I wrote most of this sermon while sitting at Diocesan House last week in Seattle, alone in the quiet of the Diocesan Council room, with large paintings of most of the previous Bishops of the Diocese on the walls around me. Hopefully, these former spiritual leaders of our Diocese would approve of what I say today, or at least support it.
You see, we do have a long standing hierarchy, a polity of structure and authority in the Episcopal Church, with first-bishops, then-priests and deacons, and then-lay people. At St. Mark’s, we recognize and support this polity, yet our Christian faith calls us to action in this way—we start from the bottom (or we turn upward down the polity). Christian ministry starts with each one of us and our individual and combined faith community ministries based on our baptismal vows. I mention this today, as we are at the fourth and last Sunday of Advent, and within the week we will be celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ--the reason we have baptismal vows and why we are all a part of this church.
There are two purposes or views generally thought about this season of Advent. The first purpose is one of hope and anticipation of the coming of the baby Jesus at Christmas; the second is to wonder about the second coming of Jesus Christ to bring on the Kingdom of God.
The last four weeks in Advent we have had Old Testament readings ranging from Jeremiah to Baruch to Zephaniah to Micah. All of these scriptures referred to the fall of Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jewish people to other lands from about 700BC to around 200BC, but also looked ahead to a better future for the Jews. They all prophesied to a restoration of the Jewish people that would occur in the future with the coming of a great Messiah, who would restore all things under God’s peaceful rule. Listen to some of these prophetic words:
In Jeremiah: In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David.
From Baruch: For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.
From Zephaniah: The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.
And, today from Micah: And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.
These are just a few examples of what is made clear throughout the Old Testament prophetic writings. Just from these few ancient readings of the last 4 weeks, these writers of the Old Testament foretold that a great Messiah would come to his people and liberate them, to bring about his kingdom among them, and would do so with peace and love. All through the Old Testament there are many more writings that also foretell of the coming of Jesus Christ, and the New Testament Gospels refer to them repeatedly to tie in the presence of the Messiah who was among the Jewish people in the form of Jesus Christ. Matthew was especially astute at doing this, with clear, direct references to these ancient prophets and their writings.
In our Gospel from Luke today, we get a very direct reference to the coming of the Holy One with the stories of Elizabeth and Mary, and their wonderful faith.
This Gospel is the story of two miracles coming together for the first time. Both John the Baptist and Jesus have now been conceived. John is more than six months along, we are told, and thus he is very capable of giving a swift kick or two to his mother, and Jesus has just been conceived. Just prior to this text is the story in which Mary finds out about Elizabeth's pregnancy, and it is to rejoice with her that she goes on this journey. But the miracles don't stop with the conception of these boys. A miracle of prophetic speaking and discernment is given to Elizabeth as soon as she is greeted by Mary. Her baby leaps in her womb, and at that she pours forth the ecstatic speech of one who has been gifted by the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth is given knowledge of the amazing news of Mary, and the identity of Mary as "the mother of my Lord," as well as the fact that there would be "a fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord." All this is certainly miraculous, for even Luke's "orderly account" offers no explanation for their knowledge other than being filled by the Holy Spirit.
One thing to note here. The readings today talk about people and places of “low class”. Elizabeth and Mary were not from the royal class, or even middle class. And, the hill country of Judea and the village of Nazareth where Elizabeth and Mary lived, and the origin of the family of Joseph and Mary, Bethlehem, were all not major cities in the land of Israel; they may have even been labeled negatively as poor, quiet backwater kind of places. It is not the way of the world, then or today, for blessing of the lowliest. But it is the way God works, over and over again. Insignificant villages. Children born: to a woman well beyond reasonable time for conceiving, and to a young unmarried girl. That young girl's song, is heard today from Luke: "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly". The one who comes from that little village and that young girl becomes the one Micah proclaims as "the one of peace". It is the message we will soon hear in the hymns we sing at Christmastime.
In our Book of Common Prayer (the older red books in our pew book holders), you can find almost all of our worship services (we have just printed out the selected parts for the season or week we use them so you don’t have to look all around the Prayer Book to find them). Canticle 15 and Luke 1:46-55, the second part of the Gospel read today, is now called Mary’s Song, but was known for centuries by its Latin name The Magnificat, and is found on Page 91 in our Book of Common Prayer. This was once used on occasion as one of the anthems or songs between readings in the traditional Morning Prayer service. It tells of Mary’s joy, awe, and humility at being picked by God for His royal purpose. We could all do well to live in this model of Mary and give up our own control for God’s; as Mary said, “Be it done to me according to God’s word.”
All of the scriptures passages we have read during Advent convey the central faith of the church, then, and now. In Jesus, God who loves the world came to bring all creation into a living relationship with God now and for all eternity. Advent symbolizes the spiritual journey of individuals and a congregation, as they affirm that Christ has come, and that He will come again in power. That belief provides a basis for Kingdom ethics, for holy living arising from a profound sense that we live "between the times" of Jesus past and Jesus future, and we are called to be faithful stewards of what is entrusted to us as God’s people now.
This second purpose/view of Advent, that we look to the second coming of Jesus Christ to us to bring in the Kingdom of God, is something we really need to take very seriously in this time of economic and social crisis today. I don’t mean that we should expend all our time and energies to hope and pray for Christ to come right now and deliver us from all of these trials. Prayer is great and I encourage it, but I believe we can help bring about His Kingdom now by doing what he has called us to do—as we say, “to love and serve Him with gladness and singleness of heart”. We certainly fit God’s criteria for this purpose—Montesano is not a large and great city, and we are not of society’s upper crust.
You may have noticed the recent item in our monthly newsletters called “Reasons to Be Episcopalian” (from the book of 101 Reasons, compiled by Louie Crew). Number 18, which will be in our next newsletter, says, “Ours is not just a checkbook ministry. Episcopalians roll up their sleeves and help.” This is attributed to Agnes L. Haviland-Moore, from the Diocese of Connecticut. Some of the recent ways we have been or are doing God’s ministry locally through this church are: supporting the Montesano-Elma Food Bowl, giving of our church outreach funds to the Union Gospel Mission and the Children’s Advocacy Center, collecting gifts for the Angel Tree Ministry—presents for children with parents in jail, and preparing the toiletries bags and collecting blankets for the Union Gospel Mission.
These are all great and important ministries, but they are mostly all “checkbook” type ministries I talked about earlier. Lorraine has said it to us many times in Bishop Committee meetings over the years and in her sermons--we can do much more, to find out where and how to do “hands on” ministries. Things like helping at the local food bank, serving at the missions that serve those who are homeless, helping gather and distribute food and supplies for those in need, teaching kids with school activities like reading and other studies, being outspoken activists for those in our society who have little or no voice, and so on.
We live in a country where we can fully exercise our faith, as compared to about 1/3 of the countries in the world and 70% of the world’s people, who are restricted by their governments or other religious persecutors. So, we are able to and can have our eyes opened to the needs of our community and do those things Jesus would have done if He were here now. Look at what Jesus did do, not what we think He might have done if He were here now, and then act like Him to make the world a better place for all to live in. To me, that brings about God’s kingdom today, in all of us and to those around us.
Getting back to the hierarchy and polity of the Episcopal Church, one purpose our bishops serve is to encourage and challenge us. Presiding Bishop Kathryn Jefferts Schori said recently in her Advent letter, “Advent is a time of waiting, but not a time to sit around and wait for someone to do something. We have an ability to make a difference. We live in expectation of a world that is healed (to me this says God’s Kingdom here today).” Our Bishop Greg Rickel said in his Advent sermon last week (I’m paraphrasing him) that, “the reason we are Christians and are here in this community is that we are expecting to be challenged, to see the adventure in this Christian life, to be a part of something really special—that is what the Advent message is all about”.
John Tennefoss mentioned in a recent Bishop Committee meeting that it would be great if someone talked in a sermon about what the symbol of the Cross means. One important meaning of this holy symbol is just what I talked about above—it is THE symbol that reminds us of who Jesus Christ was and what He represents for us to be—His followers to carry out His ministry, live His example, and bring His kingdom into the world, everyday!
To close, I remind you of what we have been saying in our Post Communion Prayers during Advent: “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.” AMEN.