I Advent, Sunday 1 December, 2019
Thou art the King of glory, O Christ.
Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.
When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man,
thou didst humble thyself to be born of a Virgin.
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death,
thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God, in the glory of the Father.
We believe that thou shalt come to be our judge.
We therefore pray thee, help thy servants,
whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with thy saints,
in glory everlasting.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s a little hard to believe it’s December, isn’t it? And not because we haven’t really worn our jackets yet here in Orlando. No, for so many of us, 2019 has moved at a breakneck pace. So quickly, that staring 2020 down seems kind of surreal. I say, rip off the band aid and get a new start. The Church Year allows us to do just that, as the first week of Advent is the start of the new liturgical year, beating the calendar year by a whole month.
But Advent brings more to us than my annual nerding-out about the calendar. It’s a chance to start afresh in our Christian practice. The season of Advent takes on a penitential mood, meant to draw us into the life of expectation and preparedness for the coming Messiah. This intention is in large part based on the pattern we see in Jesus’ neighbors, as they went to see John the Baptist for the baptism of the forgiveness of sins and to learn to pray and fast like John and his friends did. This pattern of prayer, fasting, and listening to God’s call was how they awaited the coming Messiah.
But John the Baptist and his disciples did not invent the practice of holy expectation. Their waiting for the hope of the Messiah to rescue them from Roman Imperial rule was a part of ancient Israel’s theology and identity. It’s a throughline throughout the entire Bible, and I think that might be worth reflecting on this morning; especially as it is a new liturgical year and a new year could mean a chance to explore the Biblical story afresh.
So here’s the broad strokes. We actually start all they way back in the beginning. In Genesis, we read about God’s good creation, and how humans were made to bear God’s image to the world He made. We were to tend the garden and mediate the rest of creation back to Him. Humans were tight with God back then, but we sought after our own autonomy rather than partnership and intimacy with God. Oftentimes we call this “The Fall,” and its the heartbreaking origin story of people being terrible. But even though God was disappointed in our transgression, He still sought us and made a promise: right in Genesis there would be a human one that would help restore God’s peace and justice and draw people back to Eden. He would trample that old tempting snake but the snake would bite his heel.
A while later, a man called Abraham was called by God to restart that project of image-bearing and mediating creation back to God. Things were not as good as they were in Eden, but God didn’t want to give up on the earth He made or the people He loved. So, God made a promise that through Abraham, many nations would be blessed through his family, with a major component of that blessing being the knowledge of God through Abraham’s family’s witness. And Abraham’s family would grow and God would work in and through his sons and grandsons, until one of them (kind of the worst one), Jacob, would wrestle with God and change his name to Israel; which means “wrestles with God.”
Israel’s family grew as well, and unfortunately they ended up getting stuck in Egypt. God would work mightily through another important fellow called Moses, and He would deliver Moses’ people from Egypt and promised them a place where they could work with God on perfecting their image-bearing and God even gave Israel a series of guidelines for how they could best bear the image of God and mediate creation back to God in worship. But Israel was really bad at it, almost immediately. And like Eden, Israel sought their own way instead of God’s intention for them.
After that, things were really bad, like seriously bad (Judges, for example, is a history of Israelite leadership dumpster fires), God saw that the people wanted a King. He appointed Saul, but he flamed out hard. David came from humble beginnings, but God raised him up to bring prosperity to Israel. It seemed like he was going to be the one to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham, and maybe even God’s promise to Adam and Eve; to finally destroy death and evil, and all that garbage that kept us from God. But, David succumbed to the garbage, sadly and the cycle of dysfunction began again.
Israel kept moving away from their unique covenant relationship with God, but God wouldn’t give up on them. He sent them prophets to guide them with His own Word and encourage them with His promises. That’s what we hear in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah, a prophetic message of hope, justice, and peace:
For out of Zion (Israel’s religious headquarters) shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
It’s a promise that God will be the one present to all people, and his rule will be just, good, and peaceful. And this promise would be present, in different ways, in the messages of the prophets, and the prophets would speak of someone to come that would embody God’s promises, and really all of the things that He had done in and through Israel. This person to come would bring the word of God to people, like the prophets. He would rule with God’s justice like kind of like David, but without the horrible mischief. He would bring a law of life showing how people were meant to bear the image of God in their hearts and in their lives. He would even bring in the nations, creating a bigger family than Abraham ever thought possible. He would bring people back into close relationship with God; overcoming the alienation wrought by the Fall I mentioned a few minutes ago.
By the first century, the ancient Israelites were ready for someone to come and help. Through years of exile and oppression, a hope in God’s promise and provision sustained His people.
And in the fullness of time, he appeared. The Messiah. The Holy One. The Anointed One.
He would be a prophet. He would be a King. He would be a mediator of the entire universe back to God; he would be a priest. He would give a law of love. He would fulfill the expectation of Israel, reconstituting it around itself, he would save the world from their sins and inaugurate a peaceable and just Kingdom. He would even be stricken by the serpentine venom of death; but it would not be the final word as God would raise him up to new life on that glorious Easter morning.
Yes, Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. And even as he is the fulfillment of a hope that goes all the way back to Creation itself, he is the hope of our lives. I think it’s pretty amazing that the throughline of the entire Bible, Jesus Christ, is always ready to hear our prayers, work his kindness and justice in us, and love us so completely with a love that transforms our hearts to the beautiful design of Eden itself. This is why we do Advent the way we do, why we add some seriousness to our expectation and preparation. We do this to draw closer to Messiah who came once and will come again. Therefore, I pray that our new liturgical year is a new chance for us all to call upon the Messiah Jesus, who comes to us from the Highest Heaven and through the story of the ancient Scriptures themselves, to save us, to love us, and to bring his light to enlighten every nation that all may fully bear God’s image and offer all things back to Him.
Lo! the Lamb, so long expected,
comes with pardon down from heaven;
let us haste, with tears of sorrow,
one and all to be forgiven;
so when next he comes with glory,
and the world is wrapped in fear,
may he with his mercy shield us,
and with words of love draw near.
To Christ our Messiah and God be all glory; from age to age. Amen
The Very Rev. David Bumsted
Emmanuel Episcopal Church
1603 E Winter Park Rd.
Orlando, FL 32803