Saint James Fordham • Advent 1a • Tobias Haller BSG
You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to awake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.+
“You know what time it is.” With these words, Saint Paul assures the Romans that the cosmic alarm clock has gone off, it is time to wake up; that the night is far gone and the day is near, by which he means the day of the Lord. And every three years, as the church works through its cycle of Scripture readings, we hear these same words on the First Sunday of Advent.
Immediate urgency is the theme of Advent, whose watchword is Watch! Wake up! Be on your toes! But because we hear these words of warning over and over year by year, we risk losing the sense of immediate urgency they are intended to convey. The events of the last few years have shown us that we had best indeed be on our toes — who would have thought that such a terrifying apocalypse would come falling upon us from the skies one sunshine-bright and peaceful Tuesday morning in September? And yet we risk becoming complacent, as the government continues to issue vague warnings about possible terrorist attacks, color coded but unexplained, with no specifics as to when and where or what or how. And our weariness at being constantly on the yellow or orange alert causes us to lower our defenses instead of raising them, and we become numb instead of sensitized.
We risk the same with Saint Paul’s message, and the even more chilling message of the gospel. We risk falling into a spirit of complacency because, after all, these warnings were given 2,000 years ago and nothing’s happened yet — or so we think. But look at the horror of the Gospel message, and see if it doesn’t relate to how you felt that Tuesday morning six years ago; see if it doesn’t awaken some of that feeling of terror.
People are going about their lives, minding their own business, just as in Noah’s day. They are busy at their places of work, in the field or in the home. And then the attack comes, the attack from on high, and the mortality rate is fifty percent, one of every two is taken! Doesn’t that fill you with dread, dread of the judgment ready to fall and you haven’t got your case in order; dread of the fire to come, and you don’t have fire insurance?
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Well, brothers and sisters, the good news in all of this is that we do have fire insurance, fire insurance against the judgment and against the fire of hell. It is the fire insurance that Saint Paul describes as the armor of light. With this armor we can fight fire with fire, fight the fire of hell with the fire of love. For the fire of love burns hotter and brighter and longer than the fire of hate and evil. The fire of love is fed by the power of God, the power of Love which fulfills the Law that spelled out death and judgement for us in letters of stone; the fire of love that transforms the dead letter of the Law into the living spirit of action and charity.
It is by the firelight of love that we stay awake and watch for the coming of our Lord. We keep that fire burning, that protecting light that keeps at bay the monsters of the night, the evil that seeks our hurt and harm, the evil that dwells in the darkness of human hearts, including our own. It is into that darkness that the light of the fire of love must shine if we are to be armed and ready with the armor of light in the strength of Christ, to be prepared for his coming. For the fire of love does not just illuminate, it cleanses and purifies and protects.
When a forest fire threatens to destroy a town, what do the brave fire rangers do? We saw them do it just a few months ago out west. It is something that seems illogical at first: they start another fire! They lay down a new fire in the path of the fire they want to stop, a controlled fire to burn up the fuel and create a barrier against the uncontrolled fire that is threatening to destroy the town. This is how you fight fire with fire, fight the fire of hate and hell with the fiery armor of light, the fire of love.
Do you have the fuel of resentment in your heart? Put it in the fire of love. Let the fire of love consume the fears and angers that nourish the fire of hate. Do you have a loved one enslaved by drink or drugs, a husband with a wandering eye, a wife that’s a trial to you, a job that you hate, a child that has strayed from the right path, or parents that quarrel and never seem to stop fighting, a friend or family member with whom you’ve had a falling out? Do you have any of these painful resentments, of these hurtful quarrels or jealousies, stored up in your heart?
Well, put your pain and resentment in the fire of love, and let love consume the fuel of resentment that nourishes the flames of hell. Let the fire of love create an armor of light to protect you and shield you from the power of evil, the power that destroys.
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Let us look well to ourselves, for we cannot control the acts of others — we can only choose not to resent, not to curse, not to respond in kind. We can choose rather to walk away from quarrels and contentions, to return harsh words with words of welcome and truth, and to look within our own hearts and burn up and away all resentment and hurt.
And as we look into our hearts, we will see and know far more our own guilt, our own wrongdoing, as we look to the dark spots in our own hearts, where there is plenty of fuel to burn. Shakespeare, the greatest English poet and dramatist, captured this human task in an unforgettable scene in his most famous play, Hamlet. The Prince was striving to raise his mother’s consciousness to the evil she had done, allowing herself to ignore the obvious murder of her husband, and worse, to marry his murderer. And Hamlet implored his mother to look into her own heart. When she did, she saw her sins and wept, and said to Hamlet, she felt as if her heart was being cut in two. At which Hamlet gave that sage advice, advice that echoed the Gospel warning, to throw away the worser part.
We are challenged this Advent, and every step of our Christian journey, to look into our own hearts and find what is wrong there, then to cast off that dark work, to tear out the worser part and burn it, along with all resentments, in the fire of love.
Do I nurse thoughts of hate? Do I place myself first in pride, taking another’s place just because I want it? Do I take more care of myself than my neighbor, taking advantage instead of giving freely? Am I inwardly divided in myself between what I know is right, and what I want in spite of it all?
Jesus tells the disciples, that of the two men in the field and the two women at the mill one will be taken and the other left. And we, as we wrestle with our own inner faults, are we not each of us like two people, two people wrestling to do good but wanting to be bad? Aren’t our hearts sometimes torn in two by our desires at war with our better conscience? So as Hamlet said to his mother: throw away the worser part, let it be burned in the fire of love. If we place all of our fears and failings in the fire of love, it will burn them up, to protect us and insure us against the fire of hell.
Whatever is wrong, whatever is a work of darkness, resentment or quarrel or jealousy, strike it down and burn it with the fire of love, the refiner’s fire that purifies.
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Look at the world. We hope for peace, yet the conflicts still continue; the world is torn asunder; nation lifts sword against nation like nobody’s business. Many have fallen into complacency, satisfied with half measures, for this is the way of the world, eating and drinking, making love and making war, unprepared for the coming end which will sweep it all away, just as in Noah’s day.
We have no excuse to be unprepared. We have received not only a warning, but a promise. For the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it and never shall, for the light of God burns bright with the fire of love. And we have been offered the shining armor of light that reflects God’s glory, a glory in which all of us can share through Jesus Christ, a glory into which we are baptized and sealed by the fire of love through the Holy Spirit.
God has revealed his glory to us, and given us a share in that glory, that fire of love that destroys the fire of hell, that armor of light that ensures our salvation, and overcomes the darkness of fear and death in the far gone night and the day drawn near, to reveal God’s glory in the face of Christ, the glory of the only begotten Son of the Father in heaven, full of grace and truth — and in whose Name we pray, Come, Lord Jesus, come!+