Love Durham Cathedral?Donate now

What's On

Advent themes: death, judgement and the Second Coming of Christ

Romans 13.11-end, Matthew 24.36-44
Preached on 27 November 2016
Sung Eucharist: The First Sunday of Advent
by Rosalind Brown
Celebrating the new year today reminds us that the Church keep different time to the secular world, although it is the secular world marked that has changed because for centuries the calendar year once kept church time, beginning on Lady Day, 25th March, the Feast of the Annunciation. However, in a switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, after a nine-month year in 1751, 1752 began on 1st January. Action was also taken to redress the problem that over the centuries the calendar year had got out of kilter with the lunar year that the church follows, especially with sunrise and sunset at the equinoxes. So a combination of introducing leap years and skipping eleven days in September 1751 established a new and secular base. But taxes are always a sore subject and, on 25th March 1752, people objected to paying normal taxes for a shorter year, so for tax purposes the eleven days were added back in and the tax year has started on 6th April ever since. So next time you pay your taxes, remember you are living in church time. That may not be a lot of consolation to you!
We have begun the church’s new year by surrounding the Cathedral in prayer as the Litany in procession articulates our new year’s resolution to pray for all aspects of life in God’s world. Yet on New Year’s Day we are not only concerned with what happens during the next 365 days because the gospel thrusts us into the world of eternity presaged by the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. At Christmas we will celebrate his first coming but we prepare for that by preparing for his second coming as king and judge. Advent, the period between now and Christmas, is the season of four great themes, known as the four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell.
Starting with death. This week’s story about the teenager who wanted her body frozen in case she can be revived, disease-free, in centuries to come, is heart-rending. Tragically the theology is faulty: neither resuscitation of the body nor reincarnation are God’s way. God’s purposes are far more wonderful than that. The death of our bodies is indeed final, yet we are not just physical bodies and although Jesus’s friends had to bury his physical body, as he died Jesus gave up his sprit to God. We are spiritual beings and God saves us body, soul and spirit. So Paul wrote to the Thessalonian Christians, ‘may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.’
Christ is coming again, and coming as judge. Advent faces us not just with death but with judgement. And if we are judged, then there is a verdict and consequences. If we dismiss the idea of judgement after death by a righteous judge, we remove all accountability for how we live our lives and open the door to the cruelty and depravity that the Stalins and Pol Pots, the Jimmy Saviles and the human traffickers of this world perpetrate. Put bluntly, if actions do not have eternal consequences and I have power to abuse you without fear of reprisal, what is to stop me?
Every time we say or sing the creed we affirm our belief that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. Advent confronts us with the comforting but hard truth that actions have consequences and we will be held accountable for our actions. This is not a terrifying prospect because the certainty of judgement comes with the assurance that the one who judges us, Jesus Christ, is the one who knows what it is to be human and lives to pray for us. This great good news is expressed every Sunday when at Matins the confident words of the Te Deum, an ancient hymn of the church, ring out: ‘We believe that thou shalt come to be our judge. We therefore pray thee; help thy servants whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood. Make them to be numbered with thy saints in glory everlasting. O Lord, save thy people and bless thine inheritance.’
Canon Jagger spoke last week about the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year being “post-truth”, when objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals. Post-truth ultimately denies judgement but, whether the world likes the idea or not, Advent confronts us with the truth that we are to be judged. Advents faces us with how we prepare for that.
If the prospect of judgement alarms us, the answer is not terror or denial, but turning to Jesus Christ to save and redeem us. Last Sunday, on Christ the King Sunday, Canon Jagger said that to be in God’s kingdom is to be in a safe place because, in Jesus Christ, God has rescued and transferred into the safety of the kingdom of his beloved Son, even while we live on earth. Canon Jagger quoted one of the men being crucified alongside Jesus who faced the reality of death and judgement and the reality of salvation and redemption in Jesus Christ. He said to the other man being crucified, “We are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong”, and then to Jesus. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. “Jesus replied, ‘today you will be with me in Paradise.’ The glory of the gospel is that God then raised Jesus from the dead and if we are in Christ we are raised in him. As Canon Jagger said, it is a simple as that – to see, to trust, to ask. If you have not done that, speak to one of the clergy afterwards.
We heard Paul exhorting the Roman Christians to prepare for Christ’s coming by laying aside the works of darkness and putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, putting on the armour of light; living honourably as in the day when light can reveal things we’d prefer to keep in the dark. His examples were to avoid drunken revelry, debauchery, promiscuity, quarrelling and jealousy, but the list is not exhaustive and, if your conscience is twinging about your lifestyle, listen to it and act.
Jesus’s teaching in the gospel was given to his disciples in the context of preparing for his second coming in power and glory, inaugurating the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. He did not criticise people for getting on with ordinary life – eating and drinking, marrying and carrying on with daily work – we have to do that and, a few years later, Paul had to tell off some Thessalonian Christians for not working on the grounds that God’s kingdom was coming. We prepare for Christ’s coming by living life faithfully day by day.
At the same time, we must also heed Jesus’s warning to be ready for when God acts. His example of people unprepared for the flood is vivid for us who are bombarded with images of sudden disasters around the world. We have disaster plans for many things because preparing and waiting with readiness takes determined effort. Our spiritual disaster plan requires us to keep awake spiritually because we have no idea when life as we know it will end, either through our death or because Jesus comes again. Either way, he will be our judge.
So, on this new year’s day in the Church’s time frame, how can we respond in confident hope of the resurrection to eternal life? We prayed earlier, “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light now in this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ comes to us in great humility.” Casting away is vigorously intentional, the sort of instinctive action when we have picked up something horrible and want to get rid of it quickly. We throw it away from us jerkily. So this Advent we ask God to make us rapid and intentional in throwing the works of darkness as far away from us as we can.
But we don’t just cast off, we prayed too for grace to put on the armour of light now, in this life which Jesus has shared with us. Christmas is all about God in Christ sharing our life. To prepare to celebrate the first coming of Jesus Christ as a baby in Bethlehem, we must also prepare for his second coming in glory to judge the living and the dead. We do this in at least three ways: by turning to him to be our saviour as well as our judge, something we can do now; by living godly lives that express our Christian commitment; and by doing in our lives what we have done in church, enfolding, encircling our lives and the life of the world in prayer. Can I suggest that, as a sort of Advent calendar, you take the service leaflet home and pray the Litany day by day, perhaps dividing it into seven parts so that you pray it all the way through once a week.
Advent demands that we face reality. In 1938, as the world hurtled towards war, an American theologian, Richard Niebuhr, put his finger on the world’s problem of its denial of its violence and chaos. He wrote of belief in a God without wrath bringing people without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministration of a Christ without a cross. Advent confronts that utter travesty of that panacea by being brutally honest about the horrific mess the world is in – something no one can deny in these turbulent times – and its need for judgement whilst holding before us the hope and wonder of what God is doing about it. Death is real; Jesus died; we will die; we will be judged. But as the Easter hymn puts it, that is not the whole story because ’Jesus lives! Thy terrors now can, O death, no more appal us. … Jesus lives! Henceforth is death but the gate of life immortal’.
So, in that light of God’s great provision from before all time and God’s utter holiness and righteousness, we believe in a God who will judge the world for its sin, bringing a people who have sinned into the kingdom of God through the saving work of Jesus Christ who died on a cross to bear the sin of the world and who has been raised form the dead and has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
We are called to be resurrection people of Advent hope and joy, casting off sin, putting on Christ and living holy lives in anticipation of our Saviour’s second coming just as much as his first. As we will soon sing, ‘Yea, amen, let all adore thee. O come quickly, alleluia, come, Lord, come.’