Building the great ark

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122:1-9
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:37-44

Survivors from the Vanished World

"Had not the Lord God left us survivors, we should have become Sodom and Gomorrah."
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Advent is a season in which we await the arrival of the Great King, Son of "the Emperor Over-sea" (to borrow from C.S. Lewis). In the ancient world, heralds were sent in advance of a king so that people could make ready to receive him fittingly and properly. How much greater are the preparations made ready for the King of kings? One carol exclaims, "Let every heart prepare Him room, and Heaven and Nature sing!" Another proclaims, "Hark! The herald angels sing!" And we put on our most special clothes and sweep every room, rake every yard, and polish every surface! This is why we adorn our church in purple, for that is the color of royalty, the furnishings and garments that befit a King. (Remember how important the garments were for the king's feast in Matthew 22?)

But meeting with the Great King requires more than an outward show of reverence and respect. His concern is mostly with our interior lives. How goes it with our hearts? What is the state of our souls? Have we been entirely faithful to Him and to the Book of Life He has given us? We know that He comes for this special visit but once a year. How has it gone the past year .... with our patience, our kindness, our unselfishness, our fidelity to Him? Have we been for Him all that He would have been had He stood in our shoes?

Advent is a time of year when we carry out a spiritual spring cleaning. It is time for our most honest recollections of the past year. And this is why purple has also come to signify penance, why it adorns the world's churches and chapels during Advent and Lent. Meeting with the King inevitably will always have this double meaning .... not because He demands it, but because the road to holiness is not a smooth path, but one of mindfulness and struggle. All of our lives we say, "I long to see God's face. I seek Him in all my ways." On the other hand, the prophets warn us,

"Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light;
* * *
and gloom with no brightness in it."

And this explains the tradition of God's unapproachable quality. Who dares to set foot upon the Mountain of God or to touch the Ark of the Lord before we are ready? One of the greatest saints of the Western Church, St. Augustine, yearned for baptism for years but refused it, for he knew in his heart, even as the sacrament might go forward, that he could not stop his nightly craving for casual sex. Purple signifies both extremes at once -- a longing for God and an awareness that our lives must be a wholesome, refreshing, and salutary dwelling for Him.

From the beginnings of Christianity (and long before that) people have read the Bible on four levels: the literal meaning, the spiritual meaning, the moral meaning, and finally the eschatological meaning. This last one, the level that reads each passage as a coded message about the last things, always receives special attention in Advent. The King is coming! Make ready a highway for our God .... which will lead to each of our dwellings!

This First Sunday in Advent, we begin with a reading from the opening verses of the Book of the prophet Isaiah taken from the Office Lectionary. Without survivors from the world before the Great Flood, Isaiah writes, we would have become Sodom and Gomorrah. And St. Paul takes up this strand in our Epistle reading for this morning: "let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in ... drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in ... jealousy." The Apostle exhorts God's people to put away their past lives, for within each of us, he implies, is the potential for Sodom and Gomorrah.

The world before the Flood and, later, Sodom and Gomorrah, signify the transgressing of God's boundaries, where more always overules the blessing of a godly enough. In the ante-diluvian world fallen angels coupled with human women (Gen 6), a scene of dark power ever gaining in power. In Sodom and Gomorrah the mania of drunkenness, perverted sexuality, and, no doubt, jealousies, led men to plan the rape of Heavenly angels (Gen 19) -- the mind absorbed in layer after layer of evil. We understand the meaning of St. Paul's warning through the prism of our own experiences. The deadly triangle of inebriation, promiscuity, and torturing jealousies is a vicious cycle without end. It is a cancerous seed planted within the tender, healthy tissues of the human heart. Those who have descended this unholy staircase will tell you that everything good and decent devolves into heartbreak and destruction. It is a wormhole back to the ante-diluvian world.

Evil is not a thing of degrees; whenever we permit our minds to wander away from the wholesome life to which God has called us, we participate in that evil. Isaiah says that we are bound to devolve back into degraded life if it were not for survivors from the world before the Flood. These survivors are royal heralds of a different kind, for their message is deeply personal and solemnly urgent. They bid us to make ready for the arrival of our goodly King. He humbles Himself to enter under our roofs. He calls us to His yearly feast. He bids us don our special garments, which are the hearts of godliness that He desires for us. It is here, in these hearts, that He deigns to dwell with such pleasantness and peace. And He bids us to dwell always with Him.

For He has written,

Many waters cannot quench love.
neither can floods drown it.
If a man offered, for love,
all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.

He is not interested in that part of our lives where we covet material wealth or material pleasures. Love is all His heart. And love by its inmost nature and essence is pure. He is the Holy One coming into the world and bears tidings of great joy: that we are to be His heirs and members of His royal household. Prepare Him room! .... and Heaven and nature sing. Amen.