrival of the Holy Spirit; and then the long Trinity season. We have just come through the long season of Trinity. All through that season our lessons looked at the work of Jesus and the growth of the Church until we came to last Sunday, the Sunday Next before Advent, when in the Gospel lesson for that day we are told the story of the Feeding of the 5000 again on the last Sunday of every church year. Jesus feeds us, His sheep, both with His words, and ultimately, with His Body and Blood. For the church, yesterday was New Year’s Eve.
In this new year that begins today, we shall go through the story of Jesus’ life again from His birth through His death and resurrection as we try to comprehend all that that story means for us and for the Church; but, just as those early Christians realized that those who were going to be baptized at Epiphany needed some preparation, the Church Fathers realized that everyone also needed a time of preparation at the beginning of the church year before celebrating the birth of Jesus, not just for celebrating His wondrous birth, but also in that Second Coming that he prophesied. So Advent is not just a matter of preparation for Christmas; it is also a matter of preparation for Jesus’ coming in clouds of glory on the Last Day. That was something that Pope Gregory I recognized, 1400 and a few years ago, when he decreed the Advent season and so should we.
And in each of those two Advents, Jesus comes to be with us as God with us, as Emmanuel. However, there are some other Advents we need to consider as well. The first of those might be obvious, and that one is Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to be with mankind. We don’t usually think of the Holy Spirit as Emmanuel, or Pentecost as an Advent, but He is definitely “God with us”. We try to comprehend the importance of the Advent of the Holy Spirit as the birthday of the Church, even though He resides in each of us.
Have you noticed something about these three Advents? They are all a matter of God’s coming to us, fallen, sinful humans whose ancestors got kicked out of the Garden of Eden. There are two more such Advents I want us to think about today, and they also involve God’s coming to us.
The first of these is one that you should all be aware of. Is Jesus here right now? Is He in this room? Do you feel His presence? There is a single verse in Gospel of St. Matthew that is hidden in chapter 18 in the middle of one of Jesus’ discourses to the disciples. In Matthew 18:20, Jesus says to them, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them." Yes, Jesus is here, with us today, not in body, but in Spirit. He is here with us every Sunday. He is at our Bible studies, and whenever two or more pray to ask for His blessing on a meal. This spiritual Advent of Jesus at our gatherings happens far more often than we recognize, but we should recognize it and rejoice in it. This does not mean that He does not hear our individual prayers; it just means He is definitely with us whenever we gather in His Name.
There is one more Advent for us to look at, and it is a very important one. For us as Anglicans, it could be said that the idea for this Advent comes from one of the 39 Articles of Religion, but what is really true is that the particular Article actually has its source in the Bible. Article X says this rather strange thing:
X. Of Free Will. The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.
What on earth!? Can this mean that the grace of God prevents us from doing good works? Not really. Our problem, and it really is our problem, is that back in Elizabethan times in the 1500s, prevent did not mean to keep something from happening. Ad-vent means to come to or to come toward. To the Elizabethans, pre-vent meant to come before, in time, to precede. The Article says that for us to do anything good, God’s grace has to come upon us before we can do anything that pleases Him. The truth that Article X states, and it is a truth, lies at the center of Anglican Theology. This comes from one of the sayings of Jesus in what is called the Bread of Life discourse, which takes up most of the 6th chapter of the Gospel of St. John. In John 6:44, Jesus says: "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day." Jesus later confirmed that saying in John 6:64-65 "But there are some of you who do not believe." … "Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father."
If a person has come to Jesus, or if he has ever wanted to come to Jesus, but has not made an effort to do so, sometime in his life, the Holy Spirit came to that person and put the desire in him to come to faith in Jesus Christ. That coming of the Holy Spirit to a person to put the need for Christ in his heart is a very important Advent. Without that Advent, a person would never want to become a Christian. However there are some people who are so wicked or stiff-necked, that they can resist and spurn that invitation. You are here because you accepted it, and I am very happy that you did.
I have talked about 5 Advents. There may be others in which God comes to us, and there is no ranking of them; They are all important. But these five are all necessary. These advents are necessary parts of God’s plan to make himself a people that is made up of people made in His own image, people who were capable of sin and of rejecting God, but who accepted the Holy Spirit’s invitation and came to Jesus. The Advent of Jesus was necessary so that the sin of the world could be taken away by Him on the Cross and we sinners would have the chance of redemption. God knew that we would need the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, to guide us after Jesus’ Ascension, just as we need the presence of Jesus when we gather together. What we call the Second Advent of Jesus’ Second Coming might be better called the Last Advent, for that is when we shall all be changed to be like Him.
However, I want to repeat that in each of these Advents, it is God who comes to us. Just as Article X says, we cannot come to him unless He comes to us first. In a paragraph about Advents and the Eucharist that I like to read every Advent, the English theologian and Priest, Austin Farrer sums this up beautifully:
“Advent is a coming, not our coming to God, but His to us. We cannot come to Him; He is beyond our reach; but He can come to us; for we are not beneath His mercy. Even in another life, as St. John sees it in his vision, we do not rise to God; but he descends to us, and dwells humanly among human creatures, in the glorious man, Jesus Christ. And that will be His last coming; so we shall be His people, and he everlastingly will be our God, our God-with-us, our Emmanuel. He will so come, but he is come already; He comes always: in our fellow-Christian (even in a child, says Christ), in His Word, invisibly in our souls, more visibly in this sacrament. Opening ourselves to Him, we call Him in; Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; O come, Emmanuel.”