This year our church is reading through the Book of Common Prayer's Advent readings. The Book of Common Prayer is a literary tradition spanning back to the time of the Reformation. It is a compilation of hymns, readings, and prayers which have helpfully drawn God's people into prayerful reflection. Our church, while not an Anglican church (for some very important reasons) have found these readings on Advent to be particularly helpful.
So as part of the Advent season, we are reflecting on the various Advent collects, or prayers, on this blog. You can visit the first Advent Prayer here. The second Advent prayer says this:
Like last week's reading, this one is made up of three parts. The three parts reflect on the coming of God to his people. They present us with the prophets who made clear the way of the Lord, they present us with the last Word of God, who has revealed to us the wonderful mystery of the Trinity.
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation
This first prayer fixes our minds on the God of the prophets. Those angsty, gnarly, cranky, and, at times, hangry, men. They were haggard and bent over. They came wearing only shreds of clothing. They told us of the coming judgment. They scowled. They grunted. They waved their arms in the air. At times they went to radical extremes to tell us the Day of the Lord was on its way. Sometimes, it was encouraging. Most of the time we ignored it.
Masters of the literary form, they wrote long treatises and preached long sermons. They ranted. They built exacting argument upon exacting argument. They delivered their message with forcefulness. We put our thumbs in our ears. We didn't want to hear. They took our thumbs out and shouted. "You have to hear!" they said, "God is coming!"
The most remarkable thing about this prayer is the simple ascription to a God who sends envoys such as these. He is called, "merciful." It is merciful for God to send to us those who will prepare a way for salvation. It is merciful that they came to us, in the world but not of it. We are able to see past all the distractions of the world, the world with all its trinkets and its toys, its wit and wisdom, its novelties and knowledge. In these simpletons a complex God makes himself known. God's mercy to us comes because he did not send them as foreign dignitaries in all the trappings of respect and reputation. He sent them to us, as harbingers of another world, wearing camels' hair for belts and eating locusts dipped in honey.
Hebrews says this of those hallowed heroes, "What more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel, and the prophets-who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated, of whom the world was not worthy-wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of earth." (11:32-38)
Truly, they are not of this world. This strange fact is, in fact, their credibility. It is merciful of God to send us messengers as such as these, and it is they who make clear the path of the Lord.
Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer
The second section of this prayer is a request to the Lord. It asks for grace, the precious grace, that the scales on our eyes might be washed away, that the plugs in our ears might be removed, that the cast over our hearts might be cut away. It asks for the eyes to see and ears to hear the words of the Lord. Such strange messengers speak a strange language that is unnatural and revolting to the unredeemed ear. Only by the grace of God can we hear God's words. It is for the grace of repentance, that sweet gift, sweeter than any honey, that we speak.
Give us grace to turn from our sins. Give us grace to see our sins for what they are, to behold them in all their ghastliness, and their ugliness. Help us to "uncultivate" our tastes to the pleasures of our world. Of course, that is only the first half of repentance. For just as we have cultivated a taste for sin which must be uncultivated, so we must acquire a taste for the things of God. To ask for the grace of repentance is not only to ask that God would help us turn away from our sins, but also to ask that God would help us to turn to God. It is to ask God for the gift of conciliation, not just contrition.
Without such gifts, we will never hear the Word. Hebrews tells us, "Long ago at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world." (Heb 1:1-2) In Christ, God got his last Word in. Christ is the last thing we need to know about God. Every prophet before him spoke of the one who was to come. Every prophet after him spoke of the one who already has come. Alpha and Omega, beginning and end. The first and final, clearest and most mysterious, Word of God.
Such a Word cannot be heard by fleshly ears or stoney hearts. We cannot hear about Christ so long as we are enraptured with sin. Christmastime, this prayer teaches us, is a time to reckon with this Word about God. This, the last Word of God, spoken of for long before, has finally come. Have we prepared Him room? Have we attended our hearts to Him? Have we hushed our whispering in his presence? Christmastime is a time for repentance. And this is only grasped by grace.
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.
Just as last week, we are caught up into the heavenly throne room. Christmas repentance transposes us before the Almighty Lamb of God, standing as though he had been slain, amidst the sea of glass and storm, and in the presence of the Great Throne. Christmas Repentance brings us into the midst of this, the most transcendent of mysteries, the most lucid of dreams, the most seen unseen. It is nothing less than the presence of the Trinity. Here, adopted through the Son, filled by the Spirit, and loved by the Father, the elect of God gather with one voice to praise Him from before all time and now and forever. Christmas time realigns us, attunes us, shapes us, molds us, exposes us, fills us, strips us, clothes us, takes away and gives back, questions and answers. Christmastime is the coming of the Son of God, the very God of very God and very light of very light. This is not a sight for the amateur sightseer. One must cultivate and acquire this taste. We must train our eyes to see this vision.
This is what Advent prayers are for.
For this year in Advent, our church is reading through the contemporary Advent Collects in the Book of Common Prayer.
The Book of Common Prayer is a literary tradition spanning back to the time of the Reformation. It was a powerful tool that the Anglican Church used to shape its people around Christ.
Not quite a hymnal, but similar, the Book of Common Prayer was valuable as many saints from all around the world forsook the world, the flesh, and the devil and sought to make their lives look more like Jesus using this book.
We are not an Anglican Church, and we are not Anglican for some very important reasons. However, we do believe that, as far as this particular tool adheres to the Holy Scriptures, it is valuable for us to grow into Christ's image.
So for the month of December, I am going to be blogging on the various readings from the Sunday Readings, called a "Collect."
Each of these Collects is a prayer around a particular theme of Christmastime. The first one is a prayer that is shockingly eschatological (meaning it is about the end times). It is draped in the imagery of war and of the end times. Of that troubling and turbulent time to come, and of the peace which is on heaven and earth, good will to men. The peace of God only comes through the invasion of Christ. Needless to say, this is not your grandmother's Christmas! It reads as follows:
This first, this first prayer, has three important sections to it. First, it has the present. Second, it places the present in light of the eternal. Third, it pleads on the basis of the Triune God. Let's deal with each one in turn.
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility
The first prayer of the Collect is a request for God to give us the grace of repentance. This is given a vivid flare by the contrast of darkness and light. We are invited through the Collect to ask God for grace to the task to be done. Christmastime, we learn, is not a time for pithy sentimentalisms. It is a time for war, a time when we embroider ourselves with the blood of the lamb. We desperately need the grace to fight this battle well. We need the armor of light, for the task at hand. This war requires work. This war is the most recent flare up of an eternal battle. And the campaign was started when God the Son paradropped into the sleepy town of Bethlehem.
But the Son did not come as a mighty warrior, clothed in strength and armed with power. No, he came as a low-class carpenter, swaddled in the flesh of a babe. So great is this conquering Lord, that he will gather to himself those who come to him as his Son came to earth: the hesitant and humble, the bashful and bedraggled, the forgotten and forsaken, the unloved and untouched. He will carve his image into this forgotten stone of human misery. The chief weapon of Christmas war, we see, is the humiliation of God in the flesh of man.
that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty, to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to life immortal
Of course, this one who conquers through being killed, who defeats through death, who overthrows every power and name by being born in a backwater corner of a backwater province of the Roman Empire, will not come a second time so. Rather, the one who was born, lived, died, rose again, and ascended, will return on high. And when he does, he will gather himself the army of outcasts, and they, this messy mob gathered from the corner of every slum there ever was, will become as he is. At Christmastime, we look forward to the glory to be revealed in us. The glory of the angels on high, sweetly singing o'er the plain, will one day be ours!
No longer will we have sunken cheeks, canyons formed by the everflowing saline springs in our eyes, the bony arms, and look of those who are in a world not their own. Rather, we will have glorious majesty, life immortal, raised with the resurrected and ascended Lord. Christmastime is when we look at that manger, the place where the sheeps and the goats feed alike, and we see the Lamb standing as though he had been slain.
through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The final stanza of this first prayer carries us into the eternal plan of the infinite, triune God. The humble will be come the high, the meek the majestic, the gentle the glorious. We who carry in our flesh the cross of Christ will burst forth in glorious day. But this only happens through the one who was humble to the point of death, who was meek to the point of flagellation, who was gentle as a lamb led to the slaughter. And this, this is what we celebrate at Christmas. The advent of the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, commissioned by His Father, sent from the foundation of the world, and who will one day rule over the world. The Triune God is the God of Christmas Time, he is in it and through it and with it and for it and against it all at once. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah comes to us as the Lamb of Bethlehem, that sleepy shepherd town.
And nothing would ever be the same.
Southern Heights Christian Church
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