Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Third Sunday in Advent, Part II

During these final two Sundays of Advent the liturgy features the odd and unfriendly person known as St. John Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, who was born just six months before him. Although he is narrated in the New Testament Gospel, this man was the last of the Old Testament prophets. In this “goodly fellowship of the prophets,” he was the only prophet actually to see Jesus face to face. The One Whom Isaiah and all the other Old Testament figures saw only by faith, John was permitted to see right in front of him.

The message of John is summed up in the words, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The expression “kingdom of heaven” means the active reign of God. The word “kingdom” sounds like a political institution or territorial entity; the phrase is better translated “kingship of God.” John's message was simply that God, who rightly claims rule in His creation, can no longer be defied or challenged, since He is about to re-assert His royal authority in the world He made.

Almost at the beginning of history, our earliest ancestors set out to overthrow God and remove Him from His throne. That was the original sin; that is still the essence of all sin. But John announced that in Jesus Christ, the “Lamb of God,” God was about to gain the upper hand and resume control of His world. That was to be His “kingdom.”

John says this kingdom “is at hand.” That expression puzzles us. Did he mean the kingdom has already arrived, was shortly to arrive, or would arrive sometime in the future?

All three of these answers are correct. Because Jesus was physically standing in the middle of the crowd listening to John, the reign of God had already commenced. His perfect obedience and sinlessness showed that the victory over evil was already underway. But very soon, in just three years, that perfect obedience would bring Jesus to His cross and to His empty tomb. That was the decisive victory which proved and made sure that the old kingdom of sin and Satan was overthrown forever.

But the final victory, when Jesus will hand over the kingdom to His Father, will not come until the end of history. This good news of God's reign is summed up in the words, “Already, but Not Yet.” We live between two points of time, the coming of the kingdom in the life of Jesus on earth, and its perfection when He shall come again. And as we look forward to that arrival, John's message to us is simply to “repent,” to change our minds and and to change our lives so that we may be ready for Him when He comes in His glory.

The Third Sunday in Advent, Part I

Of all the praiseworthy characters of the Bible, the one whose company we would enjoy least is St John Baptist. He is not the sort of person we would wish to have as a dinner guest or as a fellow traveler on a cruise. But he is the saint who features prominently in the liturgy of the last two Sundays of Advent. And if the Baptist does not appeal to us, our Lord paid him the highest of all possible compliments: “Truly I say to you, among those born of women, there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matt 11:11).

John was great because he was the last in the long succession of Old Testament prophets “which have been since the world began.” But John was the only one to see Jesus Himself. The Son of God was seen by Abraham, Moses, Isaiah and all the rest in a visionary way. John was privileged to see Him in the flesh.

John's prophetic ministry was threefold, as it related to (1) Jesus Himself, (2) Herod Antipas, and (3) the chosen people Israel living in A.D. 27—30. As far as Jesus is concerned, it was John's privilege to baptize Him and to announce Him publicly. “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world .... He must increase and I must decrease.”

As for Herod Antipas (son of the Herod who tried to murder the Christ Child), John's preaching was distinctly controversial and provocative. John publicly denounced this Herod for his immoral life—casting aside one wife to marry another who was the wife of his brother. For that sermon, John lost his life, and probably most Christians today would be in firm agreement with the Herod family that preachers should not meddle into such things. And if we and Herod are in agreement, we must be in disagreement with Jesus.

But John's sternest words were directed to the huge multitude which went out to hear him preaching on the banks of the Jordan. “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?......Now is the axe laid to the root of the trees.” The expression “generation of vipers” is probably an allusion to the “seed of the serpent” in Genesis 3:15, the reprobate race perpetually at enmity with the “Seed of the Woman.” So the last great voice of Old Testament prophecy echoes the earliest expression of the Gospel, the Protevangelium.

In addition to pointing out the actual presence of the Messiah, John preached the necessity for repentance, the moral house-cleaning which is imperative as the Lord approaches. As we contemplate John in the Advent liturgy, we face the question: What would John have to say to us?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Second Sunday in Advent, Part II

Owing to its splendid Proper Collect, this second Sunday in Advent has come to be known as “Bible Sunday,” While most Collects are more ancient, this one was an original composition by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the compiler of the first Prayer Book of 1549. It was based on the opening text of today's Epistle: “Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning.” Advent is a good time to form a New Year's resolution to read the Bible more diligently. So we will learn the truth, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.”

But the original significance of this Sunday, as set forth in the appointed Gospel, is rather different. The message of Christ's final coming at the end of history is ratcheted up to a louder volume. “And then they shall see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” This takes place in a context of distress of nations, with men's hearts failing them for fear. Christ will not come into a serene or perfect world, but into the final catastrophe brought down by the tragedy of sin.

The almost final verse of today's Gospel is puzzling: “This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled.” Many have concluded that either Jesus or the Gospel-writer was flatly mistaken, as the final coming in glory did not take place within that narrow time-frame. But this text makes excellent sense if we understand the principle of double fulfilment, so frequently the case with Biblical prophecy. If we open our Bibles, and read the preceding verses, not printed in our Prayer Books, we see instantly that Jesus was predicting first of all the destruction of Jerusalem, which indeed occurred in A.D. 70 at the hands of the Romans. “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near” (Lk 21:20). This Roman devastation took place, exactly as Jesus said it would, within the life span of His audience. But what becomes clear on reflection is that the catastrophe of A.D. 70 turns out to be a foreshadowing of future events on a far greater scale. As the history of Israel ended in catastrophe, all earthly history will end in tragedy. The “generation” ultimately is the whole body of those elect who are His t people through “regeneration.” This “blessed company of all faithful people” will not pass away: the Church of Jesus Christ, no matter how battered and reduced by the bruises of history, will not disappear from the scene before Jesus comes again.

As Jerusalem was surrounded by Roman armies nearly 2,000 years ago, so our Jerusalem is encircled by hostile forces, neo-pagan culture, moral chaos, and militant unbelief. So Christ's message still remains: “Look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.” This Gospel of hope is no easy or comfortable religion, but a message of victory which defies all evidence.

The Second Sunday in Advent, part I

Among the glories of our beloved Prayer Book are those short pithy prayers which we know as the “Collect for the Day.” Every Sunday and Holy Day of the year has its own Collect, Epistle and Gospel; these are known as “the propers” of the particular day. These are very ancient. They mostly antedate the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Many of these “propers” go right back to the early centuries of the Church.

But upon occasion Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who compiled the first edition of our Prayer Book in 1549, wrote an original Collect. This is the case with the slightly unusual Collects we have on the first two Sundays of Advent. These two special prayers are among the most striking and moving petitions of all devotional literature.

The Collect for Advent I plays on a subtle contrast between “now in the time of this mortal life” and “the last day, when he shall come again.” This reinforces the major theme of Advent, “the night is far spent, the day is at hand.” This Collect reminds us that whether the final coming of our Saviour is ten thousand years into the future or within the next five minutes, that coming is the great event which really dominates all time between His ascension and the end of the world. We might be tempted to say it “overshadows” all earthly history. But on the contrary, it is the event which breaks apart the clouds of our sin and pours out God's dazzling light. So the present time in which we live is already the time of God's reign.

The Collect for Advent II reflects the resurgence of interest in the Bible which took place in Archbishop Cranmer's time. Although the Scriptures had always been studied and carefully preserved in the Church, both the invention of printing and new translations had made the Bible more accessible. The king whom Cranmer served, Henry VIII, is infamous for his six wives and generally wicked reign. But Henry made one lasting positive contribution to our Church when he commanded that every parish church in the realm of England have a large folio Bible installed for the use of the clergy and people. To this day that is a prominent feature of our Anglican churches, not usually seen elsewhere.

There are many spiritual tragedies in our time. But all, without exception, are rooted in the Church's neglect of the Bible, in our preaching, teaching, and devotional life. The petition that we “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,” should be as urgent as any prayer we pray.