St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Advent 1, November 29, 2020 Canon Claude Schroeder
Here we are.
It’s the First Sunday in Advent, and the beginning of a new year and a new season in our church calendar. Advent means “to come”, as the Advent collect puts it, “He came to us in great humility, and will come again in His Glorious Majesty.” And Advent is a season of a season of remembrance, of longing, and of hope and expectation at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ
How strange it is for me to be preaching and recording this sermon in an empty church, and how strange for you who are reading and perhaps listening to this sermon not to have come to church today
And yet, as the Anglican theologian Fleming Rutledge writes, ““The uniqueness of Advent is that it really forces us more than any other season, even more than Lent, to look deeply into what is wrong in the world, and why the best-laid plans don’t work out the way we meant them to, and why our greatest hopes are so often confounded, and why things happen the way they do, and why sometimes it is so difficult to see where God is acting. Every year,” she writes, “Advent begins in the dark…”
This Advent perhaps more so than in Advents past do we feel force of those words.
In our Gospel lesson today from the 13th Chapter of St. Mark, Jesus speaks about how after a time of intense suffering,
“the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mark 13. 24-25)
It sounds like end of the world doesn’t it! And many Christians have taken it so. But the language Jesus is using here is symbolic. In the ancient world the sun, the moon, the stars represented fixed points and predictable patterns, and were the chief means of navigation, and symbolized order and stability. But now, when the sun is darkened, and when the moon will not give its light, and the stars fall from heaven, the result is disorder, chaos and unpredictability! So what Jesus describes here is not so much the end of the world, but the end of the present world order.
”Then”, says Jesus, “they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” (Mark 13. 26)
Again, it sounds like what Jesus is talking about here is His triumphant return from heaven to earth at the end of world to judge the living and the dead. But Jesus here is borrowing a phrase from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, where Daniel writes, In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.” (Daniel 7.13)
In this passage, the ‘coming of the son of man on the clouds of heaven does not refer to a descent, a coming down of the Son of Man from heaven to earth, but rather an ascent, a lifting up, a coming of the Son of Man from earth into heaven.
And in the next verse we read, “He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7.14)
In the context of Mark Chapter 13, Jesus is referring to his ascension into heaven following upon his death and resurrection.
And so we confess that in the face of all the chaos and confusion of life and the collapse of the systems and structures of the world that come upon the earth, Jesus Christ is Lord, and He is exercising His sovereign rule in history and is working the mystery of His death and resurrection in our lives. Although, as Fleming Rutledge points out, this is something that is very difficult to see when all is dark!
So, what are we to do?
What do you do when all is dark?
You turn on a light, don’t you?
And so in the darkness of this present time, we turn to Jesus Christ, and allow the light of His truth to shine upon us, so that as Paul wrote in today’s lesson in his Letter to the Corinthians, we might be “enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind — that the testimony of Christ might be been strengthened among us.” (1 Corinthians 1.5).
This is the spiritual agenda which the Church sets before us in Advent.
In an article on the Two Comings of Christ, which I have adapted and included in our Advent in the Home Care Package, Thomas Hopko writes,
Christians are those who remember and celebrate the fact that God has visited his people in the person of his Son in order to be crucified and raised. And so they are also those who await his Coming, believing that all of God’s promises made in and through Jesus will be actualized in the age to come. Therefore they expect nothing here. They want nothing here. They know that they will get nothing here. Their Savior’s promise for this age is only persecution and tribulation.
Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.” (John 15:18-20)
“The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16-33)
Christians live between the two comings of Christ. They remember his first coming to be sacrificed. They anticipate his second coming to reign. This is vividly portrayed at St. Mary’s at the chancel steps in front of the altar table are flanked by the icons of Mary and Child on the one side, and the Lord Jesus in glory on the other.
It may seem as though these are simply pictures of Mary and Jesus put on the same level. This is not so. The icons which frame the altar are images of the two comings of Christ.
Mary is not alone in her icon; she is holding the Christ child, who is not shown as a baby, but as the Son of God incarnate “in the form of a slave … in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7). This is the icon of Christ’s first coming.
And the icon on the right of the chancel steps is not a picture of Jesus as he was on the earth. It is his image in glory as King and Lord, the icon of his second coming.
The two comings of Christ are held together in Christian thought, action, and prayer at all times. They cannot be separated. When they are, it is the end of Christian faith, life and worship. The first coming without the second is a meaningless tragedy. The second coming without the first is an absurd impossibility. Jesus is born to bring God’s kingdom. He dies to prove his kingship. He rises to establish his reign. He comes again in glory to share it with his people. In the kingdom of God there are no subjects. All rule with the risen Messiah. He came, and is coming, for this purpose alone.
You have taken me captive with longing for You, O Christ,
And have transformed me with Your divine love.
Burn up my sins with the fire of Your Spirit
And count me worthy to take my fill of delight in You
That dancing with joy, I may magnify Your Two Comings.”