Advent 1: Owe nothing but love

Micah 4:1-4, 6-7       Romans 13:8-14       Matthew 21:1-13

Now it is high time to awake out of sleep…

Today we begin the new Christian year with the season of Advent.

Our colour has changed to purple to symbolize penitence – it is a recognition that not all the work is done, once we become a Christian – but there is a call to the ongoing conversion of our hearts.

Advent is a time to reflect on Christ’s first coming into the world, his coming again in glory at the end of time, and about present coming to our soul to prepare us for that glory.

———-

In the Gospel, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, humble, like king David did 1000 years before.  And he is lauded by the people as their king – fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah – 
‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey’.  Some people sang praises and laid down their clothing and branches of palms for Jesus to walk on. And the whole city, we are told, was in turmoil.

But instead of resting in the praises, Jesus goes immediately to the very centre of the city and the centre of the religious life of Israel – into the Temple, makes a whip of cords and drives out all who are selling and buying there and overturned the tables of the money changers and those who sold doves.

On one level this story is about being careful not to replace the business of our faith with an opportunity to make money for ourselves.

But there is a far deeper meaning in Christ cleansing the Temple of moneychangers.

To understand this we have to see the connections between the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, which later became the Temple in Jerusalem, and our own souls and bodies.

God dwells in heaven.  And God desires that we dwell there too.  He came to Israel and promised to dwell in their midst, first in the Tabernacle, while they were wandering to the Promised Land, and then, in the Temple in the holy city Jerusalem.

But the Tabernacle and then the Temple was never meant to be an end in itself, they were a kind of stop gap measure – a preparation or temporary dwelling place until God could dwell even more closely with his people – in their very hearts.

God’s dwelling in our hearts has now been made possible for us by the death and resurrection of Jesus – through which our hearts are purified by His blood and made holy, ready for God.

Remember what St. Paul says in First Corinthians, speaking to baptized believers:

Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? [1 Cor 3:16]

What? do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which you have from God? [1 Cor 6:19]

Or, as St Peter says of the Church,

you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. [1 Peter 2:5]

So when we read today of God the Son, entering into the Temple to cleanse it, we are to think of this Gospel as a parable for Advent. We’re not looking for Jesus to restore some literal temple in Jerusalem – but of the true and final Temple of God, our hearts, and our hearts together as the Church – that is the Temple that the whole of the Old Testament history and figures point us to.

When Jesus entered the Temple in Jerusalem he found in it many who were not praying but trying to make money off the worshippers of God – he called them thieves.

What does Christ find, when he enters our hearts? Is it a place of prayer? Are we thinking the thoughts of God and willing what God wills? This is what prayer is – to want what God wants.  And, that is what love is, because God’s will is love.

Yesterday I was asked to lead a quiet retreat in Amsterdam for the day – and we had times of silence during the day.  If you are like me, you will discover that if you try to set aside everything to quiet your heart for prayer, that there is a storm of distracting thoughts and discordant desires – that in truth there is not a lot of authentic prayer going on within.  Our hearts can be like that noisy unholy Temple in Jerusalem.

————

St. Paul says in today’s Epistle that the whole task of our heart’s desire is to be about love, but what we often end up doing instead is gratifying “the desires of the flesh”.  And when we do this we are, robbers of grace – we have taken the desire, the love that God has put in our hearts for good, and used it for ill – our hearts are no longer a place of prayer but we make it into a den of thieves.  This is the predicament of every human soul.

St. Paul reminds us of the moral commandments – Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not covet and so one – they are all about loving our neighbour.  And as Christians we know that if we are only worried about outward acts, we will always be in a battle with ourselves, trying to stop ourselves outwardly while inwardly wanting something else.  What we want surely is the reform of even the thoughts of our hearts, so we might finally have peace within us – we are not to lust, or to hold anger inwardly, to be full of pride, to be fixed always on money inwardly, as if that was happiness.

So long as this is the case, we are stealing God given desire and directing it to ends that will never satisfy, even thoughts.

Today’s Epistle was chosen to start the Church year in the 5th century – within a generation or two of the conversion of one of the greatest teachers the Church has ever had – St Augustine.  And in his recounting of the conversion of his own soul to Jesus Christ, it was this very passage from St Paul that opened up before him.

Augustine had been fighting within himself for years about whether to commit himself to become a Christian. He had been living with a woman who he did not intend to marry, and there are other ways he had been holding back from a wholehearted commitment to following Jesus.  He was in a garden, he remembered how St Anthony had gone into a church one day, heard a single passage from the Bible about leaving all and followed Christ wholly from that very moment – leaving all to go into the desert.  So Augustine opened up his book with the Epistles of St Paul – and read the first thing on which his eyes fell – from today’s Epistle – Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries.  Rather put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

St Augustine recounts –

“I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” [Confessions Bk VIII, Ch. 12]

Jesus has come to us already, and that is why we are here today. He wants to make our hearts even more the paradise of God – His dwelling place, the place where prayer ascends as a sweet smelling incense to God – and that incense is love.

Owe no one anything, but to love one another.
It is high time to awake out sleep:
for now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed.
The night is far spent, the day is at hand.

Jesus has been established according to the prophecy of Micah as the highest of the mountains – the Rock upon which the house of the Lord, the Church, stands – and people are flowing to it – peoples from all nations are entering in. And as we enter into the Church, we are to allow Him to enter into our hearts, that war may be no more but instead true peace might fill our souls, and that we might come to love even our enemies as ourselves.

Is there anything holding you back this morning from a more wholehearted following of Jesus Christ – perhaps there is just a trickle or a stream now but is there something blocking the well spring of love from flowing more freely, like a flood, within you?  Has the Spirit of Christ brought something to your mind even now – something to confess shortly?

Let us allow Jesus to cleanse the temple of our soul by His presence in Holy Communion, but first let’s pray together today’s Collect, found in your bulletin:

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and ever.  Amen.