Sermon for 2 Advent 2016

4 December 2016
Advent 2, Year A

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Advent is not just about preparing for Christmas, as important as it is to focus on that. It has also historically been about what we call the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. We tend to shy away from at least three of these things – namely death, judgment, and hell – because so many of our more radical coreligionists seem to place too much emphasis on them. Too many take for themselves the role of judge, daring to speak on matters where Christ, not we mortals, has the final say. Many of you know that I’m a fan of genre fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy novels. Since I first read the Lord of the Rings novels as a kid, I’ve often thought about some wise words from Gandalf the wizard as they relate to our own Christian expectation: “Do not be too eager to deal out death and judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

That being said, I wonder if we mostly moderate Christians are a little too quick to shy away from these last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. We are a little too quick to dismiss the apocalyptic themes of scripture, because those who focus on them are a little bit “judgy” and creepy. I know I shy away from these issues. It is for me, I think, mostly a rather self-important attempt to distance myself from those whom I perhaps haughtily think of as “the nuts”. You know, they’re the Christians who seem overly interested in end-of-the-world prophecies gleaned from a peculiar reading of Revelation and Daniel and some of the other weirder bits of the bible and then apply them to “signs” they’ve identified in politics and world events.

The problem is that when we simply react against this admittedly odd sort of theology, we can swing too far to the other side, and forget that scripture is full of these apocalyptic themes and if we choose simply to reject them, we’re throwing out a lot of what scripture can say to us. We are throwing out the baby of biblical truth with the bathwater of fundamentalist interpretation.

Take this morning’s Gospel. We hear a rather disconcerting sermon from John the Baptist who cries “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” and who gives us an image of the final judgment:

His winnowing fork is in his hand and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

There is more to scripture than gentle reminders to be nice to each other. The prophetic tradition in which John the Baptist finds himself is concerned with the eternal consequences of righteousness and wickedness and it is concerned with finality, the end, and we are unwise to ignore that message.

Now, before this gets too creepy, it’s important to remember that the Kingdom which is to come is a fundamentally positive thing. It is a promised gift to which we may look forward eagerly. This, I think, is where we can draw the most important distinction between the apocalyptic of the Bible and the apocalypticism of some modern people. You see, the latter, at least as I’ve heard it preached, is primarily about fear. God’s coming, they seem to suggest, to blow the wicked away. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, so you’d better jump on a theological life raft.

Even secular folk thrive on this sort of fear mongering. How will it end? Nuclear war, a super bug, a climate catastrophe. Well, maybe, but why are we so fascinated by the question “how is it all going to come crashing down?” Such speculation may be well intended—it’s not my place really to say—but when Christians focus so much on the world coming to some nasty end the speculation can become profoundly theologically suspect, as I suggested in last week’s sermon, and when we assume such destruction is God’s will, we cede our obligations to make peace and to fight against the greed and corruption which create poverty and pollution and war.

The biblical view of the end is radically different from the modern apocalypticism. Instead of fear the biblical message engenders hope, because it is a story about triumph rather than destruction. There is an element of judgment in the biblical view—John calls for repentance that we might stand up under that judgment—but the overwhelming theme is that of a new peace and prosperity for God’s people. Hear again those beautiful words from the Prophet Isaiah:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

Every time we come together we pray as our Lord has taught us: thy kingdom come. And when we say “thy kingdom come” we pray not for the wrath of God on our enemies but for the peace that lasts to eternity. We pray not for death and destruction, but for the time when “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

Thank God that sooner or later our Lord will return in triumph to judge the world, not because he comes to destroy the wicked, but rather that he comes to redeem all. Because it means that we who have been given grace to repent of our pride, we who are faithful if even in a little, will be brought at last to that heavenly city of peace and unity to dwell with God forever. We watch, then, not in fear but in eager expectation, knowing that our Lord will come and save his people, captive once to sin, but now made free by the power of his mighty Resurrection.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.