The Second Sunday of Advent
4 December 2011
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Today’s lessons are full of images of time. Yesterday, at the parish quiet day, in his homily at the Eucharist, Deacon Kahn reflected upon some aspects of these images, especially the relationship between God’s understanding of time and ours. His words have been resonating with me ever since, and I want, today, to continue to reflect on questions of time: time that is, time that will be, time that has been and upon the connexion amongst these.
In the world of our experience, the world of our senses, we only really experience the present. We do have the power, however, to recall the past—even experience some of its aspects in the present as we do at the Eucharist. We also have the power to imagine, to envision the future. Ultimately, that which connects past, present, and future are certain occasions or events that persist. The philosopher, Charles Hartshorne, reminds us that all the cells in the human body are replaced every seven years and that all the material of which we are made is completely different from that which formed us only a decade ago.(1) And yet, we persist. Our identity, our personality, memories, our sense of self persists. We may change, grow, age, but we still persist. Each of us is still our self, our unique, beloved self.
Christians even affirm that the essential element that makes each of us who we are even persist after death, after our bodies stop making those new cells, and die. In the Middle Ages (and going back into Antiquity), this argument was framed in terms of asserting the immortality of the soul. Today, we do not hear much about this question, but yet we affirm the reality of the persistence of our essence, what makes us who we are, which is, perhaps even the very love of God that dwells within us, our soul.
Today’s lesson from Isaiah is especially poetic in the way it speaks of these important realities of life, death, and immortality.
All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.
Our flesh, like the grass and flowers of the field, is finite and will perish, but the word of God is different. The Word of God is not, however, simply his decrees as recorded in Scripture. The Word of God is not simply a memory of that which God has pronounced to those who have come before us. The Word of God that “will stand for ever” is God’s very self-expression into creation, the Word of God that we Christians identify with Jesus Christ and believe to have been with the Father from the beginning. God’s eternal expression of himself into his Creation persists and enlivens us, fills us with life-giving Spirit, animates us, and gives us persistence.
From the vantage point of humanity, while individual blades of grass may die, the pedals may fall off individual flowers, we see that grass persists and carpets the earth, flowers persist and reproduce. Grass and flowers are, therefore, reborn. They persist in lives of new birth. As we grow and change, we persist, and past, present, and future are connected. We persist and expect to live in the New Life of God because we are connected with the creating God who, even when our flesh will die, will “feed [us,] his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry [us] in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” Thus loved, we anticipate both our persistence and a new and changed life.
In Advent, we are reminded of time, and both of our mortality and of the immortality that lies within us. Yes, we shall die like the grass, and yet we are called to prepare for the inbreaking of God in Christ into our world as if it might happen at any moment.
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
We are called to prepare for an eternity of relationship with the God who knows us and who loves more than we can imagine. We are called to prepare for an eternity of relationship with God in a world turned upside-down and yet in a world full of the Glory of God. Nowhere in our Anglican consciousness is image more profound than in the opening anthems of the Burial Office, words we heard sung to the beautiful setting of Thomas Morley just last week when we celebrated the life of our brother Henry Bessire:
I am the Resurrection and the life saith the Lord, he that believeth in me. Though he were dead, yet shall he live ... [and] though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God.
Here, as nowhere else in our Common Prayer, are we assured of our persistence through time, even though the flesh of our bodies is like grass.
Facing the reality of death, facing the promise of surprising change, facing the prospect of the “the coming of the day of God,” we are called, as Second Peter reminds us, to consider “what sort of persons ought [we] to be in lives of holiness and godliness.” We are called to a realisation of both our limitations—especially the limitations of our bodies—and to that of the limitless possibilities we are afforded through our relationship with the God of Love.
As we heed the call of Isaiah and of the Baptist, let us come to understand our limitations, our flaws, and know that we are yet as grass. Let us also come to know and feel, however, that God is never-the-less always calling us to him, calling us to prepare the way for his surprising entrances into our world. He is calling us to embrace his life of love, and be assured of our eternal persistence in that love with him as he continues to fulfill the promise of his kingdom.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Advent Feria, 3 December 2011
(1)Charles Harshorne, The Divine Relativity (New Haven, 1947). A neurobiologist in my congregation reminded me after the sermon was delivered that the only cells in our body that do not get replaced are our brain cells. While goes a long way to explaining the persistence of our consciousness, I believe the point is still valid.
© 2011 Andrew Charles Blume