Advent, Jesus, and John (Calvin)
Good morning. Yes, it is the first Sunday of Advent – the four weeks leading up to the traditional date on which we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, the Hope of the World, as the Baumgardner children reminded us when Luke lit the first candle this morning.
It is also World AIDS Day and Thanksgiving weekend. Plus this year is the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, founder, if you will, of the Reformed Tradition, out of which Presbyterianism grew.
My head was spinning with possibilities throughout the week, and by Saturday, I realized that I would only be able to share a small slice of Advent-Calvin-Thanksgiving pie with you this morning.
In fact, the Thanksgiving part only materialized after Chuck read the first draft of my sermon and said, “It needs humor. Terribly dry.”
Humor and John Calvin, proto-Puritan and no-nonsense believer in the Total Depravity of Mankind. A tall order. The journalist H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy!”
Not true. Puritans were known to laugh and dress in bright colors, I learned by googling “Calvinism and Fun.” I was also assured by the same source, that the Puritans enjoyed conjugal relations, in fact, considered such activity as their God-given responsibility.
But let’s face facts, our Calvinistic Puritan ancestors were a more sober bunch than most. They took life seriously, practiced what has become known as the Protestant work ethic, and sought to love God and with all their heart, mind, and soul.
emphasis during Advent for
traditional Calvinists and other Christians is to not only celebrate the coming
of Christ at
Often, we focus on the more upbeat Advent passages, like the one from Jeremiah,
“The days are coming when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah – a righteous branch will sprout from the House of David and he will do what is just and right in the land.” In other words, the Messiah will come and all will be right with the world. This is definitely a message of Hope.
But Advent is also a time to ‘keep awake!’ both Saint Luke and John Calvin remind us.. Ears tuned. Eyes open. We may not be looking for some spectacular mythical supernatural end times. But we, as Christians, live in Hope by re-envisioning the renewal of the world precisely at the moment when all seems lost – and for many of us, this happens about once a year. And then Christmas comes and Hope is born and reborn.
Faced with his world crumbling around him and his eminent execution, Dietrich Bonhoeffer compared Advent to sitting in a prison cell. One can do little else except hope. And this hope gets us through.
My hope this morning is that I can make good on my promise to connect the theme of Advent, with not only the birth of Jesus Christ, but also with the life and theology of a 500-year-old man named John Calvin, a man whose hope was to reform the practice of Christian worship and more fully understand what Scriptures tell us. He joined with other Reformers of the 16th century in declaring that Christians should be guided by Sola scriptura, not the traditions of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but rather by scripture alone.
The traditional Advent passages from the Hebrew Scriptures are read each year as foretelling the Birth of Christ – even though we know that Jeremiah and the other prophets didn’t get each jot and tittle correct in their hopes and predictions. The promises, the hope, the faith, were - and are - solid and enduring. The Old Testament prophets definitely pointed us in the right direction. But, as with most inspiration we receive from our elders, our ancestors, we have to take what is given, distill the ageless truths, discard the calls for blood and vengeance, and take what remains – the pure gold - and apply it to new situations in our own lives and times.
Jesus studied the teachings of the elders and the prophets and engaged in this very process. He told his disciples for instance that it used to be said to, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”
Jesus and the writers of the New Testament took the teachings of their ancestors and recast them within a new theology of love, and that is what we as members of the “Reformed, and Always Reforming” tradition continue to do today.
forward about fifteen hundred years after the days that Christ walked the earth,
and we come to the man Jean Cauvin, born in
Of all the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, none were as significant in forming systematic theology as John Calvin. Systematic theology is a discipline that attempts to formulate an orderly, rational, and coherent account of the Christian faith and beliefs. Whatever the theological question, Calvin sought to offer a well-reasoned and sound theological answer. He wrote and expanded upon five volumes on the subject and also wrote a commentary on nearly every book of the Bible.
not going to dwell on some of the traditional and controversial religious concepts
associated with Calvinism
This morning, I’d like to take a look at our Presbyterian heritage and the impact John Calvin has had on us in some ways we don’t always remember.
It was dour, old John Calvin who introduced congregational singing to the worship service, for instance. He also supervised the creation of Protestantism’s first song book, the Genevan Psalter. Before the Protestant Reformation, the singing of the Psalms was generally done by a select group of performers, not by the entire congregation. Calvin understood that the entire congregation was to participate in praising God in the worship service. He wrote, “it is a thing most expedient for the edification of the church to sing some psalms in the form of public prayers by which one prays to God or sings His praises so that the hearts of all may be roused and stimulated to make similar prayers and to render similar praises and thanks to God with a common love." Plus, we dare not say, singing is fun.
editions of the Genevan songbook were published and the melodies from
Calvin also had important things to say about prayer. "Our prayer must not be self-centered. It must arise not only because we feel our own need as a burden we must lay upon God, but also because we are so bound up in love for our fellow men (and women) that we feel their need as acutely as our own. To make intercession for men (and women) is the most powerful and practical way in which we can express our love for them."
Even with his strong belief in predestination, Calvin had an equally strong belief in prayer – not to change what God hath ordained, but perhaps to change our ability to accept it.
John Calvin’s impact extended beyond the interior of the church building. Calvinism permeated our entire society, changing systems of government and promoting universal education, even impacting our economic system. Many of the ideas incorporated into the American Constitution were inspired by John Calvin who had a healthy view of the depravity of man, the need for checks-and-balances in government, the division of powers, and provision for the rightful and orderly succession of rulers. Founding Father James Madison was influenced by Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon (the only clergy signer of the Declaration of Independence).
emphasis on representative bodies — not unlike his board of Elders — spread
theory holds that Protestants, especially Calvinists of the Dutch, Scottish and
English varieties, were the players in the rise of modern capitalism. With the
“Protestant work ethic” — a sense of thrift, dignity of work, and
industry – capitalism thrived in northern
John Calvin was, indeed, a prophet. Some called him The Genius of Geneva. With his growing fame and influence, Calvin had to work on his own humility.
“There is no worse screen to block out the Spirit than confidence in our own intelligence,” he reminded himself.
Calvin didn’t always “get it right” from our 21st Century
perspective. He transformed
And, on first blush, he was no great supporter of issues of importance to women today. He was a man of the sixteenth century, a man who could say, “Yet consider now, whether women are not quite past sense and reason, when they want to rule over men” and he fully supported the Scripture which stated that women must remain quiet in church.
However, here was also a man who could write on the death of his wife, “I have been bereaved of the best friend of my life, of one whom, if it has been so ordained, would willingly have shared not only my poverty but also my death. During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry.”
Calvin, an ecclesiastical court was set up in
spread to the
Calvin was a man of sorrows. His only child, a son, died a few days after birth. He lost his wife a few years later and never remarried. Beset by a dizzying array of illnesses, Calvin lived in constant pain. The list of what he suffered apparently included chronic gout, kidney stones, pulmonary tuberculosis, painful breathing caused by pleurisy, the coughing up of blood, recurring fevers, intestinal parasites, bleeding hemorrhoids, and migraine headaches. He died at age 54 of toxic shock.
Against this backdrop, Calvin's literary output seems almost superhuman. His schedule required him to preach twice on Sundays and daily every other week. Averaging 20 sermons per month, he normally preached on the New Testament texts on Sunday mornings, Old Testament texts on weekdays, and the psalms on Sunday afternoons. He also churned out five separate editions of the Institutes, each one carefully organized and each one larger than the last. He wrote a commentary on almost every book in the New Testament, the five books of Moses and the entire Psalter.
The Protestant Work Ethic in Action.
Yes, our Genius of Geneva took the faith of our Hebrew ancestors, the faith as taught and lived by Jesus of Nazareth, the faith as codified and written down by Saint Paul, the faith as was understood by Saint Augustine, the faith as reformed by Martin Luther, he took this faith and continued to pray, and to sing, and pray and to write, deep into the night. His theology was harsh. God chose some persons for eternal salvation and condemned others to eternal damnation – and there wasn’t much the individual person could do about it. His was a good news/bad news series of messages. He saw mankind as totally depraved, but firmly believed in the perseverance of the Saints – once a child of God, always a child of God.
Genius of Geneva was a man of Hope and trust
“However many blessings we expect from God,” he wrote, “God’s infinite liberality will always exceed all our wishes and our thoughts.”
As we enter the Advent season, let us remember that the work of theological reflection and reform continues. It’s a process, not a product. It’s a process we have a responsibility as members of the Body of Christ to continue. Let us take stock of our spiritual heritage, compare it with the teachings and life of our Lord Jesus Christ, and carry on with the hope, dedication and vision of one John Calvin. Our understanding of God’s will and God’s law was reformed 500 years ago, yes. But the challenge is to continue the re-forming.
May our Lord bless us, keep us, and guide us through this Advent season. Amen.