A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
December 5, 2021
“Grant, Almighty God, that your church may be so inspired by the example of your servant Nicholas of Myra, that it may never cease to work for the welfare of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”
Every liturgical season has its own focus and theme. Advent is a season which focuses on the two comings of the Christ. The first part—until December 16th, in theory is future-oriented. In it, we begin the new liturgical year by asking ourselves important questions, “What do we want Jesus to find when he returns in glory to bring to fulfillment the fullness of God’s Beloved Community?” And, on a personal level, what do I need to do to prepare and to be ready? Will Jesus find me prepared when he returns?”
The second part of this season—the octave, or eight days, from December 16th-24th are a time in which we more specifically focus on our preparation to commemorate, to celebrate, and to recall that first coming of our Lord Jesus Christ—his incarnation in flesh as one with us at the manger in Bethlehem.
Having said that, though, this first part of Advent also has a time of transition. The Second Sunday of Advent ceases to present to us images of the apocalypse, of the eschaton, of the Parousia — of the “final things,” and invites us to enter into a reflection of how it was that God prepared the world for what we as Christians believe to be the culmination of “salvation history.” It is important to choose our words wisely here and to proceed cautiously. The Nativity of our Lord is not a rejection of any of the other covenants which preceded it. Nor is it a replacement. Each of those covenants remain in place, and in effect. However, for those who are called to enter into each succeeding relationship with God, we find in them a greater level of inclusion, and of welcome for the whole human family.
In Second Temple Judaism, there was an ever greater appreciation for the words and example of the Prophets—and especially for the words of the Prophet Isaiah. The primary mission of the prophet, we are reminded was to “comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.” Their words were often hard to hear—because they presented God’s view of things—and reminded humans that in God’s plan there was a place for everyone at the table. In particular, the prophets pointed out that those who were comfortable had a moral responsibility to care for, and to protect, the oppressed and marginalized—widows, orphans, and migrants. All too often prophets spoke words of truth to those in power and challenged them to examine their values, priorities, and actions. We have only to remember the words of Nathan to David or of Elijah to Ahab and Jezebel—or of John to Herod!
The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke today introduces us to the last prophet, the greatest prophet—in the words of our Lord—John, the Baptizer. John’s words, inspired by the words of Isaiah, inform us that God plans something different, something surprising, something dramatic. What humans have not been able to do, or willing to do, God will do. God will bring about a new reality—a reality in which every person will witness God’s healing, transforming, and inclusive love. This new creation—flowing out of God’s unfolding covenants with Adam and Eve, Noah, Abrahm and Sarah, Moses and the People of Israel, and with the family of David—will now include justice and equality for all. In words which remind us of the hymns of praise of Hannah, Zechariah, and of Mary, we hear that crooked paths will be made straight, mountains and valleys will both be leveled, rough ways will be smoothed out, and humans who have been oblivious to the presence of God in others will have their eyes opened to see, to value, to respect and to love, the presence of God in every single person whom they encounter—without exception! In short, God calls us all to conversion, to growth, to change, and to become something new.
Over the centuries, Christians came to realize that theoretical words about loving and serving God are not nearly as powerful, effective, or helpful to us as are living examples. In other words, we need something which not only touches our mind, we need something which touches our heart. For that reason, we have so often turned to the example of those who lived out their belief in Christ as an image, or—to use the Greek word, an “icon”—of how to put that faith into practice. These holy women and men of profound holiness, and that is what the word “saint” means, allow us to see what happens when we choose to say yes to God. It is fascinating to me that each year, quite early in Advent, we encounter the feast of one of our most popular Saints, that of the Holy Bishop Nicholas of Myra.
I do not feel defensive, and thus have no desire to defend Saint Nicholas against the better know cultural reflection of him, Santa Claus. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we Christians ought to be pleased that the holy bishop, through a complicated process, became an image or icon across so many cultural barriers—who inspires, motivates, and encourages some of the best actions of love and generosity in people of profound faith, and of those who claim no commitment to any community of faith at all. If presented properly—and with love and respect, the story of Saint Nicholas could well be a very powerful tool for evangelization. We should not be hesitant to explain that behind the legend there is an actual person who modeled an important charism of service and generosity. And he did so because of his faith in the child born in the manger at Bethlehem.
Today, in our Advent journey, I think it is entirely appropriate to take a few minutes to reflect on one story—out of the many possible ones—to explore the connection between faith and action in the life of Saint Nicholas. This is what Wikipedia has to say about him: “In one of the earliest attested and most famous incidents from his life, he is said to have rescued three girls from being forced into prostitution by dropping a sack of gold coins through the window of their house each night for three nights so their father could pay a dowry for each of them.”
It is this story of the anonymous gift of Nicholas which lies at the heart of our custom of giving presents, and of wrapping them up. And, it is important to remember that these first gifts were not given to beloved family members or even to peers. They were given to unexpecting recipients who were poor, marginalized, weak, and vulnerable. The three girls remind of us of the many times in which the Gospels show us us that Jesus cared for the poor, the exploited, the abused, and the oppressed! They teach us that Nicholas looked for ways to do the same thing in his own time and place.
While one might hesitate to use the word “miracle” because there is a rational, normal, explanation, it would be hard to miss the point that for these girls, for their family, and for those who loved them, these gifts were nothing short of miraculous. Their lives were changed. They experienced deliverance, hope, and promise at a time when they had known only fear, despair, and resignation. If that is not the hope promised by the Season of Advent, then I do not know what is! It is no accident that the three gifts remind us of the gifts of the magi—which we commemorate each year on the Feast of the Epiphany. It is that moment in which the Light of Christ is revealed to the nations. Holy Nicholas teaches us to look for Christ’s presence in the most unexpected of places, and reminds us that in serving and caring for those in need we minister to Christ himself. Our gifts to the hungry, the poor, and the marginalized—to those who may never be able to give anything in return—are gifts given to Christ!
In this first part of Advent, we are not yet ready to celebrate Christmas. There is something which we must do first. Before commemorating God’s self-giving to us, we must look at the places of darkness—in our own hearts, in our families, in our community, in our nation, and in our world. Where is the healing light of Christ needed? It is only in acknowledging our need for that warmth, hope, and light that we prepare places to welcome it. May this Advent prepare us to have loving, and generous hearts—and not only for those who are dear to us—so that when the day of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ comes, we, with holy Nicholas, and with John the Baptizer may celebrate God with us. On that day, or the night before, may all in need find love, welcome, and generous care.
Every day of the year, and not only in Advent and at Christmas, may we live out the collect for the holy Bishop of Myra: “may we never cease to work for the welfare of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief.” Amen.