Collect for Advent I
ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility;
that in the last day when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Jeremiah 33, Vv 14 – 16
1 Thessalonians 3, Vv 9 – 13
St Luke 21, Vv 245 – 36
We have again come full circle and the church begins another New Year. So we begin again a four-week penitential period to bring us to that most wonderful Feast of the Nativity of Our Blessed Lord, which the Prayer Book so beautifully describes as, ‘Commonly called Christmas Day’. Before we remind ourselves again of the significance that Mother Church places on the four Sundays of the Advent season, let us spend a few moments looking at some words that we heard read in our Old Testament lesson. In this passage the prophet Jeremiah writes of a righteous branch that will spring up from David, one who executes justice and righteousness in the land. Then he gives a name to this branch; ‘it will be called “The Lord is our Righteousness”.’ Jeremiah is here prophesying the coming of what the Jews would later refer to as the Messiah. Let us look at the background against which these words were written.
The year was 588BC. Zedekiah was on the throne of Judah, the southernmost of the two kingdoms, centred upon Jerusalem. He was to be the last of its rulers. Nebuchadnezzar was the greatest of the Babylonian kings. Babylonia was a land that we now call southern Iraq. Nebuchadnezzar had subdued the whole of Palestine, captured Jerusalem and carried away into captivity a great multitude of the Jewish population. Heedless of the warnings of the prophets, Zedekiah had entered into an alliance with Egypt, and thus rebelled against the overtures made by Babylon. This brought about the final siege of the city, which was, at length, utterly destroyed in 586BC. Zedekiah was taken captive and, after having to watch his own children be put to death, had his eyes gouged out on Nebuchadnezzar’s orders and he remained a prisoner in chains for the rest of his life. Jeremiah was the one prophet who had tried to persuade King Zedekiah to pay allegiance to Babylon. He had walked the streets of the city wearing a wooden yoke to indicate submission to Babylon. However, false prophets had predicted that Jerusalem would be safe and had persuaded Zedekiah to put Jeremiah in jail. From imprisonment Jeremiah continued to tell the people of Judah that God has a future for them: where God had torn down he would rebuild. Joy and prosperity would return; an ideal king would rule. This ideal king will, as we heard, be from the branch of the lineage of King David. According to Jeremiah this event will be in accordance with God’s ordinance and will follow their predicament just as surely as night follows day. The only slight uncertainly is the time scale – Jeremiah could not say when this would take place. The Jews had to wait for nigh on six centuries for the event to happen. It was an event whose anniversary we await in this our annual, penitential season of Advent.
Advent means ‘coming’; it is a noun of anticipation; we look forward to something, some person or some happening. At the beginning of December we quite naturally look forward to the great Festival of Christmass. For many of us preparations will already have begun. Many of us will have purchased presents, written cards, planned menus, ordered suitable trees for decoration and organised visits to family and acquaintance. Such domestic activities concentrate the mind wonderfully for the festive season. The church, however, suggests in her calendar that we should begin our Christmass preparations just four Sundays before the feast. Down the ages Mother Church has emphasised various themes for each of the Sundays in Advent. These have been given to guide our thoughts and devotions rather than to set rigid patterns of worship. The First Sunday in Advent has been associated with an emphasis upon Christ’s final coming at the consummation of the ages, at the end of space and time. The evangelists and the writers of the epistles had much to say on this subject. As we have explored before, those living in first century Palestine seriously thought that the Second Coming, The Parousia, to give it its technical name, was imminent. Jesus himself certainly gave the impression that he would be back to judge the world in righteousness, quite soon after his ascension. But, we might ask, how long is ‘quite soon’? In the infinity of God’s time a few millennia are as the blinking of an eye. So, we are still waiting for this most wondrous but awesome event, but happen it most assuredly will. The Second Sunday in Advent, sometimes called Bible Sunday, has for a long time been associated with the gift of the Holy Scriptures and especially for their witness to Christ’s Coming. The Third Sunday in Advent has traditionally emphasised the Ministry of the Gospel. On this day, while recalling that our Lord sent his messengers before his face to prepare his way before Him, the Church makes special remembrance of all called to the sacred ministry of the Holy Priesthood of God’s Church Universal. The Fourth Sunday in Advent is a time of anticipation of the Coming of Christ at Bethlehem and the great blessings it brought to mankind. Then, to sum it all up, Christmass Day climaxes our observance of Advent as with hushed hearts and minds we glorify God in the ‘Word made flesh’.
Thus, today we should be thinking and praying about the Parousia, the Second Coming. One commentator has written, ‘This is a theme that is often neglected in the modern Church, and there is great value for Ministers, who are reluctant to preach regularly upon this subject, having to discipline their hearts and minds to give an ordered sermon upon this theme, clearly setting out the Biblical perspective and background.’ I must admit to having no such qualms but I do accept that it is a subject that may have been sadly neglected. What are we to make of Christ’s stricture to be prepared for his Second Coming in great majesty to judge the world? All four evangelists have something to say on the matter. Just to give you a flavour of this let me quote Saint Matthew, ‘For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.’ Saint Paul had a lot to say, again a single quote will suffice, ‘For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.’ We apparently have no difficulty with this general concept since we all are prepared to affirm the facts in our creeds. The Apostles’ Creed, which we affirm at choir offices such as Matins, includes the words, ‘From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead’. Also, the Nicene Creed, proclaimed by all of us at each service of Holy Communion, says, ‘And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead.’
Those who claim to be Christians, almost regardless of church, denomination or sect, have an understanding that there will be a Parousia. Few dare to claim a complete and authoritative interpretation of what are typically symbolic and prophetic biblical sources. What is most commonly accepted is that Christ will return to judge the world and to establish the Kingdom of God, in other words he will fulfill the rest of the ancient, Messianic prophecy. The Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, among others, have a simple liturgy that proclaims the Mystery of Faith. This states that: ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again’. Generally speaking, mainstream Christianity does not offer predictions on the date of the Second Coming. Some Christians may form their own ideas of how and where it will happen, but they must recognize that such information is not important and is not essential to the soteriological work of the church, that is, its message of salvation. God’s freewill offering of unlimited grace in his boundless love for his people is not governed by the depth of our understanding of the fine details of the Second Coming. However, that does not obviate our acceptance of it or our belief in its ultimate fulfilment.
To give you just a taste of the variety of Christian thinking on this subject of Parousia, and the various thoughts on the timing of its arrival, there are church groups called, among many others: Premillennialists; Dispensational Premillennialists; Historic Premillennialists; Postmillennialists; Revivalist Postmillennialists; Reconstructionist Postmillennialists and Amillennialists. And they all claim to be Christian! These churches are, I hasten to add, mostly to be found in the more fundamentalist, southern states of the USA.
We have nothing to fear from or to do with any of these obscure sects. We must simply throw our trust on our Heavenly Father and assume that he knows best when this event will take place. We should, of course, be fully aware that, either this side of the grave if the Parousia comes soon, or the other side if it doesn’t, we shall all have to stand before Our Lord and Saviour under judgement. We can do little better than to ponder on this in these days of this first week of Advent – how shall we answer when called to make our account to him whom Jeremiah called, ‘The Lord is our Righteousness’?
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