Saturday, December 03, 2016

Second Sunday in Advent

Romans 15:4-13 * Luke 21:25-33

The opening of today’s Epistle and the last line from today’s Gospel are the seeds of today’s Collect.  Together, they explain why this Sunday has come to be called “Bible Sunday”.

That Collect speaks of the obligation we each have concerning the Holy Scriptures:  we are to “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them….”  Then, the Collect suggests, comes the work of the Holy Spirit as He uses those Scriptures within us to plant and grow the patience and comfort that keep us upon, and help us along, the path to eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord. 
Also, in the Epistle and Gospel for this day we find that hope to be what our Prayer Book calls “the sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life.”  This “hope” is not a mere wish for something that may never happen.  When we examine the meaning of “hope” as it relates to “faith”, we see that the Scriptures clarify their meaning by adding the words “sure and certain.”  This important qualifying phrase comes from the Epistle to the Hebrews:

"Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath:  That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us:  Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil.”[1]

Thus we see that the Bible does not separate “hope” from “faith” and never separated either of these two from “charity”.  These three virtues grow together and hope depends on faith.  Hope believes, faith works, and charity labors.
We find our sure and certain hope in the word of God.  Faith grows within us when we hear that particular voice, the voice of God that we discern so clearly as he speaks to us now within the Scriptures.  Written so long ago, when they are spoken or read God Himself speaks to us in the present.  Never are they worn out or obsolete or irrelevant.
A common misconception is that the Bishops of the Christian Church assembled in the city of Nicea under the direction of the Emperor Constantine and there, at his behest, began cutting books out of the Bible.  In fact, when the Council met and the all-powerful Emperor presumed to address the Bishops of the Church, they told him that he, not being a bishop, could not address their assembly.
Something similar is true of the notion that those same Bishops set out to prune the Bible of important books they did not wish the Christian people to know about.  The truth is that the Bishops at Nicea did not decide which books then in circulation were actually Scripture and which were not. All those Bishops did was to affirm in unity of mind – and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit -- that the books the Church already perceived as the word of God were, indeed, just that.
The process of recognizing the books of the Old Testament and the New was what we might call the vox populi, the “voice of the people”, that is, the common consensus of the household of the faith.  The ancient Jewish people had discovered, over time, which books spoke to them in what they recognized as the distinctive voice of God; these books became the Jewish Bible which is now our Old Testament.
St. Paul tells us in what high regard we must hold the Old Testament in today’s Epistle: “Whatsoever things were written afore time were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.”
In the earliest days of the Church this Old Testament formed the only Canon of scripture.  But, by the early years of the Second Century, additional books had already been received into Christian congregations and there quoted as the word of God.  These twenty seven books eventually formed additional and final portion of the Canon of Scripture, that we know as the New Testament. 
In some places a few questions were raised about II Peter, Jude and Revelation.  But over time skepticism about them disappeared.  In a few places some people thought that a work called The Shepherd of Hermas might be part of the Canon of the Church’s Scriptures but it failed the prime test for acceptance.
That question was, as it had been for the ancient Jews before, did or did not the people of God recognize the voice of God in this book? In this book, as in the other books that ultimately were not recognized as part of the Canon, the early Christians simply did not hear the clear and familiar voice of God in the same way as they heard God’s voice in the books they recognized, and that we accept, as Canonical Scriptures.
Thus, long before the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., the Church had defined its Canon. This was the same as the one we have now, adding to the Jewish Scriptures the Church had inherited the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.3
Thus, too, there were no books for the Bishops at Nicea to delete, but, instead, only a Canon that had already been established before any of them had been born.
In Advent, the Church traditionally reads Isaiah’s passages about the Suffering Servant, the one by whose stripes we are healed and who prolonged his days after dying, that he would live forever as the agent of God's will.  The Lord Himself assures us that His coming again will be our redemption and that the fears and darkness of this age will disappear in the light of His glory.
His coming to rule over heaven and earth, cleansing this world from all evil, from death and suffering, and all such things, is sure and certain.  If instead of comfort, this fills your heart with fear, then that means that you must repent from all your sins.  Turn, then, to the Lord, that you may enter that blessed state of sure and certain hope, and be strengthened by the Holy Spirit. 
Today’s Epistle speaks of Christ’s ministry, first to His own people of Israel, and then of the way that ministry extends to all nations through those people of Israel who believed in Him and became His disciples. This recalls the words of Simeon, when he held the infant Jesus in the Temple: “A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”[2]
This light shines into the darkest places where we try to hide from God because we are conscious of our own sins. If we respond to His mercy, that same light of revelation brings comfort and hope, the sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life.
The invitation is extended by His words:  come, eat and be filled with the food and drink of eternal life. Come feed on the Living Bread that has come down from heaven, and with hearty repentance and true faith receive Christ through these humble means unto everlasting life with him in glory.

“Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.”


[1] Hebrews 6:17-19 (KJV).
[2] Luke 2:32 (KJV).
3 For purposes of this sermon and its basic message, I have not brought up the Apocrypha. Suffice it to say, it is covered in Article VI.

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