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Sermon for the Sunday Next Before Advent

“Come and see”

“Compassion without holiness is moral softness”, Aelred of Rievaulx reminds us, a voice from 12th century northern England. The church year runs out as much in compassion as in judgment. It is really the compassion of Christ that allows us to look upon our follies and our failures and not be destroyed by what we see about ourselves. The compassion of Christ encourages us to renew our love and to seek his holiness. “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people” is our prayer on this day which marks the transition from the end of one church year to the beginning of the next, from the end of the Trinity season to the beginning of Advent.

It doesn’t mean that there is no judgment, rather it qualifies what the judgment is about. Judgment belongs to the love of God – to the love which is God and the love which comes from God. Judgment is God’s love of his own righteousness for the sake of which he seeks our good. Our good – what is good and meaningful for us – can only be found in his will. God’s will for us is what is right for us. What is right for us belongs to what God wants for us. The theme of judgment is ever before us because our lives always stand under what God wants for us. Ultimately that is the greatest compassion.

What God wants for us always contrasts with where we are and what we do. There is the judgment that we are sinners precisely because we do not measure up to God’s will and purpose for us. To be sure. We do not, if we are honest, measure up to what we would like to be about ourselves. We are not right with ourselves because we are not right with God. The problem is not with what God wants for us but with our failure to be faithful and obedient to his Word. What God wants for us, after all, is not a mystery hidden from view; it is revealed. In other words, if judgment is the sole principle of reality, then we all stand condemned, hopelessly and utterly unable to be right with God.

But a judgment which simply stands over and against us would belong to a different religion than the Christian religion. It would not be a judgment for us only a judgment against us. It would not belong to what God wants for us. It would remain an unattainable idea of righteousness which can only oppress us and defeat and discourage us. Nothing to get stirred up about at all. Imagine being shown and told what is right and true but knowing that it is forever impossible for you to achieve it! You are forever apart from it. A remote good can only be a present evil. “The Law is sin”, Paul says, in a dramatic and compelling statement, for just this reason – truth becomes something from which we are endlessly alienated.

Judgment belongs to the compassion of Christ. Compassion does not mean the sentimental mushiness or “moral softness” where truth is overlooked and where what we have done is ignored, where all responsibility – our response to what is true and binding upon us – is denied. We would be then in Great Big Sea’s rich and arch phrase “consequence free”, but only in our dreams and fantasies. By compassion we mean something like the communication of God’s love of his own righteousness for our good – our good as found in his will for us. The judgment that is for us and not merely against us belongs to God’s love for us. It does not rest merely with our condemnation but seeks our being established in the truth and righteousness of God’s will. This is the point signaled by prophecy and fulfilled in Christ Jesus. It is the point upon which all our lives turn. It is what God wants us to know and to acknowledge in faith.

Jeremiah sounds the prophetic note:

The Lord will raise unto David a righteous branch and a King shall reign…. in his days Judah shall be saved and Israel shall dwell safely; and this is his name whereby he shall be called, The Lord our Righteousness.

Our righteousness is in him, not in us. This is signaled in the twofold remembrance of God’s deliverance of Israel, first from Egyptian bondage, and secondly, from captivity and exile in Babylon. Both Egypt and Babylon are the symbolic places of alienation: the one through ignorance of God’s will; the other through sinful disobedience. Jeremiah recalls the deliverance from Egypt by which Israel came to learn God’s will in the Law as the basis of hope for the restoration of Israel to righteousness from the conditions of her unrighteousness that led to captivity in Babylon

What is signaled by the prophet is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is “the Lord our Righteousness”. He is what we seek. He is God for us and in him deliverance is salvation, namely, our being with him. This is the point the Gospel makes. “We have found the Messiah!” In him judgment is truly and fully found in the mystery of God’s love. John the Baptist points him out to us: “Behold the Lamb of God”. The one to whom he points is the pure sacrifice who alone bears the total judgment which belongs to all of us. Such is the divine compassion.

The mystery is not hidden from view. The mystery is revealed by God for us. It is wanted for us to seek to know its truth and to enter more fully into it. “What do you seek?” Jesus asks. His first utterance in John’s Gospel is a question. He seeks to draw out of the disciples and out of us what he in fact he wants for us. “Rabbi-Teacher – where are you staying?”, they ask. They want to be with the one who can teach and illumine them about the things which truly abide, the things of eternal worth. Do we? Jesus’ response is the invitation to enter into what he wants us to know. “Come and see”, he says. He has come that we might see and follow him into the mystery of God’s love for us. Will we?

The long Trinity season was about the forms of our abiding in the love of God revealed in the compassion of Christ. On this Sunday we look back upon the pageant of the church year and take stock of how we have or have not progressed in the ways of holiness and truth and honesty about ourselves spiritually. But on this Sunday we also look ahead to a new beginning, to a beginning again with renewed zeal and hope.

It is the meaning of Advent, even more it is the meaning of our life in Christ. Advent is his coming: his coming in the flesh as the babe of Bethlehem long ago and remembered ever anew; his coming in grace through Word and Sacrament; his coming in glory at the day of judgment. “Come and see”, he says, that we may learn to abide in the truth of his love for us and be established more firmly in the righteousness of his will for us. We make our beginning and our ending in him who is our Alpha and our Omega. He comes to us that we may see and know what he reveals to us. He reveals to us the total mystery of God’s love. Such is his compassion; the compassion, even, of judgment. The purpose of this day is to stir us up to come and see and learn yet again about the mystery of our abiding in the one who comes. He is “the word made flesh who dwelt among us”, the one who abides in us and we in him. If only we will come and see.

“Come and see”

Fr. David Curry
Sunday Next Before Advent, 2016