The Return of the King: A Sermon for Advent I

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.

Once again it is Advent. The world around us is preparing for the holidays, everything is festive and busy and noisy, but the season of Advent calls us to a thoughtful repentance. It is, in some ways, a sombre season but it is a thrilling season as well. As the days grow darker the Church calls us to open our eyes to the rising of a new and glorious sun (Crouse).

The Collect for Advent that we prayed together earlier, and that we pray every day in Advent, points us toward the true meaning of the season. It is about God’s coming to us and therefore we are called to sobriety and alertness: “You know what time it is,” says Saint Paul, “how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”

There are three ways that Christ comes to us, according to the Collect. Or rather, Christ’s once and unique coming refracts into what we experience as three distinct events – as a single beam of white light refracts into many colours when it travels through a prism (Behr).

First, Christ has come to us in the flesh. As the Collect puts it, “thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.” Dare I say this is what most of us believe Advent is really all about, awaiting the birth of the lowly infant in the manger. We are not wrong in believing this, but there is more to Advent than just this.

Second, Christ will come as judge. “In the last day…he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead,” says the Collect. Contrary to what you and I may have been conditioned to think, the judgement of God is profoundly good news. It means that nothing that inhibits, obscures, or distracts from God’s good work will last. As gold is refined by the fire so this world, so our own hearts and minds and souls, will be refined and tested by our Lord.

In this sense Advent is multi-dimensional, as the late Fr. Robert Crouse would say. Advent looks backward in time as well as forward to the end of time and reminds us that these, the beginning and the end, have something to do with Christ’s Passion – his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

But there is another dimension to Advent that is vitally important to our spiritual life. Namely, Advent is about God’s coming to us “now in the time of this mortal life,” in our souls. Advent reminds us that Jesus – God himself! – has come, will come, and does come to us each day in every moment, to find us in order that we might find him. Advent reminds us that the risen and living Jesus can fill our souls with his grace, even now.

That brings us to our Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Advent. It may seem like a strange Gospel for Advent, after all, isn’t this the Palm Sunday story? What can it have to do with Advent? And yet, since as early as the fifth century this very text has been read aloud in churches on this very day.

It is about the coming of the king to his city to claim his throne. The return of the king, to borrow a phrase from Tolkien. It recalls a historical event, the coming of Jesus to Jerusalem and his cleansing of the Temple. But on another level, the Temple of God’s presence is the human soul. So this is also a story about Christ’s coming to his Church and to our soul, to awaken us and purify our love.

When Jesus comes to the Temple what is his charge? It is that this place that is to be called a house of prayer has become a den of robbers. In other words, we might say that the Temple has become cluttered and distracted, no longer defined by its true business. When he comes to my soul this day, how will he find it?

In his Confessions Saint Augustine describes his soul as a battle-ground. Both his will and his love are divided and in conflict. “My inner house was a house divided against itself,” he wrote. And famously, “I prayed to God to grant me chastity, but not yet – not right away.” Augustine experienced a terrible struggle in his soul, perhaps not unlike Saint Paul who wrote, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” This is our soul apart from the grace of God, divided, disordered, and in conflict.

For Augustine this terrible struggle was only finally resolved as he encountered Jesus Christ, the Living Word: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” That’s a word for us this Advent. Christ comes to our souls to clean house, to bring our wills back into alignment with God’s will, to purify and refocus our love.

When Christ comes to your soul this day, how will he find it? It is meant to be a house of prayer, has it become a den of robbers instead? What tables does he need to turn over, what needs to be cast out so that you can become more fully who he has created you to be, one who is burning with love for God?

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