by Fr. Blake
The following sermon was preached on December 20, 2015, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, at the Church of St. Michael & St. George. Lessons & Carols for Christmas took place that evening in addition to the regular 5:30 Eucharist, and the Church began preparing for Christmas.
Collect: We beseech thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation, that when thy Son our Lord cometh he may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
Over then last few weeks, we’ve been talking a lot about preparation: preparation for Christmas. Last week John the Baptist preached the good news of repentance to prepare for Jesus coming. The week before, the prophets united in their witness to history itself preparing the way for Jesus. And the first week of Advent, meditating on the Four Last Things, our own mortality, we prepared the way for considering just what kind of life the baby in the manger comes to gives us.
This week, we have a very different kind of preparation going on in our Gospel text. Mary, pregnant with Jesus, goes to spend some time with her Aunt, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. Together, the two of them will spend time preparing to give birth, no easy task for either of them: Elizabeth by reason of her advanced age, and Mary by reason of her youth. It will be a challenging time for them both. And yet from the first moment that they greet one another, their interaction is marked not by fear or uncertainty, but by overriding joy. Listen to Elizabeth: “When Elizabeth heard the greeting, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” She blesses Mary, and Mary replies by blessing God, in one of the most famous, well-loved songs of all the Scriptures: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my Spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.” Pregnancy for Mary and Elizabeth will be a long road, full of its own unique challenges. And yet their preparation is marked by unbridled, unalloyed joy.
What about you and me? If we’re frank with ourselves, we’ll have to admit that sometimes our own preparations for Christmas are distinctly lacking in joy. Why is this? I don’t think it’s anything we need to feel guilty about, only to name and consider. If we’re like Elizabeth, perhaps it’s because, with time’s relentless advance, it’s hard to get excited about something we’ve done or been around so frequently in the past. Repetition can certainly lead to dryness, and the long drawing down of years can remind us of all we’ve lost: people no longer in our lives, plans foiled, hopes withered. And not just age either, but our own personal disappointments and failures can reveal themselves in particularly stark relief at this time of year, while the sting of our own besetting sins can bite especially sharply. All of these can stifle Christmas’ freshness, all of these can put joy far from our minds. Add them to a noisy, frenetic holiday culture, and it’s easy to see why Elizabeth’s and Mary’s joy might seem to come just a little bit out of left field at this time of year.
Even so, Joy is absolutely the essential fourth component of our Advent preparation. Consider: the Four Last Things, mortality, death, and the end: merely step one in a process that leads to eternal joy. This is a world that is passing away. It cannot last. While we mourn the deaths of family and friends, while we mourn our own declining skill and ability, we know that our God is eternal, he lives forever, and that his whole purpose is to join all creation to himself in unending life: as the psalmist puts it, “the singers and the dancers shall say, ‘All my fresh springs are in you.’” Even so in God shall our own lives spring up forever in the glory of his heavenly city. Joy is the purpose and end of our contemplating the Four Last Things.
Likewise as we consider the messages of the prophets, preparing the way for the Messiah: without exception they lived in trying times. They proclaimed their messages in various and differing ways, but one of their common treads was that the current state of affairs was not as God intended it, and that He would correct it in a way no one anticipated. No one anticipated the Exodus from Egypt, and yet God led his people across the Red Sea and into the Promised Land. No one anticipated a king like David, who would unite the tribes and lead Israel into a Golden Age of peace and prosperity. No one anticipated the exile into Babylon and the destruction of the temple as the way God would show he was serious about righteousness. And yet in every case, the prophets had been there saying this would take place. In every case, God used those moments to draw nearer to his people than he had ever been before, to increase their joy and show them a better way to love him.
Even so in our own day. It’s easy to look around and wonder how we’ve gotten into this scenario, it’s easy to despair of the future. And yet time and time again, the prophets show us that just when things look bleakest, there God is doing a new thing, drawing us closer to himself, granting us deeper joy, showing us a better way to love him. Isaiah writes, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” Even so for us today. Though we dwell in a land of deep darkness and every lamp go out, the promise remains true, and joy is its seal.
Likewise a third time, with the sermons of John the Baptist still ringing in our ears from last week. “Repent, prepare the way of the Lord.” Our sin keeps us from approaching Christmas as we ought, our failings keep us from properly being able to greet the child in the manger. Yet joy is the purpose of repentance too: the better we know our sin, the more freely we can ask forgiveness, the more ably we can live a virtuous life. And yet the purpose of it all is not mere fidelity to the law; the purpose is to enter without reservation into joy. The purpose of repentance is to hear our Lord saying when we come to die, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.”
Today Mary and Elizabeth show us that, more than anything else, our Advent preparation is about joy. Joy in the eternal life of God, which Christ shares with his Father from before the foundation of the world, and into which he is preparing to admit us too. Joy in the loving purposes of God throughout all the changes and chances of life, designed to bring us closer to him by every means necessary. Joy in the fruit of repentance, which draws us away from our sin and into the divine fellowship for which we were created. Far from impeding our joy, the circumstances of our lives work together with one voice to direct our way to rejoice in the coming of Christ. Far from cutting across the grain, joy in the Christ child draws us beyond the mire of our individual pains and failings, towards the fulfillment of God’s purposes for our selves and the world.
Today Mary and Elizabeth greet each other with joy. They bless each other and they bless God for the wondrous miracles which they carry in their wombs. This Fourth Sunday of Advent, as Christmas approaches, let us be joyful too. Whether it be easy or difficult, let us rejoice in the freshness of the life to which God calls us. Let us rejoice in the beauty of his loving purposes. Let us rejoice in the surety of his forgiveness. So the Child in the manger will come to each of us and find in our joy a mansion prepared for himself.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.