December 3, 2017, He’s Looking at You, Kid – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000053
So here we are on the opening day of Advent. Our word, Advent, comes from a Latin word meaning “coming.” We light the Advent wreath, week by week, to mark our anticipation, our “looking forward”, and we have a new liturgical color, blue, that symbolizes the hope that we have as we wait. But it’s very easy for all of our symbolism to be swallowed up by the great Coming of the Christmas Holiday, with all of our shopping and sending cards and responding to Christmas appeals for donations and decorating our homes and participating in holiday events. All of those are good things and real parts of our lives that won’t just go away, so it will take real concentration if we also want to make the quieter, more intentional journey of Advent over the next three weeks – only three, because this year the fourth Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve, so our Advent is unusually short.
A man named Bernard of Clairvaux, who lived about 900 years ago, gave an Advent sermon about the three Comings of Jesus Christ – not just one, but three.
The first Coming is the historical coming we celebrate at Christmas, the coming of God himself into the world as a newborn child – a child who was both fully and truly God, and also at the same time absolutely human: who cried and nursed at his mother’s breast and had to have his diapers changed, the whole package of humanity.
The second Coming of Christ is his future coming. Our Lord, who walked on this very earth for 33 years, and was killed, and rose again, and returned to the Father, still in the flesh, is going to come back to us. And when he comes, all evil will be destroyed once and for all, and every tear will be wiped from our eyes, and this good creation will be restored to the perfect goodness it was intended to have.
And the third Coming is between the two. “This middle coming,” Bernard said, “is like a road that leads from the first coming to the last. At the first, Christ was our redemption; at the last, he will become manifest as our life; but in this middle way he is our rest and our consolation.” This is the coming of the Spirit of Christ to his people, making his home in our hearts, being our Teacher and our Comforter and our Guide.
But if we are going to observe a holy and meaningful Advent, we’ll need to set aside time and energy however it is most helpful – because each of our lives is so different, with different demands and concerns. I hope that the devotional books we got this year will be useful and helpful. It can be a useful practice to make an Advent wreath at home – Carroll and I just have four little painted candleholders, it doesn’t need to be anything fancy – and to light them each evening during supper as we do with our wreath here, one candle this week, and two the next, and so forth. The important thing is to be intentional about living each day of Advent as we are able, because three weeks of business as usual plus Christmas preparations will go by in the blink of an eye. Stop, and take time to be astonished at the humility and compassion of God in his first Coming. Take time to prepare your heart and mind for the glory of his second Coming – being ready always, because he reminded us that no one knows the day and time of that Coming. Take time, too, to listen to the voice of the God that is with you always. There is no right or wrong way to observe Advent except to fail to observe it at all.
Today, in the first reading, Isaiah is in perfect Advent mode, pouring out his heart. “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” he cries out, longing for the coming that would not happen for another 700 years or so. He remembers well what had happened when God had appeared to his people before, long before, when he had terrified and destroyed the powerful army of Egypt and had appeared to Moses and the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai in a vision of smoke and fire and thunder and lightning. He remembers and imagines the coming of God to be like a fire that blazes up in dry brushwood, so hot that it sets the water boiling furiously. He imagines the coming of God as a majestic and fearful display of power, “No eye has seen a God besides you,” Isaiah says, “who acts for those who wait for him.”
But in meditating on the glory of God he is also keenly aware of his own sinfulness, and the sinfulness of his people. We can easily understand that – just imagine how God must perceive what is happening today, in our time. Imagine God watching the evening news (and of course, we know that he does know and watch all things) – but just imagine what he thinks of the violence and the hatred and the name-calling, racism and sexual assault, lies and accusations. We can say with Isaiah, “In our sins we have been for a long time, and shall we be saved?”
Even our righteous deeds, he says, even our very best human efforts are like stained and ruined garments. Our noblest actions are spoiled by our pride and greed and self-centeredness, our resentment and our fear. We grow older, and more frail every day and there is nothing we can do against the limitations of our mortality – and not for lack of trying. We are carried away on the wave of our sins.
But then Isaiah comes to the real heart of the matter. “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay and you are the potter. We are all the work of your hands.” God is indeed majestic and awesome and glorious. We are indeed desperately sinful, and our lives fade away like the grass of the field. And yet, God is our Father. We belong to him. He is the potter and our very lives take shape in his hands. That is the truth. “Don’t be angry,” Isaiah prays, “Don’t remember our sins forever. Please, look, we are your own. Please, come, and look on us.”
I remember more than once, when my kids were little, they would come to me when I was busy with all the things I was always busy with, wanting to tell me something that was important to them. And they would chatter on and on and I would nod and say “uh-huh, uh-huh”, listening with half my attention until they got frustrated. Then they would pull my arm or tug on my skirt and demand, “Mama, LOOK” They needed my full attention, my real compassion and concern, and they were right to demand it, just as Isaiah does. “Behold, please look! We are all your people.”
The first Coming of Jesus wasn’t anything like people expected. It was nothing like the fearful appearance of God that Moses had described. No thunder and lightning, no fire and smoke. Just the tiniest of human cells, quickened by the breath of the Spirit and implanted in the womb of a Virgin. That was all. But Mary knew right away that Isaiah’s prayer had been fulfilled at long, long last. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.” He looked.
The meaning of the first Coming of Jesus Christ is exactly this – that he has looked on us, his own people, sinful and small and unremarkable as we are, he looked on us with favor. He looked on us with compassion. He looked on us with love. God did rend the heavens and come down, to make his home among us, to be one of us.
As we begin our observance of Advent, we follow the example of Mary, who said “yes” to the Coming of God into the world through her, and who pondered all the words she heard about her son, keeping them in her heart. I want to close with these words from the Advent sermon of Bernard of Clairvaux:
“Where are these words to be kept? In the heart certainly, as the Prophet says I have hidden your sayings in my heart so that I do not sin against you. Keep the word of God in that way: Blessed are those who keep it.
Let it penetrate deep into the core of your soul and then flow out again in your feelings and the way you behave; because if you feed your soul well it will grow and rejoice. Do not forget to eat your bread, or your heart will dry up. Remember, and your soul will grow fat and sleek.
If you keep God’s word like this, there is no doubt that it will keep you, for the Son will come to you with the Father: the great Prophet will come, who will renew Jerusalem, and he is the one who makes all things new. For this is what this coming will do: just as we have been shaped in the earthly image, so will we be shaped in the heavenly image.
Just as the old Adam was poured into the whole man and took possession of him, so in turn will our whole humanity be taken over by Christ, who created all things, has redeemed all things, and will glorify all things.”