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The Sunday Next Before Advent

Fr.  David Curry

Christ Church, Windsor Nova Scotia, November 23 AD 2003


Turn us again, O Lord God of hosts;/ Show the light

of thy countenance, and we shall be whole


It is, to my mind, a most intriguing scene.  It belongs to the beginning of John’s Gospel and yet we read it at the end of the Christian year.  It is the first scene in his Gospel in which Jesus speaks.  Quite apart from the miracle of John’s Prologue, which speaks to us from the eternal heights of heaven, as it were, and which we will hear at Christmas, “In the beginning was the Word...”, this is the first scene in which Jesus comes out of the background and into the foreground of our lives. 


The prophetic finger of John the Baptist has pointed him out, twice already; “Behold the Lamb of God”.  The first proclamation is followed by the Baptist’s profound reflection upon the meaning of the one whom he sees and whom he has pointed out.  The second proclamation, “Behold the Lamb of God” is followed by Jesus stepping out into the centre which he is and around which everything revolves.  The prophetic proclamation beholds an eternal truth - Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God slain from before the foundation of the world - and announces that eternal presence in our midst.  He points him out to us – “Behold the Lamb of God” - and in some sense the ministry of John the Baptist is already fulfilled even as it seems it has only begun.  As he says in a related passage, Christ “must increase but I must decrease”.  He gives place to him who is “the Alpha and the Omega” of our lives and who must have his increase in us.  


The witness of John the Baptist is all the more remarkable because it points to the Revelation of God in our very midst.  As he says, “I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel”.   And again, “I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit”.  


John the Baptist came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” but he himself is not the forgiveness of sins.  He prepares the way - the way of our repentance - for the one who is the forgiveness of sins.  He prepares the way for the one who baptizes, not only with water, but also with the Holy Spirit of God.  Only God can forgive sins.  John the Baptist points to the one who is at once the Revelation and the Redemption of Israel, indeed of all mankind.  The fulfillment is altogether in Christ. 


But there is no fulfillment merely in naming our need.  John the Baptist points to the Revelation of God and the Redemption of mankind, but our salvation actually depends upon God’s turning to us and our being turned to him.  There is the motion of God towards us and the motion of God within us.  The whole truth of our lives is about our coming to him who has come to us. 


In a way, this gospel speaks directly to the conflicts of our day in the contemporary church.  The conflict is between “existential Christianity”, on the one hand, which argues that experience determines the truth of doctrine and “essential Christianity”, on the other hand, which argues that doctrine determines the truth of experience.  The first is really a kind of atheism since God has been collapsed into the human experience, for instance, into the issues of the day, where only one point of view is permitted and allowed.  This absolutizing of the finite betrays the Incarnation.  With “existential Christianity”, there is really no Word that addresses the human condition and redeems it.  But here in this gospel we see both the desire for that Word of redemption and the miracle of its turning towards us.  Only so can we be made whole, our experience as grounded and measured in the teachings and presence of Christ.  Such is “essential Christianity” which emphasizes the priority of doctrine in Scripture and Creed and which ultimately redeems us from the tyranny of experience. 


We come to the end of another year of grace to take account of the quality of our being with him.  How well have we journeyed with Christ in this past year of grace?  Not what has happened to us simply, but what have we done in the face of every circumstance?  We come to an end only to find, perhaps, that we have scarcely begun.  And if so, what is there to do but begin again with renewed intent?  Or we come to an end only to find, perhaps, that we have become mired all the more in our usual besetting sins, that there has been no progress at all, no increase of grace in us, it seems, but only the recognition of the greater darkness of our sins.  And yet, to know that and to feel compunction for it is itself an illuminating grace which portends a greater and a renewed intent.  What is to be done except to begin again?


For the year runs out in hope.  Advent is the season of hope, of our beginning again in him who has turned to us so that we might turn again to him.  It is signaled in the word for this day: “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people...”.  This Sunday is commonly known as “Stir Up Sunday” precisely on the strength of that big little word.  A more prosaic translation would have it as “excite”, but that is too shallow, too much of the superficial and the sensual, to capture the greater depths of meaning in the “stirring up” of the inmost desires of our hearts, our being stirred up to faithfulness. 


And if it should be that there have been the mighty triumphs of grace over sin in your life, then God be praised.  But don’t stand still, begin again with him whose grace has had its way with you.  Come and see what more he has in store for you. 


We can begin again because he has turned to us.  “Then, Jesus turned”.  John the Baptist points to Jesus who has his back to us.  In the paradox of the Old Testament, God is both revealed and not revealed, seen and unseen.  There is the passing-by of his glory as Moses is placed in the cleft of the Rock; we see only the back of God.  But “then Jesus turned”.  God turns to us and shows us his face in Jesus Christ.  In that turning we are stirred that we may be whole.  God turns to us in Jesus Christ so that he might speak to us face to face.  His first utterance in John’s Gospel is to ask a question, “What seek ye?”, the question which signals the redemption of our desires.    

Our seeking is our desiring, the stirring up of our wills.  Prayer articulates our desire for God.  It is totally our desire and yet it is also totally God’s desire in us.  Here Jesus’ question draws out our desires.  Ultimately, our desire is to be with God.  “Master, where dwellest thou?”  Prayer is our desiring to be with God and prayer, too, is our abiding with him.  He has turned to us that he might dwell among us, “the Word made flesh”


And Jesus’ first statement in answer to this solicited question is “Come and see”.  God’s turning to us means our turning to him.  It is our work and it is his work in us, his stirring of us, if we will but let him.  And such, too, is our abiding in him who is our beginning and our end.  Advent signals the hope of our turning to him yet again in repentance and in joy, come what may.  “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people” complements the prayer of the Psalmist. 


Turn us again, O Lord God of hosts;/

Show the light of thy countenance, and we shall be whole