Collect for Advent III
O LORD Jesus Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee:
grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way
by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,
that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight;
who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Isaiah 61, Vv 1 – 4 & 8 – 11
1 Thessalonians 5, Vv 16 – 24
St John 1, Vv 6 – 8 & 19 – 28
If you have read Bishop Martin’s December Newsletter you will immediately have spotted the few frightening words with which he began it. Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. As he goes on to explain, these are the traditional themes that the church considers in the preparatory season to Christmass, the season we call Advent. They are sometimes referred to as The Four Last Things. Mother Church has traditionally meditated on each one of them in turn in the four Sundays that comprise Advent. We could do the same, but, being a widely dispersed congregation it is not convenient for us to come together for our Festival of Lessons and Carols other than on the Sunday before Christmass. Thus one of the four Sundays is lost to us as a preaching opportunity, as is, I am sure, the case in many places. Does this mean that we can then ignore these Advent themes? I suggest that it does not, and I plan to give all four of them a cursory airing this morning. On the basis that I cannot do full justice to any one of them in the few minutes available to me I shall perhaps visit them again in Advent sermons in other years.
In 1798 Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy wrote, ‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.’ He was, of course, paraphrasing a comment from Daniel Defoe’s 1726 book, The Political History of the Devil, in which he wrote, ‘Things as certain as death and taxes, can be more firmly believed.’ There is a certainty about death. We know that everything that lives on earth must die. From single celled creatures that can only be viewed under a microscope, with life spans that may only be measured in seconds, to the giant redwood trees and the ancient yews that live for thousands of years: all have limited life spans. As far as we know, homo sapiens, intelligent humans, is the only species to understand this truth. And, because we know, we resist the onslaught of death and try to deny the fact of its very existence. Part of the reason for this is that we, modern intellectual creatures, cannot today define what death is. Until quite recently a person was deemed dead when his or her breath no longer clouded the surface of a cold mirror, or when the heart ceased to beat in the chest cavity. Today, such symptoms only result in ‘crash teams’ dashing to us with a variety of resuscitation techniques. Today we talk about brain death and we measure that organ’s activity with high-tech machinery. As Christians we might talk of the point when the soul leaves the body, but this is a purely Hellenistic concept. It was the Greeks who saw the human condition as a spiritual essence trapped inside an earthly body, only to be released at death. Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries would have found such talk quite strange, yet, as Christianity developed in the Greek world it adopted this Aristotelian concept. Modern medical science, with its understanding of brain activity and the unravelling of the strands of DNA, have focussed our thinking back to an holistic understanding of what we are; full body persons. History has also shaped our concepts of life after death. What we believe today about heaven and hell and judgment has slowly developed over many centuries. It is a tapestry woven not only of our understanding of physical reality, but also of our various concepts of God, of divine judgment and divine mercy.
So, we know we all have to die – it is part of God’s laws for creation that we do so. What happens then? The next word in our sermon title is Judgment. It is the thought of judgment that must strike fear into every Christian. Which of us are ready to stand face-to-face with God and justify ourselves? Who, among us, is ready to own up to the darkness that dwells within? The very word ‘judgment’ is likened to condemnation. However, condemnation is not a dictionary definition of judgment. You are more likely to find words and phrases such as: considered opinion; court decision; discernment and comparison. The ancient Jews, our forebears in the faith, didn’t see judgment as a sub-set of the criminal law. They saw themselves as plaintiffs before God in a sort of civil action where they were seeking redress from God for their earthly suffering. We fear what we see as possible condemnation because we are keen to focus on our own inadequacies, weaknesses and failures rather than on God’s goodness and generosity. If the scales of justice were equally balanced then we should stand; stand condemned. Nothing we have done, or may do, can begin to measure up to the righteousness of God. However, we don’t have to earn eternal life, nor need we be afraid that it will be withheld from us because we don’t measure up to the perfection of God. God, of his own volition, lovingly gives us eternal life. In his letter to Christians in Rome, Saint Paul wrote, ‘God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us.’ And Jesus prayed that his disciples and all future believers, ‘may be with me where I am.’
What, then, about heaven and hell – the final parts of our thinking in Advent? If we are destined for heaven, what is it like? Where is it? How do we get there? What will we look like when we get there? All valid questions, yet we don’t have the answers to any one of them, outside the boundaries of our faith and teaching. Saint Paul in his first letter to Corinth, explained the difference between the earthly and the heavenly. Paul never seems to have met Jesus in Palestine, yet ran smack-bang into him on the Damascus road. Speaking of the human body, he says that: It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body; it is sown perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. Our spiritual bodies will then most certainly be different from our present physical bodies. Can we, perhaps, draw some clues from the resurrected body of Jesus? The disciples met with him and knew him, on the beach, where he shared a broiled fish breakfast with them, and on the Emmaus Road. He invited Thomas to touch his wounds. Yet, he could move through space and time without our physical restraints. He disappeared from Emmaus and entered the room on the evening of the day of resurrection despite the doors being locked.
After our deaths, when will these things happen? The early Christians thought that they would just sleep until Jesus returned in glory as judge of all. The Second Coming, the Parousia, was considered to be imminent. As centuries rolled by and this last-time event did not happen, other ideas were discussed. Did all of the dead stay in everlasting sleep until the Last Trump, the Final Judgment? It was not until the year 1336 that Pope Benedict XII defined a dogma for the Western, Latin Church. This encapsulated the long held beliefs, formulated down the ages, that people faced individual judgments immediately after death and thereby entered heaven, or hell, or another place that they called purgatory. How God decides on who goes where is, of course, his inscrutable business. I like to think that none of us, no matter how holy the lives that we lead, can, at the time of our deaths, be fit to sit before the throne of grace – a throne that we can read about in the book of the Revelation. We all need, as it were, a place to go where we can be finished and perfected for this awesome privilege. The length of time that we spend in that other place, if time is the right gauge in this matter, is no concern of ours. We have, after all, all the time in eternity before us. We might think that some, the early apostles, perhaps, or the giant saints of earlier Christian centuries, Augustine or Benedict or Francis, for example, might have made it. Do they sit before God’s throne, singing day and night, ‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come,’ about which Saint John tells us in Revelation? We cannot know but, again, referring to the last book in the Bible, John said that he, ‘saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the Word of God.’ It seems to me quite sensible for God to have put in place a system that allows his sinful, yet contrite, believers time and space to prepare for their place in his heavenly kingdom. If I ask myself, ‘Do I want to meet with God face-to-face as soon as I depart this mortal coil, then the simple answer must be, ‘No, I do not!’ As in any other important commitment, I’d like time to prepare and perhaps to talk the matter over with someone. That someone might prove to be the angel who comes to accompany me on the next stage of my pilgrimage. We must be clear about the term ‘purgatory’. This concept came to have a very bad press in the middle of the sixteenth century when the church taught that, through the monetary purchase of indulgences, Christian souls could lessen the time they spent there. This unscrupulous commercialism was the principal reason why Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral on All Hallows’ Eve, in the year 1517; an action that began what was to become known as the Protestant Reformation.
What then can we say about punishment? If God’s love and mercy run so unimaginably deep could we eventually find ourselves sitting before the throne of grace next to Adolf Hitler, or Josef Stalin? We don’t have time this morning to explore this problem. It is sufficient to say that to some, the real sinners on the world’s stage, the shadow-less, purity of the light that shines around the heavenly places would be absolute hell for them. We may assume that, even when dead, we shall retain the freedom of choice that God, in his infinite wisdom, has given us. There may be those who don’t wish to attain the heavenly kingdom – those who created hell on earth may cherish hell in the afterlife.
Prayer has been described as, ‘relaxing in the hand of God’. The last things, those that concern Death and Judgment and Heaven and Hell are, equally, in the hands of God. It is a waste of our time fretting about them since we have absolutely no control over them. We must profess to be aware that they will face us one of these days – that, we cannot avoid. In the meantime we should take comfort from some words of Saint Paul, again to Christians in Corinth, to whom he wrote, ‘eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, what God has prepared for those who love him’. As the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner put it, ‘Let us, for the present, simply have a little patience with history as it runs its course, with ourselves, and with God’.
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