Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ….
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, these are hardly the circumstances that I imagined preaching under today. This week brought with it an unexpected surprise in the sudden rise of positive cases within our congregation -- hence the suspension of in-person worship for this Sunday and the next. Of all that has been unprecedented about this pandemic, I think one of them has been the way in which it has expanded our categories for what is possible. Who could have possibly imagined back in the Spring when COVID first broke out in our communities that by now -- eight months later -- we would not only still be within its grip, but would find ourselves facing an ever-increasing slope of positive cases. COVID-19 has so disrupted our expectations that it’s really no longer that clear what it means to expect anything at all. Who knows what things will look like next week, to say nothing of next month?
It is into this anxious situation that we are met with the words of today’s Collect, which ask that God would grant to us the “patience and comfort” of his holy Word that “we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life” that is given to us in Jesus Christ. “Patience and comfort.” “Embrace and ever hold fast.” These two phrases describe respectively what we are so desperately longing for and seem unable to experience right now. The lack of comfort of all this speaks for itself, of course, and my patience was probably spent long ago. And to “embrace and ever hold fast” just sounds like a bad joke in the midst of all of our social distancing. Even the spiritual sense that those words are intended to convey still makes me wince a bit.
But when we come to the blessed hope of everlasting life that our Collect directs us to embrace, we are reminded that the ultimate source of Christian patience and comfort is not subject to all of the unexpected trials and tragedies of this present life. Everlasting life has been secured by the victory of our Lord over death. As St. Paul tells the Thessalonians in our Epistle today: “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.”
So that whether we are aware or asleep, we may live with him. The everlasting life that has been promised to us in Christ holds true no matter what the present circumstances may suggest to the contrary. But it’s these circumstances -- these trials and tragedies -- that present us with the need to embrace and hold fast to this promise. And significantly, it’s also why we cling to the hope of everlasting life, rather than to the life itself, for we have not yet entered into that everlasting life. In this present world, we experience a foretaste of everlasting life in the hope that we have for it. Which means that we grow in our experience of that life by embracing the hope thereof ever more closely and holding fast to it every more firmly.
But the Christian life is not supposed to be a life of crisis, however much of a crisis normal life can be sometimes. It’s not a life that we supposed to live under a constant adrenaline rush, as we overcome all odds to hold fast to our hope at all costs. As our Collect says, it is by the patience and comfort of God’s holy Word that we embrace the hope that has been given to us. These words center all of our attention this morning on the gift of the Holy Scriptures, given to us by God for our learning. But this learning is not about keeping up with an interesting source of information, whether as just a subject of academic study or as a self-help manual for life. The “learning” for which the Scriptures were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit goes well beyond any of these possible benefits of reading the Bible. This learning is for a specific purpose: we are to “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them” so that we grow in patience and experience the comfort of God’s revelation. Just as the food that we eat sustains our bodily lives and gives us the energy we need to fulfill our tasks, the written Word of God sustains our spiritual lives. It’s what makes the Collect’s metaphor of “inwardly digesting” the Scriptures so vivid and compelling. We are to feed on Scripture continually, as the main source of our diet. It’s supposed to get into our bones, such that we live not “by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
This suspension of public worship comes at a time that you can think of as a “pre-Advent.” All of our readings have been revolving around the themes of waiting and expectation, which is supposed to get us ready to meditate on these themes in an even more pronounced way once Advent starts. But there’s something about where we find ourselves today -- even as inconvenient and un-ideal as it is -- that feels like an appropriate setting to think on these things. So many of the things that are usually available for us to put our hope in have been taken away, which is why our anxiety is not at all surprising. To be clear, our vigilance in wearing masks and maintaining social distancing is not itself the anxiety I’m talking about. Nor is the “patience and comfort” a matter of a sentimental denial of the suffering around us. What I’m talking about with “anxiety” is the existential fear and sometimes even anger that arise when our false securities fall away. The patience and comfort of the Christian life is dependent on none of these things, for it is rooted in the revelation of God’s promises in Holy Scripture and the virtue of hope that He has given to us by grace.
So let this Collect enter in and examine your soul. What have you been “inwardly digesting” in terms of your mental, emotional, and spiritual diet? And as we look toward the season of Advent, consider renewing your devotion to the Holy Scriptures so that we can hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ…. Amen.