Then judgment shall dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness remain in the fruitful field. (Isaiah xxxii. 16)
You can say what you will about the old Book of Common Prayer, which we use exclusively in this church, but what you cannot say it that it is not honest and forthright about the struggles which any human being finds in his journey towards salvation. Indeed, perhaps its most brilliant contribution to the history of Christianity lies in its full appreciation of the spiritual warfare that accompanies every honest pilgrim’s desire to embrace the Grace of Almighty God and eschew evil. The Church Year is defined and informed by the persistent recognition of the difficulty that lies in the effort to die to oneself and to come alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. And the Advent season is no exception to this rule. It commenced with the spiritual desire to cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of Light now in the time of this mortal life. (Advent I, Collect) And it concludes with: O Lord, raise, up, we pray thee, thy power, and come among us, and with great might succor us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us; thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us…(Advent IV, Collect)
Now, a Prayer Book Advent is, by no means, a mere repetition of a single theme. I hope that our Advent has been preparing us logically for the Christ’s coming at Christmas time. As Father Crouse reminds us, on the First Sunday in Advent we prayed that our souls would be awakened and cleansed to prepare for the coming of Christ. On the Second Sunday we were called to forsake the passing and impermanent world that we might prepare for God’s enduring Word. Last Sunday we were called to witness to the Word in hope, as the impending suffering and death of John Baptist were consecrated to the mission and meaning of Christ’s coming. And today we are called to see and perceive this coming Word of God and rejoice in His coming. (Advent I-IV Summary Sermon, RDC)
But to see and perceive the coming Word…and rejoice in it, we must realize that all of our preparation must end in spiritual death: I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord…[for] there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; he it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose. (St. John i. 23, 27 John’s words are spoken just prior to his literal death at the hands of King Herod. Getting out of the way, receceding, decreasing, and dying are all part of the example John provides for us. In Advent, with John Baptist, our preparation concludes with a call into our own spiritual death, to everyone and everything that stands in the way of the coming Christ’s birth in our souls on Christmas day.
Our spiritual death is something for which ancient Israel had been preparing long before the coming of John Baptist. Along with John, Isaiah the Prophet helps us to see and understand both spiritual death and the new life that God prepares to bring. He proclaims, Behold, a king shall reign in righteousness…(Is. xxxii. 1) And then he goes on to say that, a man shall be as a hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. (Ibid, 2) When this king comes to reign, His power and might, His love and compassion, and His wisdom and truth shall rule and govern the human heart. The nature of Christ’s reign will be inward and spiritual. The Christ who is coming shall not be perceived by most men, for they will be too busy basking in the light of their own abilities, accomplishments, and achievements. But for those whose faith yearns, longs, and hungers for Christ’s coming – because they have long since begun to decay, deteriorate, and die in their own eyes – a new cosmic rule and governance is about to be seen and understood, heard and comprehended spiritually. The eyes of them that see shall not be dim, and the ears of them that hear shall hearken. The heart also of the rash shall understand knowledge, and the tongue of the stammerers shall be ready to speak plainly. (Ibid, 3,4) This will mean that what men thought was true, beautiful, and good will be seen now in God’s Light as what could, at best, promote and enhance a kind of life that leads only to death. And for those who cannot see and hear spiritually, because they have not yet died to themselves, their own darkness will become darker, more nefarious, treacherous, malignant, and contrary. In the words of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, The fool will no more be called noble, nor the knave said to be honorable. For the fool speaks folly, and his mind plots iniquity to practice ungodliness, to utter error concerning the Lord, to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied, and to deprive the thirsty of drink. (Ibid, 5,6) God’s truth, goodness, and beauty are about to be expressed through the coming of Christ, and will forever relegate man’s good intentions and noble works to the dustbin of a fallen and dead creation. Good works, the Prophet insists, can never save a man because they only ever satisfy earthly and worldly needs, and, so, leave the soul empty and destitute of lasting, spiritual life and salvation. Tremble, ye women that are at ease; be troubled, ye careless ones: strip you, and make you bare, and gird sackcloth upon your loins. Beat upon your breasts, for the pleasant fields, for the fruitful vine. (Ibid, 11, 12) The Prophet refines his message. True new birth and new life will come from God alone, and then only through the Mother who has died to herself, who will be then full of Grace, who will be highly favored because her singular passion and heartfelt desire is for God’s will to be done through her: Be it unto me, according to thy Word. (St. Luke i. 28…) Christ the coming Word of God can only and ever been conceived and born in the soul which has died to itself in order to come alive to God’s will and way. The coming Christ came alive to John Baptist in hope; the coming Christ came alive to the Blessed Virgin Mary first in faith and then in deed and in truth.
So today we need to ask ourselves if we have indeed been preparing for the coming of Christ by dying to ourselves. John Baptist in another place says that, He must increase and I must decrease. (St. John iii. 30) Of course we can comply with his sentiments only when we come to the point of realizing that, for the most part, we have been engaged in a living death. And living death is just another way of saying that we have lived in, for, and to ourselves. The man who is immersed in a living death is moved and defined by the world, the flesh, and the devil. And he need not be an uncompromised pagan; he might even be a compromised Christian. Such a man is self-consciously moved and possessed by himself. He would be surprised to learn that he is immersed in a living death. Why? Because he has casually and carelessly justified or dismissed the sins of his past life. In other words, he has never measured his every thought, word, and deed in the pure light of Christ’s coming. Unlike Isaiah the Prophet, John Baptist, or the Blessed Virgin Mary, he has never seen that the future in store for those who indulge a living death is neatly summarized in the words of the Prophet: Upon the land of my people shall come up thorns and briars; yea, upon all the houses of joy in the joyous city: because the palaces shall be forsaken; the multitude of the city shall be deserted; the forts and towers shall be dens forever, a joy of wild asses, a pasture of flocks; until the Spirit be poured upon us from on high. (Ibid, 14, 15) There will be only living death for those who do not die to themselves and come alive to the Lord.
A dying life is precisely what is in needful for Christians who will welcome the birth of the coming Christ once again at Christmas time. Our Prayer Book does not underestimate its importance. Today the Psalmist shows us that we ought always to be preparing for the coming Christ. O be joyful in the LORD, all ye lands: * serve the LORD with gladness, and come before his presence with a song. Be ye sure that the LORD he is God; it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; * we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. (Ps. c. 1,2) he sings today. O go your way into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise; * be thankful unto him, and speak good of his Name. For the LORD is gracious, his mercy is everlasting; * and his truth endureth from generation to generation. (Ibid, 3,4) Over and against our living death stands a loving God whose everlasting mercy will perfect a dying life. St. Paul exhorts us to the same posture. Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, Rejoice. (Phil. iv. 4) The Lord is at hand, he insists, and so we must be careful for nothing. (Phil. iv. 6) We must not be anxious about living in the temporal world, since it stands only to disrupt and frustrate our dying life. But in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving [we are to make our] requests be made known unto God…[that] the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. (Phil. iv. 6,7) God’s peace and good will is about to come to us in the Nativity of our Saviour when our dying life can be redeemed and perfected by his coming Birth. Let us now prepare for His coming birth.