Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

+ In the Name of He who was, and is, and is to come: Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

The Collect for today makes several very important points in quick succession.

First, it prays God to visit us daily so that we may be pure. We cannot help but become sullied, confused, and make errors in this world, and our loving God knows this. He has made provision for this in the Church by a regular life of grace and repentance so that we  may return to him and feel his renewing presence, never wandering so far away as to become lost.

The collect asks God’s purifying power on our conscience, a word ultimately deriving from a Latin word for knowledge. Conscience is our inner knowledge of what is good and right; it is that part of our mind that stays focused and firm on what has been shown to us as good and proper as Christians. Like every aspect of our body and spirit, our conscience needs regular nourishment in God’s will and truth to operate properly.

The purpose of this effort is that our God may find us mansions prepared for him when he comes to us. This is the exact opposite of the scene in Genesis when Adam and Eve, fresh from transgressing God’s command about the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, hide themselves away in shame when God comes to them in the “cool of the day.” They were not a mansion prepared for him then at all, but a closed door in fear and self-loathing.

Advent, now nearly over already, has been a brief course in God’s return at the End of the Ages and in the daily encounters we tend to overlook as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s Nativity. Even at this late hour, our God is speaking to us through the sacred words of Scripture, calling to us that there is still time to live the Advent Life of joyful expectation of Christ’s return now and then.

The Lesson from 2 Samuel tells of King David’s desire to build for God a temple of stone, now that David has reached a place of comfort and peace. King David seems ill-at-ease with the fact he is living in a palace but the Ark of God “still stays in a tent.” This initially seems entirely reasonable to the prophet Nathan, and he encourages David to carry out his plan.

Nathan, however, daily purifies his conscience: he listens to God. So deeply is he trained in this that even asleep he is listening. In his dream God reveals he does not want or need David’ pity, delaying the Temple building project. Rather than David make God an earthly, temporal house, Nathan reports God has decided to make David’s house eternal.

This promise of an everlasting dynasty was a far deeper thing than David understood. David’s descendants would ultimately lose the kingdom through their unfaithfulness…but God never reneged on his promise. What we will celebrate at Christmas is the manifestation of that promise’s durability and God’s faithfulness to those who make a covenant with him.

We learn from this story something else: the most important temple we as Christians have is the temple of our heart, for it is from our heart that the truest worship is offered to God, and from our heart that we love our neighbor, thereby loving God. It was David’s loving heart for God and God’s people, not a promise to build a building to house the Ark, that brought forth the divine promise from David’s line. It is still not too late today to open your own heart to God in humility, repentance, and service to your neighbor. Advent is not quite over; there is still time to prepare to receive the King where it counts most.

The lesson from the Gospel today is the account of the Annunciation in St. Luke. We hear this story at this hour because it is the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophesies regarding the Messiah, what St. Paul in Romans 16 today calls “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed.”

The Temple the Messiah would first know in this world, before his dedication in Jerusalem, was the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That temple was made of flesh, not of stone. At one and the same time it was very small and cosmically vast: it was hidden inside the body of a young woman, and yet it was “more spacious than the heavens” because it contained the Logos of God, the Word made flesh. This impossible contradiction was the start of God’s redeeming and healing humanity from within, rather than by forcing our compliance from without. Yet, there had to be willingness; an openness from our side to participate.

St. Mary is the true focus of this day. She is the most honored of all the saints and receives our highest veneration. She is honored in part because she was ready to be that “mansion prepared for God” spoken of in the collect. Her response to the Archangel’s message was: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” It was not: “come back when I am ready,” or “I need more time.” She didn’t fully understand but she was prepared.

We cannot know when our God will call upon us to serve him. Perhaps it will be to help a person in great distress, or to give guidance to someone caught in anxiety and perplexity. It could be to give time to teach, to encourage, to witness to God’s mercy, or to show the Gospel in a courageous act of generosity or a commitment to prayer. The essential thing is that we are a “mansion prepared for himself,” and like the Holy Theotokos, ready to say “Here am I” when called upon. This is the “obedience of faith” St. Paul speaks of in Romans today—a loving obedience that produces holy lives of readiness and courage.

The highlight of Evening Prayer is always the saying or singing of the Song of Mary from Luke, Chapter 1. St. Mary begins her song of praise with the words: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” When we live such lives of God’s “daily visitation,” we are indeed living temples, mansions proclaiming the greatness of the Lord: for our delight and for the benefit of the world.

That is why what we do here is so urgently important—and it is not too late to join the Blessed Virgin in her song each night at Evensong and daily in lives consciously consecrated to God’s reign, a reign which has already begun in heaven, in this liturgy, and in the lives of every person who loves and serves God and neighbor for Christ’s sake. Let it be with us according to God’s most holy will and word.


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