THE SECOND SUNDAY IN ADVENT – Populus Sion
Introit: O people of Sion, behold, the Lord is nigh at hand to redeem the nations: and in the gladness of your heart the Lord shall cause his glorious voice to be heard. Ps (80). Hear, O thou Shepherd of Israel: thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep. Glory be … O people of Sion …
Collect: Stir up, O Lord, our hearts to make ready the way of thine only-begotten Son: that through his advent we may with purified minds be worthy to serve thee; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility: that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.
OT Lesson: Thus saith the Lord: Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap: and he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant unto the Lord, as in the days of old, and as in former years. And I will come near to you to judgement; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not me, saith the Lord of hosts. For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed. (Malachi 3.1-6)
Gradual: (Ps 50) Out of Sion hath God appeared: in perfect beauty. V. Gather my saints together unto me: those that have made a covenant with me with sacrifice.
Epistle: Brethren: Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope. Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: that ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God. Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers: and that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name. And again he saith, Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with his people. And again, Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles; and laud him, all ye people. And again, Esaias saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust. Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost. (Romans 15.4-13)
Alleluia. The powers of heaven shall be shaken: and then shall they see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Jesus said unto his disciples: There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh. And he spake to them a parable: Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; when they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away. (St Luke 21.25-33)
“And I will come near to you to judgement.”
Advent calls us to be prepared. Being prepared requires that we have a clear goal before us and that we be focussed and intent upon it. Jesus has ushered in His Kingdom at His First Advent. He has established it in our hearts and made us a new temple of His Presence, and He has promised that He will return to make His spiritual Kingdom a physical reality. But in the meantime, He has made it very clear that we have work to do. That is how the Kingdom grows. But instead of committing themselves to the pure and unadulterated Gospel of the Scriptures, instead of holding fast to the Faith once delivered to the Saints, many churches wander from this fad to the next, trying to be “relevant,” conforming to the culture, or looking to the latest ecclesiastical craze (“signs and wonders”) or man-centred teaching to draw people to the Kingdom, rather than simply preaching and faithfully living the Cross of Christ. And as Robert Crouse says, “The peril is that the worldly Church becomes irrelevant to heaven.” One cannot have a relationship with Christ without wanting to be immersed in Scripture, and one cannot have an intimate knowledge of the Scriptures without developing a deeper relationship with Christ, for He is the very Word of God Incarnate. Thus He can say with confidence, in today’s Gospel, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” Jesus is the very foundation of Creation itself—it was by His power as the Word, that God spoke everything into existence—and so when Jesus gives His word, we can surely trust His promises.
St Paul gives us a picture of what the Church is supposed to look like—of what it means to be prepared for the Second Advent. The Church brings together people from every culture and every walk of life. Jews and Romans were being brought together in the Church at Rome. Historically the Jews hated the Romans, because the Romans had conquered them, and the Romans looked down upon the Jews as a bunch of religious zealots and malcontents. St Paul reminds them that they were brought together by the Word: by a common life in the Word Incarnate, by a common grounding and hope in the Word Written. Jesus came in fulfilment of all those scriptural promises to the Jews, but Paul insists that God’s true purpose was never only about a particular people or a particular place. Rather, God used a particular people and place so that when the fulfilment of His promises came, the whole world—all nations—would be drawn to His Kingdom. And to prove this point, he quotes all three of the historic divisions of the Hebrew Bible (Law, Prophets, and Writings). The Holy Scriptures prepare us for the coming of Christ in humility and in judgement, and we await the fulness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, who comes in the fulness of time. He is the hope of our salvation, for in Him all things are fulfilled. His coming in time means also His coming at the end of time, of which the Gospel speaks. The fulfilment of all things in Christ means the destruction of all our worldly aims, ambitions and hopes: “men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth.” His coming pronounces judgement, ever-present and ultimate, upon those who cling to the passing things of this world rather than to the Lord whose “words shall not pass away.”
The Gospel for this Sunday comes from what is called the Olivet Discourse. Its focus is upon the Second Advent, and includes one of the more difficult of our Lord’s sayings, when He states: “Verily, I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” To understand what this passage means, we need an overview of the entire Discourse. The narrative context is His last week in Jerusalem after His triumphal entry (i.e., Holy Week). Jesus was with His disciples in the Temple where He had been healing the blind and the lame, when someone pointed out the majesty and beauty of the Temple. Jesus replied: “As for the things which you see, the days will come when there shall not be left one stone upon another …” His hearers were understandably shaken, and asked when the “end of the world” would come. From there, Jesus began this long discourse about human history, the end of time, and the coming of the Son of Man. But He warned His disciples not to fall for lies and deceptions about the last days: there will be false christs, there will be those who say, ‘The day is here, the time is at hand,’ but do not listen to them. There will be wars and rumours of wars, but do not be fearful. Kingdoms will rise and fall. There will be great earthquakes, famines, pestilences, terrors and persecutions. Then, the direst prediction of all, He prophesied that not only would the Temple be destroyed, but all of Jerusalem razed to the ground. Only after this did our Lord describe His Second Advent, as the culmination of history, while the whole cosmic order of heaven and earth tremble and shatter.
Jerusalem’s desolation is but a foreshadowing of the Last Judgement when Christ will come with power and glory. The judgement of Jerusalem, for her sins and her rejection of the Messiah, is a microcosm of the Last Judgement in which Christ will come to judge the living and the dead. “There shall be signs,” He says, but these are not words of warning or threat, and Jesus discourages us from engaging in speculation about the end of the world, encouraging us rather to remain vigilant, and alert to opportunities to bear witness to Him at all times. He does not say that these are the signs that the end of the world is upon us. Rather, He says that when we see the signs we are to stand up, raise our heads, and remind ourselves that help is on the way: our redemption, our healing, our Saviour is drawing near. “When you see the trees sprouting leaves, you know that summer is near.” This is not exactly an image which strikes fear into the hearts of people after a long winter. It usually makes us excited and fills our hearts with dreams of balmy days and a fruitful harvest. So the signs are not a reason to cower in fear or withdraw from life. The signs are our hope and reassurance that God has not abandoned us, that God cares for us, that Christ comes to us in the midst of our life’s circumstances. The Advent signs are as ordinary and common as a fig tree sprouting leaves. We see the leaves and we know something is about to happen: Summer is coming, promising new life, new growth, new fruit. That is the good news of the Advent Season. And yet that promise, that good news, is fulfilled not apart from but in and through the reality of our life’s circumstances, no matter how difficult or tragic they may be. So, what if we looked on the events of our lives and our world and began to understand them as sprouting leaves? We would see new life and new growth. We would produce new fruit. We would face life with new courage and confidence. We would look on the world with a new sense of hope. We would be strengthened to do the work God has given us to do. Yes, the seasons of our lives can be long, difficult, and painful. But even in the midst of those wintry seasons come signs of hope and reassurance, signs that point to the One who is coming.
Advent confronts us not just with death but with judgement. Death is real. We will all die, and we will all be judged. Psalm 50 (our Gradual Psalm) expresses this very well—both on the positive and negative sides. Christ is coming again, and coming as Judge. And if we are judged, then there will be 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 all the wickedness and depravity that this world perpetrates. Advent demands that we face reality. In 1938, as the world hurtled towards war, American theologian Richard Niebuhr noted that the modern church’s malaise lay in belief in “a God without wrath [bringing] a people without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross (The Kingdom of God in America, p 193). Advent exposes the utter folly of that philosophy, being brutally honest about the appalling mess the world is in, and its dire need for judgement, whilst at the same time holding before us the hope and wonder of what God is doing, and will do, about it.
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 presents us with the comforting but hard truth that actions have consequences, and that we will be held accountable for our actions. Yet this ought not to be a terrifying prospect, because the certainty of judgement comes with the assurance that the One who judges us also knows what it is to be human, and has suffered and died to save us. This great good news is expressed every day at Mattins in the confident words of the Te Deum: ‘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 heritage: govern them, and lift them up for ever.’
The earliest Christians looked forward with eager expectation to Christ’s second advent. In fact, one of the oldest Christian prayers was “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!” That our forebears in the faith should pray this prayer, indicates that they understood Christ’s coming again in glory to be profoundly good news. However, this sense of the goodness and importance of Christ coming again to judge the world seems to have been lost in the Church somewhere along the way. We modern Anglicans do not really talk about such things, and those Christians that do … well, we’d probably rather they stop. The bodily return of Christ seems to be either a pious fiction to be largely ignored, or the exclusive domain of fanatics and doomsday prophets, where His promise, “Surely I am coming soon” (Rev 22.20), sounds much like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ominous, “I’ll be back.” What we fail to realise is that the One who is coming back is the very same One who forsook the path of vengeance and retribution for the way of the cross. In His first Advent, Jesus did not come in a cloud, but in the womb of a virgin. In His first Advent, He did not descend with power and great glory, but with humility and in great obscurity. In His first Advent, Jesus came not as Judge, but to be judged in our place. He did all this so that at His Second Advent we need not fear, but might rejoice in it as a new beginning. But between His coming in Bethlehem and His coming on the Last Day, He bids us receive Him as He gives Himself now.
Yet even when poor theology and “Terminator”-inspired teachings on the Second Advent are set aside, there is still something within us that shrinks back when we hear of Christ’s coming to judge the living and the dead. Judgement does not sit well with us contemporary Canadians. There are few things in our society worse than being labelled as ‘judgemental,’ or to use more current slang, ‘judgy.’ There is a deep irony, though, in these cultural currents, since the labelling of someone as ‘judgemental’ is itself an act of judgementalism, and the very advocates of ‘tolerance’ can be surprisingly intolerant when confronted by those who do not share their agenda. And although ‘judgementalism’ is largely looked upon as a character flaw (or worse), contemporary society itself can be incredibly judgemental, as evidenced by the continuous array of public figures who are mercilessly tried in the court of public opinion through the media, lives and reputations ruined, and “justice served” which is no justice at all. In spite of these deep ironies, or perhaps because of them, the notion of judgement generally gives us a sense of unease, if not mortal dread. Yet the judgement of God is consistently presented in Scripture as being profoundly good news. This sentiment resounds throughout the Psalms, and echoes in today’s Lesson from Malachi. Recall the words of Psalm 98: “Let the sea roar, and all that therein is: the round world, and they that dwell therein. Let the floods clap their hands: and let the hills be joyful together before the Lord.” And why? “For he cometh to judge the earth.”
Now it is important to understand that judges in the ancient Middle Eastern world functioned rather differently from judges today. While no one exactly looks forward to a day in court, judges in ancient Israel were actually viewed positively, and were often seen as heroes and saviour figures (see for example the entire book of Judges). Thus we cannot project upon the biblical references to judgement our contemporary image of the scowling judge in white wig and scarlet robe glaring menacingly down upon the plaintiff to mete out punishment. When a problem emerged in the life of ancient Israel, those involved would take their matter to the judges who sat at the city gates. Through the exercise of their wise and godly counsels, these judges would restore peace and justice to the people, (which is what makes Our Lord’s parable of the “Unjust Judge” [Lk 18.1-8] so remarkable). What was wrong would be made right, what was out of order would be set straight, and the community would be able to carry on productively in its life together. This is the type of imagery at play when the Psalmist celebrates the Lord’s coming “in righteousness to judge the world, and the peoples with equity.” The judgement of God is good news and cause for celebration precisely because it means that God will make all things right. The last judgement is thus a sign of God’s refusal to give up on His creation until it has been freed from every ill that has marred it. Because there is a Last Judgement, we know that evil will not have the last word.
How shall we respond in confident hope to the prospect of divine judgement? We prayed earlier, “Give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life.” ‘Casting away’ is a vigorously intentional act, the sort of instinctive action we perform when we have picked up something horrible and want to get rid of it quickly. In this Advent season we ask God to make us quick and intentional in throwing the works of darkness as far away from us as we possibly can. But we do not just cast off; we prayed too for grace to ‘put on’ the armour of light—now, in this life. Christmas is all about God in Christ sharing our human life. But in order to prepare to celebrate the first coming of 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; by living godly lives that express our Christian commitment; and by doing in our daily lives what we have done in church, enfolding our lives and the entire world in prayer.
The Season of Advent is a wake-up call graciously given to the people of God who are perennially tempted to sleep-walk their way through this world. In the face of the coming judgement, Advent provides us with the opportunity to repent of the ways and habits which have seduced us, and to refocus our gaze upon Christ. The candles we light during Advent provide us with the opportunity to see the true nature of the darkness which surrounds us and in the face of this culture of death turn to Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
We pray: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord.” But that is a dangerous prayer, for hearts are not stirred up with comfort foods, cushions and soft music. We do not pray: “Lord, give us warm, fuzzy feelings; make our lives comfortable and easy.” We pray that God would stir up our hearts—that He would disturb us, and goad us into action. Hearts are stirred up by an earnest call to repentance, with a hearty dose of reality. “Stir up our hearts” is a plea for God to end our complacency, to defeat our laziness, to overcome our apathy. We ask Him to intervene against our own human nature. “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of thine only-begotten Son.”
God judges in order to save. He has promised us that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8.38-39). The judgement of God is for the purpose of bringing us into the joy of communion in the life of love eternally shared between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. So, trusting in God’s great purposes from before all time and His utter holiness and righteousness, we believe in a God who will judge the world for its sin, bringing a people who acknowledge their sin into His righteous Kingdom through the saving work of Jesus Christ who died on the cross to take away the sin of the world, rose again from the dead, and has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. On the great and dreadful Day of the Lord, the Son of Man will indeed come in a cloud with power and great glory. So if the prospect of judgement alarms us, the answer is not in terror or denial, but in turning to Jesus Christ to save and redeem us. Ours is an otherworldly and eternal hope, the contradiction of all worldly hopes and expectations; it is a sure confidence, and not merely a wish or aspiration. Heaven and earth shall pass away—indeed, they are passing away at this very moment—but the Word of the Lord endures forever, and in that Word we have the blessed hope of everlasting life. Lift up your heads! Your redemption draws near. Blessed are all who trust in Him, for they shall never be confounded. Our suffering, our trials, our troubles, our grief—all will end like a dream in the night, and God’s loving justice shall reign eternally.
Advent calls us to hope and joy, even as it calls us to repent and prepare, 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 Wesley’s great Advent hymn says, “Yea, amen! let all adore thee, High on thine eternal throne; Saviour, take the power and glory: Claim the kingdom for thine own. O come quickly! Alleluia, come, Lord, come!”
“And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
Collect: Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth world without end. Amen.
May Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, shine upon you and scatter the darkness from before your path, that you may be ready to meet him when he cometh again in glory: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.