Until “The End”

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

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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.

The Last Judgment (1467-1471), Hans Memling (1430-1494)

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.

 

Footnotes:
(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.

3 thoughts on “Until “The End”

  1. Dear Paul,

    Thank you for these thoughts today. The story of your conversation with the Reverend Doctor Nicholson is a beautiful one. It reminds me of the message of one of the Bible verses I memorized as a child, “Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do with thy might.” The thought that doing what God gives us to do is right action even on our last day here, even on the last day of the world as we know it, is somehow very comforting. It suggests that each of us matters, that what we do matters, that we each have something of value to contribute even in the face of a future that we cannot predict, cannot grasp, cannot control. It is a very helpful reassurance in the days in which we live, especially in the darkness of winter, of Advent, of waiting to see what is going to happen.

    And now I have to comment on the Memling triptych, which is wonderful and horrible at the same time, tragic, triumphant, and also somehow slightly comic. Such scenes always call to mind for me a conversation Ted and I had with Emilia when she was very small and was just learning about the concepts of heaven and hell, which neither we nor our church ever stressed very much in her religious education. She had somehow become curious about such ideas and had become very troubled that there were people who would be separated and sent to hell after they died, and she expressed her dismay about this to us. We continued to stumble through the difficult exchange, trying to steer it in an easier direction, when Emilia said, “Everybody has good things about them and also bad things; why doesn’t God just send the bad parts to hell and let the good parts go to heaven?” As you can imagine, that brought the two of us to silence. For the life of me I could think of nothing to say. Finally, after a long interlude, I think I said, “You know what? That may be exactly the way it works; we humans just don’t know.” But I continued and still continue to think of her question, and the more I have thought of it, the more I am convinced that in some philosophical and theological sense, she had questioned her way into truth. It IS the lonely, loveless, God-separated parts of us that cause us to suffer hell every day; it is the loving, unity-seeking parts of us that allow us to stay in communion with God/the Divine every day. What happens after we die is of course a complete mystery, but I see no reason why the same truth should not prevail even then.

    Thank you for bringing these thoughts to mind for me again today and offering hope that by doing what God gives us to do, we are doing the very best we can, regardless of anything and everything – including wondering what may happen to us or our world – that may try to distract us.

    Much love,

    Karen

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  2. Thanks Paul!

    Getting READY can be difficult. We are so busy doing stuff (that’s not always important) that we don’t pay attention to what God wants us to do. As Karen pointed out, we are likely doing ok if we do the best we can …. but I also think the perfectionists in us don’t want to feel we are doing things halfway.

    I’m stuck on what I’d be doing if I knew today was the last day…. I’d want to repair any damage I’d done to those is my life… and I’d want to reflect on the amazing life I’ve had and the joy I’ve tried to share with others. Because I believe that’s one of the things God intended for me to do – bringing joy to others.

    Bring on Advent and May we all be ready!!

    Much love

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  3. My Dearest Karen and Loretta,

    Always, you and your thoughtful commentary spur more thinking and feeling in me. To wit…

    Karen, I pray that Emilia, insightful theologian that she was at so early an age, is right. And I think she is. For one of the elements of the eternal destiny of humankind (if there is such a thing; that is, if there is more to life and existence than this mortal frame and sphere) with which I’ve struggled and struggle still is how to reconcile the notion of a righteous God and a humanity that always is a cosmic and existential admixture of the angelic and demonic; which is to say that not one of us – even at our best – is wholly good nor – even at our worst – wholly bad. Moreover, an aspect of God’s righteousness, which I perceive at the heart of the Jesus-story, is Love, unconditional benevolence. Hence, I imagine that God’s justice – the Divine bestowal of right response to human being and doing – is also an expression of God’s Love, which, therefore, would (almost, I think, require!) God to sift us, thus, separating the wheat from the chaff.

    And, Karen and Loretta, I perceive a similitude in your (Karen) comment about “each (of us having) something of value to contribute even in the face of a future that we cannot predict, cannot grasp, cannot control” and your (Loretta) remark “I’d want to reflect on the amazing life I’ve had and the joy I’ve tried to share with others. Because I believe that’s one of the things God intended for me to do – bringing joy to others.” I, this very day, will contemplate what it is of value that I seek to contribute. This is especially significant for me, for I tend to see my shadow more than my light…

    Which brings to mind a movie that I saw many years ago that touched me deeply and touches me still as a perfect symbol for Advent. Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light”, which, in Bergman’s severe, yet nuanced fashion, captures the conflict of faith and doubt, belief and questioning, purpose and alienation/anomie and all of it (and more!) backlit by the grayish darkness of winter’s light.

    Love and admiration and respect, ever and always for you, each and both,
    Paul

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