Sermon for Advent III
St John’s – Moultrie, GA
December 13, 2009
There are numerous blessings that our Anglican tradition has given to Christendom, but to me, none more beautiful than the Collects of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. These small gems – in size only, are one of the centerpieces of our liturgical services, and one of the great hallmarks of who we are. The Rev. Dr. Paul Zahl once said, “If you want to know what Anglicans believe, pick up the prayer book, and read the collects.” Again, I’m going to make a selfless plug for the book that Dr. Zahl co-authored, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, which is a book of meditations on the collects appointed for Sunday morning; I cannot recommend highly enough that volume as a source of enrichment to one’s prayer life.
One of the overarching attributes of the collects we pray each week is that they are grounded with the belief that we as Christians are sanctified by grace alone through the power of the Holy Spirit. Let me expand a bit on what I mean with that statement.
In many churches today, there remains a remnant of a very reformed doctrine known as the “third use of the law.” Hang tight for a minute, and I believe you’ll see very quickly where I am going with this. If you’ve ever been to a church service where you walked out feeling like you’ve been beaten up, drug through the mud, and say to yourself afterward, “I would have felt better if I had not even gotten out of bed this morning,” you probably endured a sermon grounded in the third use of the law. More than likely the preacher left you with a laundry list of things to do in order that you might sin less, pray more, be kinder to your neighbor, love your spouse more, improve your parenting skills, or something of the like. What the preacher has done I believe is get things out of order.
If you look at any of the collects in the prayer book, I hope you will notice an overarching theme throughout. The prayer begins with the law as it rightfully should. It points out some aspect of our lives in which we need correction, amendment of life, or where we fall short and miss the mark. The Greek word amartia is the word that is translated in Scripture as sin, and it has the connotation of an archer taking aim on a target and missing the mark. The collects are structured in such a manner as to bring to light those places where we have grieved the heart of God, and where we need to seek to re-order our lives in accordance with His will.
The prayer finishes with a petition and sometimes an aspiration in which we seek the grace and mercy of the Almighty. One of the things that you will not find in the collects is a second dose of the law tagged on at the end. This is an elementary definition of the third use of the law where one thinks that we have achieved such a state of grace that we can begin to do things on our own, and thus, succeed on our own merit. The only way that one’s heart, mind, and will can truly change is through the grace, mercy, and love of God. Our feeble efforts are of no avail against the principalities of this world, and the battle that wages against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Only when our prayers are ordered in such a way in which our final plea and petition is for God’s grace can we ever hope to win.
What the third use of the law tries to do is present the law first – for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; then it presents grace – “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us”; then we see the third use of the law come back at the end as a type of scolding. Evangelist Alistair Begg once said that, “so many times we hear a preacher tell us to pull up our proverbial theological boot straps, which are somewhere between our armpits and ears, we’re not sure how much higher they can go.” Leaving people with a dose of the law doesn’t give them hope. Rather, it only reinforces how lacking we really are. Look again at the insert in your bulletin and count the number of times you see the words “sing, rejoice, be glad, joy, thanksgiving” – or the title of our processional hymn. Heaping helpings of the law without grace leaves us with none of the joys of the Gospel, only the realization of how impossible the task that lies before us really is.
If you take a look at the collect for the day on page 160 of the Prayer Book, I believe you will see what I am talking about. You will notice the portion that speaks about law is toward the beginning where it says, “because we are sorely hindered by our sins.” Earlier renderings of this collect reads, “that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we be sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us.” This line places us right where we need be in order to receive the blessings of God’s goodness and mercy. We have made such a mess of things on our own, and our continued practice of doing things our way, trying to pull up our bootstraps we are ultimately hindering ourselves, and not making things better. The law has done what it is supposed to do. It has reduced us to a point where we can ultimately experience God’s grace.
Dr. Zahl offers this meditation on the law portion of this collect:
The prayer represents us as being hindered through our sins and wickedness. We are thwarted in all our attempts at self-deliverance. That is a grievous admission. We are unable to help ourselves: trapped, stripped, caught by outward circumstances and inward tendencies. This is as it were a paraphrase of Step One of the Twelve Steps. Our life is fundamentally out of control! No one can appreciate the power of this prayer without first making the admission that all human hopes of self-redemption are delusional. Is that too much to ask?
This does not paint a very bright picture of the human predicament, but it paints a very honest one. A couple of decades ago the big slogan was I’m okay, you’re okay. In the light of the Gospel that slogan should more properly be rendered either – I’m okay, you’re okay is NOT okay; or it should be read I’m not okay and neither is anyone else. The one thing that we should take full ownership of is that in the eyes of God, we are sinful, broken creatures in need of help – we are ultimately in need of a Saviour.
The most beautiful piece of the both the collects and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that we are not left to wallow in this untenable position. We have been given the source of help that we need only ask for, and do so every day of our lives. The Gospel centered portion of our collect says that even through we hinder things based on what we have done and continue to do, God’s grace and mercy is even more bountiful. We also pray that it will come to us speedily so that we in fact might be delivered from those powers of this world, which corrupt and destroy God’s creation.
Dr. Zahl concludes with these words:
But as we are “sore hindered,” even so is the mercy of God bountiful and speedy. Moreover, the mercy of God is not a facile fiat. It is grounded in something: “the satisfaction of thy Son our Lord.” You could have all the faith in the world in thin ice, but you would still fall through. You could have extremely fragile faith in thick ice, and you would not fall through. The thick ice which will not give way is the historic sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, satisfying the Judge of Life. With sins forgiven, the human spirit is no longer obstructed and caved in on its own insatiable hungers. There is breathing room, known in these words “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be no entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”
We are past the half-way point through this season of Advent, and one of the great promises of this time before the Incarnation is that God came, and will come again. The book of Revelation concludes with the words, “And the Spirit and the Bride say come, and let him that heareth say come…Amen, even so come quickly Lord Jesus.” We live in the time between the first and second Advent of the Messiah, and in this period of waiting, we must continue to depend completely on God’s grace and mercy.
I came across an article some time ago, not on the subject of Advent, but I believe the closing paragraph sums up our anticipation and longing as pilgrims along the journey toward Christ’s second coming:
May we continue to flee to the word of God for comfort, encouragement, and preparation for what is “yet to come.” For the “coming of Christ” does not consist of Rome destroying Jerusalem, [in the first century AD] but rather the return of the risen King to consummate human history and set up His eternal Kingdom. Since our King is returning to repay the wicked and rescue His people, we are called to be both prepared and faithful in light of this reality. We must cling to the blessed hope of being resurrected to be with the risen King forever. Until this “great and terrible” Day arrives, may we live as ambassadors for the Gospel, pleading with the world to “Be reconciled to God” for indeed, “the end of all things is near” (I Peter 4:7).
And the Spirit and the Bride say Come, and let him that heareth say Come…Amen, even so come quickly Lord Jesus. Amen.
*****Citations available upon request******