A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent

Year C – 13 December 2015

John Edward Miller, Rector

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

– Philippians 4: 4-9

The Collect

Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be honor and glory, world without end. Amen.

On Christmas morning in 1979, I awakened to the sound of a precious gift. It was a tape of my son John singing, “Come, thou long-expected Jesus.” His mother had taught him the words, and had helped him record it for me. John was seven years old, and having pressed the “play” button on a cassette recorder, he was proudly standing by my bedside to see my reaction. As I listened to his pure boy-soprano voice, I choked up and he watched my tears stream down my cheeks. The sight of his father getting emotional, especially on that morning, confused him. What he had recorded for me was his Christmas present, and he fully anticipated my broad smile of delight.

Well, I was delighted, but I couldn’t summon enough composure to tell him at first. The combination of those powerful words of expectancy with the innocent faith of my son, who had only begun to encounter the world’s harshness and pain, was both beautiful and heart-rending. After a few moments, I explained to him that I was simply overcome by his kindness. But he sensed something more in my reaction, and he was right. What he offered me that Christmas was the sound of hope, sung without fear, or doubt, or disappointment in life. It was a gift that I needed – a fresh, loving reminder that God is near, and that God’s love abides with us, and will prevail.

Charles Wesley composed “Come, thou long-expected Jesus” in 1744. He originally intended it as a prayer inspired by his reading of Scripture. As an Anglican clergyman with a keen social conscience, Wesley was deeply struck by the conditions affecting orphans in England, as well as the sharp social class divisions of the era. These problems were severe, but Wesley’s faith in God’s final triumph over suffering and evil was strong. He believed in the nearness of the Coming Lord, a nearness that gave him bold confidence that, “nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Thus he wrote these lines, later to be set to the tune[1] that both my son and we ourselves sang today:

Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free;

From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in thee. 

Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth thou art;

Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart. 

Born thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a king;

Born to reign in us forever,
Now thy gracious kingdom bring.

 By thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;

By thine all sufficient merit
Raise us to thy glorious throne.[2]

Advent is about expectancy. However, the season is so caught up in the gravitational pull of Christmas that our anticipation tends to be all about holiday cheer and the hope that our Yuletide will be as bright as advertised. During the four weeks of Advent, we gear up for the annual trek to Bethlehem, preparing for visions of shepherds and angels, rekindling the warmth of cherished tradition, and redecorating hearth and home with evergreen, lights and tinsel. For us this is an ideal picture of Advent’s goal. It is etched on the wall of our memory. We recall it as the days of December proceed toward Christmas with mounting speed. Something deep inside us awakens. It is a powerful feeling laced with restlessness and urgency.

By Christmas Eve, when the Advent wreath’s central candle is lit, a familiar flame of expectancy reignites our imagination. Then, even the hardest heart softens, and disappointments momentarily disappear, as the will to believe glosses over the bittersweet recollection of Christmases past. The child within wants to rush home, and get tucked into an early bedtime, so that the long-awaited morning will quickly arrive. Then, at first light, we remember rushing to the tree, where our parents wish us a merry Christmas, and where we find the pile of gifts that we’d requested of Santa and his elves. This experience, in a variety of forms, is common enough to serve as an image of expectancy that affects young and old alike.

This scene is our culture’s way of acting out our longing. For it to take on Christian meaning, though, the gift-giving ritual must be a reflection of a greater hope, namely the desire for Immanuel, the assurance that God is with us at last. That is why the season of Advent is an indispensable ingredient of the spiritual life. It teaches us to anticipate God’s coming to grace the human family with his presence in Christ Jesus. We mark his approach in circular form, with a wreath, because we are marking time, still waiting for God’s other shoe to drop. In Advent we remember that something momentous has happened. We recall that He has come, that the Word has become flesh, and for that we are glad. But, as the years press on into more than two millennia of Advents, we continue to yearn for something more, not just for us, but for everyone.

When we take a hard look at the world, we wince at the conditions that persist within families, in society, and among nations, despite the fact of the first Christmas. Nevertheless there is hope in us, a hope that stills yearn for, and expects, the peace that passes all understanding. Advent takes that unquenched longing seriously. It recognizes that history is incomplete, that there exists a gap between what is, and what ought to be. Advent points beyond the turning wheel of remembrance toward the completion of what God began at Bethlehem.

This second aspect of Advent, which looks toward the fulfillment of hope, is the unifying theme of the lessons assigned for the third Sunday of the season. All of the texts emphasize that the Lord, our judge and our savior, is near at hand. So, as we sing “Come, thou long-expected Jesus,” we are not longing solely for the Bethlehem babe. We are also longing for him at full maturity, in the fullness of time, when he shall complete the loving purposes of God for us, and with us. Birthing, growth, and fulfillment of God’s destiny form a pattern of redemption for all of us who have been graced by his presence. Advent’s two focal points – the  first coming and the second – help us to see a completed picture of what continues to conceive in us and through us for the sake of love.                         

The Apostle Paul, who urged the Philippians to adopt the frame of mind that was in Christ Jesus, is intent on inspiring trust in the One who has come, and confident acceptance of the ultimate goal of our becoming. What lies ahead, beyond Christmas, is grounded in, and guaranteed by, the power of love. That power has already given birth; the promised hope has become the reality by which we are called to live our life, here and now. In short, the Apostle advocates an outlook of expectancy as Advent’s continuing influence on faith and morality.

For Paul, everything depended on the grace of God. He understood that, without the gift of mercy, no one could withstand the Day of his coming. But, because he also believed that, in Christ God has come to reconcile the world to himself, everyone has good reason to be glad and confident. Paul looked forward to the realization of hope. He was certain that Christ will come again in power to finish the work he has begun in us. That assurance led him to exclaim, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say, Rejoice!”

Indeed, Paul’s Advent perspective was so positive that he counsels believers to adopt an attitude of gentle forbearance instead of anxiety. Indeed, he counseled, “Do not worry about anything.” But in saying this he was not promoting denial as a life strategy. Paul’s prescription for dealing with reality is to face it with courage fueled by the expectation that “the Lord is near.”

His resilient confidence in the once and future King enabled him to proclaim the end of all fear. Paul knew that “nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God, which in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” That love is as near to us as the breath of life, as close to us as the next act of kindness, as palpable as the embrace of forgiveness. The Christ, who once graced a humble manger in the midst of awestruck shepherds and adoring angels, is still becoming flesh in the lives of people who trust the power of love. For, as Norman Pittenger once declared, “It is all incarnation.” That is God’s mode and method in this world, which is moving, life by life, decision by decision, toward the goal of perfect fulfillment.

In the meantime, we have the Advent ethic of expectancy. Paul’s own words express the ideal, because he knew that his own being had been changed by a close encounter of the best kind. Let them be our benediction for the third Sunday of this blessed season, which calls us to “come to” a new life:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Come, thou long-expected Jesus, come. Amen.

[1] The tune Stuttgart was composed by Christian Friedrich Witt in 1716.

[2] Charles Wesley, 1744. It is Hymn 66 in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982.