Advent IV – Year A
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
December 18, 2022
Isaiah 7:10-17 and Matthew 11:18-25
Many of our Protestant cousins mark the four Sundays of Advent respectively by thinking about love, hope, joy, and peace. Not so at St. Mary’s. Since at least the 15th century, Advent sermons have been marked by the Four Last Things: death, judgment, and heaven, which we’ve already heard about.
Hell is this week’s topic, and frankly, hell is not something I’ve thought a lot about since becoming an Episcopalian. It’s not because I don’t think there is a state or place called hell – the Bible is clear that there is – it’s because hell was regularly used as a weapon of fear by the leaders in my evangelical past. “Do this, and you’ll go to hell.” “Be like them and you’ll go to hell.”…and so on.
While the Bible may be clear about hell being a thing, it isn’t clear at all about what precisely hell is.
Hell – sheol in Hebrew – is vague in the Old Testament. It is the place where the dead go, and is sometimes translated as the grave, death, destruction, the pit, and sometimes hell, all of which have very different meanings in English. In the New Testament, the two Greek words most often translated as hell are hades and Gehenna. In short, hades is the Hebrew sheol - the place of the unseen spirits – the realm of the dead – while Gehenna is place of fiery punishment after death.
In our first reading from Isaiah, Sheol and heaven seem to be at the opposite ends of the extremes of the universe: “[as] deep as Sheol or as high as heaven.” You’ve heard me talk about heaven kissing earth in the Sacraments of the Church, especially in the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion Quoting the book of Genesis, we sing this verse when a new church is consecrated by the bishop: “this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Our burial liturgy speaks of Holy Communion as “the foretaste of that heavenly banquet.” If we experience heaven, even impartially, in our world today, might it be true that hell manifests itself in this world?
I just read a heartbreaking news story detailing the horrors of what’s happening behind the scenes in Ukraine. Mass shootings abound in this country. Women are arrested for not covering up their entire bodies except for small openings for the eyes in Afghanistan and other places. In the East African nations of Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia, the is such an extreme drought that food shortages are likely to cause one death every 36 seconds between now and the end of the year.
We may be deluded into thinking hell on earth is having to park a 10-minute walk away from our destination, or having to deal with supply chain shortages when ordering new appliances like dishwashers. But one doesn’t have to look to the most horrible atrocities on the planet to see hell right in front of our face. Beyond the obvious tragedies of the loss of loved ones at too young an age, the ravaging of cancer, and so on, we only must look at even the smallest effects of human sin, particularly in the mirror. You and I know full well how we are complicit in making hell known by our own sin. No matter what hell is in the afterlife, there is no doubt that hell is a very real thing that we experience and even contribute to in big and small ways here and now. We are desperate for a sign of hope in the midst of our warfare and strife.
Seen in this light, I’m not sur that it is helpful to speculate who, if any, comprise the population of hell. Hell is not a place we assign those with whom we disagree, but is rather a place where it seems that God is not. It’s hard to see where God is at the bombed hospital in Kiev, or with those who will be sleeping in the -10 degrees weather expected this Thursday night. It’s also hard to imagine that a God of love would subject anyone to an eternity of fiery punishment, but it’s impossible, for me at least, to believe that God doesn’t love enough to give us a choice whether to accept him or reject him. I’m what you might call a hopeful universalist. We don’t know with any certainty the final destiny of any human being, and while none of us will escape the Day of Judgment that we talked about three weeks ago, God’s mercy is so great that it is unfathomable to our feeble minds.
Isaiah’s promise of a sign – a son born of a virgin named Immanuel – gives hope to the house of David in a time of warfare between Israel and her neighbors. This passage was quoted by St. Matthew in our gospel lesson, leading to a lasting Christian connection between the child promised by Isaiah to the son of Mary and adopted son of Joseph of the house of David hundreds of years later.
As Advent makes its turn toward Christmas, we hear the end result of when heaven kissed earth for the first time at the Annunciation when the angel announced to Mary that she would bear this Immanuel in her womb. Rather than focusing our imagination on what hell will be like – who is in and who is out, how long it lasts, how precisely separation from God will be experienced – let us set our sights and our hopes on this child, this Immanuel, God with us, who is coming to rescue us from the hell we’re in now. Let us look to the babe in the manager who will bring the love and grace of heaven to this lost and broken world. Immanuel, God with us, even in the midst of hell on earth.
“Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free! From our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.”
 Isaiah 7:11.
 Gen. 28:17.
Mr. Brandon Smee
Postulant for Priesthood
Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey
I’ve observed a pattern among Episcopalians: if you poll a room of us, you’ll likely find that the majority come from another tradition. I myself grew up in a church where the feast we’re celebrating tonight, the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was totally unknown. In that Wesleyan denomination, Mary was a bit of a problem. She was seen as a root of idolatry and all sorts of theological shenanigans. My disposition toward Mary only worsened in college when my non-denominational church took me to the streets to convert people away from traditions that lift up her name in prayer. Yet, in the years since taking my first steps into the broader Christian tradition here at St. Mary’s, I have come to know her not as something to avoid, but as a blessing to embrace.
Tonight we enter into Mary’s conception. In our church calendar one can find three kinds of feasts. Some celebrate holy people whose lives revealed and still reveal the person of Jesus. Others center ideas that ground our doctrine of who Jesus is and how he saves us. And still others recall key moments in salvation history and call us to participate in the reality of God’s saving work. This feast does all three. First, it remembers Mary, the Blessed Virgin, mother of Jesus our Savior. Second, for many Western Chrisitans, it celebrates a doctrine which explains how Mary was set apart to bear and raise the Christ. And third, it marks a key moment in salvation history and invites us to encounter it in holy time.
Despite popular misunderstandings, this feast does not commemorate the conception of Jesus, but instead it bends time back to the conception of Mary. Tradition holds that Mary’s conception was miraculous. St. Anne and St. Joachim, Mary’s parents, were unable to have children. Anne, like the Old Testament Hannah, mother of Samuel, cried out to the Lord for a child, promising to dedicate it to God. The Lord answered her prayer, and she miraculously conceived. With a silent and invisible hand, God gives life to all people, but, in Mary’s case, God openly intervened for a holy purpose. On one level, Mary’s conception manifests God’s mercy to Anne and Joachim. Yet God intervenes not just for Mary’s parents, but for all creation, as Mary’s conception marks the moment in the human story where the gloom of night begins to kindle with the light of a new, rising sun.
As Gabriel announces to Mary in our Gospel text, God favors her for a purpose. The Father’s will is for her to carry the eternal Son, and more than that, to raise the child Jesus into the person of Christ. And when the angel says: “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” he discloses a favor that precedes the Messiah’s presence in her womb, a reality that goes back to her beginning. From Mary’s conception, she is the condition for Jesus’ coming and messiahship, the occasion for God’s gracious action in history. In that moment, the Almighty set her apart as an ark for the Holy Spirit’s work. God’s purposes are from everlasting, and Mary’s conception is the manifestation in time of God’s eternal purpose to bring Christ into the world and to raise up a savior. In her beginning salvation and new creation draw near.
In the story of the original creation in Genesis, we read how our first parents became alienated from God and found enmity with the serpent who tempted them. The fall of Adam and Eve represents the state of all humanity, equipped with all the knowledge of good and evil but powerless to find our Creator, and, when the Lord of Life finds us, unable to bear the holy presence without fear. Hiding ourselves from the Hand that formed us, humankind adds sin to sin until it pervades our world like carbon suffusing the atmosphere. In this condition we groan for the world to be renewed. Mary, in the midst of this, is the beginning of a new creation. This is why the church has called her the new Eve. The original Eve sinned first and then Adam fell; the new Eve comes first and bears the new, sinless Adam. The first Eve was destined to be the mother of all living; the new Eve is the mother of Life itself. And while the first Eve was clothed with animal skins that suffered corruption, the new Eve is clothed with the sun and crowned with the stars of a new world. Mary’s conception reverses the subjugation of women in the name of Eve’s sin and elevates all womankind in the favor God pours out on her. In her the brokenness of all humanity is mended. Where in the story of our first parents and the serpent we hear the finality of God’s “NO” to sin and estrangement from humanity, in Mary’s conception we hear still and small God’s yes to holy love and intimacy, a “YES” that resounds in every people and nation in Christ.
In Mary, God purposes to come near to us in Jesus Christ. Her beginning is the penultimate step of Christ’s divine descent. Here at her conception is the promise of the New Testament in embryonic form. In her the stump of Jesse, King David’s line, buds and prepares to bloom. In her sounds the last gasp of a doomed world before the new breath of redemption. In her the running waters of prophecy join in one mighty stream. Divine favor pours into the world through this one woman.
Mary’s conception reveals that God’s grace and mercy are not locked up in heaven, but embodied here on earth. The Holy One sheds the light of grace on Anne’s womb so that grace itself might come to life in Mary’s. Mary’s conception is unlike any other. As Gabriel says, she is favored to be the life that brings the Savior into the world and to raise him into the full stature of his calling. The Holy and Living One comes through for us in a thing too small for our eyes to see, yet so great that its consequences thunder through the years. All our hopes flow through God’s gracious intervention in Mary’s beginning.
The Virgin Mary’s conception is unlike any other, and yet it is also just like all others. In the silent, unseen working of God’s hand we each find favor at our beginnings. The Holy One purposed for Mary to be the mother of Jesus, and there is a purpose for each of us in Christ which God foreknew even when we were conceived. The powers of this world presume to have their own ends for us, using us to realize their selfish ambitions, discarding us when we exhaust our utility. But there remains a purpose for us from on high, a calling we hear when the Word of God transforms our hearts, a favor that marks us in the waters of baptism. As Revelation 12 says, we all are Mary’s children. If we choose to receive our maternal inheritance, we also let our bodies become temples of the Holy Spirit, spaces where Jesus comes to dwell. God is working the new creation through each of us with a purpose that goes back to our beginning. And although we come from many roads and beginnings to this holy feast, we find here the mother of our favor, for we have found God’s favor in her. Amen.
Advent II – Judgment
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
December 4, 2022
It is an understatement to say that the Church’s treatment of these weeks preceding Christmas is counter cultural. Even though in our opening collect, we prayed that we may “greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer,” Advent is a penitential season and joy seems only visible far off in the distance. And yet the “joy of Christmas” exploded all over the place from the radio to Costco to the Plaza over the last few weeks, while we gather and soberly attempt to reflect on our final destiny – on death, judgment, heaven and hell, intentionally subduing our joy as we take stock and prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming in the manger and at the Last Day.
Last week, Fr. Sean talked to us about death, and this week, it’s judgment. Advent bids us to set our death before our eyes and prepare for the judgment that is to come. Theologians generally talk about judgment as it relates to the “last things” in two ways: the particular judgment and the general judgment. The particular judgment is what happens when a person dies. God judges the individual for his or her deeds, and the person then awaits their final destination (the two traditional final destinations being discussed the next two Sundays). The Church affirms that upon our death, each of us will be called to account for our life, with Christ as our judge. In that moment, we will not be able to hide our darkest secrets and deepest emotions. All will be laid bare.
Just as the time of reckoning arrives at last for the individual, so it does for all of creation in the general judgement. One day in the future, human history will come to its conclusion, and Christ “shall come again, with glory, to judge both the [living] and the dead” as we affirm in the Nicene Creed. Christ will return at the sound of the trumpet, and the souls of the dead will be reunited with their bodies at what we call the general resurrection. At the final judgment, all the departed come before the judgment seat of God, body and soul, no matter their station in life. It will be a day of rejoicing for some and a day of doom for others. Jesus warned in Luke 12, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.”
Neither the particular nor the general judgment sound like a fun time. This isn’t a sermon topic that one chooses to attract newcomers to the church. The idea of God judging us for our actions doesn’t feel very inclusive and welcoming, bringing back traumatic memories for many of us who were judged unfairly, or who, by the judgment of others, weren’t deemed worthy of heaven. Advent’s reminder of God’s judgment at the hour of our death and at the Last Day isn’t designed to scare us into submission. It isn’t the Church’s way of controlling us to behave a certain way, to prompt us to clean up our act on our own, or to marginalize and exclude. God’s judgment leads us to mercy. And we prepare for God’s judgment by judging ourselves, lest we be judged by the Lord. We examine our lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandment and acknowledge our sins before Almighty God with full purpose of amendment of life. We heed the warnings of John the Baptist and prepare the way of the Lord, making his paths straight in our hearts, turning from our selfishness toward God’s abundant mercy.
But we can’t gloss over the fact that the Day of Judgement will be terrible. Referred to in Scripture by the prophets as “The Great and Terrible Day of the Lord”, it is described in vivid detail in the old Latin funeral hymn Dies irae, which was actually written for the season of Advent. It begins by warning that the Day will reveal God’s wrath upon all injustice and unrepented sin.
The day of wrath, that day,
will dissolve the world in ashes
…the hymn begins. Fear seems to be the only response possible! The hymn continues,
How great will be the quaking,
when the Judge is about to come,
strictly investigating all things!
The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound
through the sepulchres of the regions,
will summon all before the throne.
Death and nature will marvel,
when the creature will rise again,
to respond to the Judge.
The written book will be brought forth,
in which all is contained,
from which the world shall be judged.
When therefore the Judge will sit,
whatever lies hidden, will appear:
nothing will remain unpunished.
Judgment shall be according to our deeds, whatever is in the Book. But also in God’s Word is the hope for mercy. Our hymn continues,
What then shall I, poor wretch [that I am], say?
Which patron shall I entreat,
when [even] the just may [only] hardly be sure?
King of fearsome majesty,
Who gladly save those fit to be saved,
save me, O fount of mercy.
Just Judge of vengeance,
make a gift of remission
before the day of reckoning.
I sigh, like the guilty one:
my face reddens in guilt:
Spare the imploring one, O God.
You Who absolved Mary,
and heard the dying thief,
give hope to me also.
God’s judgment leads to his great mercy! It is only by his great mercy that we will make it through that Great and Terrible Day. And so the hymn continues and calls on the Lord who said in the gospel of John, “No one who calls on me will I ever reject.”
My prayers are not worthy:
but You, [Who are] good, graciously grant
that I be not burned up by the everlasting fire.
Grant me a place among the sheep,
and take me out from among the goats,
setting me on the right side.
Once the cursed have been silenced,
sentenced to acrid flames,
Call me, with the blessed.
[Humbly] kneeling and bowed I pray,[my] heart crushed as ashes:
take care of my end.
Tearful [will be] that day,
on which from the glowing embers will arise
the guilty man who is to be judged:
Then spare him, O God.
Merciful Lord Jesus,
grant them rest. Amen.
As terrible as the judgment that is to come may be, judgment leads to mercy. For the God who mercifully redeems us is the same God who judges us. And he uses the same means to both judge and save: his unconditional love, a love that has both effects – first judgment, then mercy. Advent judgement calls us to put ourselves in in a position – by prayer, fasting and repentance – by watching and waiting – to receive the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ both now and at the hour of our death. That having heeded the warnings of the prophets and forsaken our sins, we may greet the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer with perhaps a bit less fear and a lot more joy. Amen.
 Luke 12:2-3 (NRSVA).
 Exhortation, 1979 BCP.
 Joel 2:31, Malachi 4:5
 Rev 20:12; Romans 2:6
 John 6:37
 This treatment on the Dies irae comes from this blog post by Msgr. Charles Pope: http://blog.adw.org/2011/11/sing-the-dies-irae-at-my-funeral-a-meditation-on-a-lost-treasure/.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!