It is all about the turning but what kind of turning? Head over heels? Like a rolling stone? Or a November snowball? No. It is about God’s turning to us and our being turned to God. That is the especial wonder of this Sunday. I love the collocation of prepositions: “next” and “before” that signal an ending and a beginning. This Sunday speaks so profoundly to the double movement of the spirit: God coming to us and our coming to God, to the principle of justification in the first and the principle of sanctification in the second, and to the way in which those necessarily intersect.
We have in today’s lesson from Jeremiah a kind of summa of the pageant of sanctification. It is really all about “the Lord our Righteousness” living in us and we in him. In the textus receptus of the New Testament, this is one of the few but important passages that are re-printed in majuscules, in capital letters. It is a kind of shout-out, a way of calling attention to the whole pageant of sanctifying grace as being about the realisation, bit by bit, of justifying grace dwelling in us. It recalls us to a new beginning, a beginning again in the pageant of that justifying grace towards us and its dwelling in us. It is all about the forms of our incorporation into the life of God in Christ. That belongs and marks the apocalyptic nature of Advent and of all that follows right through to Trinity Sunday. Something has to be made known to us even as we recognise our need for an ethical and spiritual principle. Left to ourselves we are dead and deadly. Such is the darkness of Advent into which comes the light of Christ.
To speak this way about the pattern of the church year may seem linear, a step-by-step kind of thinking but really this Sunday shows us that is not so. It is more about a kind of circular reasoning (understood positively and essentially), a way of returning and turning back again upon the very principle of life and thought and being. A way of being of gathered into what is eternal. “Never that which is shall die,” a fragment from the ancient Greek Tragic poet, Euripides, states. What truly is truly remains. What is that? It is about Christ and about Christ in us, about how our lives participate in the life of God.
While the traditional Gospel for centuries was about the gathering up of the fragments from the feast in the wilderness, the change in Canada in 1962 to this reading focuses on the theme of turning: God’s turning to us in Jesus and our being turned to him. Only so can we follow him. Thus the Gospel reminds us of the qualities of our following Christ. How well have we followed? The question answers itself. Not as well as we might like and perhaps even far worse than what we hoped. That is a kind of reality check, to be sure! Yet that is the point of this day. We are very much a work in progress.
But here is the good news wonderfully captured in the Gospel from John. “Then Jesus turned.” God turns to us. That makes all the difference. We can only turn to him because of his turning to us. That is what this Sunday reminds us. The point is made in the Psalms used on this day in the Offices and at Mass, especially Psalm 80 and Psalm 85, which complement the Gospel reading. They signal the idea of the turning, our turning but only because of God’s turning to us and God’s turning us to himself. “Turn us, O God, our Saviour,” and “Wilt thou not turn again and quicken us?” for only so shall we live and rejoice in thee. “Turn us, O God” for only so “shall we be whole.”
The Gospel highlights that theme and gives it a more intensified meaning. “Then Jesus turned.” The whole of our lives in Christ is about Jesus turning to us in Word and Sacrament, in prayer and praise, in sacrifice and service; in short, our lives of faith are not about us but about Christ in us. We can only turn to him because he has turned to us, such is our justification.
In our current culture and contemporary church this has largely been forgotten. We live in the culture of distraction at the expense of being collected. This Sunday, at least for Anglicans, and which no doubt pleases the Martha elements of our life, is known as “Stir-up Sunday” from the Collect which signals wonderfully the transition from the past season of sanctifying grace and pointing us to a new beginning again in the pageant of justifying grace. The Collect recalls as well the social and folk traditions of preparing for the Feast of Christmas with the making of Christmas puddings!
We end and we begin. We begin again, as we must, because so much remains to be realised in us. But how wonderful that we can begin again! There is hope and peace; there is joy and grace without which we are dead in the darkness of nature’s year. There is even the hope of a Christmas pudding! Martha and Mary together. This is the real pageant of grace in our lives.
This Sunday looks in two direction: behind and ahead. It awakens us to a new beginning, a beginning again. That beginning is not about us but about God in us. It is about Jesus turning and asking, “what seek ye?” The question goes to the heart of our humanity. What do we want? What belongs to the real truth of our humanity? Today’s lessons proclaim, and very emphatically, that the truth of our humanity is found in Christ and in our following him at once in the pageant of justification and subsequently in a complementary way in the pageant of sanctification. Both are about Christ’s turning to us and living in us.
Both turn upon the Advent Apocalypse, the turning of God towards us, his revelation as Word and Light and Son in Jesus Christ. The turning makes possible, even necessitates, the turning by us to the one who has turned to us. He is our righteousness and now we are returned to the beginnings of the pageant of justification, to the ways in which God reveals himself to us as the principle of our lives and without which we are nothing. That is at once our justification and our sanctification. And all because …
Fr. David Curry
Sunday Next Before Advent, 2018