Sermon from Advent IV: Our Bridal Gown

Our Bridal Gown
Advent IV; December 20, 2020
Revelation 18:1-5, 19:6-9

This time of year we often indulge in singing portions of Handel’s oratorio Messiah. Even though it falls in the section of the oratorio about the resurrection of Jesus, people often sing the chorus “Hallelujah” at Christmas time. And since we usually sing it out of context, we don’t pay attention to what it follows. The word “Hallelujah” means “Praise the Lord,” and it usually accompanies something specific that God has done that calls upon us to sing praise. As the Hallelujah chorus does. It follows a tenor air:

Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron;
Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.

Yes: Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. Hallelujah. The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ. The words the tenor sings are from Psalm 2; the words the chorus sings are from Revelation. If you keep reading back, you see that the “them” who are to be destroyed are the nations of the world. Yes, the nations; all of them, including ours.

I didn’t read to you all the section about the fall of Babylon, because it’s rather a lot to take in. Babylon is judged because she believed herself to be eternal, and then the story goes on to tell us who weeps for her. The merchants weep, because she is the world’s biggest economy and they don’t have anyone to buy their good anymore. The shipping companies weep, because no one at Babylon’s ports is receiving shipments anymore. All those who partied and worked and made music in Babylon are silenced. Babylon, the consumerist economy who fancied herself the world’s superpower, is judged and destroyed. And heaven and all the saints are called to celebrate.

And because the source of greed and oppression in the world is overthrown, the marriage feast of the Lamb comes, the celebration of the Lord’s marriage day. And this is where it’s important to pay attention to a small detail, something it would be easy to overlook. It would be easy to conclude that John believes the world is purely evil and the only thing that Christians can do is to try to avoid contact with the world. Don’t work, don’t shop, don’t go to the theater or to concerts; dig a hole, get into it and pull it in after you.

Well, this will take us to the important small detail: let’s talk about the Bride. This is a wonderful image and I hope you’re familiar with it: Jesus is the Groom and we are His Bride. The Church is the Bride of Christ, the people of God collectively are the Bride of Christ. Jesus himself tells stories about the great celebration of the Day of the Lord in which he describes it as a wedding banquet. John the Baptist called Jesus the Groom and himself the Groom’s Best Man. And Jesus’ first sign of his glory was at a wedding banquet, when he turned water into wine. The image of the relationship between Jesus and His Church as being like marriage goes even into the letters of Paul, and so the day when we are fully united with Jesus is described as the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.

The angel said to John, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. These are true words of God.” The image is confusing, isn’t it? We collectively are the Bride, the Church is the Bride, but we individually are the guests. I guess that means we get to do a lot of dancing; as the Bride we dance with the Groom and as guests we also get to dance with each other. At the first wedding I conducted as a minister the groom insisted on dancing with everyone; when he danced with me we had a bit of tussle over which one of us was going to lead.

The day that we are joined eternally with Christ is our wedding day. Each of us is a guest at that party, and together we are the Bride. And so we can think of Christmas as the beginning of the Lord’s courtship of us. I know that courtship rituals are pretty much passé, but perhaps you have seen old movies or read old stories. Men would call upon the available young lady, bring her gifts, try to win her favor, take her out to dinner and the theater and to dance, and so forth. Well, some things are still similar, although we don’t think in terms of courtship anymore.

One delightful old Christmas carol that is part of the script of the Omaha Playhouse’s annual performance of A Christmas Carol is “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.” The first verse is:

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day: I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play, To call my true love to my dance:
Sing O my love, O my love, my love, my love;
            This have I done for my true love.

And it goes on to sing about how “my” divine nature was knit to human nature, and I was laid in a manger, and so forth. Christmas Day is the day the Lord Jesus Christ dances, it is the beginning of his courtship of his true love: you and me, the Church, the people of God.

Well, I hope I’ve driven that point sufficiently home. Now let’s get to the other one. What are we going to wear? Not as guests, but as the bride: where shall our bridal gown come from? The song of the multitude says that it’s made of linen, bright and pure, but where do we get the linen?

“The fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.” That’s a small point we may too easily overlook. All the while we’re singing about the destruction of Babylon, rejoicing that the nations of the world are overthrown (Hallelujah!), we can easily forget that we live in Babylon, that we are among the nations of the world, and it matters what we do here. What we do here, our deeds here in Babylon, are the clothing we shall wear on our wedding day.

Here’s another picture from A Christmas Carol. Do you remember the ghost of Jacob Marley, stomping about dragging heavy chains and chests behind him? He tells Ebenezer Scrooge that the chains and chests and locks are what he forged in life, the result of his deeds in life. What John is telling us is the opposite: the good deeds the Church does are the linen, bright and pure, that she wears on her wedding day. It matters what we do here in Babylon, because here we are weaving our bridal gown.

The best way for us to respond to the wickedness of Babylon is with the goodness of the Bride of Christ. When the voice in Revelation 18 called out, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins,” I don’t think that God is telling us to go hide from Babylon and have nothing to do with her. I think God is telling us to be different from Babylon. Our Christmas doesn’t have to look like the world’s Christmas. Your priorities don’t have to be Babylon’s priorities. You and I don’t have to be all caught up in the established religion of the United States – consumerism – while we nonetheless work and live and learn and play and worship here. Whatever is going on around us, we can choose to do those things that will weave us a beautiful wedding gown, so that when we dance with Jesus – and, trust me, he will lead – we will look terrific.

Recently I heard three stories on the same newscast. One story told of the white supremacists marching in Washington, DC and vandalizing the property of Black churches. Another told of the more than one hundred members of the federal House of Representatives that had joined in the lawsuit to undermine our democracy. I said, “What has become of us?” But the third story told of a Black family who had an inflatable Santa Claus in their front yard; this Santa was Black. Someone sent them an anonymous note – this sort of note is always anonymous – scolding them for teaching their children that Santa is Black. Oh, by the way, Santa isn’t White either; he’s originally from Turkey. Anyway, when the family told others about the note via social media, many of their White neighbors went out and bought Black inflatable Santas and put them in their front yards. We don’t need to run away and hide from Babylon; we need to choose to do those things that will weave us a beautiful wedding gown.

Here’s another piece of Christmas poetry to finish with, the conclusion of W. H. Auden’s Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being:

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska