Sunday Next Before Advent Sermon

St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Sunday Next Before Advent, Nov. 22,2020, Canon Claude Schroeder

Sermon on John 1. 35-45

Today is “The Sunday Next Before Advent” in our church calendar, affectionately known to generations of Anglicans as “Stir Up” Sunday, from the Collect for today: “Stir up, the wills O Lord of thy faithful people.”

I think our wills could all use a little bit of “stirring up” this time of year, more than in most years when we haven’t had the mental and emotional exhaustion of a pandemic to deal with, and the strain that has put on relationships.

But the way things work in our church calendar, in the first half of the year from Advent to Trinity, the Church, like a mother who is teaching her child how to walk, takes us by the hand, and leads us on a journey, a spiritual journey through the mighty acts whereby God has saved us and set us free from the power of sin and death. On this journey, we “re-live” and re-experience for ourselves the Birth, the Baptism and Temptation, the Preaching, the Teaching, the Miracles, and the Suffering, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ and sending of the Holy Spirit into our hearts, to be with us forever, and to lead us into all Truth.  Who is this Jesus Christ and what has He done for us? Those are the questions which are the focus of the Church’s worship, preaching, and teaching from Advent to Trinity.

And then in the second half of our spiritual pilgrimage, in the long season of Trinity, we are seeking, by God’s grace to apply the teaching and example of the Lord to our own lives, by following in His footsteps in the Way of the Cross, in living a life of self-emptying love. What God has done for us, He now means to do in us and through us, which is to make us into Christians, that is “little Christs.” This is the structure and the logic behind the liturgical worship of the Church.

Today we come to the end of our spiritual pilgrimage for 2020. The question is, “Have we arrived?” “Have we reached our destination?” “Have we come to the end or goal of our journey?”

The answer obviously is “No”, because if we have reached the end of our journey, that would mean we would all be dead! But as it is, as far as I can tell, we are all still very much alive…

So, what are we to do? 

What is the next step?

Well, there is only one thing for us to do, and that is, at the Church’s bidding, to all start all over again, from the beginning…

Really?  You want me to start over? 

I asked somebody this week, whether they felt they were up to it, and they said to me, “What choice do I have?” I thought that was just about right, although I suppose you could always walk way, as some do…But as Peter said to Jesus, when asked if he, like so many others were going to walk away in the face of difficulties,” Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6. 68,69) 

Advent is for us that season when we start over again, from the beginning, where in the words of St. Paul, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, we press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Jesus Christ!” (Philippians 3. 13,14).

So, where and how shall we begin?

We might begin with the question in today’s Gospel lesson, which Jesus posed to the disciples of John the Baptist when they started to follow Him. Jesus turned and said, “What are you looking for?”

Now, there’s a good question! 

What was the song from the rock group U2…” I still haven’t found what I am looking for?”

Advent is the season of yearning, and longing, and looking…

I have to church today, but “what” if anything, or perhaps “who” am I looking for?’

“All night long on my bed I looked for the one my heart loves; I looked for him but did not find him.  I will get up now and go about the city, through its streets and squares; I will search for the one my heart loves. So, I looked for him but did not find him. The watchmen found me as they made their rounds in the city. “Have you seen the one my heart loves?” Scarcely had I passed them when I found the one my heart loves. I held him and would not let him go till I had brought him to my mother’s house, to the room of the one who conceived me. (Song of Solomon 3. 1-4)

That was the dream of the Bride for the Bridegroom as recorded in the Song of Solomon, and it describes the dream of the human soul for Jesus Christ. 

“Have you seen the one my heart loves?” 

I long to hold and to be held by Him.

Is this not what has brought us to the church today?

The disciples of John asked Jesus, “Rabbi, which means teacher, where are you staying?”

In Jesus’ day, young men looking to attach themselves to a rabbi, actually moved into the house to be with their rabbi.

On line education? Not a chance. 

In answer to the question,” Where are you staying,” Jesus replied, “Come and see…Come and see…”

So we come to church, the one place on this earth where in the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments we can be sure to see Jesus. We have moved in to be with our Rabbi, our Teacher…

We but what in the first instance do we, in fact, see?

The first thing that we see is an actual living, breathing, walking, talking, human being, whom we can locate in time and space. We know Him, as Philipp simply referred to Him as “Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Joseph.” 

We also might identify Him from other sources as the Child of Mary, His Mother who is reported to have said and done certain things, things that we actually can’t be certain he said or did, or so say the modern critics of the Bible…

But this historical seeing of Jesus must give way to a deeper spiritual, indeed mystical seeing…

The French writer, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, famously wrote, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

What then do we “see” when we look at Jesus with the eyes of our heart, the essential thing that is invisible to the eye? 

To see Jesus with the eyes of the heart is to see Him the way John the Baptist saw him, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” 

It is to see Jesus the way Andrew saw Him, “We have found the Messiah.”

It is to see Jesus the way Philip saw Him, “We have found Him about Him whom Moses in the Law and the prophets wrote!”  

And finally, it is to see Jesus the way God sees Him, “You are my well-beloved Son, with you I am well pleased!” (Matthew 3.17)

But to come see Jesus in this way, is no simple matter.

It implies that we look beyond the surface or appearance of things, to what is invisible.  

But how can we see what is invisible?

We will come to see what is invisible, when, by the grace of God our hearts our purified, and God opens the eyes of our hearts. Then we shall see Him! But this work of God in purifying our hearts and opening the eyes of our hearts is something that requires our cooperation. 

And how shall we cooperate with this work of God in our hearts?  There is there is no coming to see Jesus Christ clearly apart from prayer, fasting, and charity. These are the fundamental practices of the Christian life. Advent is the season where through prayer, fasting, and charity we cooperate with God in the purification of our hearts and the opening of eyes so that we might truly see Him whom are hearts love.

John tells us that it was four o’clock in the afternoon when Jesus invited the disciples of John to come and see where He was staying. Because there is no detail in the Gospels that is there by accident, we have to ask, “Why does John tell us this and what does this mean?”

Four in the afternoon means that the day was almost over. The sun would soon be setting, and it would be dark.  The reason I think John tells us this is that it is never too late in the day to start to following Jesus. You think about all the years you have wasted in “Trivial Pursuits” “Looking for Love in all the wrong places” (Johnny Lee)  following things and people that do not matter. The day is drawing to a close, but it is not too late. While it is still light and before the darkness of death descends on your life, you will want to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. You will want to come and see, and find Him who your heart loves. And when you find Him, “you will hold him and will not let him go till have brought Him to your mother’s house, to the room of the one who conceived you…”

“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” 

“We have found the Messiah.”

 “We have found Him about Him whom Moses in the Law and the prophets wrote!”  

For those of us who were lucky enough to be fed the Gospel along with our mother’s milk, there is nothing in these prophetic words that we haven’t heard before. And yet there is so much here for us explore and discover.  The invitation today to “come and see” holds the promise that there is always going to be more both to our ‘searching’ and to our ‘seeing’ that attends upon our ‘coming.’

TS Eliot put it so well,

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And to know the place for the first time. “(Four Quartets)