December 23, 2007
The Rev. Robert C. Granfeldt
|667 Mount Road, Aston, PA 19014 610-459-2013
|Small Parish - Big Heart - Inclusive
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Advent is always a short season, given that it’s only four Sundays long to begin. Add to
that the fact that I this Parish we hold our Annual Parish Meeting on the First Sunday of
the Season (or the Second or Third, depending on the weather!) when it has been my
decades-long practice to use the sermon time to deliver my Annual Report to the Parish,
and it’s even shorter, here! That means we have, really, only three occasions to deal with
the Season, itself.
If we take the first of the three for a kind of introductory summary – what does “Advent”
mean, itself, and what is the overall thrust of the Season? – and if we take a second of
the three to discuss that aspect of the season in which we anticipate the coming of the
Light of the World in the birth of Christ that we’re planning to celebrate – we’re left with
only one Sunday to deal with the “other” theme of the season! And this year, that Sunday
Nevertheless, as the time grows short before the end of Advent and that great feast we’ll
begin celebrating in just less than (just) 36 hours, the sense of anticipation of the coming
of the Messiah is intensified by the choice of our lessons, this morning! This morning
Ahaz – who was a king of Judah in the Eighth Century Before the Common Era; a greedy,
grasping and faithless ruler – is confronted by Isaiah. Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign from
the Lord, as Isaiah insists, so Isaiah pronounces the sign, in spite of him: “a young woman
shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel!”
Virtually from the beginning of Christianity, these words have been seen as a prophecy of
the coming of Jesus, the Christ, and so they appear in our lessons this morning – in spite
of the fact they were clearly written to caution Ahaz to rely on God, rather than foreign
alliances to defend his kingdom, and that the “young woman who (would) conceive and
bear a son” was either Ahaz’s own wife, Abi, or, indeed, the wife of the prophet Isaiah,
Our Psalm looks forward to the coming of the Son of Man, and next, Paul, in his Letter to
the Romans, calls himself an apostle set apart for the Good News promised beforehand
by the prophets announcing the coming of the descendent of David as the Son of God.
Finally, the Gospel completes the progression with the angelic message to Joseph that
Mary is with child: four lections, for a change, sharing one theme!
Oddly, though, the Collect of the Day makes no mention of the birth of Christ or of his
coming to Mary and Joseph in fulfillment of ancient prophecy. Rather IT speaks of that
other emphasis of Advent, the Coming of the Son of God at the end of history!
And it contains a phrase that bears looking at, I think, simply because, while it’s a
reference to something that most Christians accept as a matter of faith, its emphasis is
lacking – or even deficient.
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus
Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and
reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
“Purify our conscience, by your daily visitation…”
Our Collect reminds us – at the last minute, as it were – that it’s not enough, as
Christians, to decorate our Churches and our houses to prepare for our celebration of
the Holy Birth.
That birth happened two thousand years ago, and while it’s fitting that we celebrate it so
many centuries later – after all, if it’s appropriate to celebrate our own birthdays; how
much more appropriate it must be that we celebrate the most important birthday in
history – but we have an even more important preparation to make for an event that’s yet
to come: Christ’s “Second Coming.”
And it reminds us, at the same time, that there’s an important way that we need to do that.
We do it by “purifying our conscience.!
While I certainly agree, and am pleased to emphasize, the need to prepare, I don’t much
like that term our Collect uses: “purify our conscience.”
To “purify,” says my dictionary, is to “cleanse from impurity…from physical or moral
pollution;” and that’s what I don’t like about the Collect. I don’t like it because it focuses
our minds on a kind of understanding of sin that’s just too narrow, too limiting. It focuses
our attention on the “things we’ve done,” and the “things we’ve left undone,” which is
narrow enough; but the word “purify,” itself, and its relationship to “uncleanness,” or
“pollution,” narrows our attention even more to certain kinds of “sins” – the kinds that
we consider, indeed, “unclean,” or “dirty.”
It’s a focus the Church has too easily fallen into, in the past, and probably seldom more
fully than in this modern era of ours, so much the heritage – oddly as it may seem – of
both Puritanism and Victorianism!
But even at its best and its broadest, it involves a focus on “the acts we perform,” the
“things we do,” when we should be concerned with “who we are,” and “who we’re
becoming!” It draws our attention to the minutiae of the actions we perform rather than
the question of how it is we’ve strayed off the pathway to our own wholeness, and how
we need to go about finding our way back to that path.
And it draws our attention away from that call of John the Baptist to prepare the way of
the Lord by repentance – which is to say, by turning, again, to the way we’ve lost – that is,
It draws us away from our understanding of sin as “hamartia,” as “missing the mark” set
for us from our beginning: the fullness of the person God creates us to be and calls us to
It calls us to the kind of behavior that Joseph, in our Gospel reading denies. We often
forget – or it simply fails to occur to us that until the visit to of the angel Joseph he – and
everyone else – did not know from where the babe Mary was to give birth to had come.
Under the law, he should have denounced her, publicly, and, called off the marriage and
had her punished as an adulterer. But he never planned to do that. Rather, he was going
to , in the old words of the King James Bible, “put her away, privily!” That is, she would
have done as so many young girls in the same situation did, even into our own age – for
those of us who are of my age – that is, she would have gone away to visit an “aunt” (or
kinswoman), and some months after, returned with a story to cover her absence!
But he didn’t. The Law required it; he would not do it. Rather, he was concerned not so
much for what he was to do, as for who he was - and who doing that thing would make
We need not so much to “purify our conscience,” with all the narrow, negative
connotations of that phrase, as to examine our lives; not so much to dredge up all the
little things we may or may not have done, as to see how we have failed – how we are
failing – to be as fully and completely the person we could be as God would have us be –
as God created us to be: created in God’s own image and likeness to be as truly who we
are as God is true to God’s self!
An impossible task, surely – we are NOT God, and can never attain to God’s perfection –
but a goal to be aimed for, nevertheless; a goal to be striven for: to live our lives as truly
as we can manage, examining, questioning, searching with a depth and breadth not even
approached by any phrase, about “purifying our conscience.”
Such is the call of our faith – to that kind of repentance. Such is the call of Advent. And
such is the call of our God.
So let us pray, not, “Purify our conscience,” – such a small prayer, such a puny and
misguided prayer – but, rather, let us pray:
“Go before us and lead us, Almighty God, in all our doings, and by your daily
visitation guide us on the paths that you call us to follow – those paths that lead to
wholeness in your sight – that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a
mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy
Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
…In Jesus Christ’s Name. Amen.