Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.
Epistle Romans 13:8
Collect Matthew 21:1
Advent Sunday marks the beginning of the Christian Year for the Anglican Church. The Collect is "to be repeated every day with the other Collects in Advent until Christmas Eve".
The Epistle is a reminder to us of how we are to live, and with what hope. It is well chosen for the first in the Christian Year, for the annual (if no more frequent) reminder of these things is necessary if we are to be kept in that hope.
"Owe no man anything", says the Apostle. There is such a thing as a legal obligation, as the previous verses make clear, and the Christian, though a subject of a greater King, is still obliged to do his duty toward his earthly ruler. The law lays certain requirements on us, and we are to fulfil them all, especially regarding our duty of love toward others. The Second Table of the law is summed up in one sentence, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Leviticus 19:18). Since love can do no harm or wrong to our neighbour, and since the law requires us to do no wrong to God or our neighbour, love is the fulfilling of the law. So if we would know whether our thoughts, our words or our deeds are contrary to the law, we can apply this simple rule: will it do harm to my neighbour, and would I wish to receive the same from another? If the answer to the first part is 'yes', and to the second 'no', then we are about to break the law.
What Paul has written regarding love is just the last part of a longer section on the Christian's moral obligations, which began at 12:1. Human nature being what it is we often require a reason why we should fulfil our obligations. For the Roman the reason was fear of the magistrate. For the Jew it was fear of divine condemnation. For the Christian it is because the day has dawned, and the bright glory of the same is about to shine forth.
"And that", in the sense of "and all because…". We know the time (here the word means 'special moment', or 'occasion'). It is high time (the word here means 'hour', chronological time) that we were awakening out of sleep. The night is over, and we should be in bed no longer. Why the urgency? For Paul, an event has occurred that signals the dawning of the new day. That event is nothing less that the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, which has signalled the beginning of the days of the Messiah, the age of glory. It is only the beginning; the day is at hand, but the full brightness of the day has yet to come. However, once the dawn has broken, full day must follow; it cannot be any other way! Since the day is coming we must begin to live in the day. All that belongs to the hours of darkness must be left behind, for there is no pace for such things in the day. Instead we must take up the instruments, weapons, or armour of the day. The Greek word hopla ('armour') referred to a heavily-armed soldier. He was well-equipped, ready to face whatever came. We are not suitably equipped if we are still holding on to those things that belong back in the dark, because those conditions no longer apply. We need the 'armour of light', because we are looking to the light, the day, as the age in which we live, and the time in which our salvation will finally appear.
Our conduct is to be 'honest', lacking in deceit, having nothing of untruth about it. Indeed, we are to walk about as if it was day already. The picture is not of someone groping about in the half-light, pretending to see what he cannot, but of one whose preparation is for the day, and who begins even now to get on with the business of the day. So the activities that belong firmly in the (literal) night—carousing and drunkenness, sexual immorality, stirring up strife and jealousy—are to be left behind. All that belongs in the past, in the night of no hope, must be left there. Rather, we are to clothe ourselves with our Lord Jesus Christ, and not make provision, or have a care about, the flesh (the part of us that is subject to decay, not merely the physical body, but all emotions, desires, ambitions, and so forth, that are not of the dawning day) to gratify its lusts. No desire, therefore, that belongs to the night, is to be found in us, for we are clothed upon with our Lord Jesus Christ. We have on the uniform of the King, in whose service we are found. We have submitted to the authority of Jesus, who is our Saviour, and whose appearing is our hope. We have taken to ourselves the example of our Sovereign, and so are denying ourselves for his sake. All this demonstrates our confidence in the salvation for which we look. We live as those whose hope is the resurrection of the body, whose desire is to be with our Lord Jesus, and whose nature it now is to hate the things of the decaying world.
The Gospel portion records the 'triumphal entry' of our Lord Jesus into Jerusalem. This is the beginning of the last week, and will culminate in the crucifixion of our Lord at the hands of the Romans. We find here the two main themes from the Epistle—the need for obedience, and the hope that is ours in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Our Lord has arrived at Jerusalem, having followed a circuitous route. Matt. 19:1 tells us that he left Galilee, "and came into the coasts of Judea beyond Jordan". His way took him through Jericho, 20:1, an he is now almost at his journey's end. The location of Bethpage is uncertain, but it is certainly close to the Mount of Olives, and was probably within sight of Jerusalem. Here our Lord prepares for his entry into his city. He intends to enter in a manner that befits his status, for he is the King, the son of David, and Jerusalem is his capital. He sends his disciples to collect the royal beast of burden; not a horse, but an ass. The horse was the transport of the foreigner, and was used in warfare. The ass, especially the large white ass, was a valuable animal.
The procession begins, with crowds going before laying their clothing down as a path, and others covering the road with palm branches. Those in front and those behind cry out, using words from Psalm 118:25-26. "Hosanna" means "Save, O Lord", and is a prayer for deliverance. The psalm itself is a faithful prayer that God will deliver ins spite of the presence of many enemies, and that blessing will come in the hand of the one whom God sends. This is the cry of the crowd, who welcome King Jesus into Jerusalem.
Once in the city our Lord makes his way to the Temple, which would be the most natural thing for a pilgrim to do. It would also be the most natural thing for God's Messiah to do, Malachi 3:1. The threatened judgment of Malachi is seen in the actions of our Lord, who drives out those who had turned the house of God into a place of commerce, who made a profit from the religion of the true and living God.
So we see that our Lord comes both to bring a blessing, and to bring a curse. Those who see him as he is, and who worship him as such, receive from him such good things as pass our understanding. Those who reject him, or who take his coming as a light thing, find that he is a terrible judge. If as a man he could cast out those who corrupted the place of prayer, what will he do to such when he appears in all his glory at the last day?
The crowd voiced their joy in the Messiah, acknowledging him to be such. His presence was the assurance of God's blessing and goodwill toward his people. But not all who think to find a blessing in him will do so, for not all are obedient to his will, nor faithful in their service of him. To them he is a Judge from whom they cannot run.
Conclusion. The Advent season is the time in which we are prepared for the annual remembrance of the birth of our Lord Jesus, who is our only Saviour. The very word 'Advent' signifies the arrival of a notable person. The Gospel reading speaks to us of the first coming of our Lord, in which he came to save us from our sins. The Epistle reading reminds us that the fact of his return motivates us to live in obedience to his will, and in the hope of his reappearing. Unless we have received the blessings of his first coming we have no hope in his second. Unless, then, we rejoice in him as the one who comes "in the name of the Lord", we have no reason to look with confidence to his second coming as anything but judgment, condemnation, and hell for us. So our need to 'cast away the works of darkness' is great, and the petition in the Collect must be ours by faith.