Living in Light of the End

Feast Day: The First Sunday in Advent
Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

“Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man,” (Luke 21:36).

It’s a central part of our liturgy and indeed of the Christian faith itself and yet it is perhaps one of the least understood aspects of our faith partly because it is literally unprecedented. It is an event that we simply have no frame of reference for. And yet each time we gather to worship we confess this reality. There it is in the middle of the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” And again as we come to the altar: “Therefore, Father, according to his command, we remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.”

The Church believes, based on the Bible and the teaching of the Apostles, that one day, one hour, the risen and living Jesus Christ will come again, will return, and that he will do so in glory, to judge. Apart from this promised coming—and apart from our acting like it!—the Christian faith and life is impoverished and our witness to the world dimmed. Strange as it may sound, this is a strangeness that the Church must boldly own for the sake of the gospel and of the world.

That’s why Advent, as a season is so important. The English word Advent is derived from the Latin adventus which means “coming.” Over the next four weeks this will be the central theme: Jesus Christ is coming. He has come, yes, as an infant. That’s what Christmas is all about. But Advent, Advent is it’s own time where we await not only the coming of the infant Jesus at Christmas but also, especially, the coming of the king Jesus at the end of the world.

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “We only understand life backwards, but we must live forwards.” Well the season of Advent marks the beginning of a new liturgical year for the Church and it begins at the end, with the promised return of Christ. Only in light of this reality can we rightly understand our lives and “live forward” in a way that coheres with the gospel. “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man,” (Luke 21:36).

What do we learn about the return of Christ from our readings this morning? We learn that it will bring historical time as we know it to an end: “Heaven and hearth will pass away,” says Jesus. We learn that it will have universal effect: “It will come upon all who live on the face of the earth.” And we learn that it will spring up unexpectedly, like a trap, says Jesus.

A few chapters earlier in Luke Jesus likens his coming again to the days of Noah. Everything was totally normal right up until the day that Noah entered the ark and the flood came. The coming of the Son of Man will be like this, says Jesus (17:26-27, 30).

In Noah’s day folks were wining and dining. All was well! The good life! There was an indifference, a nonchalance about God. An immersion in the everyday without thought for the Last Day.[1] Is our day much different? Most people in the world, by and large, live life as if Jesus had not promised to return. Everything is normal and then suddenly it is not. Therefore, says Jesus, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Advent people are called to readiness.

Indeed, this is perhaps the posture of the Christian life: alert, sober, awake, ready, expectant. Everything in our gospel reading this morning can be reduced to a single Christian duty: keep alert for the any-day coming of Jesus.[2] Some of you need to hear this. I need to hear this. We as a church need to hear this. Be ready. Keep awake. Do not grow weary. Do not fall asleep. Do not give in to sin. Do not give the devil a foothold. Rather occupy yourself with that which is good and beautiful and true. Pray. Study the Scriptures. Go to Church. Receive the Sacraments. Listen to the Holy Spirit. Obey. Above all clothe yourselves with love for one another and for all. For the Son of Man is coming as judge we know not when. Do not fear but only draw near to Christ.

Draw near to Christ. That is how Advent people stay alert at all times. Because ultimately the life that we are called to live as Christians is the result of God’s grace at work in us. Saint Paul was a man who lived in anticipation of Christ’s any-hour-now coming again and look at how he puts it: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love…And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness…” If we are going to be an Advent people, alert and ready for the return of Christ, then we’ve got to allow the Holy Spirit to do his work in us.

How do we draw near to Christ? Let me suggest a few ways from our readings this morning. Commit yourself to the Bible. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” says Jesus. The word of Jesus Christ will remain and we have that word recorded in the Bible. Anglican doctrine holds the Bible to be the highest authority for life and faith. As the Prayer Book puts it, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation,”[3] and again, “for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ.”[4] When we hear and receive and meditate upon the Bible Jesus offers us everlasting life. As one theologian put it: “God speaks his final Word, all that remains is to wait and see if we listen to it or refuse to listen to it.”

Commit yourself to the Bible and commit yourself also to prayer. “Be alert at all times,” Jesus says, “praying that you may have the strength…to stand before the Son of Man.” Elsewhere Saint Paul writes, “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for the saints,” (Ephesians 6:18). For Paul there is no better way to keep alert than to pray. I was speaking with someone earlier this week and she said that when she prays it is harder for her to focus on the things that make her anxious. I think that is quite right. When we pray God is in the forefront of our minds and that makes it more difficult to sin. And pray with the Church, especially in the Liturgy of the Blessed Sacrament. Go to Church and receive the body and blood of Christ, regularly.

Finally, commit yourself to one another. As Saint Paul put it, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all,” (1 Thessalonians 3:12). To me this is one of the most profound aspects of the Church. Here you have a group of people that may have nothing in common other than the water of baptism. And yet they commit themselves to one another in love. They fellowship, that is they share their life together, share experiences, stories, love for each other, and they devote themselves to the Scriptures and to prayer.

For those of you that were hoping for some new and exciting way to live as Advent people I am sorry that I only have to offer the same old practices that have formed expectant and alert Christians from the very beginning. Saint Luke writes elsewhere in Acts that the life of the early Church was marked by a three-fold rule: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” (2:42). This same reality continues to shape Anglican piety in the Daily Office, regular Eucharist, and living a life of personal devotion.

“Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Friends, Advent begins at the end with the proclamation that Jesus Christ will come again as judge and invites us to examine our lives and consider the extent to which we are living in the light. May God himself strengthen our hearts and prepare us so that we can live in light of that day, this day.

Endnotes:
[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew: A Commentary.
[2] ibid.
[3] The Book Common Prayer (1962), Articles of Religion, Article VI, 700.
[4] The Book Common Prayer (1962), Articles of Religion, Article VII, 701.

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