A Sermon for
the first Sunday of

Advent
"Cleansing of the temple"

By Dr. Robert Crouse



"But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof."
Our Eucharistic lectionary - that selection of Epistle and Gospel lessons we read week by week through the course of the year - has shaped the mind of Western Christianity for well over a thousand years. Very little of it has been altered since the time of Charlemagne, and substantial portions of it, including our Advent lections are even older, and date back to the era of the Latin Church Fathers. That age-old pattern of instruction and meditation, in which Scripture is presented in a doctrinally ordered sequence, is now being swept aside by the introduction of a variety of new lectionaries - mostly two or three-year cycles, constructed on very different principles - and the ancient system now preserved only in the Book of Common Prayer.

From the new cycles of Advent lessons, today's Gospel lesson has been firmly excluded, because it seems to have nothing to do with Advent. After all, it's the Palm Sunday story, isn't it? It's all about Jesus' entry into Jerusalem at the time of his Passion; so, obviously, it can't be about Advent. Our modern interpreters, you see, have difficulty getting beyond the literal sense of the text. The ancient Fathers, however, saw a further level of spiritual interpretation, according to which the story became for them a dramatic parable of Advent: A story of the coming of the Son of God as Messianic King, as Judge, and as Redeemer "of God's city. "And the multitudes...cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David...Hosanna in the highest."

In the 1549 Prayer Book, Archbishop Cranmer extended the ancient readings by two verses, so as to include Jesus' cleansing of the Temple, thus sharpening dramatically the Advent theme of divine judgement. "And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple...and said unto them, I is written, my house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves". The true business of the temple, the true business of the city, the true business of the soul, is prayer: willing God's will; willing the eternal good which is God's will. That is to say, the temple's true business is the business of love. That is the city's true commerce; that is the soul's coinage; and anything short of that is thievery and counterfeit. Thus, the Advent message of the Gospel lesson is just this: The coming of the Son of God as Judge and Redeemer of the human city demands in the first place a "cleansing of the temple" - a purgation and refocusing of our loves.

Now, see how perfectly our Epistle lesson complements that Gospel message: "Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth his neighbour hath fulfilled the law." As citizens of God's city, our only debt is love. But just what is this love that fulfills the law? Is it sentiment? Is it emotion? Is it affection? But sentiment does not fulfill the law; nor does emotion; nor does affection. None of these is love. They may sometimes accompany and support love, and that's a happy circumstance; but all too often, I'm afraid they impede love and delude lovers. The love that fulfills the law is not a matter of sentiment, or emotion, or affection; it is a matter of will. To love one another is to will the eternal good of another, as that eternal good is objectively manifest and understood in the clear light of the Advent of the eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ.

Here in the Epistle, just as in the Gospel, that message is pressed upon us with dramatic urgency: "knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand; let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light". Come out of that drunken dream-world of fickle sentiment, emotive judgements, and misunderstandings, and prejudices; and enter unto the honest daylight of objective truth manifest in the Advent of the Word of God.

Let us walk honestly as in the day;
not in rioting and drunkenness, not
in chambering and wantonness, not
in strife and envying. But put ye
on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make
not provision for the flesh, to fulfill
the lusts thereof.
I suppose there can hardly be anyone who can hear that passage read without recalling the role it played in one of the most decisive moments in the history of our civilization. It is, of course, the passage read, in the garden at Cassiciacum, on the urging of the mysterious voice which cried "Tolle lege, tolle lege" (Take and read, take and read). That conversion scene is described at the end of Book VIII of the Confessions; and, indeed, the whole of Book VIII might well serve as a kind of meditation on our Advent lessons. That book describes Augustine's soul as the battle-ground of divided will, divided loves in agonizing conflict. "In this warfare" says Augustine, "I was on both sides" (VIII, 5). "I prayed to God to grant me chastity, but not yet - sed noli modo: not right away" (VIII, 7). "My inner house was a house divided against itself" (VIII, 8). The terrible struggle was finally resolved only in the encounter with the living word: "Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof." You see, it's the Advent of the Word of God; it's the cleansing of the temple, the unifying of the will, the purgation and re-focusing of love.

Some of you, no doubt, have read another great work of Augustine, The City of God - the greatest of all writings on the theology of history and the dynamics of human community. The essential argument there is really the argument of the Confessions, writ large, projected now onto the wider screen of the whole angelic and human history, from creation until the end of time. From the beginning, Augustine argues, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self" (XIV, 28). Throughout the treatise, Augustine argues - against the poets, philosophers and religious leaders of the pagan world - that our goods and ills are not fundamentally established in the fates, nor in the nature of things, nor in our circumstances, nor in our flesh, but in our wills. The fundamental issue for angelic and human community is therefore the issue of love. That is to say, it is a question of the steadfast willing of the eternal good, which the Advent of the Word of God reveals. That is the substance of which the City of God is built.

And that is, I think, the meaning of our lesson for this first week of Advent. The season is one of preparation. Maybe a good deal of our Christmas preparation has to do with making provision for the flesh. Let's try to make it more a matter of putting on the Lord Jesus Christ; more a matter of the cleansing of the temple, the purgation and refocusing of love. May God give us grace to cast off darkness, now; and clothe ourselves in light. Amen. +

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