Thursday, December 1, 2016

Sermon Wednesday Advent 1: The Four Last Things

‘The Four Last Things:’ Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven,
have been traditional themes of meditation for Advent.
This reminds us that Advent is not simply a season in which we await a celebration of Jesus’ birth,
but instead a time when we await his coming into our lives,
and his coming at the end of all things,
to judge the living and the dead.
One of my colleagues in the Society of the Holy Trinity posted this gem on her Facebook wall,
written by a Salvatorian monk:

‘Advent is concerned with the future, not the past.
Christ has already been born and all of creation was changed
when Jesus was born of Mary so many centuries ago.
If our waiting is only about looking forward
to a celebration of Jesus ‘birthday’ on December 25,
then both Advent and even Christmas will have little purpose
beyond being just another anniversary on the calendar.

But, because Advent is about looking within
and recognizing those places within us and in our world
where the darkness of sin, fear, hopelessness, and grief still flourish,
we need these blessed days
to pray and watch for the coming of the dawn of that day
when the Sun of Justice will drive the darkness away.
We watch and wait.
We light candles to remind us that the darkness is being conquered
by the One who is the Light of the World.
Above all, we hope.’
We human beings are not good at looking into the future,
especially when our present seems to be so attractive.
Perhaps some morbid people are plagued by the thoughts of their own death.
Most of us, however, have no interest in looking at death
until we have almost caught up with it,
or rather, until it has almost caught up with us.

Those who are Christians have the comfort of the passage
which we have just heard from John 11,
so often read at funerals for the benefit of a grieving family,
or pondered by those whose death draws near.
But to see this passage only as a reason to not grieve at a funeral,
or at least to grieve less,
is to miss out on the opportunity to meditate on death.
We fail to reap the rich harvest, as it were, of pondering our death.

We should meditate upon death for the simple reason that if we don’t,
death can have the power to subconsciously control our thoughts and actions,
Even if we believe that Christ has conquered death,
we are not immune to death’s spectre.
The threat of death makes us anxious
not simply about the threat of judgment and hell,
but about a life that is missing things.
‘I’ll die without really living.
Without really being in love,
or checking off everything on my bucket list,
or having corrected this and that in my life,
or seeing justice done in the world,
or having left a good enough legacy for others.’

The devil has been cheated, by the Resurrection of Christ,
of holding us in thrall to the power of death’s to destroy the soul,
but he instead uses the riches of the world
to increase the fear that we will die
without receiving all the world has to offer.

But if the real meaning of life is to be in union with God,
if death cannot threaten this,
then we are no longer in need of such thinking.
Indeed, to engage in such thinking is to give death back the power it does not have.
We see life as a process of accumulation instead of growing toward God.
In reflecting upon death, we cannot help but reflect
upon what we truly believe our life is all about,
and what we truly believe about God.

This is, of course, not the only thing we could say about death.
We might think about how death really is a gift to us,
in that death curbs the evil that human beings can do.
Can we imagine a world in which Fidel Castro, for example, was immortal?
Part of the plot in the Harry Potter series of books
is that Lord Voldemort has cheated death by splitting his soul into seven,
so that it makes him infinitely hard to kill.
The evil he may do is utterly unlimited,
unless the objects in which he has stored parts of his life are destroyed,
so that he finally may die, and his evil with him.
When he dies, then the spell of fear which he has cast over many is dispelled.
And for us who do not worship the darkness,
to realize that we will die is to embrace the faith
that there will come a time in which we can no longer sin,
in which our love for God will not be marred
by death-fearing inclinations and behavior.
Death becomes our liberation.

There are, of course, many more things to say or think about.
But perhaps it is good to end with that same passage which is read at funerals.
‘Those who believe in me, though they die, will live,
and those who live and believe in me will never die.’
It is through Christ that death becomes not an object of fear,
but an object of curiosity,
not a God, but a thing to be viewed in the light of God and his love.
We do not approach death by ourselves, but with Christ,
clothed in his life, robed in his love.
And we do not do battle with death,
but it is Christ who has battled death for us,
and who is victorious, so that when our death comes,
it is no longer the end of anything,
but, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in a poem he wrote in prison,
a ‘station on the way to freedom.’

‘Come now, highest of feasts on the way to freedom eternal,
Death, lay down your ponderous chains and earthen enclosures
walls that deceive our souls and fetter our mortal bodies,
that we might at last behold what here we are hindered from seeing.
Freedom, long have we sought you through discipline, actions and suffering.

Dying, now we discern in the countenance of God your own face.’