Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people….
(Collect Sunday Next before Advent)
Today we come to the end of the Christian Year. The Christian Year is not marked by the days, weeks, and months of the secular calendar, but by a series of seasons that situate the earnest soul in a remembrance of past events that condition time-present as it approaches the eternity of God’s future. In other words, the Christian Year molds and defines us, calling us to a spiritual transformation of time. But the time that is to be transformed is our time, or time as we use or do not use, offer or do not offer, consecrate or do not consecrate it all to God. Time is, if you will, the space that is created to be filled with our true and laudable service [unto God]. As the author of the Sunday Sermons in the Church Times wrote back in 1930: The Church’s Year shows how time is dowered with eternal issues, and that life’s significance lies in the moral and spiritual realities revealed in its changing changelessness. It shows how faith measures the worth of men, and would teach us all to yield our reverence neither to rank, wealth, intellectual eminence, nor power, but to the humble men of heart whose names endure only because they shine with the pure radiance of saintliness. (T.C.Y. p. 218) The Church’s Year teaches us to look back through the life of the Church, of salvation history, in order to remember those changeless spiritual realities which have enabled the saints to intend to please God in all their lives. (W.Law) Those changeless spiritual realities are what then will inspire and enkindle greater zeal and passion in our hearts as we prepare to begin the Church Year again in Advent.
And so the last day of the Church’s Year is called Stir-up Sunday after the words that we read in today’s Collect. Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people…. Yet I wonder if these words do not fall, rather, on deaf ears. Deaf ears are dull ears. And dull ears are the instruments of numbed hearing. Numbed hearing reveals closed and hardened hearts. And hearts are closed and hardened when God is forgotten and not remembered. And God is forgotten and not remembered when a man is wholly moved and defined, stirred up and shaken by this world, its hopes and fears, its rewards and punishments, its accolades and censures. And why is a man so stirred up by mammon, earthly treasure, earthly fortune, and earthly expectations? Is he despairing, doubtful, discouraged, and despondent over his relationship with God?
And how is this despairing revealed and manifested in human life? Not with any outright rejection of the theology of God, the salvation it commands through Jesus Christ, by the operation of the Holy Spirit. Not by abandoning the Church, her services and fellowship. Rather, it is revealed through the answer to a question, asked by the inimitable 18th century non-Juring Anglican Divine, the Reverend Mr. William Law: If you will here stop and ask yourselves why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you, that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it. (Serious Call…, 22) The chief reason that Christians are not stirred up to sanctity, holiness, and that righteousness which alone will save them, is that they never thoroughly intended it. And they never thoroughly intended it because they are stirred up by worldly concerns and have never determined to please God in all their lives.
And how do people know that they do not intend to please God in all their lives and through all their actions? Well, again using Mr. Law’s words, they say to themselves foolish and stupid things like this: … all people fall short of the perfection of the Gospel, and therefore… are content with [their] failings. (Ibid, 28) In other words, they make excuses for their failure to be more loving, more giving, more pious, and more pure. They congratulate themselves on what they are giving, doing, or offering to God as if they were already doing some great and laudable service, or as if they were doing the Almighty a great favour. So they say: I have done enough; I can do no more. I have given enough; I can give no more. And what they really mean is not that they cannot do or give more, but that they do not desire to give or do more. And all because they have never been determined to please, serve, and obey God in all their lives. They have only and ever given to God what they think he deserves, what he merits, and of what he is worthy. And what does God receive? Much less than what people spend on themselves in time or resources. And if a Christian thinks that by doing such things he is pleasing God in all his thoughts, words, deeds, and desires, he is sadly mistaken. For from the Divine standpoint, he is mad or insane. And the real failure comes about because supposed Christians sell God short and refuse to be challenged by him into that change that will save their lives. What they end up doing is what young people now call settling. And what they mean is that a person settles for another because he thinks he can do no better. And the Christian who says that I am not so bad, I give all that I can, I do all that I can do is involved in the same mindset. What he has done is to surrender to a level of goodness, generosity, and piety beyond which he will not go. He has settled for a certain and limited amount of goodness only. And he will not go further because he does not intend to please God in all of his life. What he has done is to stop the flow of transformative Grace into his heart. In fact, if the truth be told, he has stopped living unto God and has turned back and into his contented and complacent self!
Mr. Law continues: If my religion is only a formal compliance with those modes of worship that are in fashion where I live; if it cost me no pains or trouble; if it lays me under no rules or restraints; if I have no careful thoughts and sober reflections about it; is it not great [stupidity] to think that I am striving to enter in at the ‘strait gate’? If I am seeking everything that can delight my senses, and regale my appetites; spending my time and fortune in pleasures, in diversions, and worldly enjoyments; a stranger to watchings, fastings, prayers, and mortification; how can it be said that I am working out my salvation with fear and trembling? If there is nothing in my life that shows me to be different to the infidels and heathen…why should I think that I am amongst those few who are walking the narrow way to heaven? (Ibid, 29)
So Mr. Law reminds us that Christ intends that our lives should be different - yes, radically different from those of our neighbors. Christ intends that those who would follow Him should walk the narrow way to heaven. He says, Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (St. Matthew vii. 13, 14) Our neighbours need to wonder why we appear, look, think, speak, and act in ways wholly unlike theirs. What they see and perceive should compel them to question our manner and mode of existence. They ought to learn, eventually, that like the multitude in this morning’s Gospel, that we go to the Lord to eat spiritual food. When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat? (St. John vi. 5) The multitude is seeking to satiate a spiritual hunger, far greater than any worldly hunger. And Jesus is intent upon fulfilling that hunger with the spiritual food that will save their souls. Men hunger for God’s Word. Earthly goods pass away; the satisfaction they generate is ephemeral and temporary. Philip answered him, Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little. (St. John vi. 7) What men need is what God’s Word alone offers as sustenance and nourishment on this pilgrimage to his kingdom. And that food we should desire is God’s Real Presence – his Word and Sacrament offered habitually in the life of his Church. And to desire such food we must be stirred up to recognize our need for it and seek out its healing, curative, and redemptive power.
To be stirred up wholly and completely to serve and please God, we must intend to please God in all of our lives. Perhaps the intention can be prayerfully summed up like this: Father, help me to know that I need thee above all things. Help me to realize that if I do not need thee, I will be stirred up by all sorts of false gods who lead me away from thee. Help me to see that thou desirest to meet my need in feeding me on thy Word. Prevent me from being stirred up by people, places, situations of passing meaning, unlasting merit, and little worth. Help me to be stirred up within my heart for thee alone. Lord let me never cease until I need thee and receive thee. In receiving thee, Lord, let me know that I have received a treasure beyond all earthly value, human expectation, and passing love. Then, Lord, let me give my all to thee, by ‘intending to please thee in all my life’. This must become that prayer that stirs us up to live a devout and holy life. Then, with Mr. William Law, we shall be intent upon the perfection of the present day, making ready for that kind of Advent whose mortification and fasting impoverish the soul that will need and desire the birth of Christ within, once more at Christmas time. Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons