Sunday, November 30, 2014

Awaiting the Reckoning

preached on Advent 1, Year A, 2014

The day of the Lord; the day of glory. The day of wrath and mourning, when heaven and earth pass away, and the new, redeemed earth awaits the descent of the new Jerusalem. The day when the wrath of God is poured over the earth and is spent.

Years ago, before we we were married, my wife used to listen to a Christian radio station at work. And one day there was a preacher who said, in excited radio-preacher tones, “You know, the day of the Lord could be today! And wouldn't that make today extra special!” Somehow “extra special” feels inadequate as a description. A dreadful day, and yet each week we pray for its coming, the day when the kingdom is not only at hand, but is established finally and totally.

All through the fall we have heard the parables of the kingdom as they appear in the Gospel of Matthew:

  • “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slave.”
  • “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”
  • “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten maidens, five wise and five foolish.”
  • “It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.”
  • “All the nations will be gathered before the Son of Man, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
Week after week, we have heard of a time of reckoning, when each of us will be called to account:
  • How have we handled our talents?
  • How have we treated our debtors?
  • How have we shown mercy and compassion?
  • How have we kept ourselves ready?
Week by week we have heard: it not just in our piety that we show our faith, but also in our acts. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, but also must you love your neighbor as yourself. Show God your works, and you will show him your faith, says the apostle James; faith without works, he says, is dead.

OK, so here we are. We settle into our pews, in this sacred and handsome place, and we give so freely of our wealth that our parish is able to budget a tithe of its income towards outreach into the community, supporting Guardian Angels' ministries and the Seafarer's mission; many go well beyond that in their participation in the projects of Habitat for Humanity and other such charities. Perhaps our flasks of oil are thus well-filled, and perhaps we risk some confidence in being placed on the right, among the sheep, when that latter judgement is at last carried out.

And yet, the years hang heavy. Decades ago it was easy to believe in an apocalypse of thermonuclear fire: a war whose pointless outcome would have been suffering of every kind for the survivors, and an invitation for the second divine revelation. More recently one might contemplate the militarism of a fanaticized Islam, or the ruination of the environment through any number of poisonings.

As yet, however, the armies do not gather at any Megiddo, and as it draws night to a third millennium of Christendom, we wonder at that generation which will not have passed away before the end. The earliest church believed it was their own generation which would be these witnesses, but it did not come to pass in that way, though they were put through a great tribulation, with the temple razed and Judah dispersed. And thus the urgency fades. Generation after generation has come and gone, and still the skies are unriven, and the earth tumbles on around its annual circuit, pain and joy dispensed in greater or lesser degree from year to year. We look in dread and hope for the signs, and do not see them. Some, heeding not Jesus' words, calculate the hour and day and month and year, leading to ridicule and doubt when their predictions do not come to pass. Some give up and say that the prophecies of the gospels were written after the fact, “predicting” the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the seventieth year of the era, because (they say) it had already happened. In our fascination with the end, we make and watch post-apocalyptic films whose desolations show no glory, but only a desperate struggle in which “Maranatha”— “come, Lord”— is futile and unspoken, and in which men and women seek, without hope, the nonexistent oasis of a dispirited gracelessness.

And so here we are, sitting in not too uncomfortable pews in our handsome church, hearing the words of the prophets which prefigure Jesus, and the words of Jesus which warn of the wrath which is to come, soon. Soon; soon to be two thousand years of “soon”. The great city Babylon reigns on, indeed seems to be growing, with its kings and merchants having naught to bewail. We wait and wait in our little quarter of this city, some comfortably, some distracted by their travails, while around us the ungodly world sins on, unheeding. How can the human spirit stand such a wait? Generation after generation lives and dies, and the expectation is wearied. The lamps are trimmed, and trimmed again, and maiden after maiden must venture out for more oil, in dread lest the bridegroom make his appearance. But he never comes, and our urgency is deadened. We pray, “even so, Lord, quickly come,” but our hearts are not in it. We rest content, our souls well-filled by the spiritual wealth we sense we have stored up around us. The harvest goes unreaped, for what is the hurry? The Father has waited for so many lifetimes, for centuries, for two millennia: surely He is in no hurry to close up the register of the book of life.

But the day will come, tomorrow, a year from now, a century off. It does not matter. The wrath of God will be spent, and Jesus will return, when we do not expect. And in our own lives, if we be spared the day of his coming, our last rest will overtake us, and the record of our lives will be writ in indelible ink. When the angels come to gather us in, it is that book which will be opened, and we will set to one side or the other, for life or destruction. And therefore we must live in expectation of that dread day, both in trembling and joy. The time is coming soon, for our time is coming soon. The day of the Lord could be today, and were we not ready, what account could we give? The day of the Lord could find us resting in a death that may take us tomorrow or decades hence, and what account could we give? It is that urgency which we must find.

Our time is limited, even among us who are fortunate to live out the fullness of years; the work is great, and the field vast. Does your life testify to those about you? Does it uplift your fellow Christians in their struggles? Then good; by grace, you may stand among the sheep. But year by year, the call goes out, and because the faith is not articulated, it is not heard; or because of lives which belie the Christian path, the call is spurned. Who knows how many could not be called back from the lake of fire, which is the second death? It is perhaps very, very many. And every day the time draws nearer, when the accounts are settled. May we be counted good and faithful servants, and not be left outside when the doors are shut on the wedding feast of the Lamb of God. To do so, we must do what is set before us: to live generously, and graciously; to witness to our faith; to stand strong in the face of persecution; and at the last, to commend ourselves to our savior. In these things, if we are steadfast, the salvation offered to us will be ours on the last day, and thus we may say “Maranatha!”— “come, Lord!”— with pure hearts, in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him, and to the Father and the Holy Spirit, be honor and worship, unto ages of ages. AMEN.

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