Sunday, December 1, 2013

Advent I: Incarnation and Transformation

This is the sermon I gave this morning in Anthony for Advent I, Matthew 24:36-44 -- Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming.

How I love the turning of the Church seasons!  It is comforting and deeply satisfying that winter follows autumn, just as surely as autumn followed summer, and that summer follows winter and spring, year after year, and that the Church on earth is attuned to and synchronized with the turning of the earthly seasons.  All these things are part of God's eternal plan of creation and incarnation, and of bringing all things back to himself in his own good time and way.  Creation, turning, and re-turning -- seasons of birth, of growing, of joy and of sorrow, of sowing and harvesting, of coming to fruition and of dying -- all these cycles move through God's time.
     Being created in God's image, we are called to participate consciously and intentionally with him in his great plan.  His love is to be fulfilled in the salvation of all his creation, not by force, but through the willing, freely-chosen and freely-given sacrificial human love returning his love back to him.  As we participate in God's plan by joining him in giving and receiving acts of love, we join with him in creating the person he meant each of us to be, and we assist him in the creation of each person we encounter in his Kingdom on Earth.
     In the Gospel story we read today (Matt 24:36-44), Jesus is trying to respond to his disciples' questions.  They have just come from the Temple, in which Jesus has had yet another very frustrating and disheartening encounter with the hierarchy of his own people, God's chosen ones, people of his own flesh and blood and who shared the religion and culture of his fathers and their fathers baack through the ages.  Of all people, you night think his religious leaders would understand the signs of the prophesies pointing to the coming of the Messiah, for whom they have been waiting and longing through generation after generation.  You would think, but you would be wrong.  They were not able to recognize one of their own sons as the one they were looking for.
     Instead, they came to hear him for the specific purpose of trying to trap him into making a statement they could use against him.  He responded by preaching in the most forthright way he had ever done, interpreting to them the signs of the coming Messiah.  Finally, in frustration, Jesus angrily predicted to them the fall of the Temple, and then turned and went away weeping, wishing he could be a mother hen and gather them safely under his wings, wishing he could fulfill the longing that generations of the people of Israel had expressed, that he would gather them under the pinions of his wings to be sheltered and protected.  How unutterably sad that they were not able to comfort one another, God's people and their Lord.
     The events beginning with the birth of Jesus, and culminating in the destruction of the Temple 40 or so years after Jesus' death and resurrection, mark a great turning in the history of the salvation of the world, from the Mosaic age to the Messianic age; from the covenant of the law of Moses to the new covenant of salvation and redemption through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God and Son of Man, our Emmanuel, God with us.
     Having witnessed the scene at the Temple, and having heard Jesus' predictions and felt his despair, the disciples were bewildered and confused.  They did not know how to understand what they had just seen and heard, so they turned to their Master to explain things.  He patiently told them again of the coming events of his suffering, death, and resurrection, as well as the suffering and death all those will face who follow him.  This Messianic kingdom will be difficult and full of suffering, but also joyful and triumphant for those who walk in the way of Christ.  In the passage for today's Gospel reading, Jesus promises that he will indeed return at the end of this coming age.  Some people will be prepared for his coming, and some will not.
     People of the early Church understood him to mean that he would be coming back in their lifetime, not understanding that he was talking about the completion of the age of the law of Moses.  The destruction of the Temple did indeed occur within the lifetime of many of the people he was talking to.  This destruction  and the ruthless attack upon the Jewish people of Jerusalem marked the end of the sacrifices at the Temple, as quite literally, there was no more Temple.  The Romans overran Jerusalem suddenly and unexpectedly, slaughtering random people right in the midst of their daily lives.  The Jewish people still alive were forced to flee Jerusalem, scattering throughout the known world.
     In the next age, the age of the Messiah, the time of the covenant of our salvation through the blood of Christ, (the one we are in now), we are told to be preparing for the second coming of Christ.  In the text following today's reading, we can read that we must prepare for his coming by participating in the forwarding of his Kingdom on earth.  We are to participate by functioning as Christ's earthly body until his coming again in the flesh at the end of this new age.
     Clearly, Jesus could not have intended to demand that we must never sleep.  That statement is a metaphor meaning that we are never to stop functioning as his living body, the Holy Church.  He tells us to be faithful in preparing for his coming again.  And what are we told to do to prepare?  In the next few passages of the text he explains that we are to be God's faithful slaves, doing his will, performing the work he has given us to do, and doing it to the best of our ability, for at the end we will be accountable to him for what we have done or failed to do.
     Listen again to the prophesy of the Messianic Kingdom in the words of Isaiah (2:1-5):  "...all nations will stream to the house of the Lord, that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths."  And further, "For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.  He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.  O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!"  You see, this will be the outcome if we, the Church, follow our Lord's commandment to bring the Gospel to all the world.  Listen to the words of today's Psalm (122) -- We will bring the world into the house of the Lord, to the New Jerusalem, where we will prosper and live in peace together.  
     And listen to the words of the letter to the Romans (13:8-14) "The one who loves another has fulfilled the law."  We are exhorted to awaken from sleep -- "The night is far gone, the day is near...."  We are called to lay aside the works of darkness and put upon ourselves the armor of light, that is, to lay aside pettiness, licentiousness, jealousies, and all selfishness, and put on the Lord Jesus Christ.
     If we are obedient to our calling to turn away from living to satisfy or to gratify our own selfish desires, and turn toward the light of Christ, and do selfless works of love in his Holy Name, a transformation will occur.  We will become more and more the person God created the potential for us to become.  We will be transformed more and more into our real selves, joyful in loving relationship with God.  This incarnation of our true selves through the love of Christ is the theme of the wonderful Christmas folk legends.  Listen again to some of these stories and see how acts of love and worship of the baby Christ transform all members of creation into their true selves.  

The Legend of the Robin's Red Breast
A little brown bird shared Bethlehem's stable with the holy family. One night as the family lay sleeping, she noticed their fire was going out. So she flew down from the rafters and fanned the fire with her wings throughout the night in order to keep the baby Jesus warm. In the morning, she was rewarded with a red breast as a symbol of her love for the newborn king.

 The Legend of the Lamb's Woolly Coat
A lamb named BaBa lived in the stable at Bethlehem. One night as the holy family slept, BaBa crept up to the manger to watch the baby sleep. While she watched, BaBa noticed how thin the infant's blanket was and that he was shivering from the cold. Filled with love for the child, BaBa warmed him with her own body throughout the night. When Jesus touched her rough, shaggy coat, it was transformed into a beautiful soft wool coat.

 The Legend of the Donkey's Bray
After hiding in Egypt for some years, Joseph decided to move his family back to Nazareth. During the night they camped along the side of the road. One night while they slept, their donkey heard the soldiers' horses coming from afar. Afraid that the soldiers were coming to kill Jesus, the donkey neighed to wake Joseph. He neighed and neighed, again and again, but his voice was just too soft to wake the sleepers. Finally, as the soldiers approached, the donkey prayed for a loud voice to wake the family. When he neighed again, he was rewarded with the loud bray such as donkeys have had ever since.

 The Legend of the Camel's Hump 
In order to visit the newborn king, the three wise men traveled with a caravan across many miles of desert. Traveling as quickly as they could, to reach the baby before the star departed, they neglected to carry enough water for both man and beast. The wise men asked the camels to travel without water until the end of their journey so they might reach the baby in time. The camels were agreeable and raced across the desert without rest or water. When they finally reached the stable, the camels worshipped the baby and thanked God for giving them the strength for their waterless journey. Drinking their fill from the stable's trough, the camels were rewarded with humps to keep them from thirsting in the desert.

The Legend of the Poinsettia

In one village in Mexico it was customary for each person to place a gift on the altar of the church for the baby Jesus on Christmas Eve. But one small child had no gift.  An angel told that child to take some dried up weeds he would find along the road to the church. When the child placed the weeds on the altar for the Christ child, they turned into the first poinsettia. Since then the flower has been called "The Flower of the Holy Night" or "Flor de la Noche Buena".

 You see, each time one of God’s creatures enters into relationship with the Christ Child and performs an act of love, that creature becomes transformed in a way toward becoming more distinctively itself.  Just as you, my dear ones, also participate in the incarnation by becoming more and more the one God created you to be, each time you perform an act of love in his Holy Name.  Each time you give or receive an act of love in Christ’s name, you participate in the body of Christ, acting to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth.  In the words of the Prophet Isaiah:
Canticle 11 The Third Song of Isaiah (Isaiah 60:1-3, 11a, 14c, 18-19Surge, illuminare
…over you the Lord will rise, *
and his glory will appear upon you.
Nations will stream to your light, *
and kings to the brightness of your dawning.
Your gates will always be open; *
by day or night they will never be shut….
…..The Lord will be your everlasting light, *
and your God will be your glory.

This is how you ready yourself for the second coming of Christ, not in fear, but in obedience, and with loving adoration and joy.  Amen.

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