Advent I.  November 27, 2022.  Saint Stephen’s, Athens.

S. Matthew 21, verse 10 – And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this?

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

Today is the 40th anniversary of the founding of this parish.  I thank God for the men and women who took a leap in faith in 1982.  In many ways God has prospered this place and provided for us here a house of prayer, an altar for worship, and a source of instruction, counsel, solace, and strength.  I do not know that I will be here for the 50th anniversary of the parish, but today enjoy this occasion as we also pray for those founders who have gone before us with the sign of faith and are at rest in the sleep of peace.

The number forty is very important in the Bible.  Forty means a long period.  In the story of Noah the old world was overwhelmed when it rained forty days and forty nights. In the Exodus Israel departed from Egypt to wander in the wilderness of Sinai for forty years.   When Elijah fled to the mountain of God from Ahab and Jezebel, he went through the wilderness for forty days and forty nights (I Kings 19:8).  And again, our Lord fasted and was tempted in the wilderness before the beginning of his public ministry for forty days and forty nights. 

In each of these cases you should note that a negative meaning attaches to that from which God’s servants departed.  Noah left a world of wickedness.  Israel fled from lies and tyranny and slavery.  Elijah fled the murderous wrath of Jezebel and her idolatry.  Christ separated himself from a hostile world to prepare for his coming ministry.  In each case the period of forty was spent by God’s people in a place of wilderness and waste to prepare for something new and better.

Another thing to notice about these biblical forties is that in each case God provided.  God instructed Noah to prepare the ark for shelter and survival.  God fed his people during the Exodus with manna.  Food and water were sent to Elijah in the wilderness, and ‘in the strength of that meat’ he made his journey to the mount of revelation.  And after our Lord’s fast in the wilderness, we are told that angels came and ministered unto him.  God provided.

Please note also that at the end of each of these periods of forty God’s servants entered into something new.  Noah and his family left the ark and began in a recreated world.  Israel’s Exodus wandering ended, and the people crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land.  Elijah on the mountain of God was given a set of tasks that he and his successor were to fulfil to deal with the failures of Ahab’s dynasty and of the northern kingdom of Israel in general.  And, of course, our Lord’s fast began his public and grace-filled ministry of preaching and healing. 

Finally, let me add to this all another period of forty days.  That is the period between Easter and Ascension, after our Lord returned to his followers to encourage them and to give them their instructions.  In this case the disciples were called to turn from the world and their old lives.  In this case the disciples were called to begin new lives, and they were promised refreshment in the waters of baptism and nourishment in the Eucharist.  

Now let me apply this all to this parish as we complete the momentous period of our first generation. 

This parish and its founders also fled into the wilderness from an intolerable situation.  We left comfortable pews, clerical career paths and pensions, and a known status.  It is true that in our case and in the great scheme of things our wilderness was not so terribly difficult:  it was a matter merely of a little scorn, the need to borrow buildings, and then the task of acquiring everything we had walked away from:  property, churches, furnishings.  It would be overly dramatic to compare our sacrifices to those of Israel leaving Egypt or of Elijah fleeing Ahab.  But there were significant sacrifices to build everything you see around you here.

Again, what you see around you took a generation, forty years.  Land was acquired in 1983 and added to in the 1990s.  The church was built in 1986 and 1987.  The parish hall was built in the early 2000s.  The stained glass, the furniture, the choir loft, the organ, the holy hardware and holy software were acquired bit by bit over these four decades.  God has prospered us beyond our deserving.

Throughout this generation of acquisition God has fed this portion of his flock consistently, Sunday by Sunday, day by day, with miraculous food, which we receive of his bounty in the banquet he commanded us to continue in our Lord’s memory.  We, like Israel in the wilderness, are fed with heavenly bread, angels’ food, manna, the Body of Christ.  And in the strength of this food we are able to travel through the wilderness of our generation until we come to the promised land that lies beyond this life:  the city to come where so many of our founders and friends have gone before. 

In our gospel today we are told that when our Lord entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday ‘all the city was moved’.  The Greek verb there, translated as ‘moved’, occurs in the gospels only here and in Matthew’s story of the crucifixion, when the earth was moved by an earthquake.  The use of this word here tells us that the arrival of Christ is like an earthquake shaking the world.   

Now a final thing to say about 40 years is that it can lead to lethargy and spiritual sloth, as we see regularly in the story of the Exodus.  C.S. Lewis once wrote the surest road to hell is the gently sloping downward path of middle age.  40 is middle age.  Let us remember that sloth and spiritual torpor are deadly sins, and we cannot receive our Lord fittingly in such a state.  We need to experience again the revolutionary upheaval, the earthquake, of God’s arrival in our midst.  In 1982 and 1983 a group of mostly rather prosperous, upper middle-class folk left their comfortable pews for the hard work of building a parish from scratch.  I think being shaken out of a no longer faithful Church home was good for all involved.  All our city, if you will, was moved.  We were shaken to do things that really were quite remarkable. 

But now that we have our own comfortable pews, our own established and sedate ways, let us continue to be moved by the miracle of God’s work among us.  Let us renew the fervor that led to this beautiful place.  But let us also remember that in truth the church that matters most is the sacramental life and Christian fellowship that would remain even if the building burned down.  Let us work above all to build up that sacramental reality and that community of love.

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


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