Sunday, November 30, 2014

1st Sunday in Advent

Thou hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities.

With the first Sunday of Advent we come to the beginning of a new church year. Just as with the beginning of the secular year, we are called at the beginning of the church year to make resolutions in good faith and to rekindle our minds and affections for the things of God. The church year begins on the sober note of Advent, one of two penitential seasons of the church year. In Advent, we recall the three comings or Advents of our Lord Jesus, his first coming in the flesh in the stable in Bethlehem; his second coming in glory which we await with hope; finally his coming into our souls. The traditional Gospel for this Sunday is the account of Jesus cleansing the temple which is a perfect image for how he comes into our souls. We are to be the temple of the Holy Ghost, and every thing in our lives that is not godly he demands we surrender. He casts out that which is not of him. It is not simply enough that we do the right things externally, he tells us that we need new hearts. In the book of Ezekiel, the Lord says that he will remove the stoney hearts of his people and give to them hearts of flesh. He wants, in other words, to take every thought captive for Christ and to direct our love and affections to that which is good and noble and beautiful.

The truth is that so often, instead of choosing that which is good and noble and beautiful, we chase that which is bad and harmful and destructive. When it comes to sin, you see, most are not that different than from the alcoholic: we just cannot help ourselves. The addict will almost always say that he wants to quit; he is not proud of his behavior; yet he finds himself powerless to resist his hunger for alcohol. So too, rarely are we proud of our sin; we know it is destructive, and yet we keep returning to it. One of the axioms of theology is that sin is its own punishment. Sometimes we witness this firsthand with our children. They make a poor choice and the result of that poor choice is something painful or uncomfortable. The prophet states the truth of this axiom when, in speaking to the Lord, he says, “Thou hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities.”

Many of us are likely to excuse ourselves for our sins. One definition for sin is simple transgression of God's law. When we speak of God's law, we usually mean the Ten Commandments, but how do our lives actually measure up if we take serious inventory of the ways we have broken these commandments. The first two commandments are about giving God his due and not committing idolatry. Now the common conception of idolatry is that it has to do with bowing down and worshiping images and statues. That is of course idolatry, but it is not the full extent of idolatry nor even the grossest kind of idolatry. Idolatry is anytime one gives to something or someone that is not god that which is due to God. When our greatest hope is for material goods or a perfect family or worldly success we are giving to what is not god what is due to God. When we think that some creature can make us truly happy, we are falling into the same trap. Idolatry then is far more common that we might be apt to think. In fact, John Calvin wrote that the human heart is an idol factory. The third commandment prohibits taking the name of the Lord in vain. This fairly well covers both cursing and hypocrisy, hypocrisy being when we pretend to be something that we know we are not. The fourth commandment is about keeping holy the sabbath day. We might ask ourselves is Sunday set aside as a day dedicated to the Lord, a kind of first fruits of our time? The fifth is about honoring our parents, which I think can be extended to all the authorities to which we are rightfully subject. The sixth is about not committing murder. O good, you might say, finally one I am not guilty of, but Jesus says that if we bear anger toward a brother or say 'you fool' to a fellow human being, we are guilty of breaking this law also. I don't think I need go any further; we are all guilty, and we are probably feeling like the Jews who wept at the reading of the law by Ezra because they realized how far astray they had gone. The bad news is that the verdict has come in and we are all guilty before the Judge.

In Advent, we should think about what are known as the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, hell. We know that when our Lord Jesus returns, he will not find us perfect or without sin. The one thing he does ask us to do is to surrender to him our sins. You see, a lot of people want to cling to their sins. They are not ready to give them up. They are like St. Augustine who in his Confessions wrote, Lord, give me chastity, but not yet. The worst imaginable thing is that the Lord would hand us over to these sins, to give us into the hands of our iniquities. In the collect for Advent, we ask God to “give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness.” It is time to open our hands, time to let go of our sin and rebellion against God and to open the doors of our hearts to let the master come in and cleanse his temple.

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