Advent 3 – Sermon

St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Advent 3, Dec 13, 2020 Canon Claude Schroeder
Sermon on John 1. 6-8, 19-28

Sermon audio

So today we have come to the Third Sunday in Advent in our church calendar, and we all know what that means … 12 more sleeps until Christmas!

Of course, this year it’s not going it be quite the same, is it?

In 1943, the American singer and entertainer Bing Crosby recorded a song entitled, “I’ll be home for Christmas” in honour of American troops fighting in the war in overseas, which since has become a Christmas standard.

Maybe you know how it goes.

I’m dreaming tonight of a place I love
Even more than I usually do
And although I know it’s a long road back
I promise you

I’ll be home for Christmas
You can count on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree.

Well, for the soldiers who first heard the song, huddled in their tents and trenches, it left them crying into their boots, because this was a promise that was not going to be fulfilled any time soon. Some would not be coming come for Christmas ever again.  That’s why the song concludes,

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams
If only in my dreams.

That song is going to ring true for a lot of people this year who won’t be coming home for Christmas, and will have to content themselves with being home for Christmas in their dreams,  or perhaps  “calling” or “zooming” home for Christmas. For those who will be home for Christmas, they will be  not ‘at home’ this Christmas, separated from family and friends, wishing it was otherwise. 

It’s not going to be the same.  

But here we are. 

It’s the Third Sunday in Advent, the season in our church calendar of preparation for the coming of Christ. As the Advent Collect puts in the daily prayer of the Church: “He came to us in great humility”, and “will come again in His glorious Majesty.” But in between these two comings of Jesus Christ, we have His coming to us now, in the present moment, where, as it says in the hymn we just sang, 

Jesus comes again in mercy 
When our hearts are worn with care;
Jesus comes again in answer
To an earnest, heart-felt prayer;
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Comes to save us from despair.

Jesus comes to hearts rejoicing,
Bringing news of sins forgiv’n; 
Jesus comes with words of gladness,
Leading souls redeemed to heav’n.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Hope to all the world is giv’n.

Jesus comes in joy and sorrow,
Shares alike our hopes and fears;
Jesus comes, whate’er befalls us,
Cheers our hearts and dries our tears;
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Comforts us in failing years.

In others words, there is one person who will be home for Christmas, whose home-coming to us we can count on, and it is the only one that really matters, and that is the home-coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will be home for Christmas, and it will not be a dream, but a flesh and blood reality. The promise holds true: “Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.” (O Little Town of Bethlehem) In the midst of all the fear, anxiety, and uncertainty of our live, this is something we can count on.  And so we seek to prepare ourselves to welcome Him and receive Him afresh into our lives. 

So how shall we prepare? 

We prepare by repentance, by turning to God in our hearts. We prepare through prayer and fasting and attending to the prophetic words of Scripture that speak to us of His coming. We prepare by considering how we might fulfill the royal, the kingly law of Scripture that says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” as an extension of your own being.  (James 2.8)

But we also prepare by putting into practice St. Paul’s exhortation from today’s reading from the First Letter to the Thessalonians, where it says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” (1 Thessalonians 5. 16-18)

This Third Sunday of Advent is for us a day of rejoicing. But Paul writes, “Rejoice always”, meaning not just when we come to church on Sundays!

“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” 

This is the song the Blessed Virgin Mary sang in response to the Good News that was brought to her by the angel Gabriel. It is a song which the church puts onto our lips and into hearts every day in the service of evening prayer, so that rejoicing in the Lord might be for us a daily exercise. 

And then, “Pray without ceasing.” How do we do this? One way is stop and take a moment at regular points throughout the day, to recite the Lord’s Prayer, a collect appropriate to the hour, or a Psalm. This is why we have a prayer book so that might never be at a loss as to what to say. 

But Paul’s injunction to pray without ceasing is traditionally interpreted to refer to the prayer that comes from and is offered on, either silently or aloud, the altar of our hearts. It is a prayer that consists of short simple phrases, such as:

“O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.”

“O God make speed to save me. O Lord make hast to help me.”

This prayer of the heart is something that we carry out in the midst of our daily occupations when what we are doing doesn’t require a great deal of mental focus and attention, as when we walking somewhere, or waiting in line, or during moments of quiet throughout the day. These are for us opportunities to have communion and fellowship with the Lord in the Spirit through the repetition of a simple verse or prayer.

And then, writes Paul, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” In others words, COVID or no COVID, in good times and in bad, whether we feel like it or not, we to give thanks to God. That is not to say that we give thanks for the bad thing that is happening, but rather that we give thanks to God in the midst of the bad thing that is happening, because we recognize that there is no circumstance in which we find ourselves where God does not provide for us. “On the night that He was betrayed, Jesus took bread, and gave thanks…”The spiritual writer and theologian, Alexander Schmemann once wrote, “Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.”

“Rejoice always, praying without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances. This,” writes Paul, “ is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”

Well, tomorrow, Dec 14th I will be celebrating another birthday. Which birthday?  Suffice to say, I have been asked on more than one occasion, whether I would like the senior’s discount, for which I am not eligible quite yet!  

According to a song by John Denver, “Today is the first day of the rest of my life!” It’s time to make a fresh start and a new beginning. The possibilities are endless!  Truth is though, the possibilities are not endless, and with each passing year, the end draws near. Truth is, “Today is the first day of what’s left of my life.”  So what I am to do with what’s left of my life? “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances. This,” says Paul, “is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”

In our Gospel lesson today we heard the testimony given by St. John the Baptist when the Jews sent priests and Levites from the Pharisees in Jerusalem who asked him, “ Why are you baptizing these people?” 

Here at St. Mary’s we have looking forward to and praying with and for Cailen and Derek who have been preparing for baptism and had hoped to have been baptized by now. 

So what’s the big deal? Why are baptizing these people?

John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thpng of his sandals.”

Baptism is, among other things, a sign that the One who is coming, and whose coming we await in Advent, is already here. He stands among us, but we do not know Him, we do not recognize Him.

This is recurring theme in John’s Gospel. Jesus Christ remains one whom people do not know and do not understand.

Why is this?

Partly it’s a matter of ignorance, which is to say ignorance of the Scriptures. 

So for example, who was Isaiah talking about when he wrote, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners?”

He is talking about Jesus Christ.  Do we not recognize in these verses the face of Jesus Christ?

Even if we do recognize Jesus in these verses from Scripture, this is only but one facet His identity, which we will never ever fully grasp. And this points us to another problem, which is that of arrogance. We can think we have Jesus figured out. But there is so much that we do not know, and have not grasped!  The more we do grasp of the beauty, the majesty, the glory, and the grace, the loving mercy Jesus Christ, the less proud, the lesson arrogant, and the more humble we will become, as John said, “The one who is coming after me: I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.”

And so in the days that are left to us in Advent let us come before the Lord in all humility, and ask Him to reveal Himself to us, and let us prepare ourselves that we might be ready to receive Him in the surprising, unexpected, and even unwelcome ways, when He comes. Amen.