a sermon preached on 2 December 2018 at Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church
Please pray with me.
May my heart’s affection, my mind’s attention, and my soul’s submission be to you, oh Lord, my Savior and my Redeemer. +In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For the past three weeks we were in a sermon series called “Life Together” where we asked and answered three questions about how God calls Christians to live, especially together. We looked more closely at our church’s motto, “Christ in All. All in Christ.” That series culminated last Sunday on Christ the King Sunday, which was a fitting answer to what all of life is all about. And as you can tell by the greenery of the church and the purple altar linens, today begins our Advent season, a season of preparation, of consideration, of expectation, and a season of perhaps deeper repentance and fasting before the Christmas season, a season of feasting. The four sermons during this Advent season will be together titled “Chaperones Through Advent.”
Our Christian heritage has passed down to us a myriad of gifts, of traditions, and of ideas. Along with those ideas, we have symbols, terminology, and even a calendar. For some Christians, this calendar is followed loosely. As Anglicans, and as Christians who indeed believe and more faithfully practice “Christ in All, All in Christ,” we believe Jesus is, as the hymn states, the potentate of time. And so we enter a season of the Church calendar that is very important though not well understood. It’s a season, especially in America, characterized by loud commercialism and anxious preparation. Saint Augustine’s Prayer Books states, “In Advent, as in few other times in the year, the Church’s calendar is at odds with culture; in the Church, Advent is a time of restraint and contemplation marked by growing joy and hope, in contrast to the hectic and almost frantic quality of western culture’s attempt to celebrate ‘the holidays.’” For the Christian, Advent is an important time in our Church calendar, and if we plan to get it right, we must have chaperones. We must have guides and guards who assist us with treating this season in its fullness and by its peculiar gifts. If we do so, we will get much out of it, and we will get much more out of Christmas. The four chaperones for these four sermons will be Isaiah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and Mary.
Please turn in your Bible with me to Isaiah 40:1-8. I would like to read for us today’s passage.
Proclamation and Principles.
Let’s begin with a broad look at Advent, and then I want to consider why Isaiah is such an important chaperone, especially on this first Sunday of Advent. Advent comes from the Latin adventus, which means coming or arrival. The season of Advent on the Church’s calendar dates back to the mid-6th century. Biblically, Advent is a time of being soaked in the imagination of the Old Testament. The Church during Advent places a great deal of emphasis on the Old Testament, seeing as the Old Testament indeed carries with it the whole posture of Advent—a posture of darkness awaiting the light, a posture of ongoing slavery and repentance, a posture of eager expectation for the Messiah, a posture of judgement and hope, a posture of preparation, even cosmological preparation, and a posture of knowing and experiencing the fallenness of all creation. And this is why Isaiah is such an important biblical character and Old Testament book to chaperone us through Advent. There are five Advent features which are also major features of the book of Isaiah.
First, in the book of Isaiah and in the season of Advent, there is an emphasis on self-examination, penitence, and repentance. One of the major themes throughout the book of Isaiah is that of waywardness which requires judgement, which makes Isaiah a fitting prophet for our focus on the first Sunday of Advent. Isaiah’s word to Judah, to whom the book of Isaiah is composed, follows a particular pattern, especially in the first part: “As Isaiah looks at the world, he does three things: he depicts its evil, denounces that evil, and predicts God’s imminent judgement against that evil.” (Literary Study Bible, 1005). Isaiah must begin by depicting and denouncing evil in the first part of the book of Isaiah or else the last part of the book of Isaiah, the answer in the Messiah, does not make sense. This is important in Advent as well. As we will see in a moment, Advent is a time to consider the earth and consider our own lives in order to depict evil in and around us, denounce evil in and around us, and expect imminent judgement against that evil. This is necessary, for without sin there is no need for a Savior. Without Advent, there is no Christmas.
A second theme in Isaiah and in Advent is Christ’s coming in glory to judge the world. This is not only his first coming, which we remember and anticipate in Advent each year, this is also his second coming. Jesus’ second coming is also an important theme in Advent. Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book states, “On the First Sunday [of Advent], we hold in mind Christ’s coming in glory to judge the world.” This is part of the Anglican tradition. The Prayer Book continues, “The Second and Third Sundays are to remember John the Baptist and the prophets who prepare us to recognize the Christ. Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the Third Sunday are the Winter Ember Days—days of prayer for the Church, for ordained ministers, and for all Christians in their vocations. On December 17, the Great “O” antiphons begin with the Magnificat; The Fourth Sunday turns our focus toward the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph and their call to receive and nurture the Christ Child.” But today is a day which is particularly suited for Isaiah. Once Isaiah depicts and denounces evil, he then foretells not only God’s imminent judgement but God’s sacrifice which he will give once for all in the coming Messiah. This judgement is not just fulfilled in what Christ has done, but as we see in the book of Revelations, particularly those parts which reference Isaiah, it is about what Christ will do at the final judgement.
Third, Isaiah and Advent are both about fasting and self-restraint. In Isaiah chapters 1-35 are what we may call “prophetic oracles,” the prophet pronouncing judgement on nations, even by name, and predicting their impending doom; interspersed there are verbally painted pictures or oracles of salvation offered to those nations. In chapters 36-39 there is a story of Assyria sending threatening demands to the small nation of Judah. The story is one about whether God’s people will place their trust in something besides God. If they do indeed resist this temptation, God will save them. Advent is a time where we must consider those things which individually and collectively tempt us to find salvation apart from God, to find happiness and joy apart from God, to define the good life apart from God. And so Advent is a time of fasting and self-restraint, of penitence and contemplation.
Fourth, Isaiah and Advent are about hopeful expectation and preparation. The book of Isaiah has been identified by some theologians as the centerpiece of the story of Israel. In chapter 40 of Isaiah we have a wave of five redemption oracles. In these oracles we see there is a forward focus of redemption that God will accomplish in his people. We see that the judgement of the first 35 chapters will ultimately be placed upon the shoulders of God’s Deliverer. For Israel this is an expectation of restoration, of redemption. This is the spirit of Advent.
Fifth and finally, from the book of Isaiah comes not only some of the most vivid imagery and prophecy of Christ, but also the verses which inspired the most important Advent song “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” This song is one of the oldest known Advent hymns, dating back to the 8th century, author unknown. This hymn was originally composed in Latin, and in this hymn there are seven verses, all of which are directly inspired by Isaiah. These seven verses come from what are called the Seven Latin “O Antiphons.” (direct them to the Advent Guide and briefly explain).
And so like every Sunday, on Advent Sunday, which is still a feast day, we come to the Lord’s Table. But we ought not to come to the Lord’s Table the same we do each ordinary Sunday. Because we are in Advent, we ought to come with a greater degree of consideration, a focus on how it is we belong here. Advent is not a time to be morose, but it is a time to be penitent. We do not fast today, the Lord’s Day, during Advent, because we indeed have this table, and this table reminds us that even though we celebrate Advent, we do so at a point in history in which our Lord is already risen. Our imaginations do not ignore reality. That is to say, this is a season of contemplation, but it is not a season of forgetfulness.
Now hear and consider a poem by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge.
“I Saw a Stable” by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge
I saw a stable, low and very bare,
A little child in a manger.
The oxen knew Him, had Him in their care,
To men He was a stranger,
The safety of the world was lying there,
And the world’s danger.