Sunday, December 1, 2019

"Not sticks, but arrows"--a Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

(Preached December 1, 2019, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, La Porte, Indiana)

+In the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

As we begin our second Advent season together, it seems to me natural to think about the cycles of the year that bring us back to this point. Indeed, I believe we tend to do so at all the different forms of new year—here at Advent, at the civil New Year in January, at the beginning of a new school year, at our birthdays and anniversaries. All of these days, though more or less arbitrary in themselves, encourage us not only to think back and to look forward, but also to reflect on how the revolving year has brought us back around to the same place again. Back in the 60s, we had a Joni Mitchell song—one which seems to have been covered by nearly everybody else who could get to a microphone—on this very subject. The title of it is “The Circle Game,” and the chorus, which has one of those tunes that gets stuck in your head very easily, goes like this:
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time.
We can't return--we can only look
Behind from where we came,
And go round and round and round
In the circle game.
It’s not great poetry, I suppose, but people are still recording it. The thing is, though, even though Advent as a season is capable of giving us exactly this feeling about the “carousel of time,” the actual content of Advent is precisely the opposite. Advent is our regularly recurring, seasonally cycling, reminder that time is not in fact cyclical, that history does not recur, but rather is headed toward something—that it was headed to the birth, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the first instance, and that it is even now headed toward the great Day of the Lord and the recreation of the universe as the visible kingdom of God. As you may remember, the traditional themes of sermons for Advent were the Four Last Things—death, judgment, heaven and hell—and those are not exactly the set of ideas, it seems to me, that would lead us to think about time as just running pointlessly around in a big circle.
This idea that history is going somewhere, that it is moving toward a purpose, is one of the common elements of Judaism and Christianity and Islam, and so it is to some degree baked into the way that our Western world looks at things. Other world cultures have had other ideas. The great religions of India, to take just one contrasting example, start from an assumption that time itself does keep recurring in vast cycles, and that individuals are reincarnated even within each cycle. In one sense, the great impulse of some sorts of Hinduism and of Buddhism is to find a way out of that cycle of rebirth. For some schools of Hinduism like the one which produced the Hare Krishna movement, those folks we used to see in airports, the way out is to realize that the soul is one with god. If that is true, the theory goes, then the soul in the body is like a driver in a car. Thus the soul shouldn’t allow itself to be influenced by things that happen to the body, any more than a driver would limp because of a flat on her car. Buddhism, on the other hand, takes almost the opposite way out, saying that the self is only a passing phenomenon, like a whirlpool in a river, and that the way out of the cycles of time is to stop clinging to things and people in the world as if the self had a substantial existence.
Obviously, I am just sketching these other religions or philosophies in broad and general strokes: but even in these generalities, we see the radical difference from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim idea that there is a transcendent Creator, outside all things and above all being, who brings the universe into existence with a goal in mind. Indeed, more than that, these three religions of Abraham say that God creates the world with no lesser goal in mind than God himself. And I want to say a bit more just about that—about God as the goal of creation—but I need to back up a bit to a different theological question to get there.
One of the things that Jewish and Christian and Muslim thinkers spent a lot of time on in the Middle Ages (and today as well, for that matter) was the question of how God knows things. The Greeks and Romans had thought of their deities watching the events of human history as those events unfolded, like someone watching from a distance—through a telescope, they might have said, if they had had such things. But that sort of direct observation wouldn’t really work for the God of Abraham, who claims, after all, to know the future just as much as he knows the present and the past. After several further stages of development that we don’t need to get into, the 13th century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides taught that observation just isn’t a good analogy for God’s knowledge at all, because God knows the world as its creator before there even is something to be observed, the way a builder knows a house before it’s built, or a painter knows a painting before it’s painted. Following up on Maimonides, the Christian theologian St. Thomas Aquinas went on to say that even the analogy of God as an artistic creator still had a weakness.
Aquinas pointed out that the most important thing we want to say about God is that God is, even as the Holy Trinity, absolutely, transcendently, one. And, Aquinas went on, the more we stress God’s absolute simplicity, God’s perfect unity, the harder it is to say that God can really know anything but God’s own absolutely simple self. Philosophers and theologians had reached that conclusion before, but no one had ever been able to connect that line of reasoning with any of the arguments about God’s knowledge of the created world. Aquinas, though, makes a breakthrough. If, he says, God knows everything there is to know about God, then, among other things, God knows every single way in which God can be known and loved and worshipped by a creature. God knows all the ways that creatures might come to find their ultimate fulfillment in him. And God knows all of these various ways separately and in perfect detail—not just how archangels in general might come to know God, but how Michael’s experience of God would be different from Gabriel’s experience. And so, Aquinas says, knowing all the ways in which creatures could come to the knowledge and love of God, God creates some, or possibly all, of those creatures. Out of his own simple self-knowledge, God creates a universe of creatures which have the ability, each following its own individual path, to finally be gathered in worship around his throne of glory in heaven.
What that means in terms of Advent and the cycles of time is that history is not just headed toward something. It’s not just that the Universe somehow happens to be aimed at God, but rather that this exact Universe is created precisely because it is capable of being aimed at God. God chooses to create this Universe, and us in it, specifically because this Universe is, and we are, capable of knowing and loving God, in all of its, and of our, myriad ways.
And when we turned away from God, and marred the Universe itself by our disobedience, God did not simply reset the creation to its original conditions, but rather became incarnate as one of us. God took our nature up into the mysterious interior life of the Trinity, so that, having forfeited the ability to reach our natural goal on our own, we are brought to a higher goal in Christ. As I have said here before, Aquinas teaches that we are sticks by nature but that in Christ we become arrows, aimed at the golden dot in a target we could never have dreamed of reaching on our own.
Jesus Christ is, as the Book of Revelation says, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end; and in him and through him, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the eternal will of the Father, we alone of all creatures share in the knowledge and love and life of the Blessed Trinity. Through all the cycling years, this, and nothing less, is the goal of history and the purpose of the Universe. Amen.

--John Wm. Houghton

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