Advent I.  December 3, 2017.  St. Stephen’s, Athens.

St. Matthew xx, verses 32-3 – What will ye that I shall do unto you? They say unto him, Lord, that our eyes may be opened….

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Our epistle today from Saint Paul, and the collect which we read throughout Advent, are filled with contrasts.  They contrast ‘works of darkness’ with ‘the armour of light’; ‘this mortal life’ with ‘the life immortal’; ‘great humility’ with ‘glorious majesty’; ‘now’ with ‘the last day’; ‘time to wake’ with ‘sleep’; ‘walk honestly’ with ‘rioting and drunkenness’.  If we take all of these contrasts together, the basic point is a call to wakefulness, alertness, and careful preparation.

Some of these pairs do not refer to good and evil, but simply to this world as opposed to the world to come.  This mortal life, here and now, we have choices to make, and those choices refer to the other group of pairs:  darkness or light; good or evil; honesty and humility and virtue or selfishness and sin and pride.  The decisions are mostly minor and occur every day.  Each little decision is a pebble, a little thing, but a little thing that when multiplied hundreds and thousands of times makes a building, a wall, a substantial structure.  If we are not careful, the product of our lives might turn out to be a wall cutting us off from God, rather than a fitting habitation built on a solid foundation of faith.

So, again, the basic message is the need for careful preparation, now in the time of this mortal life, as we work with or against God to give our souls the shape they will have through all eternity.  That is a good Advent theme:  careful preparation.

That is the message.  But of course most of us most of the time do not think very much about the ways in which our daily lives have eternal ramifications.  For that reason I have taken for my text today the event that occurs immediately before the beginning of our gospel lesson.  The lesson itself, of course, is the story of Palm Sunday and the triumphal entry of our Lord into Jerusalem.  In Saint Matthew’s gospel, the last thing that our Lord does as he walks from Jericho to enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is to heal the blindness of two men.  The men cry, ‘Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David.’  And we are told that ‘Jesus had compassion on them, and touched their eyes:  and immediately their eyes received sight’.  The pattern is clear:  human suffering or weakness or incapacity meets divine compassion and healing.  What is not clear, of course, is what the healed person will do after his healing.  Will he follow the Lord into the holy City and walk with him on the way of the cross?  Or will he take his healing and run?  Will or will not a momentary encounter with God produce lasting effects within the heart and soul of the newly healed?

In our lesson many people encounter Christ.  ‘A very great multitude’, we are told, meet him and acclaim him with acts and words appropriate to the Messiah.  But crowds are fickle.  In the Wednesday Bible study we have just considered the weird episode in Acts 14, where Paul and Barnabas heal a crippled man in the city of Lystra.  There the crowd decides the apostles must be gods come to earth.  Paul is the talkative one, so they call him Hermes, the messenger of the gods.  Barnabas evidently looked impressive, so they call him Zeus.  Out comes the priest of Zeus, with oxen covered with garlands, to do sacrifice to the supposed gods.  Of course Paul and Barnabas put a stop to that particular impulse of a crowd – an impulse that is stupid and superstitious.  One verse later the crowd does a complete about-face and decides to try to stone Paul to death.  One minute the crowd considers you a god, the next it’s throwing stones.  Such are crowds.

But let’s return to Jerusalem and today’s crowd.  Their acclamation is correct, but their hearts are not.  Their words are right, but they know not what they mean or say.  The better starting point is the blind men a couple of verses earlier:  ‘Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David.’  What we are trying to do is to live carefully in the time of this mortal life so that we may enter into the holy City with Jesus.  We seek so to live that we may enter in the gate which leads to the heavenly kingdom of God.  We begin rather blind, rather careless.  We are unable to find the gate, the narrow gate along the strait way into the City of God.  The first thing, of course, is to know that we are blind, that we suffer from a disability and that we need our Lord’s help to open our eyes and to show us the gate.  We need, in a word, mercy.  Or, in another word, we need grace.  We need God’s free gift.

We read this lesson today on the first day of the new Christian year, Advent I.  We stand today at the gate into the sanctities and cycles, the seasons and the feasts, which now begin to unfold once again before us in the ancient annual round.  The City in question was originally Jerusalem.  But Jerusalem is a figure for God’s kingdom.  God’s kingdom now in the time of this mortal life is the Church and her worship and sacraments and fellowship of love.  And in the life immortal, in the life of world to come, we will discover that the Church here and now is in fact an entry way which has already taken us inside the gates of God’s kingdom.

So come.  Put aside carelessness and blindness and remember that Advent is a season of preparation and anticipation.  Advent is a time to read again the ancient prophecies of a Saviour to come.  Advent is a time to contemplate the end of the world, the end of time, and more particularly to contemplate the end of my own world and of my own little time here and now.  My death and yours are most assuredly today one day closer than they were yesterday, and that is a fit subject for Advent consideration.  Advent is a time to receive the sacraments with humble gratitude; to say our prayers, to make our confessions, to repent our sins, and to receive the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.  Advent is not Christmas, but the path to Christmas, the way to prepare to receive the Christ-Child, whom we are most certainly unworthy to receive without Advent and without careful preparation of ourselves.  Let us seek healing for our blindness, so that we may prepare ourselves wisely, and say, with the people of Jerusalem long ago, ‘Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.’

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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