PREPARING FOR CHRISTMAS
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON SUNDAY DECEMBER 6th 2009
Luke 3: 4 “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.”
Yesterday morning I walked across the Vermont Street bridge – the pedestrian bridge over University Ave near where I live. Several enthusiastic neighbours were hanging up Christmas lights on the bridge and various decorations in preparation for Christmas, which can be seen if you drive under the bridge.
I continued walking past Trader Joe’s and Ralph’s – bursting with people carrying large bags and baskets, doing their shopping as a preparation for Christmas. By contrast, you come to All Saints’ and it’s very somber. Tthere’s no shopping, and it’s very purple and penitential – quite different to the rest of the community.
This is our preparation for Christmas. Today, in the course of Advent, two people appear on the horizon to show us a better way to prepare in this Advent season – John the Baptist, and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In today’s Gospel we see John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness. Prepare a way for the Lord, he cries. On Tuesday our Church calendar commemorates the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Church calendar is a very interesting part of our Prayer Book. Saints are usually commemorated on the day they died. This goes back to the early church, when the first saints commemorated were the martyrs – those who shed their blood for Christ in the first century. They were commemorated on the day that they died, and it became known as their heavenly birthday.
Ever since then, most saints in the calendar are commemorated on the day they died. Two of them, however, also have their earthly birthday commemorated on the day on which they were born – John the Baptist, and Mary, the mother of Christ.
This is, of course, because Mary and John have a connection with the Incarnation, which is presented to us this week. Their births were not only connected with Jesus’ birth, but were very special.
When we come to Mary – not only is her birthday commemorated in the calendar, but also her conception…..the only saint to be so observed. Obviously then, the Church considers Mary’s conception to be special and significant – otherwise, why would you commemorate it?
Some people get confused about December 8th. They hear the words, Immaculate Conception, and they think it refers to Jesus. Jesus’ conception is observed on March 25th -the feast of the Annunciation, when the archangel announced to Mary that she was to conceive. That was the moment of Jesus’ conception, which is why is comes exactly nine months before Christmas Day.
There is some contention about describing Mary’s conception as Immaculate. Many people think it was wrong of the Roman Catholic Church to declare that the Immaculate Conception of Mary was a necessary article of faith. In the Episcopal Church it is not an article which has to be believed, so you can choose to believe it or not.
Obviously if Mary’s conception is celebrated by the Church, then there is something special about it – Immaculate or not. Suffice to say in simple theology that Mary was prepared as a dwelling place fit for the Son of God, if he was to be her Son also.
Falling as it does on December 8th, Mary’s conception reminds us that Advent is a time of spiritual preparation.
Surely that is what Mary’s conception signifies – that she was prepared not just physically, but spiritually. So must we in these weeks of Advent, prepare spiritually beyond the shopping and the cards and the lights and the trees that we must by necessity be involved in.
Not only did God choose and prepare a chosen people, but he prepared a chosen woman to be the mother – and like her, we also are called to be prepared for Christ.
The word prepare brings us to John the Baptist. Isaiah’s prophecy says: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord”. This is fulfilled by John the Baptist.
John literally appears in the wilderness as Isaiah prophesied – a voice calling and crying, Prepare the way of the Lord. John Baptist is thus the one who introduces the New Testament and concludes the Old Testament – for he brings to completion all those things Isaiah and the other prophets spoke about.
How does he do this – and what does he say?
He preached repentance of sins and sealed it with a baptism of repentance in the River Jordan. John baptised those who came forward in that river for the forgiveness of sins. And they did come forward – perhaps out of a sense of guilt, and perhaps out of a sense of enthusiasm for something new.
John baptising in the Jordan is very familiar to us, for Christian baptism always begins with repentance. When children are baptised, it begins with their parents and godparents acknowledging repentance of sins and following Christ – turning to Christ in fact. For adults it is a significant decision of the person themselves.
These are significant moments for the adult being baptized, and also for the parents and godparents bringing a child for baptism. But there is a significant difference between what we do in Christian baptism and what John did all those years ago.
John brought people to baptism by literally putting the fear of God into them. He warned them of the judgment to come unless they repented – and so they did.
Christians are brought to baptism, not by fear, but by love. Most of us were baptised as children and don’t remember that baptism. But one thing we do know – it was the love of our parents that brought us to the font when we were baptised.
Love, not fear caused us to be baptized as children. Those baptised as adults come to it by the love of God – and it is sealed not with fear, but with joy, and their own desire to love and serve Christ. Because of the love surrounding Christian baptism we are all called to be repentant ever since our baptisms. For life in the love of Christ necessarily involves acknowledgment of failings and repentance of sins.
So you see, Baptism could be described as our immaculate conception. It is the moment when we were filled with grace like Mary was. Baptism, of course, does not stop us sinning! But here is the significant thing – by being baptised we are given the right to seek God’s grace and forgiveness every time we make a mistake. All through our life with its pitfalls and temptations, baptism gives us the right and the privilege to turn back to God again and say I have sinned, I am sorry, I promise to do better. That is the life of the baptised Christian.
When you think about it, John’s baptism is not really the Christian sacrament of baptism, but is really an image of the sacrament of confession, when we make our confession personally. In the sacrament of confession, it is as if we have come to the Jordan, waded into the waters, and had the water of God’s forgiveness and grace poured upon us. Those of you who have made your confession over the years know that wonderful feeling of forgiveness personally – which surely was the feeling of all those who came to the Jordan that day when John preached baptism for repentance of sins.
Advent is a very good time to consider that sacrament which we commonly call, Making your Confession.
One further point about Luke’s description of the appearance of John of Baptism is very interesting. He begins by recounting that Tiberius was the emperor, Pontius Pilate was the governor, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee. He also points out that Caiaphas and Annas were the high priests.
We are familiar with all these names – but what is the point of reading out these various names? Luke is going to great lengths to point out that John the Baptist appeared at a specific point in history, almost on a specific day. And it’s not just the date he’s concerned about. It is both within the context of history, and also the context of religion – the context of salvation.
The date is important because this event is time shattering and will change time and history. Ever since Christians have referred to time as BC and AD. On this specific turn of history John the Baptist is the overture to the main act. The main act is called the Incarnation. The incarnation is the very fact which causes us to kneel down during the Creed during the words “And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man”.
But what do we mean by this word Incarnation? It’s not re-incarnation, so what is it? Simply this: that the eternal Son of God took human flesh from his human mother. This living historical person we call Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully human. That is the Incarnation.
And why? In the words of John 3.16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten-Son, to the end that all who believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life”.