Sacramental Preparation

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

The Sacrament of Holy Communion – Advent II – 4 December 2011

Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-15; II Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

From the Book of the Prophet, Isaiah:
“Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd….

From St. Peter’s 2nd Letter:
The apostle wrote, But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is a thousand years and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise…[and so] we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

From the Gospel According to St. Mark:
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…and he preached, saying, After me comes he who is mightier than I…he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation,
Amen. E

I often check out websites for other churches. And before I go any further, let me digress with a shameless plug for our website – it’s excellent! Check it out for yourselves and recommend it to your friends. It’s well worth the time. But back to my website cruising. I especially enjoy those on which the Pastor publishes his sermons.

I came across one this week in which the preacher expressed my seasonal feelings and frustrations hitting the proverbial nail on the head. It was about the seasons of Advent and Christmas. He properly made the clear distinction between the two; Advent being a season of preparation for the Second Coming of Christ followed by preparation for the holy celebration of His first coming. And that first coming is, of course, Christmas – a separate and distinct season.

The first two Sundays in Advent anticipate the Second Coming – that is, our Lord’s return at the end of time to judge the world in the perfection of His righteousness and then to establish His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven – with the creation of a new heaven and new earth. Behold, I make all things new.

The last two Sunday refer more specifically to His first coming as the Child of Bethlehem – Mary’s son – the Son of God – God the Father in human flesh as God the Son – born just like anyone else as a tiny little baby: born some 2,000 years ago. We need to celebrate that great occasion properly called the Nativity of our Lord or simply the Incarnation. Incarnation means in the flesh. And to celebrate it properly means exuberant worship first and party-time second.

As I have said for so many years – and as other preachers say as well – we have diminished or even extinguished the holiness of these seasons. The holy days have become mere holidays as if there had never been anything holy about those days. With diminished holiness, we have diminished souls. And some have extinguished souls.

Truly, the secularization of anything results in a diminished soul or the actual loss of one’s soul. After all, What does it profit a man if he gains the world but looses his soul? We can loose our souls.

In our culture, the secular powers have turned the season of preparation into the season itself. Advent – the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas – is not Advent any more – it’s a jump-start on Christmas. And Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – which begin the twelve days of the Christmas Season – pretty much end the celebration that they’re supposed to begin. Many people set up their trees at Thanksgiving and take them down the day after Christmas. They’re entirely missing the point.

The secularized Christmas can be all about Santa Claus forgetting that he’s really Saint Nicholas, a devout, self-sacrificing Christian bishop who helped poor children. Furthermore – and much more importantly, Christmas may or may not take note of the baby boy born 2,000 years ago to save the world – Born that man no more may die. Born to give them second birth.

Churches have compromised as well. Many are decorated for Christmas even now. Congregations are singing Christmas carols and the great, magnificent and powerful Advent hymns never find expression. Those hymns proclaim the power of God in His righteousness.

Maybe that’s part of the problem. People do not really want a powerful and righteous God. They want an indulgent god over whom they have power. Something to think about.

Those great Advent hymns call all of us to repentance. They tell us of the good news to come for the true believers – but do not sugar coat the bad news for those who reject God’s self sacrificing gift of Himself for salvation. The processional hymn for last Sunday, Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending, makes it clear regarding those who hate Him. The words are Deeply wailing, deeply wailing shall the true Messiah see. In fact, many churches have no idea that this or any other Advent hymn exists. And they want to believe that everybody automatically goes to heaven when they die. Not so. False gospel.

Now, one might well ask, Does it make any difference? And I say, Absolutely! It makes all the difference in the world – and all the difference in the world yet to come. Remember, eternity is just that – eternal. This world has an end. The next world does not.

Although some say that the liturgical calendar is a man made way to organize the worship and educational missions of the church around the major events in the life of our Lord, I maintain that it came about – and has been refined – by the working of the Holy Spirit – hence, divinely inspired and established. Christ baptized His church with the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit has been working in, on and through His church from the beginning. The liturgical seasons represent one part of that great, ongoing work.

Thus we can say that the liturgical calendar has been given to us not as a law to be kept as a means for salvation but as a discipline of faith that allows us to not only grow in faith but also to serve as a corrective to the influence of the unredeemed forces of this world. It serves to increase our souls as the world seeks to diminish them – elevation versus degradation – the holy standing over and against the profane.

Furthermore, it prevents us from creating our own religions made up of just the happy things with none of the hard parts – all resurrection with no crucifixion. Many people forget that the resurrection cannot happen without the crucifixion and – without the crucifixion, there’s no salvation.

The battle for your soul and for mine was fought – and won – on the cross. Broken body – shed blood – victory. And after that, resurrected body. But always broken first.

Yet before the broken body, the holy birth. Christmas for the sake of Good Friday. Good Friday for the sake of Easter Sunday. And both for the sake of the salvation of our souls – and the resurrection of our bodies.

If people properly observed Advent, none of us would have been standing in line at any of the major stores across the nation at midnight ready to race in and grab whatever special deal is offered on the latest thing for Christmas. You see, that comes from the unredeemed world.

A sober and even somber emphasis on the return of Christ is for the redeemed who seek to live out their redemption; the redeemed being those who have received God’s special Christmas deal – the greatest bargain – the gift of redemption at no cost to us but at such a great cost to Him.

The redeemed can say with the prophet Isaiah, and I paraphrase, Behold our God! He comes with might and with his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd – but for those who delight in evil, he will break them like a clay pot.

Recompense – a strange word – not part of our normal conversation. It literally means making amends for harm, injury or injustice; and also, rewards or punishments according to one’s actions. You see, He came and will come again for recompense. A correct Advent observance makes that perfectly clear so that we can have a clear path to redemption. Advent properly kept makes straight in the deserts of our lives a highway for our God. That highway goes directly to the true Christmas.

Recompense and repentance. John the baptizer baptized for the forgiveness of sins. He used water that outwardly cleansed the body in an effort to inwardly cleanse the soul. Repentance and recompense. They really do go together.

And finally, another aspect to this season that we must not overlook – the aspect of our impatience – a largely unconscious impatience for most of us but intense however unconscious. We’re impatient for an end to corruption, tyranny, injustice, hatred, terror, anxiety, fear, sickness, death and cruelty. We’re impatient for the full realization of the power of the most holy love. We’re impatient to see the face of God in the face of our Saviour. We’re impatient for the perfection of goodness and the righteousness of His promise fulfilled.

St. Peter spoke to an inpatient early church that expected the immanent return of Christ instructing them to be patient. He told them – and we need to remember his worlds – that for God a thousand years is like as day. Here the apostle echoes the psalmist who sings, a thousand years in thy sight are as yesterday when it has past or as a watch in the night. His job was to save the world. Our job is to wait patiently for Him to complete His job.

But we don’t just sit around and wait. No way. We make a way for the Lord – a way for further growth in faithfulness in our own lives and a way for Him to be proclaimed in the world to those who reject Him or know little of nothing about Him. John cried in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” And we need to proclaim the same message in the wilderness of the present secular, profane and unholy generation.

And in the meantime, we properly prepare by receiving the Lord into our bodies as we receive Him into our souls. A sacramental preparation. He gives us this great sacrament of His broken body and His shed blood.

This sacrament of salvation is our holding action as we wait for His return. We partake until He comes again. We feed on Him so that this world will not feed on us. We ingest His death so that we won’t die. And He will raise us up on the last day.

So come to this sacred table – prepare ye the way of the Lord in and through this sacrament. Take and eat … in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on Him in thy hearts by faith with thanksgiving.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, as we receive this sacrament of our salvation, grant that we may always hunger and thirst for your righteousness. Prepare in us a highway for you and, by the power of your Holy Spirit, grant recompense and renewal as you have reconciled us through redemption – given on the cross of your Son,
our Saviour,
Jesus Christ the Lord -
who will come again.
Amen. E

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