The title of this sermon is “How I stopped worrying and learned to love the second coming of Christ.”
Imagine going down to Newtonville Books and buying yourself a novel. Would you come home, make some tea, sit down, and read the last page first? Most of us would not! And yet, the Christian year begins at the end of the story of history. On this first Sunday of Advent, when we start another year in the church calendar, we start at the end.
We begin with a gospel about the second coming of Christ — the coming we rehearse each week in our Nicene Creed: “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
When I hear the word judgment, my first reaction is to cower or turn away. I picture winnowing forks and courts of law where it won’t go well for me. But once I took a closer look at judgment within the whole story told in scripture, I found that it is actually good news.
First, the fact of judgment coming means that our lives matter. What we do is of consequence. Not only that, what we do matters to God. We are known by and connected to Being itself.
And finally, who we are and what we do is part of God’s work – God’s purpose of reconciling all things to one another and to God, which happens over the arc of history. If this is the case, then our perspective is expanded: the consequence of our actions is not just the length of a Vine video, or a news cycle, or a lifetime, but all of history. As the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in our lifetimes.”
If we begin here, then our preparations for Christmas will be different. We will be less worried about getting our cards out on time and more interested in wondering about who this God is who created us and cares about us. We will be less interested in being jolly and more interested in being present — to really experiencing the people in our lives, whether they be giddy with joy or bent over with sorrow. We will be less interested in judging others and more interested in stewarding the one precious life we have been given.
This second coming of Christ, to judge the living and the dead, changes everything.
If we begin with the second coming, with the end, then preparing for Christmas is not about preparing to hear a touching fable about a child in a stable, but preparing for the source of all Being to join in the created order. If we start here, then God is not just an idea or a remote judge in the sky, but One who loved us so desperately than he came to be with us so we could see and touch him and so he could know from inside what it’s like to be flesh and blood, caught up in this real world, exiled by capricious leaders, overwhelmed with grief at the death of a friend, victimized by oppressive regimes.
We are waiting for the coming of the God whose judgment is not a jealous rage against those who do not abide by random decrees. Rather, God’s judgment is on all that prevents right relationship — Christ’s judgment is on all that debases creation and the creatures of God whom he loves.
This God calls us to a brave love — a brave life of using our memory, reason, and skill to rise up for love’s sake, to raise up others.
How shall we begin at the end? How can we stop worrying and learn to love the second coming?
First, we can beat some swords into ploughshares, in the language of the prophet Isaiah. Right now, lots of people I know are carrying a lot of anger. The article circulating around facebook that shows people how to make a 2016 Christmas ornament in the form of a dumpster fire is a little too funny, to me and lots of other people! This has been a hard year, and that hard stuff has left people with some inner fuming. Our call is to use that anger to testify for good. Start by acknowledging it and praying with it: Yes, some venting to God and at God, but then some hard work praying for those whom we think are beyond the moral pale. Make a list of those you are angriest at. Pray for them. Pray for the capacity to engage them from a place of grace. Then, get ready to work for peace.
Second, plan for the end — your own end. This Sunday in the Christian year invites us to acknowledge our own mortality. Discuss with loved ones your wishes for your health care at the end of life, your burial, and your estate. This church has a form you can use to help you think through all these things, and Deacon Ken and I are always available to sit with you and help you ponder and plan these things. You can bring the completed form back to the church so that it is on file here, too. This is hard work, but doing it is a form of prayer to the one who is the author of all our days. And it is a blessing to those who will be called upon to tend to us as we make our passage from this world to the next.
So now we’ve read the last page of the book. We’re ready to live the story from its beginning and to keep awake to God’s truth and presence. This Advent, wake up to the God who created you, loves you, and calls you to the work of love. Wake up to the significance of your life and the holiness of each day you’ve been given. Keep awake, not out of fear but in astonishment and curiosity and hope.