December 22, 2019

2019 Dec29_FrIan


Advent 4 - Year A

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger

 

Surprise! It’s the 4th Sunday of Advent, and we’re not talking about the Blessed Virgin Mary! Regular churchgoers sort of have this expectation that the Gospel for the 4th Sunday of Advent is going to be The Magnificat: “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” NOPE! Not in Lectionary Year A! It’s Joseph. In Years B and C, we get the Annunciation and the Visitation to Elizabeth. Year A is Joseph’s time to shine, and I think that it is right a proper. Joseph doesn’t get much airtime, yet he played a critical role in Salvation History.

 

So, what does this wagon full of stuff have to do with St Joseph? Let me refresh your memories one last time. This wagon is my newly-assembled Emergency Preparedness Kit based on the list published by the California Department of Public Health. In the Gospel on the First Sunday of Advent, Jesus told His Disciples to be prepared because “about the day and hour no one knows”. Jesus was warning about the Coming of the Son of Man; the California Department of Public Health is warning about an earthquake or other natural disaster. [You all will have recently received your Nuclear Disaster Calendars, as well!].


Advent is the season to reflect upon our preparedness, not only for Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Son of God.

 

We are also to reflect upon our
preparedness for the Second
Coming of Jesus Christ.

 

This Emergency Preparedness Kit is the visual aid for our Advent exploration of what is required for our Spiritual Preparedness Kits as we await the Second Coming.

 

Faith, hope and love are the primary elements, like the gallon of water per person per day. From there, we have been exploring what hints that the Gospel readings have been giving us about what else is needed in our Spiritual Preparedness Kits, and then I have suggested how to go about developing these qualities.

 

  • Advent 1 suggested that patience and perseverance are needed, and I suggested that Centering Prayer could help develop patience and perseverance.
  • Advent 2 suggested that humility is an essential quality, and we dipped a toe into Franciscan Spirituality.
  • Advent 3 suggested that perceptiveness is a key element of your Spiritual Preparedness Kit, and we considered Ignatian Spirituality and the Spiritual Exercises as ways to develop that perceptiveness.

 

What are today’s readings telling us that we should have in our Spiritual Preparedness Kits?

 

Regardless of what Lectionary Year it is,

 

the Gospel for the 4thSunday of
Advent always points to the
quality of obedience.

 

Sometimes the preacher will draw on the theme of willingness, and certainly the two qualities are on the same spectrum. Today, let’s explore how we might develop obedience for our Spiritual Preparedness Kits.

 

In today’s Gospel story, Joseph was obedient in two different ways:

 

  • Culturally obedient: He was to dismiss this woman who had disgraced him. That is what an upstanding man did. So, initially, Joseph was going to obey cultural customs and Jewish Law and divorce Mary, which was deemed as the “righteous” thing to do by Matthew the Gospeler.
  • Obedient to the Lord: Joseph took Mary as his wife at the command of the Lord despite it being contrary to cultural norms. To take a pregnant woman as his wife would not only have disgraced Joseph, it would have disgraced his entire family. We don’t have any stories about the wider impact of Joseph’s decision. Despite this, he took Mary as his wife in obedience to the Lord instead of in obedience to cultural customs and the law.

 

In the readings from Romans, we read:

 

“…we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles…”

 

Commentators aren’t sure what “obedience of faith” means. Craig C Hill writes:

 

It may refer either to faith that is an expression of obedience or to obedience that is an expression of faith. Possibly, Paul intended both meanings.[1]

 

Obedience, then, is an obvious element to place into our Spiritual Preparedness Kits. So, how do we develop obedience? Exploring Benedictine Spirituality may be a way.

 

The Rule of St Benedict is one of the oldest monastic ways of life that still exists and is still widely practiced. It was developed by Benedict of Nursia around 540AD for his community in Monte Cassino, southeast of Rome. The Rule, which outlines both monastic and monastery life, is pretty strict, but at the same time, it is inclusive and compassionate. It is brief, as monastic rules go; it is fair; and it is balanced. While it may seem that following the Rule is focused on obedience to the Master of the monastery, within the Rule and through its application, it is clear that it is focused on the observance and obedience to of Christ. And when a person is received into the monastery, The Rule states that they are to adhere to what is now called the Benedictine Promise, or their form of vows:

 

  • Fidelity: To adhere to the monastic way of life, including poverty and chastity.
  • Stability: To find God in the present of one’s life.
  • Obedience: To find God through listening and then responding.

 

The longevity of The Rule is in the pattern of daily life for the follower. Each day is to include private prayer, spiritual reading, manual work and communal meals. This pattern models that of both Europe of the 6C and the Western world today. Benedict took the daily lives of everyday people and developed a model of it that is focused on Jesus Christ. It is therefore timeless, spanning cultures and the various denominational and personal expressions of Christianity – in its rigidity, it is flexible enough to suit both the one who is highly individualistic and the Church Universal.

 

We read in the Gospels and in Paul’s letters that we are to have lives focused on Jesus, but their commands can seem a bit too nebulous. Benedict and The Rule help us shape our lives to focus on Jesus, and with obedience to The Rule, do so fairly easily. As a result of obedience to The Rule, the follower, then, is more obedient to the will of Jesus Christ.

 

Joan Chittister is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA. She has written extensively on living The Rule of St Benedict. Her meditations entitled “The Rule of Benedict: Insight for the Ages” was written in 1992, yet it eerily speaks to us today as she places The Rule into a 21C frame of reference in the Introduction to its 3rd printing in 2002:

 

Benedictine spirituality is the spirituality of the twenty-first century because it deals with the issues facing us now — stewardship, relationships, authority, community, balance, work, simplicity, prayer, and spiritual and psychological development. [I]ts currency lies in the fact that Benedictine spirituality offers more a way of life and an attitude of mind than it does a set of religious prescriptions. The Benedictine way of life, after all, is credited with having saved Christian Europe from the ravages of the Dark Ages. In an age bent again on its own destruction, the world could be well served by asking how.

 

As you work your way through The Rule, you discover that your life issues are addressed: God’s presence, relationships, self-development. Yet, there is no guarantee that following The Rule will form you into a perfect person or perfect Christian. What you will become is

 

“disposed to the will of God, attuned to the presence of God, committed to the search for God, and just beginning to understand the power of God in our lives.”

 

in Joan Chittister’s words, and in Benedict’s words:

 

We have written this rule [so that] by observing it…we can show that we have some degree of virtue and the beginnings of monastic life…With Christ’s help, keep this little rule that we have written for beginners. After that, you can set out for the loftier summits of the teaching and virtues…and under God’s protection you will reach them.

 

Obedience toward God is a quality that is vital for our Spiritual Preparedness Kits. Obedience is not simply doing what you are told. The dictionary goes a little deeper in the definition of the word “obey”.

 

From Latin obedire, oboedire meaning “obey, be subject, serve; pay attention to, give ear.”

 

And here is where obedience as a term and a concept even more undergirds the Rule of St Benedict. From its Latin roots, obey literally means “listen to.” The opening words of the Rule of St Benedict is:

 

Obsculta, o fili…

 

Listen carefully, my child…

 

Every introductory course you will take on Benedictine Spirituality, every Benedictine Brother or Sister who will be your guide at your first Benedictine retreat will point your attention to this opening word: Listen.

 

Listen carefully, my child to your master's precepts, and incline the ear of your heart. Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving Father’s advice [meaning God], that by the labor of obedience you may return to Him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience. To you, therefore, my words are now addressed, whoever you may be, who are renouncing your own will to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King, and are taking up the strong, bright weapons of obedience.

 

That is the first paragraph of the Prologue to The Rule. For Benedict, obedience, writes Chittister, is:

 

“the willingness to listen for the voice of God in life is what will wrench us out of the limitations of our own landscape. We are being called to something outside of ourselves, something greater than ourselves, something beyond ourselves. We will need someone to show us the way: the Christ, a loving spiritual model, this rule.”

 

Joseph first and foremost listened to the Angel of the Lord, and after listening, he responded: he was obedient. This is the only Sunday in a 3-year cycle on which Joseph takes center stage. He gets a mention here and there, and he is prominent in the story of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt where Jesus, Mary and Joseph spend several years as political refugees. That reading is used on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, which doesn’t occur in some years, and in others, like in 2 weeks, will be celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany, so we won’t hear that story. Yet, it is through Joseph’s obedience that our Salvation is spared and nurtured. God could have chosen another pathway had Joseph not been obedient, but God didn’t have to.

 

Listening for God and being obedient to God’s Word is really difficult stuff. So are having patience, perseverance, humility and perceptiveness. Being a “good Christian” and orienting your life toward Heavenly things rather than earthly things is hard work. That is why we are here week-in and week-out: to be nurtured and emboldened, to develop these qualities for our Spiritual Preparedness Kits. Whether:

 

our faith is an expression of obedience or obedience is an expression of our faith,

 

we travel this Advent and each day toward the Coming of the Son of Man, about which the day nor the hour no one knows. We come to worship God and build up one another in hopes that God, as the Psalm repeats:

 

Restores us, shows the light of God’s countenance, so we shall be saved.

 

As you continue to build up your Spiritual Preparedness Kits, reflect upon the state of your faith, hope and love, upon your patience and perseverance, upon your humility, upon your perceptiveness, upon your obedience. And may you see and know the Christ Child in your heart and in your life this Christmas.

 

[1][1]“Romans” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, page 1088.

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