A sermon, based on Matthew 24.36-44, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, in the 1st Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2019
It’s the First Sunday of Advent. Again, we begin a new church year. Again, we begin to retell our Christian story of God’s salvation in the birth, life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Again, we begin – and, after all these years of beginning again, perhaps still seemingly strangely to us – by contemplating the end.
Jesus speaks of the culmination of human history, the end of the life of this world. In ancient times, a terrifying present reality. I recall that 13th century hymn, Dies irae:
Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,
heav’n and earth in ashes burning!
O what fear man’s bosom rendeth
when from heav’n the Judge descendeth,
On whose sentence all dependeth!
Today, the end of this world, perhaps distant from our daily consciousness, evokes, provokes little reaction.
Nevertheless, ominous signs, suggestive of “end times,” are (and, truth be told, always have been!) present. War. Whether the combatants be tribes or clans, nations, or zealous political and theological ideologists. Poverty that continually spreads through and separates larger portions of our global community. Environmental change that, like a contagion, sweeps across our planet.
Given these and other evidences of “the end,” until it comes (and “about that day and hour no one knows,” not even Jesus!), Advent calls us to be expectant. Today’s Collect gives voice to our anticipation: “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.” When? “(N)ow in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came.” And whose second advent we anticipate “in the last day, when he shall come again,” to fulfill our greatest hope, “(that) we may rise to the life immortal.”(1)
This promise we proclaim every time we say, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”(2) This promise embraces, embodies our belief that God is in control, that good will conquer evil, that peace will prevail over conflict, that love will triumph over hatred, that even given humanity’s self-destructive tendency, history has a redemptive conclusion. This promise is our destiny. This promise is our end.
Nevertheless, today, we have more than this promise. Jesus gives us a prescription for living in this world: “You must be ready!” One way to be ready is to keep busy in our Christian living.
Many years ago, as I sought to discern a call to ordained ministry, I met with the Reverend Dr. W. Joseph Nicholson, then the rector emeritus of my home parish, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, St. Louis. In an “inquiring minds want to know” moment, I asked, “What would you do if you knew the world would end tomorrow?” He paused for a moment and reached for his appointment book. Turning to the page of that day, he showed me his schedule of hospital and Communion calls, a Bible study, and another meeting. Obtusely, I asked, “Okay, but what would you do differently?” With a kindly look and an understanding smile, he said, “Attend to the labor the Lord has given me to do.”
This remains wise counsel for any day. So, let us “attend to the labor the Lord has given (us) to do” until the end when Jesus comes again or until our strength and breath subside in death, whichever comes first.
(1) From the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent, The Book of Common Prayer, page 211. The full text of the Collect: Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your 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 living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
(2) The Memorial Acclamation, The Book of Common Prayer, page 363, my emphasis.
Illustration: The Last Judgment (1467-1471), Hans Memling (1430-1494). Note: In the central panel, Jesus sits in judgment on the world and, below, St. Michael the Archangel weighs souls and drives the damned towards Hell. In the left panel, the saved are guided into heaven by St. Peter and angels. In the right panel, the damned are dragged to Hell.