We’re in the middle of a season of getting ready right now, and if you’re taking your cues from the retail industry, your mind has been on Christmas since before Remembrance Day. The joys of Christmas are on everyone’s mind, of course: presents to buy, cards to send, parties to arrange, visits to plan, food to prepare, turkeys to stuff and so on. Personally, I love Advent and Christmas, so I’m a sucker for this time of year.
However, if we’re taking our cues from the scriptures and from our church calendar, there’s another type of preparedness that should also be on our minds. It tends to get lost these days, because the Christmas season starts earlier and earlier, and so we forget that Advent is not the same as Christmas. Advent isn’t just about looking forward to the manger at Bethlehem, and the shepherds and the wise men and the little drummer boy. In Advent we’re not just putting ourselves back into the Old Testament and looking forward to the coming of the Messiah; we’re looking forward to our own future, too. The Creed says, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’. The Christian church teaches us that if there’s a judgement coming, then it’s wise to spend some time getting ready for it. And it’s wise not to put it off; usually it’s not smart to start your studying for the final exam the night before!
This Advent, when I’m preaching, I want to spend some time thinking with you about the prayers we pray each Sunday. We call them ‘collects’, because they collect together the themes of our scriptures into short little prayers that we can easily memorize. It used to be the tradition in the Anglican Church that the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent was repeated on every Sunday of the Advent season until Christmas Eve, and so it was especially easy to memorize, as you heard it again and again through the four weeks of Advent, year after year. I’m going to read it to you again, but I’m going to use the version found in the old Book of Common Prayer, which is slightly different from our B.A.S. version.
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 ever. Amen. (BCP)
This prayer helps us think about two questions, and you might at first think they’re a little strange. The first question is, ‘What time is it?’ We have to answer that one first, because the second depends on it: ‘Okay, given the time, what should we be doing about it?’
The answer to the question ‘What time is it?’ is ‘It’s in-between time’. In between what? In between two comings of Jesus. The Collect describes them for us. There’s his first coming, which of course is the theme of Christmas; the Collect refers to this as ‘the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility’. Viewed chronologically, of course, that coming is behind us, in the past. But there’s another coming, which is still ahead, on ‘the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the living and the dead’, the time when ‘we may rise to the life immortal’. The Collect contrasts these two comings: long ago, Jesus came to visit us ‘in great humility’, but when he comes again, it will be ‘in glorious majesty’. Furthermore, at his first coming, he entered ‘this mortal life’, but at his second coming we will ‘rise to the life immortal’.
What does the Collect teach us about these two comings? One of the reasons I like the old prayer book version is that it uses the word ‘visit’. The B.A.S. says ‘when your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility’, but the prayer book has ‘in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility’.
Why is this important? Well, if you read the Bible, especially in the King James Version, you’ll notice that a visit from God is always a significant thing. He never shows up empty-handed; he always brings something with him. It might be plague and suffering and judgement, or it might be blessing and salvation. So in Jeremiah 9:9 the Lord sees all the wickedness of his people and says, ‘Shall I not visit them for these things, says the Lord? Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?’ And in Ruth 1:6 old Naomi hears that the famine is over in Israel, because the Lord has visited his people and given them bread.
So what’s this visit at Christmas time all about? Well, in Luke 1:68 old Zechariah reflects on it; he says, ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people’, or, in a modern version, ‘he has come to his people and set them free’. This is definitely a visit to bring blessing. This is a wonderful visit!
But how did he come? The Collect says, ‘in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility’. This reminds me of what Paul has to say in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians:
‘Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (vv.5-8).
This is what Christmas is about: Jesus shares the divine nature – he is equal with God – but he lays aside all his divine prerogatives. The one through whom all things were created humbles himself to become part of his creation; the one who is immortal by nature puts on mortality, and goes on to become obedient to the point of death on a cruel cross. And he does all this out of love, to serve his creation, to show us what God is like, to show us God’s will for our human life, and to deliver us from sin and death.
So we stand in time after this first great event; we live on what C.S. Lewis calls ‘the visited planet’. But we also look forward to a future event. The collect speaks of ‘the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the living and the dead’.
This is a message of hope. We live, as human beings have almost always lived, in a time when the power of evil seems enormous. I’m not just talking about the fact that terrorists can behead people or fly aircraft into tall buildings and kill thousands of people in one go. I’m talking about the fact that the world economic system seems to be set up in such a way as to provide cheap goods to the richest people on the planet, while denying the poorest people on the planet the right to a fair living wage. I’m talking about the fact that in the average multinational corporation the highest paid individual in the company earns more than three hundred times what the lowest paid individual earns. I’m talking about the fact that the single most common category of websites on the Internet is pornography.
These are just a few of the symptoms of the power of evil in the world today. In the face of such great evil, I’m always surprised when people tell me that they don’t like the message of God’s judgement. Surely the message of God’s judgement brings hope! It tells us that the day is going to come when God will bring this evil to an end. God cares! He cares about the children who have been stolen from their homes and forced to become child soldiers; he cares about the children who never had a chance because they were born in refugee camps where there was never enough food to go around; he cares about the people who spend their lives slaving away for starvation wages growing cash crops for people who live thousands of miles away.
God is not prepared for this state of affairs to continue. As we heard in last Sunday’s gospel, the day will come when the king will sit on his glorious throne and gather the nations before him, and he will separate them into two groups as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. On one side will be those who recognized Jesus in the hungry and thirsty, in those who have no clothes to wear, in those who are sick or are refugees or immigrants or prisoners; their conduct will be affirmed and rewarded. On the other side will be those who had the opportunity to do good for all these people and refused to do so; their conduct will be judged.
This is our Advent hope: that the last word will not go to the forces of cruelty and hatred, selfishness and prejudice. The last word will go to God, and Jesus would seem to indicate that the vital evidence of our faith in him will be practical love. And so the Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed will be the only reality in God’s creation, and the prayer we have prayed for the last two thousand years will finally be fully answered: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
So this is the in-between time we live in. We look back on that first coming, when God’s Son Jesus Christ ‘came to visit us in great humility’. And we look forward to ‘the last day, when he will come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead’. On that day, every one of us hopes to be among the number of the saints who will ‘rise to the life immortal’, as the prayer says.
So as we look back on Christ’s first coming and look forward to the day when ‘he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end, what should we be doing’? The prayer says, ‘Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light’. What’s that all about?
When Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote this prayer for the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, it was immediately followed by an epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 13, verses 8-14. Here it is in full:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
So you can see where Cranmer got the language about casting away the works of darkness and putting on the armour of light. I like the way the New Living Translation puts it: ‘So remove your dark deeds like dirty clothes, and put on the shining armour of right living’.
The dirty clothes are plain enough: again, here they are in the New Living Translation: ‘Don’t participate in the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness, or in sexual promiscuity and immoral living, or in quarrelling and jealousy…Don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires’ (vv. 13b, 14b). But the armour turns out to be a bit of a surprise. ‘Armour’ is a military image, so we might think of it as being something like courage, or strength, or self-discipline. But once again, what Paul actually focuses on is love. All the commandents, he says, ‘are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law’ (vv.9-10).
We’re back with the sheep and the goats, aren’t we? As Bishop Jane reminded us last week, the sheep are the ones who notice the suffering of others, and then do what they can to help. Love isn’t just a warm fuzzy and it’s definitely not just words; it’s being there for others, spending time with them, doing what we can to be a blessing to them, whether we especially like them or not, whether we feel like it or not. This is what God is like; the Old Testament talks about his chesed, a Hebrew word that our New Revised Standard Version translates excellently as his ‘steadfast love’. I like that word ‘steadfast’: love with muscles on it, love you can depend on, love that’s unconditional, love that never gives up. That’s what we’re called to imitate.
Shall we pray this prayer through the Advent season? Shall we remember how God’s Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility? Shall we look forward to the day when he will come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead? Shall we ask God to help us to cast away the works of darkness like dirty old clothes, and put on the new life of steadfast love? Are you ready to pray that prayer, and to expect God to answer it?
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 ever. Amen.