St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Advent, December 18, 2022
“…in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.”
AS A CHILD, I lived with the culturally instilled fear, almost a certainty, that a nuclear bomb was coming to set off a world-wide shooting spree of overkill and nuclear winter. Civil defense drills emphasized our helplessness before this weapon of mass destruction and we quailed at the image of Khrushchev shaking his fist and pounding the table at the UN. The Cuban missile crisis and Sputnik set all our teeth rattling, while people dug fallout shelters in their backyards. But if the world ended then, well, I missed it. I lived in LA, and Giti near Washington DC, and both of us would have been smoke, if the world had ended that way.
Scientists have announced climate cataclysms for centuries, the current ambivalence over ‘climate change’, or ‘global warming’, or the ‘ring of fire’, or another ice age. And yet, here we are.
Religious movements have been fueled by this or that prophecy of God’s looming final chapter about to end our earth home, sending us to heaven, or another planet, or the back of a comet, or into the spirit world. Often it includes the return of Jesus Christ, by one scripture or sign, and when dates have been given, they have passed by like any other day. In the past 100 years, we have lived through WWII, Mt. Saint Helens, the Camp Fire, the Great Depression, the Spanish Flu, and COVID. They’ve thrown everything at us they can devise, and yet we’re still here. Is the world eternal? If it is, mankind will still see its end at least when the Sun blows up. That’s going to wait a while.
As a people, we read into things: the writing on a wall, a cloud growing on the skyline, a red calf, a violent society, contrails in the atmosphere, or an assassination – what seems to us the end of life’s drama, because things can’t get any worse. But, Oh my, they can. And they have…
The people of Jesus’ time suffered the shame of being a conquered nation, vassals of the Romans, tax payers to an emperor who thought he was a god. They searched their scrolls and found the old prophecies of a Savior who will come, who will bring glory back to Israel, who will cleanse our sins, and defeat evil. Strange things were in those prophecies, but they dismissed the idea that he would die a tortuous death, at their hands and by his choice, as a necessary sacrifice that turned aside their judgment. They chose the notion of a great king and looked for that to happen. Looking in the one direction, they missed the myriad of evidence that their Messiah was here, living simply, in Nazareth, without an army or a warhorse, speaking deep wisdom and giving ‘what-for’ to the Pharisees. ‘If he’d have been our Messiah, the Romans couldn’t have killed him, so forget him,’ many of his countrymen concluded. They missed it. He changed their world, and most of them couldn’t be bothered.
But while He was here, the Son of man told His closest disciples things that would surely come to pass. He first pointed to the Temple and all of Jerusalem, telling them that every stone these were built of will surely be thrown down, speaking of the Roman destruction coming 40 years ahead. But they hungered for more news. What about the end of the world?
His first warning was that many are coming to deceive us, some claiming to be Christ returned, like Sun Myong Moon. Don’t believe them. Wars will be terrible, but will not bring the end. Natural disasters will increase, but will not be the world’s demise. Christians will be arrested and executed, and set to accuse one another, entertaining false prophets, and abandoning the love of God and of each other. The Gospel, however, will need to reach around the world first before the end.
One sure sign will be a worldwide Evil One who will stand in the holy place – and here He does not identify where for absolutely certain – and that sign will trigger calamity. Great tribulation will come, unlike any suffered in history that could kill everyone, but will stop short. Again, false Christs will rise and fool many. He will not be here or there, but will come in the sky and all shall see Him and will know their doom. The sun will get dark, the moon dim, stars explode, heaven shaken. And in that darkness, the sign of Christ in the heavens will shine above our heads and everyone will mourn. Angels will be sent with trumpets and with the risen dead saints, the true people of God on earth will rise to join Him: the reaping of souls. Heaven and earth will be destroyed in favor of a new heaven and a new world, all cleansed of evil, all absent of sin or rebellion against God.
But when shall it be? The day and hour are in the Father’s knowledge and keeping: no one, not even Christ Jesus, knows that answer. It will come without clear warning, so faith in Him will be key to survival, and not human communication or forecasting. Like the great Flood when Noah and his sons and their wives were the lone survivors in one boat, no one will see it coming but those who hear God’s truth and follow it. Life will seem to go on as usual, and then the living saints will suddenly be swept up into the sky. The lesson that He sets us is: always to be ready. That’s the meaning of Advent. He is coming, so be ready.
A great deal of attention is paid to the book, Revelation, until those passages that clearly scare us to death. But Christ’s own teaching to the Apostles on the Mount of Olives was enough to go on. We don’t know when, we just know Who and what. Be ready. But what does that mean: Be Ready?
The Christian life is a balancing act. We find ourselves watching the boundaries and trying not to get too far to the right, too close to the left. Just when we feel we have it all by doctrine, that God is completely in control, and all is grace and we have to just let Him rule, and count us righteous, then we stumble over our weaknesses or suffer some personal tragedy and find ourselves in doubt. It isn’t all on Him. We have our part to play. Or we adopt strict rules of life, and count on our rigors to form ourselves spiritually and make ourselves respectable, until we get proud and high-minded, certain that everyone around us is beneath us, as they all exit our lives and we lose all but the worst of our Facebook friends.
It is all about Jesus Christ. A negative path has been laid for all the centuries where the scrutiny over sins past and present yield a humble, simple life of devotion without pretense or passions. That’s not good for some of us, though a bit of it is needed for us all. The positive or illuminative path seeks to emphasize the divine traits of sainthood, doing good, finding the light where it shines, following obediently, giving out and turning dark moments into possibilities. That’s good for others, but not for the self-indulgent, who may use its freedom as mere license. And yet, some of that positive reframing is good for us all. Finally, there is the unitive path. This means: What would Jesus do? Right now, in the moment, personally. This path means business – and a deep, personal connection to God’s Holy Spirit, not relying on codes or doctrines alone, but knowing God’s will and loving Him enough to enter and follow closely. There is suffering there, and joy, and acceptance, and a personal Gethsemane. It’s all about Jesus. All three paths are about Him, or you’re fooling yourself.
We entered Advent as we do year by year, with a prayer to God that we might be given grace, His favor and empowerment, in order to cast away all works of darkness – you figure out how that fits your life at present – and that we may put on the armour of light, that protection described in Ephesians 6, each part describing the character of Christ. We ask for this armour now as we live down here, this mortal life, the same life Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, came into with humility on His first incarnate visitation. He did indeed come, fulfilling the prophecies perfectly, surprising the Jewish people with the enactment of their scrolls, but offending them by coming to save them from themselves, and not foreign soldiers. The Advent prayer goes on, “that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever.”
That is our hope. We don’t have a clock on it. Some churches seem to, or hope that that day will not be long in coming. If the Rapture doesn’t come soon, what will this world come to? Oh, I think things can get worse. Things are worse for people elsewhere: why do we moan and protest and get angry at our plight. What plight? Let the abomination of desolation arrive, set up his capitol, and start ruling with devils and demoniacs. Then moan. But now, pray. That day it’s too late to be concerned, perhaps. We need to know God now. And welcome Him. Now.
The three Advents are: when He came at first, born to Mary, dying on Calvary, rising again and ascending, now in glory with His Father. When He comes at last, on the winds of heaven, with angels and saints, defeating Satan and the evil in the world, to take us to a new universe made clean for us.
And the third Advent? Right now. He comes to each of us and He asks His question: Do you know who I am, and do you choose me as your Lord and Savior? Will you live in the faith that I died for your sins, and are you ready to live for me, every day, and live as close to me as you know how to? Will you love God with everything you are, and each other as I have loved you? Then receive my Spirit and be blessed. For you are in the Kingdom now. You are my brother and sister, and will live with me in Paradise.