Sunday, December 10, 2017

Homilies on the Collects for Advent and Christmas

December 10, 2017

Dear friends,

Last Sunday began a new year - not the solar year, but the Christian Year which begins the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is not the beginning of the "Christmas season" but the beginning of the season of preparation for Christmas. I love the Church Year which begins with Advent and continues with Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week (encompassing Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday), Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity, after which we are in the Season of Trinity till Advent comes round again. Truth be told, though I as a Presbyterian was familiar with the annual celebrations of Christmas and Easter, I became aware of the fulness of the Church Year at Reformed Theological Seminary through the teaching of the Rev. Dr. Richard Allen Bodey. In terms of impact on the ministries of men Mr. Bodey was a far more consequential member of the faculty than he was appreciated for being at the time. However, it was only as an Anglican I began to enjoy the full riches of the Christian Year.

You may know that at the end if August I retired from active parish ministry at Covenant Reformed Episcopal Church in Roanoke, VA, and we moved to Water Valley, MS. Already our decision has been confirmed by one of the considerations that led to our moving. Kyler has been hospitalized three times, once for major surgery. We have been able to help Daniel and Melissa. I am thankful that one of the other considerations, our needing help as we age, has not yet come to pass.

I very much miss parish ministry. I miss the people. I miss planning and leading the weekly liturgy. I miss preparing and preaching homilies. It is painful to think this part of my earthly life has ended.

In 2016 I had the privilege of preaching from the Collects for each of the Sundays of Advent and Christmas Day. They originally appeared in written form on the Blog and Webpage of Covenant Church. I have decided to republish them here with the prayer that they might have a devotional use for those who read them during Advent and Christmas.

Advent I: Now in the Time of this Mortal Life

Advent II: Bible Attention Deficit Disorder

Advent III: Messengers and Ministers

Advent IV: Hurry and Help Us

Christmas: Incarnation and Regeneration

Now in the Time of this Mortal Life

First in Advent

Collect of the Day: 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 Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

The Collect for the first Sunday in Advent is from 1549 and was written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.

One year on Christmas Eve night, I went to Walmart to pick up something we needed for the next day. To my great surprise I found that the employees had begun putting the Valentine Day candy on the shelves.

The only sense of time commercial interests have is maximizing the time sell products. They begin the Christmas season as soon as they can clear the shelves of Halloween costumes and candy.

A lot of individuals have a similar sense of time. They start watching the holiday movies - all with the same plot - on the Hallmark Channel beginning November 1. They start listening to Christmas music about the same time. The consequence is that by the time Christmas Day arrives they are tired of Christmas and feel sick from engorging themselves on Christmas things for 2 months before Christmas arrives.

We as church observe Advent. That does not mean we ignore Christmas during this Season. Simultaneously we look backward, forward, and inward - backward to our Lord’s first coming, forward to his second coming, inward to our response to his first coming and readiness for his second coming.

The collect for the first Sunday in Advent teaches us there are two times - now and the last day; two comings - Christ’s first coming and his second coming; and two kinds of life - mortal and immortal.

1. Now. Our western calendar marks two great ages: B.C., the time from Adam till the coming Christ and A.D., the years our Lord, from his first coming and the establishment of his kingdom till his second coming which marks the end. But the Bible marks time in another way, too. There is the age of now, which began with the Fall of Adam and Eve and will continue till the end when Christ comes, and the age of the world to come.  

  • The characteristic of the age of now is that life is mortal. We surely have been reminded of mortality this week. A young man for whom we had long prayed, Tyler Wiseman, died at the beginning of the week. Then we received word that our good and godly Presiding Bishop, the Most Reverend Royal Grote, had died. He went to bed Wednesday evening and was found the next morning to have passed away overnight.

God had warned Adam and Eve that, if they rebelled against him by eating the fruit of the tree of which he had commanded them not to eat, they would surely die. They disobeyed and ate the fruit. They did not die immediately after their sin, but they immediately became mortal, and not only they, but all of us who have descended from them. St. Paul wrote: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned -- …(Romans 5:12). There is nothing more irrational than to deny the reality and certainty of death, but denial is characteristic of our culture. The truth is that life is fragile, unpredictable, and sure to end.

  • It was now in the time of this mortal life that God’s Son Jesus Christ came to visit us. At Christmas we celebrate the story of Mary and Joseph, of Bethlehem’s stable, of Mary’s giving birth to her Son, of the Shepherds and Angels. But the point of it all is that the Son of God, Jesus Christ, came to visit us in great humility. The eternal Son became one of us. He condescended to be born of a woman, in humble circumstances, to share our weakness, particularly our mortality. He was like us in every way except for sin. He could die and did die. And the point of it all was to be our Savior from sin.

2. Grace.  And so we ask that God would give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light.

  • That request is taken directly from today’s Epistle lesson:

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Rom. 13:11-14).

  • This time of our mortal life is time for Christians to wake up from spiritual sleep. This age is hurrying on towards its end, and the day of full and final salvation will soon arrive. So we should get rid of all the sinful works that belonged to our old life in the kingdom of darkness, all the sins. This is no time for such gross sins as drunkenness, orgies, sexual immorality, and indulgence in sinful sensuality. It is also time for us to get rid of sins we may not take so seriously - quarreling and jealousy. All these things belong equally to the kingdom of darkness. We should not make any provision for the sinful flesh in order to gratify its desires - whether those desires are indulging in bodily sins of sexual immorality or are indulging in inward sins of pride and selfishness which are manifested as jealousy and quarreling.  It is now time for us to put on the armor of the kingdom of light, to live consistently with the reality that we are united to Christ by faith.

St. Paul emphasizes repeatedly the contrast between the darkness of sin and the light of righteousness as he urges Christians to be and do what they are in Christ. He wrote to the Thessalonians:

For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation (1 Thess. 5:5-8).

He wrote to the Ephesians: one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them (Eph.5:8-11).

  • On the one hand Paul recognizes that Christians are capable of gross wickedness - such as drunkenness and sexual immorality. Christians are also capable of ugly inward sins such as pride and jealousy. We should not be terribly surprised when Christians fall into such sins. But St. Paul calls us to see these things for what they are - the works of Satan’s dark kingdom and a total contradiction to the life of Christ’s kingdom of light.

  • It is not that we tear off the rags of the kingdom of darkness and put on the new clothes of the righteousness of light in order to  save ourselves so that we say to God, “Look, God, I used to be bad, but now I’m good. Now you can accept me.” No, but we see why Christ came to visit us in great humility. He came to save us from our sins. That means salvation from the guilt and condemnation of our sins. But Christ did not come to save us from our sins in order to leave us in our sins. He came to cleanse us from the dirt of sin and to clothe us inwardly and outwardly with the new, clean clothes of righteousness.

If we have received God’s grace, asked for and received the forgiveness of our sins because Jesus died for us, we now see sin as the greatest enemy of our happiness - not just of our eternal salvation but of our present, this-world happiness. So we earnestly ask our Lord to give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put upon us the armor of light.

3. Then. Our present lives are not ends in themselves. They are a prelude to the life to the come. We have looked back to Christ’s first coming. We have looked inward to our response to his coming. So now we look forward to the end of this present age of mortality. We joyfully anticipate the time when Christ, who came first in great humility and became one with us to gain our salvation, will come again in great majesty. Then he, who came to deliver us from judgment, will sit as Judge to judge all who have lived.

  • And what do we look forward to? We will rise to life immortal. St. Paul explained:

For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the
law.  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory
through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:53-57).

The blessing of life beyond the touch of mortality and death is ours through the work of Jesus Christ. He came in great humility to save us from sin, to enable to cast off the works of darkness and put on armor of light. He will come again in great majesty, and we will rise to immortal life. To Jesus Christ, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all honor, praise, and glory now and forever. Amen.

Bible Attention Deficit Disorder

Second in Advent

Collect: Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Epistle: Romans 15:4-13

Attention Deficit Disorder is a commonly diagnosed problem among school children. No doubt that some children, and even some adults, have trouble paying attention. But is ADD a brain disorder to be treated with Ritalin or a behavioral and developmental problem that usually resolves with maturity?

Thomas Cranmer’s Collect for the second Sunday of Advent addresses a particular form of Attention Deficit Disorder - a deficit of attention to the Bible.

1. The Source of the Scriptures

1.1. Thomas Cranmer was conservative in temperament. When he compiled the Prayer Book, he did not change the prayers of the old church just to change them. He was not one to throw the baby out with the bath water. But he wrote this collect in 1549 and used it in place of the previous collect for the second in Advent.

This prayer is distinctly Protestant because of it focuses on Scripture and asks that all God’s people may understand. The Roman Catholic Church taught that ultimate authority resided in the church, and that the church would tell believers what to believe. The English reformers, like the ones on the European continent, believed that ultimate authority resided in the Scriptures and that all needed to know the Scriptures so they would know what to believe.

1.2. The prayer begins by acknowledging that the Scriptures are a wonderful blessing given by God. “Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written…” We praise and magnify the Lord because he has not left us in the dark to grope after him and truth, but has given us the Scriptures to be a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.

This blessed God gave us all the holy Scriptures. By all Scriptures, the collect means, as the Articles make clear, the 39 books of the Old Testament and 27 books of the New Testament. The Apocryphal books are profitable to read but not for establishing teaching, or doctrine that we must believe. The 66 holy writings are collected together in a book - the Bible. So when we thank the Lord for giving us all the holy Scriptures, we mean all those writings collected in the Bible.

1.3. St. Peter tells us how God gave us all the Scriptures:

Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any
private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time
by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were
moved by the Holy Ghost. (2 Peter 1:21,22)

God used men to write the Scriptures. But we do not have the Scriptures because some spiritual men came up with their own insights and interpretations of God, his truth and his will, or the way of salvation. Nor did men choose themselves to write the Scriptures. They were men chosen by God who wrote what they wrote because they were moved by the Holy Spirit. He seldom used the men as secretaries taking down dictation. He did not suppress but used their personalities along with their time in history, their cultural experiences, their particular vocabularies and writing styles. However, in the end the words of Scripture are not the words of men but the words of God. Our blessed Lord gave us the 66 holy writings that are collected in the special book, the Bible.

2. The Reception of the Scriptures

2.1. The Scriptures were given to us by God for our learning. Sometimes we hear that our faith puts too much emphasis on the intellectual and rational. It’s true that some treat the Bible as though it were a textbook, studying to extract information which they can then discuss as though we were in a seminar. No, we read the Bible as God’s speaking to us, leading us to eternal salvation.

But there is no doubt that the Bible is a book of God’s words and that those words are addressed to our understanding. They are given for our learning. The way the reformers used the Bible was to read it and study it till they knew what the Bible says. Our English reformers then preached sermons, wrote the Articles of Religion, and even the Prayer Book, all expressing their understanding of what the Scriptures teach.

2.2. The Bible however is not just for teachers, theologians, bishops, and presbyters. It is for all God’s people. So in the petition of the collect, all we Christians pray that God will save us from Bible attention disorder and enable us to give the Scriptures our full attention.

To emphasize how important it is for us to give our full attention to Scriptures the Collect piles up five verbs about how we should receive the Bible.

  • Hear We ask for grace to hear the Scriptures. For most of Christian history the primary way the vast majority of God’s people received God’s Word was by going to church and hearing it read to them. One of the good things that Henry VIII did was to order that a Bible be placed in every parish church and chained down so that people could come and see the Bible, read it for themselves if they were literate, or listen to someone who could read, read it aloud.

We still come to church to hear the Bible read. No church has
more reading of Scripture in its services than the Anglican
churches. This reading is supposed to be a means by which
God’s grace comes into our lives.

But two things are needed. First those who read it to others
should read with understanding, feeling, and clarity. Second
hearers should regard hearing the Word read as a means by
which God will bless us, blessings we will miss if we do not
hear God’s Word read to us.

  • Read. When this Collect was put into the Prayer Book few owned a Bible and could read it in private. The private reading and study of the Scriptures was a duty primarily of the church’s scholars and presbyters, though the presbyters themselves were ill prepared profitably to read and study the Scriptures which is why we have the homilies - sermons on important subjects they could read to their congregations. It was only later that Bibles were mass produced and available for purchase. In this Collect we pray that all who have Bibles may have grace from God to read them for themselves.

  • Mark. We mark the Scriptures when we give them our full attention. It is very difficult for us not to let our minds wander whether we are listening to the reading in church or reading our own Bibles in private. This has become a bigger problem for us because of television and the internet. We are not used to just listening without accompanying visual stimulation. And, if something does not interest us quickly we move on to something else. Perhaps more than ever we need to pray this Collect that God will help us to mark his Words and pay careful attention to the Scriptures when they are read to or by us.

  • Learn. We listen to the Scriptures and pay attention to them so that we can learn what they teach. Hearing the reading of the Scriptures, even paying attention, is not spiritual magic. You don’t get the benefit because you were in the room when the Scriptures were read. We profit from the Scriptures only when we understand what they say. Five times in Psalm 119, the great Psalm about God’s Word, the Psalmist prays “Give me understanding...and I shall keep thy law...that I may learn thy commandments... that I may know thy testimonies...and I shall live...Give me understanding according to thy word.”

  • Inwardly Digest. When we ask that we may inwardly digest the Word we are asking that we may understand so that we may spiritually benefit from the Word. When we eat food, it is not immediately beneficial to us. We must digest the food - we must break it down till it is put into a form that can be absorbed and nourish our bodies. So with God’s Word we pray that we may spiritually digest it that it will have its good effects leading us to repentance from our sins, strengthening our faith in Christ, comforting us in our troubles, enabling us to grow in love for and doing of God’s will, making us holy in character and righteous in conduct, enabling us to live as one body in harmony with each other.

3. The Goal of the Scriptures

What is the special benefit of the Scriptures we are asking God to give during Advent?

…that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast, the everlasting hope of everlasting life which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ,

The focus of Advent is that Christ who came once in great humility will come again in great majesty. This is the blessed hope of Christians. Christ will come again, put everything right, and grant us the fullness of everlasting life, life with God, life that is beyond the touch of sadness and death, life that will share in the resurrection life of Jesus.

We read and understand this teaching and this promise in Holy Scripture. The Scriptures create in us a firm confidence the Christ will come and our salvation will be complete. So we patiently wait for the coming Day. And we get comfort or encouragement from knowing he will come. Because he will come our lives are not meaningless and futile. Our lives have significance because what we do for the Lord counts for eternity, and, when he comes, we will see how every aspect of our lives has served Christ’s kingdom and led to the glorious end.

The Holy Scriptures and the Holy Supper go together. The Scriptures tell and assure us he will come. He told us that at the Holy Supper we do these things that commemorate his saving death till he comes.

Our Lord will come. The day he will come is much closer than it was 2000 years ago. He makes his promise in the Word. He confirms it at the Table. At the Table we say, “Soon. He will come, and when he does, this Supper will end, and we will sit down with him to eat food and drink wine in perfect harmony with him and one another at the eternal Feast of the Lamb.”

Messengers and Ministers

Third in Advent

Collect of the Day: O Lord Jesus Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee; Grant that ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise prepare and so make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost ever, one God world without end. Amen.

It’s the Christmas season, school is out, and you’re off work and having  a “lazy day.” The kids are playing noisily in the playroom. In the kitchen the breakfast dishes are scattered because you haven’t unloaded the supper dishes from the dishwasher. You haven’t done any picking up and straightening of the rooms in the house. You’re in your pajamas, old bathrobe, and slippers.

Then there’s a persistent ringing of the doorbell. You open the door and to your horror it’s the CEO of your company come to talk about big changes he’s going to make at work.

You’re not ready for this! Couldn’t he have had his secretary call with a message that he’s coming? You needed some warning so you could have prepared for his visit.

There are two comings of our Lord - his first and second - and in both cases he sends messengers to prepare his people.

1. Messenger to Prepare of Christ’s First Coming

1.1 Prophecy of the Messenger. The whole Old Testament is preparation for what the Collect for the first Sunday in Advent calls the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ “in great humility.” He sends his messengers to prepare the people for his coming. From Moses to Malachi all the prophets prepared the way for our Lord’s coming.

But there was one prophet who stood out from all the others as the messenger who would prepare the way for the Lord. Isaiah foresaw his ministry:

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3).

The last prophet of the Old Testament also foresaw his ministry:

Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me (Malachi 3:1)...Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord (Malachi 4:5).

Whom did Isaiah and Malachi foresee? The Gospel writers leave  no doubt. It was John the Baptist. St. Mark wrote that both Isaiah and Malachi pointed to John:

As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 4 (Mark 1:2,3).

1.2. Messenger

What do we know about John and his ministry as the messenger? The angel who announced the coming birth of John to his father confirmed that the prophets Isaiah and Malachi predicted John’s ministry. The angel said:

And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias (Elijah), to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord (Luke 1:16,17).

John the Baptist is the man the Collect calls “thy (Christ’s) messenger to prepare thy way before thee.” John always said that he was not the Messiah but only the messenger sent to prepare the way for the Messiah. John never focused his ministry on himself but always on Christ:

I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance. but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: (Matthew 3:11).

When Christ came on the scene, John knew it was time for him to recede and for all attention to be focused on Christ, the Messiah and Savior. John told his followers:

He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30).

John was a bold but humble man willing to set the stage for Jesus and then focus the spotlight on Jesus.

1.3. Message

Like the Old Testament prophet Elijah John’s message was firm and demanding. There were three main points to his message:

  • John announced, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven (God) is at hand.” John meant that God’s kingdom was near in the coming of Jesus, the Son of God. That was both bad and good news. It was something like the announcement to kids, “Dad will be home soon.” For rebellious kids the arrival of Dad means the time of reckoning. For obedient kids Dad’s arrival is a cause of joy. The bad news about the nearness of the kingdom was that God’s judgment was near for all who continued in rebellion and did not receive the Messiah. The good news was that the day of God’s great salvation was near for all ready to receive Jesus the Messiah.

  • John warned of the coming judgment and called on all to repent and be baptized for the remission of their sins. He did not let his hearers get by with an easy nod of the head. He pressed the message of repentance:

O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance...And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire (Luke 3:7-9)...

  • John pointed all to Christ as the Savior God was sending. When John saw Jesus coming to the place where he was preaching, John proclaimed:

Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

In the Old Testament the lamb was laid on the altar as asacrifice for sin. The lamb died in the place of the sinner so he would be forgiven. John says, “Christ is the Lamb to whom all those sacrifices pointed. He takes away the sin of the world.” Ultimately it is not the repentance of those who are warned of judgment that saves them but the sacrifice of the Lamb of God.

Though he preached judgment, the purpose of John’s ministry was not to bring people under judgment and condemn them. His purpose was to prepare them for the first coming Jesus whose short public ministry would soon begin. He called them to repent and be baptized so that they would be ready to receive the Lamb of God as their Savior from sin.

2. Ministers to Prepare for Christ’s Second Coming

2.1. Minister’s Titles. Christ’s coming in great humility was accomplished 2000 years ago. What’s next is that he will come in great glory to judge the quick and the dead. And, just as Christ sent a messenger to prepare for his first coming, so he sends messengers to prepare for his second coming. Who are these? Ministers and stewards of his mysteries. We pray for them with the third collect:

Grant that ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise prepare and so make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight...

  • They are ministers. Paul said to the Corinthians: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ” (1 Cor. 4:1 ESV).” The New Testament word for minister is servant. The Corinthian Christians were very mixed up about the men who ministered to them. They formed rivalries based on whoever they preferred. Two of the most prominent were Paul and a man named Apollos. Paul wrote:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:5-7 ESV).

Ministers whether they are Bishops, Presbyters, or Deacons are just servants - servants of Christ through whom the Holy Spirit brings people to faith.

  • They are stewards of the mysteries of God. In Paul’s time large household had stewards. They were something like chief butlers in English households - Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey, if you will. The steward was in charge of everything, but he owned nothing, and his job was to handle what the head of the household entrusted to him with honesty and faithfulness. Ministers are stewards of the mysteries of God. What are the mysteries of God? They are what God had done and was doing in Christ to reconcile the world to himself. These things were previously hidden, but now God had made them known. The job of the minister as a steward is to dispense the mysteries by preaching the Word of God and by administering the sacraments of Christ.

2.2. Minister’s Task. What is the minister’s goal as he preaches the Word and administers the sacraments? It is to prepare people for the Second Coming by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.

The truth is that all who are disobedient - who have not submitted themselves to Jesus as Savior and King - are not prepared for the Second Coming of our Lord. His coming means he will judge every person. There will be no appeals or second chances. His judgment will be final. The hearts of the rebellious must be turned away from rebellion against God and turned to the wisdom of the just.

What is this wisdom of the just? It is to hear the warning that Christ will come again to judge and to take heed to that to call to be prepared. It means to repent - to turn away from sin. Repentance does not mean that you try real hard to be better. It means you give up your self-will and submit yourself to God, asking him to change you. The wisdom of the just is also to receive Christ as your Savior from sin and judgment. St. Paul wrote to Timothy:”from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15 ESV). Wisdom is to know and receive salvation by faith in Jesus Christ.

Ministers prepare us for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ by calling us to repent of our sins and to entrust ourselves to Jesus Christ so that “we may be found an acceptable people in thy (Christ’s) sight.”

Soon we will come to the Table of the Lord and the minister will, as a steward of Christ, dispense the mysteries of God’s work in Christ for the salvation of the world. He will give to you the bread and wine in effect saying, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” - not that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of our Lord so that Christ’s body is on the Table. Rather the whole service of Holy Communion pictures and proclaims Christ and his saving work. Take and eat the body of Christ given for you and feed upon him in your heart... Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for you.” He lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Soon he will come and give you the fullness of salvation.

  Hurry and Help Us

Fourth Sunday in Advent

Collect of the Day: O Lord, raise up, we pray thee, thy power, and come among us, and with great might succor us; that whereas though our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us, thy bountiful grace and mercy may 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.

In 2012 Meghan Vogel was running in a high school track meet in Ohio. As she prepared to pass Arden McMath, McMath collapsed on the track. That should have been the end of the race for McMath, but she received help. Vogel didn’t continue on. She stopped, got McMath to her feet, put her arm around her shoulders, and supported her across the the finish line.

One of the images the Bible gives us for the Christian life is a race. And we all need help to finish.

1. The Race

1.1. In 1 Corinthians St. Paul pictures the Christian life as a race that requires focus and effort:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable (1 Cor. 9:24, 25).

1.2. When Paul was very near the end of his life, he was confident that he had completed the race of the Christian life:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Tim. 4:7, 8).

1.3. The writer of Hebrews described the Christian life a lifelong race that requires endurance:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…(Hebrews 12:1,2)

1.4. The Christian life is a race that begins with our faith-commitment to Christ. It does not end till we cross the finish line at the end of life. It’s not a short sprint but a life-long race that requires endurance. It requires dedication and self-control. We must run with the focus and determination of a runner who wants to win the prize. Jesus was the first to run the race, and he is our example of how to run this race to the finish with endurance. Other believers have finished the race and are are watching us run our earthly race from their places in “the stands of heaven.”  When we finish our race, we will receive the imperishable prize of perfected righteousness and eternal life.

2. The Hindrances

2.1. The Christian life is a lifelong race. But we need to know there are hindrances to running it. The writer of Hebrews tells us that to run the race we should “lay aside every weight and the sin which clings so closely (“so easily besets us” KJV). The Collect for today confesses that “through our sins and wickedness we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us.”

We might find some of language of the Prayer Book confusing.  What does it mean that “through our sins and wickedness we are sore let”?

When the Collect uses the word “sore” it doesn’t mean what we do when we say, “I worked in the garden yesterday, and I’m sore all over.” You may remember the story in the King James version of the Shepherds in the fields the night Christ was born. The angel of the Lord appeared, and the glory of the Lord shone all around them. They were “sore afraid.” Sore means “very.”

But what does “let” mean? This is a word which in the 1600s meant the opposite from what it means today. Today “let” means “to allow.” “I let my kids go to the concert.” But then the word meant “to prevent” or “to thwart.” We are “sore let” or greatly thwarted in running the race of the Christian life.

What prevents and hinders us running the race of the Christian life are our “sins and wickedness.”

2.2. Here is the way the New Testament understands our relationship to sin.

  • Before we are Christians, we are slaves to sin. Sin controls us, directs us, and condemns us to judgment. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say unto you, everyone who practices sin is the slave of sin” (Jn. 8:34). But, when we become believers, we are set free from slavery to sin. St. Paul wrote:

...thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness (Rom.6:17,18).

Non-believers have sin as their master. They have to do what sin says. But once we are in Christ by faith, sin is no longer our boss. We have freedom to say yes to God’s commands.

  • It would seem then that the Christian life should be easy. Why then does the Collect say we are “sore let and hindered through our sins and wickedness”? Because there is another reality. Sin is defeated but not powerless. It remains within us and is powerful. St. Paul wrote to the Galatians that there is a struggle between the good desires the Holy Spirit gives and the evil desires of the sinful flesh:

For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do (Galatians 5:17).

  • In Romans 7 Paul describes the difficulty of running the Christian life in terms of his own personal struggle. The new person he really is in Christ loves what is good and wants to do it but often fails. That same new person hates sin and wants not to do it, but often does:

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not

do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...For I
know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my
flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not
the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I
 want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on
 doing. (See Romans 7:14-24).
  • The non-Christian does not worry much about his sins, unless he has to face its consequences or thinks about future judgment. A Christian experiences a struggle. He does not love sin but hates it; yet he sins. He loves God’s commands; yet struggles to keep them. This is what the Collect means when it say our sin “sore lets hinders” us in running the race of the Christian life.

3. The Help

3.1. There are Christians whose struggles with sin are obvious. Their sins have been exposed. Other Christians struggle in secret. They are keenly aware of how sin hinders their running the race of the Christian life. They are frustrated with themselves, and want deliverance, but they continue to struggle.

There are many Christians who have trouble identifying with the Collect’s description of them as being sore let and hindered by their sins and wickedness. But who of us would claim to be more holy than St. Paul? Yet after his description of his personal struggle with sin, he cried out in frustration and desperation:

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:25).

That is an exclamation that should be found in the heart of every Christian.

3.2. So what does a Christian whose sins and wickedness sore let and hinder him or her in running the race set before us? The Christian who feels defeated, helpless, and frustrated. He cries out to the Lord for help: “O Lord, raise up, we pray thee, thy power, and come among us, and with great might succor (help) us…”.  A Christian prays that “thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us.” Sin is too big and powerful for us to deal with in our own strength. Though a defeated foe, sin remains in our hearts and wants to control us. So we must ask the Lord for his power, might, grace, and mercy.

The ground of our hope in dealing with sin is in Christ and what he has done for us in his righteous life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection.* We place our trust in him and his righteousness is credited to us so that we stand righteous in God’s sight. We trust his death for the payment of our sins and the removal of God’s judgment.

Some find this unbelievable and some are offended by it, but this is true: we can receive forgiveness as often as we need it. You don’t buy forgiveness by how sorry you are for your sins, or how strongly you resolve not to do it again, or how deep your repentance. Have you ever noticed that in the Communion Service we make the same confession of sin every week and the minister in Christ’s name pronounces our sins forgiven? Because Christ died for our sins, our sins are forgiven. Forgiveness is not offered to high-handed sinners who have no desire to be free from their sins. But forgiveness is free and freely offered to us as often as we need it when we confess our sins and trust in Christ. We should not despair, but trust in Christ continually.

When we sincerely ask for forgiveness, we are also saying, “Lord I am grieved by my sin; I am so frustrated by it. Nothing would make me happier than to be free of my sin’s power in my life. Please help me, strengthen me, and give me hope. Help me to die to sin’s power and make me alive to live for you and righteousness.”

We will be freed from sin completely when we die. That is one of the things to look forward to at death. The fire of sin will be put out forever. The struggle will end, and we will be free. And at the Second Advent we will be raised with Christ to be like him - righteous in body and soul.

Because the victory over sin is not in ourselves but in Christ, we come to Christ’s Table with St. Paul’s confidence despite the struggle with sin:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 8:1)

* I am not sure why, but our Prayer Book does not have this phrase which gives the ground of our petition to be delivered from our sins and wickedness: “through the satisfaction of thy Son our Lord.”

Incarnation and Regeneration

Christmas Day

Collect: Almighty God, who hast given us thine only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin; Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

Have you ever known someone whose purpose in life was to turn lighthearted occasions into serious ones? Maybe it’s a birthday party. People are eating cake, laughing, and singing “Happy Birthday!” Then this person comes into the room, asks all to be quiet and give him their attention. He then offers a five minute prayer about the miracle of birth, the need to number our days, and the responsibility to live serious lives. The celebration is over.

We might be tempted to feel that way about Thomas Cranmer’s  Collect for today. Christmas is a day of joy and cheer. Yet there is not a heavier, more serious collect in the Prayer Book than the Collect for Christmas Day. However, the purpose of the Collect is not to take away from our glad annual remembrance of Christ’s birth but to deepen our understanding and appreciation of what his birth means. It calls our attention to two profound truths - the truth of Christ’s incarnation and the truth of the Christian’s regeneration.

1. The Incarnation of Christ

The first truth is the truth of the incarnation, or the enfleshment of Christ.

1.1 The Story. The story of Christ’s birth is so familiar most of us could tell it without reviewing it.
Mary, a young teenage girl was engaged to a carpenter named Joseph. An angel appeared to her and told her she would have a son. This greatly perplexed Mary as she could not understand how she, a virgin, could have a child. However, the angel assured her that the Holy Spirit would overshadow her and by his power she would conceive a son. When he was born, she should name him Jesus.  

Joseph, a righteous man, was deeply concerned when he discovered Mary was pregnant. He was preparing to legally end the engagement when an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife for the child conceived in her was of the Holy Spirit. Joseph also was told to give the baby boy the name Jesus for he would save his people from their sins. Joseph and Mary married, though they did not have marital relations till after the baby’s birth.

Near Mary’s due, the government decreed a census should be taken and each man should return to his ancestral home to register. Joseph and Mary traveled from their home in Nazareth down to Bethlehem, a trip of about 90 miles that took somewhere between 4 and 10 days. In Bethlehem they found lodging in a stable. There Mary gave birth to her son.

That night in the fields nearby there were shepherds caring for their sheep. An angel appeared to them and announced that in Bethlehem a Savior had been born for them. When the angels left the shepherds quickly went to Bethlehem to see the child. After they had seen the baby they returned to the fields praising God for all they had seen and heard.

Sometime later a group of Magi from the east arrived in Bethlehem. When they found Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in a house, they went in, worshiped Jesus as King, and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

(Or, in the interest of time: We all know the story of the Virgin Mary, and her fiance, Joseph. Of the angel who told them to name their son Jesus. Of their journey of 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for a census. Of the birth of Mary’s baby in a stable in Bethlehem. Of the angel who announced to shepherds that a Savior born and the angelic host who sang, “Glory to God in the highest!” Of the Magi who were guided by a star to Bethlehem where they found and worshiped the Child.)

1.2. The Meaning. The story we know, but by itself the story is just a story. We have to ask, “What does it mean? What is the significance? What is God doing in this story?” This is where the profound theology of the Collect enriches our understanding:
“Almighty God, who hast given us thine only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin.”  

God has a Son. He has many adopted sons and daughters, but only one begotten Son. When we say Christ is the only begotten Son, we do not mean that there was a time when the Father existed and the Son did not or that the Father brought forth the Son at some point in eternity past. We mean that like a natural son, he has the same nature as the Father. We read this morning from Hebrews 1: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (1:3). We read from St. John this morning that in the beginning there was One John calls the Word, who already existed when time began; he was with God the Father in a close relationship yet was distinct from God the Father; but that does not mean he was less than God, for John tells us that he was God. There could be no stronger affirmation that the Son of God is himself God. Making sense of the Christmas story begins with the only begotten Son of God.

God gave his only begotten Son to us. What is the most valuable thing you have? For most of us that would not be something like a job or house. It’s a person, perhaps a spouse of child. To whom would you give this most valuable person? You and I probably would say, “No one - I would not give to anyone the person I love most.” You would surely not give someone you love to an enemy who hates you, and most certainly not to someone who would mistreat and abuse the person you love. But God loves and so God gave. “God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). What God values most - the Son with whom he shares perfect love and harmony - he gave to us sinners who inhabit this sinful world.

God gave this Son to take our nature upon him by being born of the Virgin Mary. He did not stop being God, but he became one with us in our human nature, fully human in every way except for sin. St. John tells us that “the Word became flesh” - the Word, who is himself fully God, became flesh, became fully human.
The human nature he took to himself was the weak and mortal human nature we have because of the curse of sin on human nature. The writer of Hebrews shows us how far Christ went in identifying with us:
Since therefore the (we) children (we whom he came to save) share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil...Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (2:14-18).

Christ became one with us in our human nature so that hecould redeem our human nature. He shared our nature so that he could obey the commands of God’s law for us and provide us with a righteousness acceptable to God, which we receive by faith. He shared in our human nature so that he could assume responsibility for our sins and suffer the penalty for our sins. The result is that by faith in him, we are forgiven and reconciled with God.

The Collect calls us on Christmas to remember the story and understand its significance. The Son of God became incarnate by the Virgin Mary to save us from sin, death, and judgment.

2. The Regeneration of Believers

The Collect goes on to focuses on our regeneration and our becoming the children of God:

Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption  
and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit…

We who are Christians have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit. This is the beginning of our spiritual life and is marked and sealed by baptism. We were generated, or conceived and born, once by our natural parents. But there is another generation - a re-generation or a second birth by  which we become the children of God. St. Paul wrote of this second birth:

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, (Titus 3:4-6)
We are saved by God’s initiative and mercy not by the good things we do. Just as the Holy Spirit came upon Mary so that a child was generated within her, so the Holy Spirit comes to us and regenerates and renews us so that new life in Jesus Christ begins.

Not only are we regenerated and renewed but we also become the children of God. We read from St. John’s Gospel about the connection between the miraculous new birth and our becoming children of God:

... to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.Why did they believe in his name so that God gave them the right to be his children? St. John explains:…(they) were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:11-13).

Christians, like everyone else, have experienced an ordinary natural birth. But we have also experienced a second supernatural birth, have believed in the name of Jesus Christ, and are now children of God. But the Christian life is more than saying, “I’ve been born again, believed in Jesus, and become a child of God so all that I need has already happened.” No, if we are born again and the children of God by adoption and grace, then we earnestly desire that the new life and faith that have begun in us will continue and grow all our lives. So we pray with the Collect that we may be “continually renewed by the Holy Spirit.” As we come to Christ’s Table on this Christmas morning to commune with him, let us pray that the Holy Spirit who has begun a good work in us will continue to renew us day by day so long as we live until at last we are made like Christ in his now perfect humanity, and enjoy the life that is eternal.  

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