8.00am & 6.30pm: Isaiah 2.1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13.9-14; Matthew 24.36-44
9.30am: Is.2.1-5; Is.40.1-11; Lk 1.66-79; Mk 1.1-13; Mt 25.31-40.
‘Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your son Jesus Christ came among us in great humility, that on the last day, when he shall come again in glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.’ (The Collect for the first Sunday in Advent)
Introduction: Thomas Cranmer’s new collect for Advent Sunday (in the 1549 first Book of Common Prayer) takes it’s main request from the Epistle of the Day, St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, chapter 13, verse 12: ‘Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.’ It is an exhortation to a changed life: ‘Let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. The parallel use of ‘put on’ tells us the that ‘the armour of light’ is Jesus Christ himself, in whom we dress ourselves. It was the reading of these words as a Bible lay open near him that finally triggered the conversion of Augustine of Hippo, as described in his Confessions, and related by FF Bruce in his Commentary on Romans: “In the summer of AD 386 Aurelius Augustinus, native of Tagaste in North Africa, and now for two years Professor of Rhetoric at Milan, sat weeping in the garden of his friend Alypius, almost persuaded to begin a new life, yet lacking the final resolution to break with the old. As he sat, he heard a child singing in a neighbouring house, Tolle, lege! Tolle, lege! (‘Take up and read! Take up and read!’). Taking up the scroll which lay at his friend’s side, he let his eyes rest on the words: ’not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof (Rom 13.13b-14). ‘No further would I read,’ he tells us, ‘nor had I any need; instantly, at the end of the sentence, a clear light flooded my heart and all the darkness of doubt vanished away.’ What the Church and the world owes to this influx of light which illuminated Augustine’s mind as he read these words of Paul is something beyond our power to compute.” (Romans, Tyndale, p.58)
‘Give us Grace.’ God used that moment to allow Augustine to apprehend his grace. In the Collect today our fundamental request is for such grace. We have lit the Advent Candle. Light is our theme. We have symbolically challenged the darkness in Christ’s name. We have undertaken to be like the wise virgins who had oil enough to remain ready, lamps lit, when the Bridegroom appeared. And in the Collect we have requested the grace to resist the darkness, both within and without.
1. The Meaning of Grace
At the advent of Advent we turn our thinking to Christ’s coming ‘to judge the world’; by which we mean ‘to set all to rights’. So what is it that secures us for the rocky road that may well lie ahead? It is grace: God’s generous, unmerited kindness to us. And grace not only holds out deliverance to us, but also enables us to live lives that please God. The Christian life begins, continues, and ends by the active grace of God in our lives.
We can do nothing good apart from the Father’s gracious initiative towards. Mary is highly favoured with grace (‘full of grace’), in that she is enabled to serve God’s purposes as she did; she was filled with God’s grace, not a source of any in herself, but rather a reflection of it. Similarly, every covenant relationship recorded in the scriptures is an act of God’s sovereign initiative, his grace and mercy. Our part is merely thankfully to accept and co-operate with the gracious initiative of a loving Creator.
2. The Importance of Grace
Some of us may have wondered about the reality of grace as we have listened to Luke’s Gospel over recent months and reflected upon Christ’s challenge, both to Jews and to others, but particularly to his disciples. We may have done so particularly as we heard of the last days of our Lord’s public and private teaching before his arrest and subsequent suffering. It may have left you with an overwhelming sense of obligation, yet seemingly with no power to meet this obligation. ‘I’m clearly not good enough!’ springs easily to our lips, or ‘I’m not sure there is much oil in my lamp!’ And if insiders like us are unsure whether there is grace enough for us, just consider the confusion of the outsider! So the Collect is spot on: ‘Almighty God, give us grace!’
3. The Promise of Grace
We must recall the covenants of grace in the Scriptures: with Noah; with Israel through Moses; with David and with Solomon; with the exiles in Babylon, and with those who returned. We recall also the new covenant in Christ’s blood which we have accepted, and which we recall in every Eucharist. For us the seal of the Covenant is the Holy Spirit, who provided evidence of our relationship with God, whom we address as ‘Father’, and with the Son, Jesus, whom we identify as Lord. Accordingly the Spirit shapes our actions to be those of God’s children, and the behaviour of those who are servants of Christ. This is an invitation to be good, to display goodness. Goodness is so often seen as bland in literature and art, but has been restored as a powerful force in the fantasy literature of Tolkein, Lewis, and JK Rowling.
And as with Mary, Christ’s grace received by you is also a gift to others, when we reflect it in our attitudes and actions: Light in darkness; Yeast I Flour; Salt in Food. Let us not downplay the significance of this in our interactions with our neighbours, geographical, occasional, or global.
4. The Prayer for Grace
This prayer for grace is a request for something which has been promised already; our prayer indicates our acceptance of the gift. It helps us not to resist God’s grace, or to try to please him on our own, or to imagine we are alright without such help, without such grace. It is at hand. Live by it. Put on Christ, the armour of light!