After this I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door. . . At once I was in the Spirit, and lo, a throne stood in heaven with one seated on the throne. . . and before the throne burn seven torches of fire which are the seven spirits of God. (Rev. 4:1, 2, 5)
Some of you may remember a story I told in a sermon quite a few years ago. Sixteen, in fact. It was about something that happened earlier than that, when I was an assistant here at the Advent. The doorbell rang. It was a woman who asked if she could go into the church. I let her in.
Later, as she was leaving, she said to me, “You should know. This church saved my life.” And then she told me how. She was not from Boston, but she was here some years before because a relative was in MGH, deathly ill. There was quite a lot of family around, but they were panicked and, as so often happens in such situations, they dropped their balls into her court. Whatever decision needed to be made, she had to make it.
She had noticed the Advent as she walked down Charles Street. She rang the bell, came in to think, and the answer came to her. “It was the church,” she said, “but especially it was the lamps. I looked at those lamps, and I knew what I had to do.” She made a decision, and it was the right one. That’s why she told me that the Advent had saved her life.
And that – good people – is all I know. Was the woman a Christian? Was she even religious? I don’t know. She didn’t tell me. What exactly was the quandary that faced her and what decision did she make? I don’t know. She didn’t tell me. What exactly did the lamps hanging before the altar mean to her? I don’t know. But they must have meant something or perhaps elicited something because they led her in the right direction, so to speak, and it somehow saved her life.
For those of us who are Christian and who worship here at the Church of the Advent, that row of seven lamps does have a meaning. They are a representation, a making concrete of the vision from the Revelation to John which I quoted as I began. He saw, as we heard, seven torches burning before the throne of God. Our seven lamps indicate to us that in this place the Altar is the throne of God. God reigns here from the Altar. There we encounter him. There we worship him. And, most important, there he gives himself to us.
At the Altar Christ is King, but it is an unexpected kind of kingship. Most kings demand allegiance from their subjects. Most kings demand offerings, tribute, gifts from their subjects. Most kings rule by the power and the threat of death. At the Altar, however, our king pledges his allegiance to us. At the Altar, however, our King gives gifts, the gift of Himself, his presence, his power, his life – a gift from our king to us – who rules by the power of life. It is the nature of our King to give. That is what our king is all about: giving, giving, giving up himself to us.
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Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!
That’s what the disciples and the crowds shouted as Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, as we heard in the Gospel this morning. “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.” Later the crowds would get it wrong, but this time they got it right, for he was a king – a king entering the city to receive a crown and to be enthroned. But it was a strange crown and an even stranger throne. It was a crown not made of gold, but made of thorns. His throne was a cross. His enthronement was his death. That is the central paradox explored by the Gospel of John: that the moment of Jesus’ supreme glory and the revelation of God’s glory in Jesus is the moment when he dies. This is made explicit in an early Christian poem and hymn. Fortunatus, the poet, tells us, Regnavit a ligno Deus. God is reigning from the tree. God is reigning from the tree.
But how can this be? It is a mystery of obedience and of giving and of love. It is God’s nature made clear. Jesus gives himself completely in obedience to God’s will as an atonement of humanity with God and in order to destroy the things which would destroy us. Jesus takes those things upon himself. Jesus gives himself up entirely, gives himself up to death out of love for you and for me. We see this in the great rood in this church which reigns, so to speak, over the whole building. Jesus is crucified and yet alive, his arms spread out ready to embrace all who come to him. Love is defined there – it is giving. Power – true power, divine power, is defined there – it is giving. Life is defined there – it is giving – and God sets his stamp on Jesus’ sacrifice and his obedience by raising Jesus from the dead.
It is a strange sacrifice. In most sacrifices we are called to give something to a god. In this sacrifice God in Jesus gives himself to us.
And again God is defined by Jesus’ sacrifice. God’s nature is giving. God’s power is giving. God’s life is to give himself away to those whom he loves without limit. That’s what God is all about.
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This Sunday is the Sunday known as the Feast of Christ the King, and in this sermon I have tried my best to make clear what Christ’s Kingship really means. It is also the Sunday when we are called upon to think about Stewardship, about pledging to this Parish. “Money Sunday” as my wife used to call it in her own unique and somewhat ironic way.
I could say to you today that it is your duty to give back to God, through the church, a portion of that which God has so lavishly given you – your life, God’s gift to you; those whom you love, God’s gift, your labor and its reward God’s gift to you, everything you are and have – God’s gift to you. I could do that, and I would be right. It is our duty as Christians to return to God a part of what he has given to us.
But what about something more explicitly theological? Let’s see. If you and I are made in the image of God, as Scripture tells us that we are, and if God’s nature, God’s very being is defined by giving, then to realize the image of God in which we are made is to give. Giving is an expression of the image of God in which we are made. Giving activates, one might say, the image of God. Giving makes us truly human. Giving, then, not just a duty, but a necessity. To be what we are is to give.
St Paul proclaims Jesus, and his resurrection, but it’s interesting that he rarely quotes the Lord. One place, though, is in from the Book of Acts, and it is telling, because, if you recall, Paul spent part of his ministry collecting money from one church to relieve the needs of another church. He said, “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said it is more blessed to give than to receive.” (20:35)
Jesus said that because giving itself is its own blessing. The act of giving blesses us. In that act we become truly human. In giving we become images of the Divine.
Again from Jesus: He who has ears to hear, let him hear.