Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Sarah Coakley at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, December 8, 2019, the Second Sunday of Advent

Dr. Coakley is Norris-Hulse Professor Emerita at Cambridge University and Assisting Priest and Theologian-in-Residence at the Parish of the Ascension and St Agnes, Washington, DC.

‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’
(Matt 3. 11)

In nomine …

I have not come here today to offer you sweet thoughts for Advent, even though I rejoice in your 175th anniversary and its happy ongoing celebrations.  On the contrary, I want to think with you this morning about the more discomforting topic of fire, and about that scary figure, John the Baptist, whose teaching seems to have been largely concerned with it. This is truly Advent ‘stuff’, and we need to muse on it.

Look closely at today’s gospel text from Matthew, then, and you will see that what John the Baptist offers us, in announcing Jesus’s imminent arrival, is first, of course, his own central call to the ‘baptism of repentance’ for the sake of the coming kingdom; and then a double threat of fire to come.  It’s important to distinguish the two references to fire going on here, and easy to conflate them too quickly. Peruse the text more precisely. First, there is the ‘unquenchable fire’ of judgement for those who merely feign repentance, but are unaware of its seriousness: they, the ‘brood of vipers’ go out to the Jordan and get their baptism, all right – they go through the motions of repentance – but their hearts are not in it, and it’s obvious because there are no spiritual ‘fruits’ to show for it. For them, there is to be a terrifyingly final, judgemental fire. Secondly, however, there is the more mysterious fire promised in virtue of the superior baptism that John predicts that his successor, Jesus, will bring:  he will baptize, says John, not with the water of John’s own baptism (which of course the Christian church actually still uses) but ‘with the Holy Spirit and fire’.

So what are we to make of this? And what is at stake for us this Advent?  Let me offer three, succinct, points to unravel the puzzle.

Baptism of Jesus, from the Rabbula Gospels

First, this very distinctive teaching about ‘baptism by fire’ almost certainly goes back to John the Baptist himself, as mediated by a very early ‘source’ that only Matthew and Luke share in common – termed by the NT scholars ‘Q’ (for Quelle, or ‘source’, in German). Whether there actually was a ‘Q’ text (and thus a ‘Mr Q’, so to speak) or simply an oral tradition with some rather particular theological interests, is perhaps neither here nor there; but what’s interesting is that it preserves this very striking dimension of John’s teaching on judgement, the Holy Spirit, baptism, and fire. Moreover, we find in later Christian tradition that only certain, quite spiritually demanding, writers and circles particularly take up this fiery theme seriously in relation to baptism and the Holy Spirit:  slightly outré monastic groups associated with fiery ecstatic prayer on the edges of the Greek Empire in the fifth century (represented in the so-called ‘Macarian Homilies’); or the wonderfully creative Syriac-speaking monk in the early 6th century who illustrated the so-called ‘Rabbula gospels’ with a picture of Jesus’s baptism by John with a sheet of flame descending on Christ alongside the dove; or – supremely and much later in the Western tradition – the teaching of St John of the Cross, that to aspire to ‘union’ with Christ, as all Christians should, in his view – is to be thrown into a crucible of purifying flames, to be burnt up in order for our sins to be spat out, just as imperfections in a log are gradually ejected in the fire, so that our one, imperfect chunk of wood may finally be fused into the consuming fire of God’s love.

So, secondly, why is this distinctive teaching about transformative, purgative, baptismal, fire-in-the-Spirit so hard for us to take on, even now? Let me suggest that it is because we have over the years concocted an idolatry which American Episcopalians are perhaps particularly subject to (though we are by no means alone); and that is the very subtle idolatry of enunciating God’s (so-called) ‘unconditional love’ as an easy and ‘cheap grace’ answer to all problematic theological questions relating to the profundity of our own sin; in short we cannot stand to acknowledge our overwhelming need for repentance and ‘fiery’ transformation-in-the-Spirit. So perhaps we should now code-name this subterfuge the theory not of ‘unconditional love’, but of ‘unconditional lurve’; and I think you know what I mean:  the idea has become a sentimental and self-deluding mantra, a refusal to face precisely what John the Baptist meant when he preached that the Holy Spirit of Jesus’s baptism is fire. ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’; and that is precisely because it cannot leave us unchanged, but burnt, moulded, chastened, reformulated, and purified … if, that is, we will cooperate with the fiery power of the Spirit in our lives. We need repentance, we need sacramental confession, we need deepened prayer, we need to be changed. William Temple, later Archbishop of Canterbury in the WWII years, put it thus, in his celebrated and fearless book, Christus Veritas (1924), chastising those who, even in those days, underplayed the reality and destructiveness of sin: ‘there is a real antagonism of God’, he writes, ‘against the sinner so long as he continues in his sin. It is true, of course, that God loves the sinner while He hates the sin. But that is a shallow psychology which regards the sin as something merely separate from the sinner, which he can lay aside like a suit of clothes. My sin is the wrong direction of my will; and my will is just myself so far as I am active. If God hates the sin, what He hates is not an accretion attached to my real self; it is myself, as that self now exists. He knows I am capable of conversion … He loves me even while I sin … but it cannot be said too strongly that there is a wrath of God against me as sinning …. And therefore, though he longs to forgive, He cannot do so unless my will is turned from its sinful direction into conformity with His, or else there is at work some power which is capable of effecting that change in me’ (p. 258). Yet that power, of course, as we now see, is precisely the inexorably fiery power of the Holy Spirit, already given to us in our baptism.

Thirdly and finally, then. A thought now presses inexorably (or I hope it does for you too):  I started by making a rhetorical distinction, based precisely on today’s gospel text, between the final, judgemental fire against the ‘brood of vipers’ who were the Sadducees and Pharisees, and the baptismal fire promised to all Jesus’s followers in the Holy Spirit.  But now we begin to see that they are perhaps but two sides of the same coin.   Recall T. S. Eliot’s ‘Dove Descending Breaks the Air’, a poetic meditation precisely on John of the Cross’s teaching on mystical union, which ends: ‘We only live, only suspire, consumed by either fire or fire’ – that is, consumed either by the fire of divine judgement, or by the purifying fire of the Spirit. Both are the impress of the inexorable and eternal presence of God’s love, always on offer. But in the way of our response or lack of it this is experienced either as final divine judgement or as equally divine, transformative, grace. The Spirit is always there to lead and allure and enable us; but ultimately the choice is ours:  God does not bludgeon us, because our freedom is too precious to Him. Step once more freely this year, then, into this purifying fire, with courage, steadfastness and hope, for – if John the Baptist is right – it is your baptismal birthright.

My dear Advent friends, Advent is no time for sleep, as St Paul reminds us, no time for evasion from the extraordinarily demanding pressure of divine love that once again this season asks of us nothing less than everything.  Unconditional ‘lurve’?  No, not ‘lurve, actually’, in the sentimental ‘Christimas’-film mode; but ‘actually love’ – the consuming fire of divine love which beckons us this Advent once more into its purifying flames. The founders of this church 175 years ago were serious Christians, who wanted to be changed-in-God, and for society to change with them; and you are their inheritors in that quest for holiness that God ever holds out to us in all the particular vicissitudes, agonies and joys of our lives. For ‘he [has] baptize[d] you with the Holy Spirit and fire’. Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, December 1, 2019, the First Sunday of Advent

A sermon given at The Church of the Advent, Boston,
by the Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates, Bishop of Massachusetts,
on Sunday, December 1, 2019, being the First Sunday of Advent
and the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Parish

Looking Back.  Looking Forward.

Anniversary blessings, Church of the Advent.  A Blessed Feast of Title, and Happy 175th Anniversary to you!

One hundred seventy-five years is a long time.  The world of 1844 is barely imaginable to us.  Long before automobiles, or light bulbs, or telephones.  Before slavery was ended in this country.  Before women had the vote. 1844 was the year the University of Notre Dame was founded in Indiana, the year the YMCA was founded in London.  Samuel Morse sent his first telegram all the way from DC to Baltimore in 1844. Charles Goodyear patented his vulcanized rubber.  And James K. Polk was President. (Now, there’s a household name!)

When the fledging Church of the Advent held its first services in 1844, it was a different world.

A milestone anniversary is a time to look back, and you have been doing that.  At various events, and in Deacon Daphne’s weekly blog with treasures from the archives, you have been delving into your heritage.

By now we all know the famous (or infamous) tale of my predecessor-by-twelve Bishop Manton Eastburn – how on his first visit to the new Church in 1845 he was scandalized by the sight of such “offensive innovations” as an altar (in place of a communion table), and the golden candlesticks and large cross with which it was adorned.  So offended was he by such idolatrous and “superstitious puerilities” that he refused to return for over a decade.

Your look back has also uncovered some lesser known tales from the (archival) crypt – such as the Great Fake Gems Controversy of 1911.  The Associated Press reported on a Pentecost sermon in which the Rector revealed that “fashionable women” of the Back Bay had contributed towards a splendid new chalice certain ornaments that were gold plate only, not solid, and sham gems.  The Rector later objected that the press report was misleading, that his point had been misconstrued: not a scolding, but a parable of the many sorts of offerings made in good faith.  What is remarkable to me is that the Associated Press was reporting on Sunday Sermons at all!

Most delightful in Deacon Daphne’s archival blogs have been the stories behind so many of your beautiful architectural and liturgical appointments:

  • the silver thurible given in honor of Cecil Barlow, a 22-year-old Somerville resident and altar server, who in his job as tester of electric meters was killed by an electric shock in 1912;
  • the Madonna overlooking the Lady Chapel altar, given in honor of Robert Turner Walker, who for decades oversaw faithfully the liturgical servers of this place;
  • the bust of Charles Grafton, a sometime rector of this parish, and later Bishop of Fond du Lac, where members of his diocese petitioned for his removal on account of his excessive use of incense;
  • and numerous gifts memorializing the architect of this church, John Hubbard Sturgis, and members of his family, woven into the fabric of this place.  How much more poignant is our gaze upon the Nativity/Epiphany window at the west end of the north aisle, when we know that it memorializes Gertrude Sturgis Hunnewell who died at age 28 in “premature labor” – the grief of a tragic childbirth commended in glass to the Mother of God, the Mother of Us All.

We look back at all of this history, sometimes with sorrow, sometimes with delight, always with gratitude.  You know about the Church’s claim to “Apostolic Succession” – how the Church’s witness to the faith of Christ is manifested by the lineage of her bishops in ecclesial apostolicity.  As a Bishop in the Church – number 1084 in the American Succession – I am humbled to be in such lineage.  But I want to suggest that you have your own lineage of ecclesial apostolicity right here at The Church of the Advent.  Cecil Barlow, Robert Turner Walker, Charles Grafton, Gertrude Hunnewell – this is your very own “apostolic succession” – the lineage of faith and devotion of which you are a part. 

Now you bear the responsibility to care for and hand on this legacy.  That is why, at an anniversary, we cannot look back only.  We must also look forward – forward to a future which we cannot precisely foresee, and yet for which we must prepare.

That, as it happens, is the task of the season of Advent which begins this day.  Advent.  A season of gazing forward, looking to a future which we cannot precisely foresee, yet one for which we hope, and for which we must prepare and wait.

So much of our waiting is impatient or frustrated.  We wait for a traffic light to change; we wait for our turn at the cash register; we wait for the Red Line train to arrive.   Sometimes, such as in the secular run-up to Christmas, we fill our waiting with a checklist of frantic preparation.  Advent waiting, of course, is different – neither frustrated impatience nor self-imposed frenzy is what Scripture intends when it invites us to “Wait for the Lord.”  Advent preparation is patient, and it is open-ended. 

In our Scripture lessons today we are reminded that such waiting and yearning has always characterized the people of God.  The prophet Isaiah [2:1-5] invites the people to wait for God’s reign – a reign to be characterized by beauty and peace.  The people yearn for that day, they yearn for that peace – though they do not know how or when it will come.  They can but wait.

Jesus likewise tells his friends that the day of the Lord will finally come. [Mt 24:36-44] It will come suddenly, unexpectedly, cataclysmically even.  The task of the people is to wait – ‘til they know not when – for the coming of Christ.

Here’s how Henri Nouwen describes such waiting, open to unexpected turns and unforeseen possibilities. Nouwen says:

“Open-ended waiting is hard for us because we tend to wait for something very concrete, for something that we wish to have.  Much of our waiting is filled with wishes: ‘I wish that I would have a job.  I wish that the weather would be better. I wish that the pain would go away.’  We are full of wishes, and our waiting easily gets entangled in those wishes…. But [the biblical exemplars of waiting, Elizabeth and Mary and Simeon] were not filled with wishes.  They were filled with hope.  Hope is something very different. Hope is trusting that something will be fulfilled, but fulfilled according to the promises and not just to our wishes.  Therefore, hope is always open-ended. “ [Watch for the Light (NYC: Orbis Books, 2001), pp. 32-33]

Waiting is the first discipline of Advent.  It’s the discipline of our lives. So many things for which we wait most deeply are simply beyond our ken.  That is why we give voice to them so achingly in Advent prayers and hymnody. 

Advent Sunday, then, is the perfect feast for an anniversary celebration: a time to look back with gratitude, and forward with hope.  Perhaps that is even more true in a parish drawing towards the end of a transitional, interim year.  “Come, thou long-expected rector!” sings the congregation, without a hint of blasphemy.  At such a moment it bears recollecting that looking forward with hope also entails being open to some element of change.  For that, too, is part of a posture of expectation.

Let me tell you a story.  In 2001 I was part of a contingent from the Anglican Study Centre in Rome paying a formal visit to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That’s the department of the Curia known before Vatican II as the Congregation of the Inquisition.  (In full: Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition.)   In 2001 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was headed by Cardinal Ratzinger – later Pope Benedict XVI.  Our group was not senior enough to warrant the presence of Cardinal Ratzinger, so it fell to one of his archdeacons to explain to us the department’s work of defending the church against heresy.

It was a hot day in July, the sultry air in the room relieved only by a slight breeze blowing through an open window.  During the discussion, one member of our group inquired as to how the department assured that, in addition to guarding against new teachings which might threaten the church, we might also be open to genuine movement of the Holy Spirit towards change, such as that which led the Apostle Peter to recognize the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation, as reflected in the Book of Acts.

The archdeacon got up, closed the open window, and announced that no such further changes were to be anticipated in God’s plan.  That closed window said it all!  Window closed; discussion closed; revelation closed.

The challenge for those of us who cherish tradition and the reassurance of God’s eternal changelessness is that we must never become a sealed-off room into which the wind of the Holy Spirit cannot blow, never become a historical shrine only, and not the living Body of Christ.

At the centennial celebration of this parish in 1944, then-Rector Whitney Hale said this:  “The Anglican branch of the Catholic Church has preserved a providential balance between authority and freedom which the democratic peoples of the West instinctively value.”

Seventy-five years later I charge you, dear people of The Church of the Advent, to preserve just such a “providential balance” – the providential balance between authority and freedom, the providential balance between “things grown old” and “things made new,” the providential balance between looking back and looking ahead.

Some would look to the past with romanticized nostalgia.  Others would look at the past with a patronizing air of superiority.  Do you neither! But look to the past with humility and gratitude.

Some would look to the future with dread.  Others would look to the future with a grimly determined defensiveness.  Do you neither!  But look to the future with anticipation and hope.  A church bearing the name of “Advent” can do nothing less.

This parish has been richly blessed by God.  This parish has been in like measure a blessing to its people, to its diocese, to its city, and beyond.  So, anniversary joy to you, dear friends.  Make your Advent cry:  Come, thou long-expected Jesus! And then wait.  Hopefully.  Patiently.  Expectantly.  Go on about your lives, but even as you do, place yourselves in a posture of faithful expectation.  And wait.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Daphne B. Noyes at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, November 17, 2019, the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

The art — or craft — of headline writer is highly specialized, absolutely critical, and frequently overlooked. A headline must be brief, but factual. Enticing, but informative. This is no easy task. Consider this memorable headline from a few years ago: “Smoking more dangerous than thought.”

With that in mind, I wonder what headline might be written for today’s gospel from Luke? [1] The message, or messages, seem elusive, as the narrative moves from the jewel-encrusted temple to warnings of wars and tumults and danger and destruction. There’s a prediction of devastating times to come—a prediction that is an uncannily accurate description of the time we live in. There is a warning, of trials and troubles—all of which have an uneasy, even horrifying, resonance to the trials and troubles with which we are so sadly familiar.

At the same time, there is reassurance. And yet…

I would be less than truthful if I said I knew precisely what to make of the Gospel lesson before us now.

If you have no personal experience or memory of a temple that has fallen, not stone left upon stone, let me offer an example from our common history — I mean, the history of this parish.

I refer to 35 Bowdoin Street, for many years home to the Church of the Advent, then to the Parish of St. John the Evangelist. It is now a different kind of temple, where the price of admission is not belief or baptism, but — to be blunt — money.[2] The property — 27,000 square feet — can be yours for $11 million.

Another example: Immaculate Conception Church on Harrison Avenue. What is the connection? This is the place where in 1879, Amanda Tarbell Croswell, widow of William Croswell, first rector of the Church of the Advent, was baptized “sub cond” [3] by a Jesuit priest. [4] Her husband had died 28 years previously; she was 79 years old. Now, 140 years later, that building, too, is in the process of being converted — converted into luxury condominiums. [5]

Of course, this is not only about the closing of churches and creation of condominiums. There is an ache in the soul when what we see and treasure, what we thought would always be there, is no longer. The older one gets, the surer one becomes of this: That the things that last — tangible, intangible; visible, invisible — are not always the things you think, you hope, will last. Not even the big, impressive, amazingly beautiful ones. Not even the ones that have been central to your formation and identity.

As to the persecution that Jesus describes, I suspect that many of us could speak from direct personal experience to some form of it; while we may not have been summoned to face kings and governors, there are many who have encountered, and been harmed by, the rigid rules of those in authority who wield their power not for the common good but for the preservation of their own position.

Do you doubt this?

Anyone who is considered “the other” — women, people of color, people who don’t fit into an unyielding binary structure — all face myriad forms of diminishment, degradation, or persecution.

Many have experienced betrayal at the hand of trusted loved ones. Nation does rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom: Syria, Iraq, Venezuela, Hong Kong, Lebanon…the list goes on. The words we hear from Luke’s gospel have a resonance that is personal, political, timeless.

For those who hear this reading as meant for them, the concluding words are surely, perhaps counter-intuitively (based on what has come before), meant to be words of promise and hope spoken directly to each one of us: “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.”

The words to cling to are those where Jesus offers reassurance that all you have to do — all we have to do — is hang on, endure.

But spiritual fatigue, gripping discouragement, often lead to a place of hopelessness. Sometimes, for me, perhaps for you, too, even Jesus’ words of reassurance do not ring true. But what does ring true is that they are his words, and he is with me. And with you. And with those in the temple, admiring its jewels and finely carved stones; with those standing accused before kings and governors; with those struggling amidst a famine of the soul or pestilence of the body; with those suffering at the hands of ones they loved and trusted.

That’s not the headline; that’s the whole story. Amen.


[1] Lk 21:5-19

[2] https://www.admeliorallc.com/Projects/35Bowdoin.htm

[3] sub cond. sub conditione (i.e., “conditionally”), used when a person may have been baptized before (perhaps by a Protestant cleric, for example) or there may be some question about the validity of the earlier baptism.

[4] She died a year later, leaving $300 to Immaculate Conception for “Masses for the repose of my soul.”

[5] https://www.apartments.com/771-harrison-ave-boston-ma-unit-105/jyxlnl4/

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Jay C. James at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, November 10, 2019, the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

From the Second Letter of Saint Paul to the Thessalonians, Now may Our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.  

Life in heaven and on earth for the Christian is a life of healing and hope.  

A professor of Old Testament in seminary possessed a very dry wit and used humorous comments to keep his class engaged.  Let’s face it, trudging through the books of the Law or those really long books of the major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations of Jeremiah, Ezekiel,  Daniel, Hosea) can be deadly and lead to a class of heads nodding off to sleep. This is true even for those who want to study the Old Testament, let alone for those who are required to study it.  This professor, who was also a priest, said that one of the prooftexts that he uses as his basis for pastoral care is this passage from Jeremiah Chapter 12, Verse 5:  If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses?  And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you do in the jungle of the Jordan? In other words, his response to people who came to him seeking words of comfort and solace where these:  If you think it’s bad now, just wait!  That was his attempt at keeping his class entertained with humor.  It’s not the most helpful thing to say when someone is in need of reassuring or caring words.  Can you imagine saying that to someone about to undergo a very serious operation or in the midst of a personal crisis?  Oh, don’t worry, if you think this is bad, just wait!  Not the best bedside manner for a pastor. 

A better approach for a pastor would be to direct the troubled or wearied Christian toward the love and freely given grace of  God. This is at the heart of the bodily Resurrection taught and witnessed to by God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus gives a great lesson to the Sadducees in the Gospel for today about how the Resurrection is our hope for both the future and for our lives even now.  When we look at this challenge the Sadducees are presenting to Jesus we can learn what a great hope we have because of His Bodily Resurrection. From Saint Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians we can also learn what a gift of strength we have in the Resurrection to make it through tough times in our lives now.   

In our Gospel passage today we get a word about how good our ultimate end and purpose is.  We learn from Jesus that life in heaven is so far beyond the condition of our lives here in the world, that it is difficult to imagine what joy there is.  The Sadducees were so bent on teaching that there is not a resurrection of the dead, that they come up with this very literal example to try to stump Jesus.  In the example, seven brothers die after doing their duty of taking this one woman as their wife. When the woman dies and goes to heaven, whose wife will she be?  Jesus immediately teaches that marriage is not needed in heaven. The relations we have here are necessary but are not necessary in heaven. Jesus says, The children of this world marry, and are given in marriage:  but they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage:  neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection.  The eternal life with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit unites us so perfectly with God and each other that the marital relations are not considered because they are not necessary.  

That kind of unity is what we are moving toward when we’re on our way to heaven.  The next life, in other words, is far superior to this life. I love the words of the proper preface when a requiem is said, …for to Thy faithful people O Lord, life is changed, not ended.  We move through this life to the life of perfection.  Again, things will not always be the same for us, they will get better and especially in the hereafter.  

We have this principle of God’s love for us lived out when we hear and read the lessons from the Eucharistic lectionary in our Prayer Book.  As we approach the end of the Church Year and head into the season of Advent we will find that the Sunday lessons will take a definite trajectory to heaven.  We will hear about the true temple of worship before the Throne of God and know that Christ the King is ruling from the throne of God His Father. So you see, we are left at the end of the Church Year where we should be and that is with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords in heaven.  

It’s true for the end of our lives that things not only get better, but they become perfected.  It’s also true for the Christian now in light of the power of the bodily Resurrection. Our lives in this world with the Holy Ghost operating in us, and for us, gives a real purpose and direction to our lives.  We can know this power of the Resurrection even now while we are in this world. It is part of the love of God to make us in such a way to live under His grace even now. God made human life, and all life for that matter, to want to live, to want to get better, to strive for grow.  We see it all around us and we see it in us. In nature we see tremendous strength of the roots of the trees pushing the bricks of the sidewalk up so they can grow bigger and stronger. We see even the thinnest piece of grass attempting to live even between cracks in the bricks, seemingly pushing God-ward.  We know it’s true that our bodies are made in such a way to heal themselves because we are intended and made for life. There’s something about human life that is intended to remain alive and growing. That is really because of the love of God.        

This gives us great hope.  We know our ultimate end and purpose and simply knowing our true end should give us hope that we will someday be there with the God who loves us.  This direction and purpose for our lives in this world gives us hope. We have a direction and purpose for our lives in this world. We have a source of encouragement and strength now.  As Saint Paul tells the Thessalonians: To this he called you through our Gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  So then, Brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.  Now may Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.   

What do we do in times of confusion, or sadness, or when the weight of even day-to-day pressures seem overwhelming?  The first thing is to remember there is a direction and purpose to our lives. We are hoping for a future where all our cares and concerns are behind us.  We are given hope in the knowledge that the Holy Ghost is moving us forward and the way things are now are not the way things will always be. The advice of Saint Paul is very well taken.  We don’t have to look for a source of strength, we have it in God’s grace. We don’t have to reinvent what the Church teaches. We have the source of all teaching for the Christian in the Bodily Resurrection.  We don’t have to redo or reinvent the tradition of the Church. We should, according to Saint Paul, Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by (us), either by word of mouth or by letter.  

In times of trouble or sorrow or confusion about what this world has handed to you, rely on your church family, on your prayer life and those praying for you.  Avail yourself of the grace offered to you in the Word written and the Eucharist. Let your family and friends in the Church support you. As practicing Christians, we will be comforted.  

In the life of the Christian, in both the immediate circumstances and the ultimate end and purpose for the Christian, it is true that things do get better.  The way things are now is not the way things are going to be forever.  We are intended to grow more and more into a life with Jesus and a life with him is a life that will be better and better in both good times and in times of suffering.  We are to ultimately spend our eternal life with him in perfect unity with God the Holy Trinity. What a joy that is to be. We will be strengthened. We will come closer and closer to the full knowledge and love of the Lord now, and join him at His heavenly Throne. 

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Jeffrey A. Hanson at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, October 20, 2019, the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

A few weeks ago at the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, we heard about a significant moment in the life of the patriarch Jacob, who had a vision of angels passing between heaven and earth.

Today we heard about another significant episode in Jacob’s life, one that changes him even more radically than his angelic vision. We know this because as a result of what happens to Jacob at the Jabbok river Jacob’s name is changed to Israel: one who struggles or wrestles with God. As we further know, a name in the Bible is not accidentally related to the person who bears it. A name tells us about that person’s character; their name is who they are.

And before now Jacob’s character has not been all that great. His birth name, Jacob, means “heel-tripper.” It’s a weird name. He gets that strange name from his mother because when he was born he was gripping his slightly older twin brother Esau by the heel as they both emerged from the womb.

The twins made their mother miserable during her pregnancy because they fought each other even in the womb, and then baby Jacob tripped up his brother Esau at the moment of his birth. And the years to come followed that same pattern.

Twice in their adult lives Jacob deceitfully robs his brother Esau of the blessing that rightly belonged to him by birthright. After the second time Esau vows to kill his brother, and Jacob has to flee for his life.

But Jacob is a clever man. A resourceful man. A man who lives by his wits. And when he is cheated by his relative Laban out of the wife that he loves he works all the harder and gets the best of the situation and a second wife to boot. Though he is gone from his home in the Promised Land for twenty years, he becomes very, very rich.

Jacob is someone who relies on his own abilities for his success. And he does well for himself, sometimes by means that are a little dubious. As his name suggests, he is good at tripping others up, and even when he’s tripped up by someone a little craftier than he is, he gets right back up and makes the best of it in the end.

So when God sends him back home Jacob’s craftiness is still at work. He knows Esau is likely to still be angry, so he does everything he can to appease him by sending ahead of him a big show of all his nice stuff: “Look brother, I’m rich. Maybe it’s not too late to share in the blessing after all.” But this time his flattery and cleverness don’t seem to work. It looks like Esau is mad and not only that mad but possibly preparing for battle. So Jacob strategizes yet again, dividing his own property to avoid total loss and sending his family on ahead into the Promised Land to what he hopes is safety.

And there he is left alone. No family. No wealth. No home. Just him.

There is a haunting, primal simplicity to the nocturnal scene that follows, one we lose in translation, because there are three Hebrew words here that structure this crucial event, all of which echo each other. There is the man: Jacob (Yah-a-kove). The place: Jabbok (Yah-boke). And there is an action: wrestle (Ha-vahk).

The man is who has always been. Jacob, entirely self-reliant from birth, always looking out for himself. Jacob stands alone in the dark with nothing but his own considerable strength and smarts to help him.

The place is important too, because the Jabbok river ford is a tributary to the Jordan. We are just on the edge of the Land promised to Moses and his descendants. Jacob at the Jabbok is on the threshold of home.

But the action is totally unexpected. It is dark, Jacob is alone, and all of sudden he is set upon by an entirely mysterious someone.

Just when it seems like Jacob will win for himself yet another victory, that he will beat this challenge too…the one he is wrestling strikes the blow that will incapacitate him.

He’s lost. Yet even now he looks out for a way he can benefit himself. Jacob is still looking for that advantage. Though his thigh is out of joint he clings to his opponent and insists that he bless him. The man who twice stole his own brother’s blessing has the audacity to demand just such a blessing from someone he now grudgingly has to admit has got the best of him.

But he also has to admit who he is. He has to give his name and therefore to admit his character.

Once he does, he gets a new name and a new character. From now on he shall known as Israel, the one who contends with God.

Yet when Jacob presses his opponent for his name, he is elusive. Rather than bless his opponent in return Jacob blesses the place, thus changing not just his own name but also the name of the place where he stands, and he calls it the face of God. “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

It’s a commonplace in both the New and Old Testaments that we cannot see God as God is without being utterly annihilated by the experience. It is a grace and a mercy when God shows us God’s own self in some indirect way, as it seems God did to Jacob. This conclusion is further supported by the fact that Jacob’s opponent declines to give his own name, because just as God does not show his face, so also his name is elusive. And that is because God’s nature is elusive.

So this tale abounds in mystery. To choose just one of many questions we could ask, Why does God stand between Jacob and his return to the Promised Land, a return that God himself has urged upon Jacob?

Here is my guess: This moment is nothing less than the birth of a people, the people of God’s own choosing. And God chooses those who wrestle with him and chooses them to wrestle with him.

Jacob cannot enter into the Promised Land, he cannot come back home, on his own strength and smarts.

He must be changed. And that change is one he cannot make in his own life. The calling of Jacob to be Israel is one that God initiates. No amount of struggle can force God to bless Jacob and call him into a new and restored life in the land of promise.

Yet at the same time the path to the Promised Land is a path of struggle. We need to know that our own strength is not sufficient to get us home. Yet at the same time we are expected to use our strength to struggle with God, a struggle that is also mysteriously service to God.

The virtue that helps us to sustain struggle is an important one we don’t hear about often enough: That virtue is perseverance. We prayed for it this morning, in the collect for the day. We prayed for perseverance in faith.

And that’s because perseverance is a product of faith in the promise of God. To believe in God, to believe in the promises of God, is go on wrestling, because we believe that it is God who would have us wrestle and yes, even to wrestle with him. God wrestles Jacob on the very border of the Promised Land, but it’s God who sent him home in the first place.

Because no good thing comes without struggle. The good is hard-won.

Perseverance is what allows us to endure until victory. Jacob becomes Israel because he has struggled with God and God says he has prevailed. So what looks like a loss for Jacob is actually a victory. The defeat of his own strength is his real victory.

But that victory that perseverance wins itself come from God. Because while we go on wrestling with God it is not that wrestling that gives us the victory.

Perseverance makes us strong, but it does so with a strength that is not our own. The victory is to be had precisely when we no longer insist on our own strength. We have to not even insist on being our own old selves.

Jacob gets a new name because when you struggle with God, in the end God overwhelms you. God overwhelms you and makes you someone new. God puts Jacob’s thigh out of joint because it’s about time Jacob got tripped up. And God leaves the mark of that injury, as Jacob limps into the Promised Land, as a reminder of the new person he must be, as a physical reminder of his spiritual struggle.

Perseverance is the grace that comes from having struggled with someone other than you; it is how we stop insisting on being ourselves. And because of that it is also a way to be at peace with others. As Saint Paul reminds us, in one of his most celebrated passages, love endureth all things. Love perseveres. And because it perseveres love can bear with others, with their indifference, with their incomprehension, even with their lust for vengeance.

And that’s really where this story ends. With love. Jacob, now Israel, the one who struggled with God, limps into the Promised Land that to this day bears his name. And when his brother Esau approaches, he bows down to that sacred ground, he bows down on his bad leg, lamed and finally humbled.

And then what?: Genesis 33: “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”

That’s why we pray for perseverance. Because the good is always hard-won. It is always difficult. And it also takes time. Because to struggle with God and to contend for his blessing must be done on his timetable, not our own. Jacob has been gone for twenty years. And even on the very threshold of home he still has to fight for it. All night long.

But he wins. He wins peace and joy and reconciliation.

The struggle itself comes from God. And so does the victory. And so does the final blessing. For at the end of all our struggles, it’s the lame that shall enter first, and the ones who were wounded by their contention with God will show the rest of us how to replace vengeance with an embrace.

Amen.