Monday, December 23, 2013

A good sermon for Advent IV

The following was written and preached by Mr. Richard Tarsitano at St. Michael and All Angels Anglican Catholic Church in Jacksonville Florida. Mr. Tarsitano (son of the late Rev. Dr. Louis Tarsitano) is currently studying for holy orders.

“And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).

The Epistle and Gospel appointed for this Fourth Sunday in Advent compare two important time periods in which the God of Time and Space reaches through his creation to make all things new.  The incarnation and return of our Lord Jesus Christ reveal a surprising and magnanimous saving effort by which the three persons of the Blessed Trinity confound our wants and assumptions for the good of the beautiful creation we mar through sin.  The propers for today really reveal two advents in which the people of God prepare for their great king to die and to reign, to rise and to return, to ascend and to descend.  These two advents, these great comings, should be times of humbleness and thanksgiving, but then and now, we push the mysterious, distant past and future reality away to focus on the jarring spectacle produced by the burdens we inherit and create.  Exploring the two advents through God’s revealed word we see a different path.

St. Paul in today’s Epistle is writing to his beloved church in Philippi which has its struggles but certainly give the Apostle much less grief than say the church in Corinth.  Throughout the letter he rejoices in their faith and thanks them for their “partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (1:5).  High praise from a man who is writing this correspondence from the dusky light of a 1st Century prison cell. But, being a partner with Paul attracted attention from forces both natural and supernatural which were persecuting the kind and generous congregation in Philippi.  Over and above that overt resistance, we hear the familiar refrain of a people attempting to live in light of the gospel. We hear the echoing heartache and struggle of souls besieged by their inner temptations and constantly threatened by the outward malice of a world that must kill the idea of a savior-God to protect its grip on the hearts of men. 

Then and now, to safeguard that circular justification of ungodliness, whereby man is god and man makes the rules, it is not enough to simply disagree with Christianity.  In this way, I really do understand the vitriol that flows from the mouths and pens of Anti-Christians; for, these men and women oftentimes understand the ramifications of Christ’s message better than many who claim him as their Lord. Distressingly, many in the Western Christian world seek to accommodate and assimilate into a human spirit poisoned by greed and lust and murder in an abortive attempt to “trick people” into believing as much of the gospel as we can to occasionally get them to sit in a pew.  Thankfully, this path of least resistance, this perilous bridge leading back to the spiritual ghetto we all come from, has been burned by our Lord and our only way back to that place is to jump into a never-ending chasm. 

In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus states these hard words, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.  And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:34-39).  Jesus’ description of the effect of the Gospel on families does not sound like the kind of message one hears from TV commercials and newspaper ads.  We are familiar with church advertisements that basically boil down to one of two ideas: 1. Come to church and your son or daughter will do what you say more often or 2. Come to church to fulfill a vague sense that your family is missing something it needs to get along better.  These two ideas completely miss the point and serve as a pitiable distraction from the glorious good news of the Gospel.  Jesus has not come to bring peace to the world.  He has not come to bring peace to your family or your job or your lodge or your political party. He has come to bring peace to his people, our brothers and sisters he fashions from the dust of the earth. A peace that flows from the new creation begun in Christ, a peace that calms the martyr’s heart as he walks to the cross, a peace that raises dead men and women from the cold grave, a peace that passes all understanding.

The conceptions of peace in our culture are intimately linked with ideas we have inherited from the 1960’s peace movements and the work of non-violent protesters such as Henry David Thoreau and Mohandas Ghandi.  From these modern movements and thinkers we tend to picture peace as a very human-centered idea.  In this conception of peace, mankind–either through enlightenment or horror–chooses to stop killing ourselves and one another.  We are exhorted to “give peace a chance” as it were, but St. Paul presents a very different picture of peace.  This is not a peace accessed by people in pursuit of fashioning a perfect world from the ashes of the human experience: a peace too often willing to scheme and compromise with evil in order to secure a momentary absence of conflict.  That is the type of peace Jeremiah rebukes in chapter 8 of his prophetic work, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 8:10). 

True peace can only come from a personal God who guards our hearts and our minds from fear, despair, and sin.  Sin scuttles all human developed projects for world peace even as it subverts our own personal peace keeping missions.  From Thucydides to Henry Kissinger, great minds have tried to crack the puzzle that is world peace, and from Buddha to Deepak Chopra men and women have attempted to conjure a personal peace that is lasting and real.  These attempts fail because they are like lost souls trying to bail out a leaking boat without patching the holes.  In truth, our situation is even more dire than that as there are too many holes for us possibly to fill with our own effort.  Humanity is on the Titanic, and our sin and hubris has prevented us from bringing life-boats. 

I would ask you to be cautious in interpreting this metaphor I have just presented because I do not want you to take away the wrong idea.  An idea I have heard preached on more than a few occasions: Jesus is not our life-boat; He is our King.  Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of the world, is not a product we desire or a last-ditch “break-glass-when-needed” eternal life insurance policy.  The peace that St. Paul promises to us springs from the grace of God and our participation in a life focused on God through prayer, supplication, and thanksgiving.  This connection to God and his bountiful fount of grace through these seemingly ordinary means is discounted and ignored at humanity’s everlasting peril.  Psalm 145 tells us, “The LORD is nigh unto all them that call upon him; yea, all such as call upon him faithfully.  He will fulfill the desire of them that fear him; he also will hear their cry, and will help them” (145:18-19).  St. Paul comforts the church in Philippi and the church on Fleming Island by assuring them of Christ’s return in the final judgment, but he is also writing a referral to physically and spiritually correspond with the God of the universe.  That peace that passes all understanding is the God of Peace, the creator of heaven and earth, holding us up as we face the hourly challenges of being one of His people in a land of rebellion and strife.  The reality of our heavenly companionship is how St. Paul can say, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).    

We are in the last Sunday of this year’s Advent season, but this yearly observance should remind us that we live in a perpetual Advent as we await the second coming of our King.  We do not await that great and glorious day alone, trapped in the loneliness and squalor of an unredeemed mind, we count the days to his return with the communion of saints, but even more amazingly, we commune with God himself–for Christ has given us confident access to the heavenly throne of grace.  The world hates prayer (it says: “shouldn’t we be doing something instead of wasting our time praying”), the flesh hates prayer (it says, “I’m so busy, who has time to pray”), the devil hates prayer (in the same way a murderer prefers if you don’t dial 911).  These powerful forces have so twisted our culture and society that we fail to see that our moments on bended knee, in communication with God Almighty, are the most important thing we do in our day.

 More important than reading the newspaper, more important than doing our job, more important than kissing our loved ones goodnight.  None of those other relationships matter if we do not have a right relation with our God and our King, and we can never hope to be in a right relation if we ignore this most generous invitation to address Him in His heavenly court. 

Finally, as Advent comes to a close, I would ask you to meditate carefully on the familiar words we sing in our beloved Christmas carols. For, a Christian cannot sing a Christmas carol in the same way a non-Christian can.  We are not absent-mindedly singing about peace and good-will.  We are beseeching the King of creation to return and make the world whole, to bring a peace that passes all understanding. 

He hears our prayers, and He will come.

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