Sunday, December 2, 2007

The First Sunday of Advent

The Holy Gospel is written in the 21st Chapter of St. Matthew, beginning at the 1st Verse.
When they drew nigh unto Jerusalem, and were come to Bethphage, unto the mount of Olives, then sent Jesus two disciples, saying unto them, Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: loose them, and bring them unto me. And if any man say ought unto you, ye shall say, The Lord hath need of them; and straightway he will send them. All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass. And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, and brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon. And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name 'of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest. And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this? And the multitude said, This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee. And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money-changers, and the seats of them that sold doves, and said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.


Today’s Gospel reading, St. Matthew’s story of our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple may, on first hearing, seem a strange choice for the First Sunday in Advent. After all, we’re preparing for Christmas, aren’t we? That special feast when we celebrate the birth of a little baby in the stable of Bethlehem. We’ve cleaned our church. Many of us have been cleaning our homes preparing for the guests who will descend upon our families like the Wise Men from the East. We’re buying gifts, boy are we buying gifts. We’re listening to Christmas music, XM Satellite radio has five, count them five, channels exclusively devoted to the Sounds of the Season. So, if the church were in step with the world, you’d think that we’d hear a story about the angels. Maybe we’d hear about the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary. Maybe we’d hear something from Luke about shepherds. Definitely we should hear something upbeat, something that makes us feel good about being a Christian at this most wonderful time of the year.

But the Church, as we all know, is not in step with the world. Rather than the flutter of angel wings, we are presented with the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, that pivotal event that begins his Passion. Then follows the story of the cleansing of the Temple, when Jesus drove the moneychangers and merchants from the Temple, claiming that they had made His Father’s house, “a den of thieves.” The Church uses this puzzling story to mark the beginning of Advent, that special season when the church stands at the foot of the Cross and looks backward to the mystery of the Incarnation and forward to the triumphant return of Christ at the end of time. Today, let’s spend a few minutes together meditating on these two comings of Christ. Let’s further reflect on Christ’s call to us to cleanse the temples of our own hearts in preparation for both of his comings.

Standing at the foot of the cross, we see the suffering Lord who assumed the burden of our sins. We see his agony and we realize that this man, this innocent man, has chosen to die for us so that we might live. And looking back across the years, beyond the miracles, beyond the call of the disciples, beyond the finding in the Temple, we are left with the promise of a baby; a very special baby. For this baby Jesus is the Promised One of Judaism. He is the Messiah, the one who will set the Israelites, and indeed all mankind, free from their sins. In fact, we see a baby with a unique destiny, a unique purpose. For when we contemplate the coming of Jesus in manger at Bethlehem, when we behold the wonder of the Incarnation, we are immediately struck by a painful but glorious reality: This is a child who was born to die! Yes, a child who was born to die. Now for most parents the promise of a child lies in what they will accomplish with their lives. We worry about where they will go to school, who they will marry, what they will do with the gifts God has given them. But, when we reflect on the coming of Jesus, the God made man, we are brought face to face with the fact that Jesus’ primary purpose in coming to earth was to die so that man could be free from sin. Remember, left to our own devices we are wrapped in the mantle of sin, the cloak of darkness. There is no way that we can make any sacrifice for ourselves because we are unclean. So the promise of the Incarnation is this: In taking on human flesh, God has willed to take upon himself all of our failings, our weaknesses, our sins. God, in the person of Jesus, pays the price of death so that we can be set free. Yes, my brothers and sisters, the promise of the Incarnation is the promise of a child who was born to die.

But there is another view from the Cross: It is the view forward to the end of time, when Christ will return in power and glory to make all things right, to judge the living and the dead, and to call all men and women who have believed on His Name to live with him for ever. This is the second, and, in some ways, the most important aspect of Advent. Can any of us, as we reflect on this powerful Day of the Lord, be any less than struck speechless at the power of our God? That God, who made the heavens and the earth, who set the stars in their courses, who knew each one of us by name when were yet unborn, that God who holds all things in existence simply by his willing them, will return in power to judge the living and the dead. Well, if a Christian has an ounce of sense in him, then he will want to be ready for that great and terrible day, when he will stand before his Lord for judgment. And this Second Coming, this Day of the Lord, brings us to our third point: the call to prepare and cleanse the temples of our hearts.

When Jesus entered the Temple, he was faced with the powerful effects of good that had been corrupted. A place that had been set aside by God for His worship had been corrupted by sinful men. What was the sin of the moneychangers and the merchants? Was it the practice of their trades? Probably not. The fact of the matter was that Roman money could not be used in the Temple and Temple money could not be used in the secular world. The merchants who sold lambs and doves for sacrifice provided a necessary service for those who came from all over Israel to offer sacrifice to God. So what was their sin, their wickedness? Many speculate that the sin of the moneychangers and merchants was that they placed their livings above their devotion to God. They misplaced their devotion, focusing their best efforts on the means of their income rather than the ends of the worship of almighty God.

And there is the lesson for us at the beginning of this Advent season. The Church and our Lord call us to cleanse the temples of our hearts. Jesus asks that we allow him to enter our hearts and to upset all of the tables on which rest the misplaced devotion, the foolish priorities of our own lives. Jesus asks us to allow him to cleanse us from our pride, our greed, our sloth, our lusts; all of those things that hold us back from following the Lord more closely. Jesus promises us that if we offer our hearts to Him this Advent, then he will cleanse us from all that separates from him. Jesus will prepare us to see anew the promise that will be in the manger at Christmas and he will grant us the assurance that, “When next he comes in glory, and the world is wrapped in fear, may he with his mercy shield us, and with words of love draw near.”

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