THE birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: and knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS. St. Matthew i.18
The text for the sermon today is taken from the Collect:
“O LORD, raise up (we pray thee) thy power, and come among us, and with great might succour us.”
All throughout Advent, the collects have been pointing us towards the second coming of Christ, the final judgement and our goal to attain eternal life. Take, for example, the Collect from Advent I, which we have repeated every day since: it asks God to give us grace to cast away works of darkness in order to put on the light so that in the last day when He comes to judge the quick and the dead, we may rise to life immortal. In Advent II we prayed to understand Holy Scriptures so that we may hold fast to everlasting life. Last week we prayed for ministers to point the way so that we may be found an acceptable people in God’s sight. All of these have focused our sight ahead, using the liturgical advent of the Christ child to highlight Christ’s coming as our judge.
But the collect for the fourth week of Advent has a decidedly different tone. After all this preparation, this week’s collect has an honest tone that focuses on the present moment rather than the future. It demands the presence of God now for He is our lifeline if we are to ever attain eternal life. “Raise up we pray the thy power and come among us and with great might succour us.” Throughout this three week period of preparation and solemn supplication, we have found that it is impossible to attain heaven on our own accord. Rather, we have found our sins and wickedness, in fact, are what hinders us to accept God’s grace and mercy. So we cry, not for future assistance, but immediate help, that God comes among us. If we are ever to run this race like the Apostle Paul urges us to do and reach our goal of heaven, we need the presence of God now.
This demand of God’s presence is actually quite similar to that of the priests and Levites in the Gospel passage for today. The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent these men out to the wilderness to see if John the Baptist was the messiah, the herald of God’s kingdom. This is no surprise. The multitudes were flocking to the wilderness where, along the banks of a muddy river, they confessed their sins, and were ritually cleansed in John’s baptism. His teaching was bold and inspiring, attacking the religious establishments of his day and calling all to acknowledge that the kingdom of God was coming. Naturally, people thought that perhaps, he might be the Messiah. But John admits that he is not that one, but one who is preparing the way. And then he lets them in on his mission: that he is the one who points to the Messiah. He is the one who heralds the presence of God. “I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not: he it is who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose.“
And in fact, John completes his mission the very next day. The following verse in our Gospel lesson from the Gospel of St. John reads: “The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water.” (John 1:29-31 KJV) This is remarkable. Imagine the scene with me. John, the great evangelist of the day has just admitted that he is only pointing the way to another one who will come. That is the One who will baptize with the Spirit of God–one who, in effect, will bring down the presence of God! And then he tells the crowd that this one is among them, standing there and yet no one knows. Can you imagine the rumors rushing about? The excitement generated from such a statement? And the very next day, the anticipation concludes: Jesus Christ is named the Lamb of God. In a few more verses, Jesus is baptized. The Forth Gospel records: “And John [the Baptist] bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him.” Do you see the point? The presence of God has descended upon a man, and now God is among men. John continues: “And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.” (Jhn 1:29-34 KJV)
John’s heralding of the kingdom of God culminates in the Person of Jesus Christ. And once John the Baptist reveals the Messiah, his mission has been completed and the Gospels shift their focus to Jesus’ teaching. Mark records Jesus’ first words in his ministry are: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel. (Mar 1:15 KJV) The kingdom of God now is at hand! Or as we find in Matthew, the kingdom of heaven is now at hand!
How can this be? Isn’t the kingdom of God outside this realm? Yes, heaven does denote a different sphere, the sphere of God in which God exists in his perfect Being. “Our Father, who art in heaven. . .” Heaven is our word or designation for the place where God dwells in Himself. And to say “a place” is misleading, because though God has created time and space, he also transcends time and space. He is beyond place, but heaven is still the best word for us to use when we try to think of God’s dwelling place. We also know, because he revealed it to us, that God dwells in Trinity: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. And so when we consider heaven, we must consider it in this Trinitarian light: and what we witness is that heaven is a world of love. John writes in his first epistle that God is love, and this is seen because God is three persons, perfect harmony because of perfect love. It was Augustine who famously described the Trinity as the Lover (the Father), the beloved (the Son), and the love itself which unites the Trinity (the Holy Ghost). This is not some sort of light-hearted love but a self-sacrificial, fully giving of oneself love.
It is hard for us to even imagine the Love within the Trinity, and as Fr. Mark noted last week, this all-consuming love can be as wonderful and pleasing to some as it is frightful and terrible to others. “When the One who embraces you is the Source of all existence, the Glorious Majesty upon whom no man can look and live (Ex. 33:20) — then that embrace must be either supremely joyful or supremely hateful.”
This love, I believe, is so frightful to some, because it demands a total- self giving on the part of the beloved, to be fully loved is to be fully known. And many people want to hold on to themselves, terrified to obey. They do not want to be known. But as it is hard for us to understand this, it is even more spectacular that God first gave of Himself in love. God so loved the world, His creation, that he gave His only-begotten son to the end that all that believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life.And this is exactly the point of John the Baptist. John the Baptist’s message and what the Gospels continue to record is that because Jesus is the lamb of God, because he is the Son of God, because he is the second person of the Trinity, he lifts up all those who are joined to him into heaven. In fact, it might be better to say that the presence of Jesus Christ is heaven. Through Him the world is transformed and the kingdom of man is lifted up into the kingdom of God.
We enter into this world of love as we are God’s children, but, still, in our lives, we see in part. Paul writes: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1Co 13:12 KJV) And John writes in his first epistle: “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.” (1Jo 3:1-3 KJV)
John helps us to understand that though the process is not complete, we do actually partake in the heavenly world of love now. The process takes place within the Church, and specifically it is lived out in our parish where we receive the heavenly virtues at baptism, feed on heavenly food at Holy communion, receive heavenly grace to run the race at Confirmation, receive heavenly healing with Holy Unction, give of ourselves in a bond of love in Holy Matrimony or fulfill the vocation to serve God in Holy Orders, and finally to be buried so that we might rise again. As our lives become filled with heavenly love, the fruits of the spirit will blossom. Paul urges the Philippians in the Epistle this morning to take joy in the Lord. To be known by moderation, which in this context means gentleness and orderliness. And instead of thinking only of themselves, he reminds the Philippians to give their prayers and requests to God, turning their anxieties into thanksgivings. This is heavenly living. Look how Paul puts it: the peace of God will keep our hearts and minds. This means that the love and peace that God enjoys will now be our enjoyment as we become like Him.
And to return now, back to the Collect for this morning,
“O LORD, raise up (we pray thee) thy power, and come among us, and with great might succour us.”
Yes, come among us as you came onto Mary and were born in manger. Come among us as you walked on the roads of Galilee teaching and healing. Come among us as you suffered tribulation and cruxifixction. Come among us as you revealed yourself in the breaking of the bread. Come among us in the bread and wine. Come among us so that we may become like you in love and joy and attain everlasting life. +