In the name of God who created us, Jesus Christ who redeems and liberates us and of the Holy Spirit which strengthens and sustains us. Amen.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent and we mark the beginning of a new Church year. We open our spiritual calendars on another year of our Christian journey.
In this season of Advent we enter into a period of anticipation and preparation for the yearly remembrance of the coming of Christ—the light of the world—in his Nativity and his coming again in power and great glory. We would do well to use this time to prepare to walk in that light. We need to use to the fullest this season of expectation and preparation for sober reflection and a re-thinking of our life in Christ—especially in this time of upheaval and swift transition. One way to do this is through prayer.
One of the great hymns of the church—which seems to have disappeared from the 1982 Hymnal begins:
“Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire.
Unuttered or expressed,
The motion of a hidden fire,
That trembles in the breast.”
I wonder how many of us pay any real attention to the Collects the church sets aside for our use each Sunday and on other special occasions. They are thoughtful petitions related to seasons of the church year, persons and events. I take for my personal Advent meditation and devotions the Collects for the four Sundays of this season. Each one makes a specific petition to God to fit our souls for God’s entry into the human condition through the Incarnation.
Today we ask: “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…
On the second Sunday of Advent we pray: “Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins.
Thirdly we ask: “Stir up your power, 0 Lord, and with great might come among us
And because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us…”
And finally we ask: “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself…”
These are simple yet powerful prayers, packed with strong implications of what our lives might be if we practiced what we pray. Each one speaks pointedly to our situation, to our very lives. Each of us could apply them to our individual and corporate lives—not only on the days for which they are appointed but every day we walk this pilgrim journey.
The season of Advent calls us to prayer and meditation both of which pave the way and prepare us for decision making and for great events and changes in our lives. It was true for our Lord and should be true for us. Jesus always went to God in prayer before doing important things.
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus went into the wilderness and for forty days and nights he fasted and prayed. Before raising Lazarus from the dead, he lifted his voice in prayer. Before Calvary he strengthened and steadied his soul in the Garden of Gethsamane. Even on the cross he prayed for those who crucified him and promised paradise to a thief condemned with him.
We too pray a lot, but not always in the manner Christ prayed. Unfortunately, we don’t always pray for the right things or the right kinds of things. Many times we pray by rote without realizing the full implications of what our prayers could mean for our lives.
Sunday after Sunday we pray together: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” If we truly meant those words, our lives would have to be radically different. If we truly meant those words, we would find ourselves living into those familiar teachings of Jesus we know as the Beatitudes.
We would, for example, actively work for peace, not war. Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.” It is both ironic and tragic that the world usually has reserved and continues to reserve its highest honors for the warmakers rather than the peacemakers—the Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding. And peacemakers—active makers of peace are few. It is easy to make war. It is easy to fan the flames of ancient feuds and appeal to sordid prejudices. It is the coinage of many politicians and world leaders.
The word “peace” is now a principle Christian term, but it has been sorely misused and abused. Remember the deadly MX missile, euphemistically called the “Peacemaker.” Military personnel, especially when they are deployed abroad, are called “peace keepers.” We seem to forget that peace must first be made before it can be kept. But the real peacemakers often are ridiculed and reviled and we forget our Lord’s admonition that they, indeed, shall be called the children of God.
Those that assume that peace just comes naturally or that preparation for war is the best preparation for peace are simply “peace -hopers.” They are not peace makers. The peace Jesus sought for us and that we are called to make is peace with God so that we can have peace or reconciliation with each other.
Peacemaking also is a preventative task. If, for example, poverty embitters masses of people and leads to conflict, the peacemaker seeks to help banish poverty. When oppression leads to rebellion as it always does—the peacemaker seeks to root out oppression and cure the disease, not just salve its symptoms. God makes no peace with oppression and neither can we. Thus we would actively work to eradicate the causes for injustice, exploitation, hunger, and homelessness, among other ills of the society, not simply improving our individual conditions or the conditions of those close to us. We would actively work to eliminate the things that divide us, such as racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia and class distinctions.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” That should mean not all I want, but what I need. So many are concerned not about basics, but about how much; not the quality of life, but the quantity; not will I eat, but can I get what I want; not something warm to wear, but something fashionable; not how will I live, but where will I live. All of this while others have little or nothing to eat or to wear and no place to lay their heads. And this is as true of people with little or no means as it is of people of affluence. We all get focused on things, on possessions.
“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” First and foremost we should be thankful God does not treat us the way we often treat each other. Be thankful God does not bear grudges or carry long festering hurts over wrongs—real or imagined.
Most people are not greatly troubled by their own sin, let alone sin and shame in the world, the shame of the streets or the shame of greed that leads to the kind of violence of nations, bringing about tragedies over which we simply cluck sympathetically and sigh “what a pity, sad isn’
The question is: What are we willing to do about it? The children of God not only mourn, they share in the common guilt. Moreover, they e willing to act to eradicate the causes of that guilt. They are willing to live the gospel of radical Jesus which confronts the modern incarnations of Herod, of Pilate and of the money changers and high priests whom he drove out of the Temple -whether that temple be on Wall Street, in corporate board rooms, on Capitol Hill, in corrupt state, and local bureaucracies or on criminalized street corners.
So much of our prayer life is misdirected, self-centered and self-serving, but it does not have to be so. We hear the phrase “prayer changes things.” It perhaps would be more accurate to say that prayer changes people to do things. We not only can learn to pray, we can learn to re-direct our actions so that we live into our prayers.
The hymn to which I referred earlier closes with this thought: “0 thou by whom we come to God,
The life, the truth, the way
The path of prayer thyself has trod Lord,
teach us how to pray.”
And it is from prayer and meditation that we can be taught to move with holy boldness into participation—active participation—in the gospel—the good new of Jesus Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. Amen.