Last things First

If you paid attention to the readings this morning, you might be confused.  First we heard Saint Paul’s helpful assurance that “we know what time it is.”  Then, minutes later, from the Gospel, we heard Jesus warn, “about that day and hour no one knows…  Keep watch, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”  So by now you might be wondering what the Bible is trying to tell you.  Do we know what time it is, or not?  The answer, of course, is yes, and no.

It is Advent Sunday, the beginning of the church year.  We have begun again to move through the cycle of time that leads us to a baby’s crib in Bethlehem, and then to a Cross on a hill outside of Jerusalem, and to the empty tomb, then to an upper room where the Holy Spirit rushes through, and so on.  This is the wheel of sacred time turning its grand arc, beginning at the beginning and leading us to the end.  So you would think that we begin with first things first.  But we do not.  In the church it is our custom to begin with last things first.  While we are preparing straw to fill the manger, we are also contemplating the end of time, which, it would seem, is when the prophecy of Isaiah will finally come true that we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, for we are surely not there yet.

Sing a hymn in Advent, and you are likely to discover that you are singing not about the excitement of waiting for the baby Jesus, but about the wonder and awe of his second coming: Lo!  He comes with clouds descending, once for our salvation slain.  Here, on the first day of a new church year: last things first.

Traditionally the church has identified the four “last things:” Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.  These are our points of reflection as we wait for Jesus.  These are the mysteries beyond the veil that Saint John the Divine was shown in his Revelation.  These last things remind us that we only pretend to be waiting for a birth, that we are re-living that ancient story even while we wait for the final chapter when God’s time is fulfilled, when Christ comes again, and when all history culminates in a second big bang of God’s creating and saving power.  So, last things first: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.

Start with Death, because we can all agree on that; we can all agree there is such a thing, anyway.  Death is the thing we have most in common with Jesus, and it is the place where we are most tightly bound to him, for it is in his dying that the certainty and fullness of his humanity is known.  Tempting as it is to see him as super-human, we see in Jesus’ death that he is simply (but not only) human.

When we were joined to Jesus in the Sacrament of Baptism, the church told us that we were being baptized into his death.  By this we mean that our journey in life is inextricably linked to his journey through death; that the apple-eating, rule-breaking, take-what-I-want-and-worry-about-the-consequences-later, fig-leaf-wearing-because-all-of-a sudden-I-am-ashamed-of-the-beautiful-creature-lieness-of-the-body-God-made-for-me, crouching-in-fear-because-of-the-sound-of God-walking-in-the-Garden-and-coming-toward-me…

… that every fault I share with our first parents, and some that I have perfected on my own, every one of them can be buried with Christ and left for dead, as we take on the new life he is calling us to lead.

And, of course, we are linked to Christ in death because our earthly lives will end in death as surely as his did.  He does not ask us to go where he has not already gone.  So, last things first.

Next is Judgment where we meet Christ face to face.  In our own time, judging has become a dirty word, since it implies asserting your standards over against mine, as though your standards were demonstrably better than mine, and as though you lived by them yourself, which I deeply suspect you do not, since our culture tends to suspect that any person judging anything is probably a raging hypocrite.

Jesus does assert his standard over against ours, and his standard is love, a demonstrably better standard than all the other alternatives.  His judgment is the rule of love by which our own lives will be measured.  This is why in his ministry he taught us how to love one another: to live our lives not for our own sakes, but for others, caring about the wounded, sick, hungry, naked, homeless, imprisoned, helpless, the beaten man on the side of the road, the child who depends on her elders.  Be prepared to answer for this measure of your life, because in the end (whenever that is) no other measure will matter.

Judgment is often over-looked in the quest for the meaning of life, but without judgment what meaning could there be in life?  If no one cares, and it doesn’t matter whether we help or harm one another then what sort of life have we been called to live?  Last things first.

Heaven is the happiest of the last things.  In the biblical tradition, visions of heaven may begin in the clouds, but they don’t end there.  They take on a familiar form: the shape of a city, the holy city: a new Jerusalem.  God’s eternal home has its counterparts in our own world, its points of comparison.  It is not just a lifestyle choice that heavenly kingdom is a city and not a meadow.  For God always calls his people to be in community, living with one another, and in the world to come this will be true too, we can surmise.

And heaven is the destination of our life’s pilgrimage.  To speak of heaven is to know that God’s people have someplace to go: a promised land where all is peace, a land flowing with milk and honey where the trials of this world are forgotten.  To be a pilgrim is to know that you are not wandering aimlessly, but that you do, in fact, have someplace to go, even if the way is hard.  Whenever we speak of heaven we remind ourselves of this important truth, and we pray we are strengthened for the journey.  Last things first.

Last among the last things is hell.  Hard as it is for us to conceive of, there is room in God’s imagination for a place of fire and torment, weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

It hardly requires us to stretch our own imaginations to think of such places here on earth.  There are people who suffer unthinkable torment in their lives, perhaps it is implausible that such suffering would not be a possibility on the other side of the grave as well.

Biblical teaching about hell is mostly by inference, and these days the church often speaks with only little confidence about hell, except in this: that part of the mission of Jesus during his three days of death was to visit hell and set free the souls in torment there and bring them with him to the path of salvation.  Fantastic as such a story may seem, it tells us that no place – not even the darkest places of imagination – is beyond the saving reach of Christ’s strong hand.  Last things first.

When we take last things first, it is not because we are like over-eager murder-mystery readers who read the last page first.  It is because we are hungry for meaning in our lives, and we know that God has given this gift of a far-sighted vision of the last things, the sight of which colors our understanding of the present things that generally have our attention.

It would appear that God allows us this vision for two reasons: first to give hope, and second to urge us to watchfulness.  Hope and watchfulness are the dual messages of Christ’s tiny parable today: two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.  Is this literally true?  Is this how God’s salvation works?  Who can say?  But perhaps Jesus uses this image to urge both hope and watchfulness.  Yes, when all the world has fallen to pieces there is hope.  The Second Coming has all the hopefulness of waiting for a bus, which when you think of it is significant, because you are counting on the bus actually arriving. 

This is the difference between wishful thinking and hope.  Wishful thinking leaves you standing and waiting for a bus that will never come, because it probably never left the station, and maybe doesn’t even exist.  But hope is founded on the certainty that one is coming for you.

But if you are not watchful, if you walk away, turn your back, or start to do something else, you may never get on the bus, may never even see it coming, even though it drives right past you.

But even most city buses are not likely to do this; some of them will even stop in mid-block and open their doors for you if they realize they missed you.  If even a Philadelphia city bus will do this, how much more will God do everything he can to bring you and me into his kingdom?

“You know what time it is,” St. Paul says, “now is the moment for you to wake from sleep.”  It hardly matters what the hour is, the alarm of hope, soon to be found on the lips of John the Baptist, is calling us awake: the kingdom of God is at hand, make straight in the desert a highway for our God!  And yet, year after year we find the need to renew our faith, replenish it for another year, strengthen our resolve and relocate our hope.  And it is all too true that we know neither the day nor the hour that God will set the wheel of sacred time spinning for the last time, finally bringing all things to their completion.

And so we are called to live with hope and watchfulness, because while indeed we do not know when our Lord is coming, his advent is more than wishful thinking.  And of course, we do know exactly what time it is, now is the moment to wake from sleep, and be prepared for last things first.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

28 November 2010

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on November 28, 2010 .