Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent

“And when he was come into Jerusalem all the city was moved
saying, Who is this?”

Who is this? Indeed. For more than a thousand years, St. Matthew’s story of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem has been read on The First Sunday in Advent. And for more than a thousand years that reading ended with the question and answer: “Who is this? … This is Jesus the Prophet of Nazareth of Galilee.” It was in the sixteenth century that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer included the continuation of the story with Christ’s cleansing of the temple. Why?

Advent is the season of questions, it seems to me, questions which illuminate this season as the season of teaching. We are being taught by God’s Word shining like a light and a lantern into the darkness of our world and day. Questions, it seems to me, are an essential aspect of the teaching. Advent simply abounds with questions, questions upon questions that reach a crescendo of questioning on The Fourth Sunday in Advent. In a way, the questions of Advent recall us to the great questions that belong to the story of creation and redemption. Just consider.

Last Sunday is called The Sunday Next Before Advent. A remarkable conjunction of prepositions, next and before, it both concludes and inaugurates, ends and begins the cycle of the Church Year, at once ending the Trinity season and anticipating Advent even by its designation, The Sunday Next Before Advent. There is more than a hint of the legacy of different patterns and varying lengths of the number of Sundays belonging to the Advent season of preparation for the celebration of Christ’s holy birth at Christmas. In our Canadian Prayer Book since 1959, a different gospel from that which had been read for centuries has been used. It is a reading from John’s Gospel and gives us the first utterance, humanly speaking, in John’s Gospel of Jesus. His first utterance is a question, a question that he puts to the disciples of John and to us; “what seek ye?”

There is just the possibility that John’s Gospel echoes the first utterance of God to us in Genesis which is also a question; “Where art thou?” God asks of Adam and Eve, who had hid themselves in the Garden having partaken of the forbidden fruit. Whether it was an apple or not, Genesis doesn’t say, however much legend and tradition, story and song has waxed eloquent on the apple as the forbidden fruit. Echoes, perhaps, of the Greek myth of the judgement of Paris with the golden apple of discord entitled for the fairest one, καλλιστη? Perhaps. Such allusions are as intellectually enticing, I suppose, as any forbidden fruit!

There is such a power of suggestiveness in the wonderful songs that reflect upon the mystery of our redemption, especially in the Advent and Christmas season. I would like to think that indeed “all was for an apple, an apple that he took, as Clerkes finden written in den book”, as an old carol beautifully puts it. But, of course, no apple is written in The Book of Genesis for clerics, poets or others to find.

The greater point has to do with the questions of the Advent season which belong to the teaching about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. The questions help to illumine our need for a Saviour, for “the King that cometh” into the confusions and the uncertainties, the darknesses and fears of our world. There is the wonderful paradox that the one whom we greet with “Hosanna(s)” is the one whom we will cry out “Crucify”. That emphasis belongs more to Holy Week. What, then, of Cranmer’s addition of the story of the cleansing of the temple?

It sounds the note of judgment that is so much a part of the Advent season, however much we are disinclined to hear it. And it underscores the Advent theme of preparation in a twofold sense. Advent is about our preparation for the festival and celebration of Christmas. In a profound sense that preparation is the divine Preparation through law and prophecy, a preparation that illumines our need for a divine mediator between God and man precisely through our awareness of human sin. There is our preparation. “The night is far spent, the day is at hand; let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.” Could Paul be any clearer? The divine preparation calls us to prepare as well. There is our human preparation through repentance, “casting off the works of darkness and putting on the armour of light”, as the Collect, modelled on the lesson from Romans, suggests.

The addition of Matthew’s account of Christ’s cleansing the temple makes the simple point that there has to be the cleansing of our souls. We are the temples of the Holy Spirit which need to be cleansed in order to receive the one who comes, the Christ in whom is all our blessedness. Christ does not just come and go, a visitor to our world and day like some imaginary space-traveler. No. His coming is redemptive. It has altogether to do with the restoration of our humanity to its truth and purpose. That is why the cleansing of the temple is so important a theme. It reminds us of our misuse of the things that God in his mercy has given us. The temple – the church, the synagogue, the mosque – exist for no other purpose than the praise and worship of God. Forget that and one has lost and forgotten everything.

For Christians, that sense of the temple especially carries over into our souls and bodies. We are called to repentance. It is one of the great themes of the Advent season in the face of four last things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. They are, perhaps, the things which we would rather not hear about. The paradox is that we end up experiencing them instead.

The questions of the Advent season help us to understand the mystery of the one who comes. They prepare us to enter into the joy and the wonder of the great Christian teaching, namely, the doctrine of the Incarnation. In Jesus Christ, God engages with our humanity in the most intimate way imaginable; the way of the Word made flesh, the way of the Incarnation of the Word and Son of the Father.

We can have no sense of the wonder and mystery of that event apart from the questions of the Advent season: the questions which Jesus asks, “what seek ye?” and “what went ye out for to see?”; the questions which John the Baptist asks, “Art thou he that should come or do we look for another?”; the question which Mary asks, “how can this be, seeing I know not a man?”; and the questions that are asked about John the Baptist which he then turns into a witness about the one who comes “with healing and salvation in his wings”, as Malachi puts it; for the one who comes brings dignity and purpose, health and salvation, to our wounded and broken humanity. Cranmer’s great insight in adding to the reading the story of the cleansing of the temple is that the one who comes is more than the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee. The one who comes is God with us who challenges us to prepare our hearts and minds for his coming as Judge and Saviour.

For that to happen the darkness of our hearts has to be addressed and named before the light of Christ can ever over-shine or overcome it. Such is the mystery of the Advent, a mystery which is opened out to us and taught to us, in part, through the marvel and the wonder of questions.

There can be no celebration of Christmas without the question, “Who is this?” The story of the cleansing of the temple points us to the meaning of the one who comes as Saviour and Healer of our wounded, broken and often foolish humanity. His coming is, necessarily and inescapably judgement.

Christmas is not about a gentle-Jesus-come-and-squeeze-us-just-when-and-where-it–pleases, however much a sentimental feel-good Christianity wants it to be. He does not come to be taken captive by us but to recall us to fellowship with him in the fellowship of the Father and the Spirit. “My house shall be called the house of prayer”, Jesus say, the house of that divine fellowship, but “[we] have made it a den of thieves”, misusing and denying the proper purpose of the holy places. They exist for the praise of God and for our enjoyment of God in his truth and majesty. Advent would awaken us from our sleepy complacency to the radical nature of that claim. It is a wake-up call which we badly need.

“And when he was come into Jerusalem all the city was moved
saying, Who is this?”

Fr. David Curry
First Sunday in Advent
Christ Church, Windsor
November 29th, 2009

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