St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Advent Sunday
December 1, 2019
“Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day… But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
A DARKER COLOR dresses our sanctuary this morning. We have done with the long green season, the bright ivory and gold of Eastertide, bold crimson at feasts of valiant saints and the coming of the Paraclete, the Comforter. This is not Lent, but as in Lent, we enter the violet shades and think soberly about our lives. This stole is a deep, bluish purple hue: bringing to mind royalty, elegance, deep thought, even sleep, as well as sorrow for sin and a serious reckoning. As we again prepare for a bright season four weeks from now, we first enter the duskier tones of the purple stole.
Like the seasons every year bring shorter days and longer nights, heavy skies bearing rain, it will later break forth in glory as the birth of a new year gains a minute or two more of sunlight daily. Christmas comes at the dawning of that new sunshine, and we will celebrate the birth of Christ. But not now, not yet. First, we need to reflect.
Advent is the little season of four Sundays where we prepare for the coming of our Lord.
We join the ancient Hebrews in their hopes of Messiah, a mystical personage built of hints through the prophets over centuries, a glory to Israel, promised to be one of their own, a son of David’s line, a king, yet with divine attributes, He comes to rule and reign with heaven’s authority and to set things right over all lands in the entire world. He will redress evil. He will save us from our own sins. He will restore pure worship. He will tend us like sheep.
Mercy and grace shall flow out from Him, by wisdom greater than that of Solomon. A lawgiver as was Moses. True prophecy His language, as with Elijah and Elisha before Him. His kingdom shall rise but never fall, not again. No nation would ever overshadow the elect again.
They looked for all that in a man. Some believed it when it came, many had lost that hope. Many had made peace with oppression and found safety and reward in a Roman occupation, as had their fathers with Babylonian, Greek, Syrian and Egyptian empires before them. A rustic rabbi from the provinces shaking up the status quo, and challenging their priestly splendor was not to be tolerated. The long-awaited Messiah ran into the old guard, and we know the story. The purple stole covers that scene now and we go on to another Advent.
We are people of the middle ages. Not the Middle Ages we have described between ancient empires and emerging nations, with feudal lords, knights errant, and horrific plagues: a life in the mud. No, not those ages, or rather, those ages plus all ages between the earthly appearance of Christ we have in the Gospel accounts, and another appearance yet to be. Here in between, it is with a finer brush and in greater detail that He paints His masterpiece in us. We are called forward, every one, to face ourselves, to express our need, to confess our disasters, sins, fallenness, our troubles to a God we do not see and His Son we may not touch, not even His wounded hands, feet or side. Yet not seeing, we believe, and He says we are blessed to have such faith. The middle ages are when Christ comes for us, one by one, in the dark purple night of need, and sorrow, and worry, and grief. Out of our shade we emerge, trembling with fear that He will not find in us people good enough for One far too good for us. When we do come to Him, He is always there, always faithful, always waiting for us. He is so good. He has said “Draw nigh to God and He will draw nigh to you.” James 4:8 That’s a promise. That is why we come here, drawing near to Him.
But it is dark out there, darker than we can remember. A world in turbulent unrest, dark violet shades of ignorance, strife and addiction to sin. They think we Christians are funny. They find new ways to insult our Savior. There is no rest for them, as said Isaiah: “…the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace, saith God, for the wicked.” Isaiah 47: 20-21
And in Advent we regard yet another coming of the Christ. He shall come again once and for all, to stay, as said the prophets, and rule forever. He comes with clouds. His arrival will be as the lightning, shining from horizon to horizon, seen by every eye. No one will joke at that appearance, but some will cry out and hide if they can.
A wild day that will be, a dark and deep color, so appropriate for a day when that satanic person will rise to take rulership over all the world, will seat himself in a place of divine worship, and will lead a deadly army to subdue all opposition, bringing all nations, kingdoms, caliphates and republics under his sway. And just at the point of his greatest victory, a light shall break in the heavens and the Son of man will ride on the wind and a great white stallion with terrible wrath and hosts of angels with flaming swords. The battle will be brief, the triumph complete, the vanquishing of those terrible demonic hoards and their minions final. A new heaven and a new earth, realms that have never known the touch of evil, shall be created. And we, the last remnants of an older world, will be called into those new mansions, and we shall dwell with God in the midst for eternity.
That’s all we do in Advent. That, and lighting candles, opening windows in Advent Calendars. We look to Christ’s coming. It’s not yet all about packages, brightly colored giftwrap and ribbons, happy trees and silly stories of fat elven gift-givers, snowmen, or even the Grinch. Hold that back a while as we consider our status and we make room for the Christ child to be born as for us again this year.
He came, He comes, He is coming again.
Priests have a meaningful phrase we use when a secret is brought to us, that this communication comes under the purple stole. That’s a reference to the sacrament of confession. When we hear a person’s confession, we are hearing such a private log of guilty secrets that we are sealed ourselves, unable ever to speak of what we’ve heard to another living soul. That’s a promise. We are enjoined to such holy silence that grace is needed, and is amply given by God, to let us forget what we have heard through the lips of the penitent. What we hear is not the point, and we need no memory for it. It needs to be said out loud, nevertheless.
St. James wrote of ministry toward the sick and all sinners like us. “The Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power to prevail… My brothers… Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” James 5
The Apostle John wrote that “if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1
Jesus gave an awesome authority to His priests the night He was resurrected. John recorded that moment, as Jesus stood in the midst of His astonished Apostles. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, so also I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” Jn 20:21-22
This purple stole has heard the sins of God’s people. The sins are not important, not any more. It is forgiveness we receive as we rise from kneeling, in relief of a burden we’ve carried too long, slogging it out in a darkening world as we try to be brave and put on our game face, telling everyone “I’m fine!” We are fine, better than we actually know, but it’s true also that we need to assess and make a break with sin’s patterns, and more than that, the access we have allowed the tempter, and the shameful deeds he may accuse us of. We’re not to live that way. The confession of our sins is meant to relieve us of that weight and make us free again to come to Him, and beckon Him to come again to us. It is the middle-ages-type of coming that is needed today. And in these ages, we need to be real. Under the purple stole it all goes and will never come back to accuse us again.
Cast away works of darkness and regain that armour of light. Love each other, and don’t let adulterous thoughts darken your mind, no thoughts of violence, avarice, falsehood, or envy cloud your feelings or dampen your spirits. Love is the fulfilling of the law.
The Gospel today is of the triumphal entry that culminated that first coming of Christ. He entered His city whose denizens should all have been shouting, “Hosanna to our King! Welcome Lord Jesus!” Many did, yet their hope was fragile, and as the week turned the tide of fortune away from their hoped-for Messiah, they would shout “Crucify Him!” by that week’s ending. As with all three comings of the Christ, He entered His Temple first and cleansed it from its corruption, the commercial enterprise set out by priests to force the faithful to pay through the nose for those things necessary to worship Jehovah. “You have made it a den of thieves,” said Messiah, and for that they killed Him.
The priest’s stole is worn about the neck, signifying his office. Like the mantle worn by the prophet Elijah, this mere cloth speaks of spiritual authority and the local presence in a mere man, the presence of the Holy Ghost. Like Jesus speaking to His Apostles, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” three times have I felt the bishop’s hands on my head and those words, once for each office. Elijah’s mantle fell from the prophet as he was swept up in a whirlwind to heaven, and his successor, Elisha, picked it up to wear it ever after, the sign of his new authority as God’s prophet to Israel.
I wear the red stole for Holy Spirit events, as with ordinations; the green stole in seasons of growth; the white and gilded stole for the bright holy days; and this purple stole, the violet and darker shades for days of preparation, Lent, and now Advent. Out of its deeper hues is born the hope of new light and life.
May you come and seek its graces in your need, as we welcome the Advent season with joy and hope. Come Lord Jesus, come to us and be born in us again this coming Christmas.