Sermon – Romans 13:8
First Sunday of Advent – Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, Moscow
Urmas Viilma, Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Today’s sermon on this first Sunday of Advent is based on a Scripture passage from the letter of the Apostle Paul to the Romans: chapter 13, verse 8: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (Rom. 13:8)
To begin with, I would like to thank Archbishop Dietrich Brauer for the invitation to preach in this beautiful and historic cathedral that I last attended five years ago, give or take a few months, on the inauguration of the Archbishop.On behalf of myself and the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, I would like to wish Archbishop Brauer, his colleagues and the Lutherans in Russia many blessings from God!
I also bring greetings from the Lutheran World Federation where I, serving as Vice-President for Central and Eastern Europe, have been delighted to observe the work of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Russia. I admire the faithfulness of the clergy, congregation co-workers and volunteers in doing God’s work in their churches. I am happy to see that the church life has achieved stability, which is essential for further development. I am glad to observe that the representatives of the state continue to understand the important role of the Lutheran church in the spiritual ministry for the people. This is the case in Russia where the Lutheran church has operated as one of the historic churches for several centuries. I am pleased to note that the state and the church cooperate well in their efforts for spiritual and material wellbeing of the people. This can serve as a good example for many other churches and states in the world, including in Europe.
Having met with Patriarch Kirill the day before yesterday, I can share with you my gratitude and delight for the mutual understanding between the Orthodox and Lutheran churches regarding the spiritual ministry for the people, based on traditional Christian values, in order to build a dignified society and respond to God’s call. Our shared faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and love for our neighbour help us in this work to combine the efforts of the Lutherans and the Orthodox throughout the country. The situation is the same in Estonia, characterised by excellent mutual understanding and cooperation between the Lutherans and the Orthodox, as well as the other Christian churches that form the Estonian Council of Churches. We thank God for this Christian brotherly love!
Today is the first Advent. This day is the symbolic opening of the church year, representing a step over the threshold, into a new year. According to traditional church customs, the Advent season also signifies a lesser Lent that ends on the Christmas Eve. Lent is a season of reflection and discernment of our hearts and minds. But the overall mood on the first Sunday of Advent is still one of joy and jubilation. As we have heard in the gospel reading, Jesus, who rode to Jerusalem as a humble King of Peace, was welcomed by the crowds with jubilation and shouting: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mt. 21:9)
The humility of Jesus is evident in the fact that he rode a donkey. It feels like a natural prelude to the miracle of the Christmas night when the newly born King of Peace, the Christ Child, was not laid on gold-embroidered pillows, but on hay in a manger. Nobody becomes a king or a good ruler on account of their fancy vehicles, titles or residences, but only on account of a heart that knows the Lord. And conversely, no elected ruler loses their titles or role if they care for those who are poor and suffering, breaking bread with them or entering their low huts. And the same applies to Jesus – he was the Son of God!
Blessed are the people that have such a ruler. And, as God’s people, we have exactly that! Thus, we exult and rejoice in Christ the King as we enter the season of anticipation of his birth and light the first Advent candle. In the coming Sundays, we will light new candles next to the previous ones, until tends, hundreds and thousands of candles will be lit on the Christmas Eve. To emphasise this contrast between darkness and light, multiple lamps and lights also decorate the city streets, as well as the houses and apartments of many of us, during the Advent and Christmas season.Especially in the dark winter period, light helps us remember the words of Jesus: “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12)
There would be no life on Earth without light. Sunlight is the source of life in this transient world where we use the Sun to keep track of time – days, years and centuries. If Jesus asserts that he is the light of the world, he is not talking about the Sun, that is, a material source of light and energy. The light of Christ will continue to shine even when the Sun no longer illuminates or warms us. Even after the time that is measured by the rotation of the Sun in days and years.Through faith, we can have access to Christ’s timeless and eternal light already in this temporal life.
In Estonia, it is customary to give the light of Christ to a baptised child in the form of a symbolic baptismal candle. This represents the promise of the child’s parents and godparents that they will nurture the faith that is the foundation of baptism and will raise the child in this faith. As the child grows, it will soon understand that Christ’s light is something greater than the Moon, the Sun and the stars, or even the entirety of the temporal world. Believing in Christ, we encounter the eternal light that leads us to eternal life.
The daily fruits of our Christian life are the good deeds that we can do for our family, friends, acquaintances or even the people we do not know at all. If we only wait that everything good should come from others to us, then we have failed to grasp the true meaning of the birth of the Christ Child that we anticipate in the Advent season. Love for our neighbour means setting our eyes to the level of the neighbour, that is, everyone around us. It is not an easy task! It would even be impossible without Christian faith. And this makes it even more miraculous that God did not hesitate to lower himself to our eye level. It was not humiliating for God to come into our midst and to forgive our trespasses and sins.
Are we prepared to do the same and go into the midst of the people that we do not like or that do not share our opinions? Are we prepared to repent for evil and ask for forgiveness for our mistakes? Are we prepared to forgive our debtors? Are we prepared to pay our debts?
The light of Christ helps us understand that, even if we think that we know the truth and justice so that we venture to preach it to others, we all share one major flaw – a deficit of love. We have never shown enough love – to our family, our friends and acquaintances, let alone strangers or all neighbours. Our debt of love continues to grow each day.However, our duty is to keep repaying this debt. Like the Apostle Paul says: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (Rom. 13:8)
The Advent season that starts today is a time of repentance. It is a period when we should take particular care for carrying each other’s burdens and concerns, paying each other positive attention, noticing those that we are able to help.This is all part of true Christmas anticipation. Everyone has the ability to spend the Advent season in this manner!
In today’s gospel reading, the donkey that carried Jesus plays an important role. Without this donkey, the prophecy could not have been fulfilled. The donkey had to carry Jesus as the King and the Messiah on his back. Otherwise, the message would have been lost. Yes, Jesus could have entered the city on foot. Perhaps even his time of arrival would have been roughly the same, but the purpose of Jesus’ donkey was not to lighten the burden of the journey. The donkey was a bearer of message. It was biding its time, until it was untied, and this was its moment.
Jesus’ donkey was untied for a beautiful reason. The Evangelist Matthew recounts for us the order that Jesus gave to his disciples: “You will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’” (Mt. 21:2–3)
Christians confess their faith throughout the world, from Moscow to Tallinn, from Omsk to Washington. Because the Lord needs us! We are all here today, because the Lord needs us! We can be proud as Christians, or as the Church of Christ as a whole, to be the donkey that the Lord needs. The donkey that has been untied and brought to Jesus, so that we can carry the Lord on our back. Thus, we all, as we confess our faith and proclaim the word of God, have this beautiful and honourable first mission of carrying each other’s burdens. In doing so, we carry the entire church, or the Body of Christ, in which we are members. By caring for each other and loving each other, we are carrying Christ himself. In the same way as the donkey that carried Jesus on its back.
The singular mission of the church is to carry Christ – the Incarnate Word – to all places where there are people.Because the mission of the church is to proclaim the gospel and to serve the neighbour. The Lord needs us, so that we, too, may proclaim him as the prophesised Messiah – the Lord Christ whose birth on Christmas night in Bethlehem we are anticipating in the Advent season.
If we do not stop short at merely believing in love, but do indeed demonstrate our love, then the Christ is truly born. We can all utter nice words at the right time and say something beautiful when necessary; we can comfort and assure, encourage and praise, say thanks and flatter. However, no nice-sounding words match up to an actual good deed.Because mere words of love without real acts of love will only perpetuate an eternal Advent season that is never followed by the Christmas night and the birth of the Child Jesus.
The Lord Jesus Christ is only born when words become actions. Only words carried out in practice become the acts of love with which we can start repaying the debt of love that the Apostle Paul talks about in today’s passage.
May the Lord Christ himself give us wisdom and strength and ability to transform our faith and words into actions.
Have a blessed start to this Advent season! Amen.