November 27, 2011

 

ON THE END

Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 27 November 2011

Reading for the Gospel:  Mark 13: 24-37

 

People of many cultures – I was tempted to say, “All cultures”, but I do not know enough about all cultures – people from many cultures from time immemorial have wondered about two things: How did it all begin?, and How will it all end?  

The stories and legends and myths about the beginning are all very wonderful, whether they are the two very different accounts that we have in the first two chapters of Genesis, or the accounts springing up in cultures all around the globe, or the attempts by scientists – physicists, mathematicians, astronomers – to come up with a rational explanation through the study of the world and the universe.  My guess is that we shall never know for certain how it all began, and in a sense it does not really matter.  I would not be at all surprised if it were to turn out that there was no beginning. 

But at the other extreme we can seek a meaningful answer.  How will it all end?  Again the scientists offer us various versions of the end, but they are thinking in chronological terms, even if their chronologies cover millions and millions and millions of years as we understand years.  None of us will be around in our present form to witness such an apocalypse, the Mayan calendar and the speculations of some who seek to find an answer in the Holy Scriptures notwithstanding.  As we read in the passage for the Gospel this morning, Jesus said, “About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in Heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” 

Jesus did not know when the end would be, but he was not shy about talking about the end.  He does that a little earlier in this same passage.  He talks about “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”  There are those who like to see in these words mention of what is often called, “the Second Coming.”  But if we read what Jesus says carefully, he does not speak of a Second Coming in the way that so many conceive it.  Rather, as so often in this thirteenth chapter of this Gospel, Jesus is looking back to the book, “Daniel”, and in particular here to Daniel 7, verses 13 and 14.  It might be worth quoting those verses. 

        As I watched in the night visions,
        I saw one like a son of man,
                                coming with the clouds of Heaven.
                And he came to the Ancient of Days
                                and was presented before him.
                To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
                that all peoples, nations and languages
should serve him.
                His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall never pass away,
     and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.

In other words, when we read the words of Jesus in our passage from the Gospel of Mark this morning, we must see them in the context of Daniel 7.  He is not talking so much of a Second Coming, but of a Coming Again, a Return, to his Father’s presence.

And clearly, since this Son of Man is given dominion and glory and kingship over all nations and peoples and languages, something has come to pass whereby all nations and peoples and languages have accepted the dominion, glory and kingship of the Son of Man.  The question is: What is that something that has come to pass?

The writers of “Daniel” all stood solidly in the traditions of the Hebrew prophets, men like Amos and Micah and Isaiah of Jerusalem.  These were men who understood that the Kingship of God is recognized when men and women allow their wills to be conformed to the will of God.  And how does that come about?  Let us look at some of the words that each of these had to say – had to say, because the Lord God told them to say these words. 

Amos warned against desiring the Day of the Lord, because it would be very different from what people hoped.  For Amos it was not a matter of what went on in the shrine or the temple or the places of worship that mattered, so much as conforming ones way of life to what the Lord God of Israel requires of us.

“Seek good and not evil, so that you may live.  …  Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate.”  (Amos 5: 14 and 15).  

In the same vein, Micah denied that getting the liturgy right was what mattered.  Instead, he urged the people to follow the precepts of God in words with which all of us should be familiar.  “He has told you, O Man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”  (Micah 6: 6-8).  

Isaiah of Jerusalem was even more condemnatory of the pseudo-piety of public worship and private prayer when the worshippers’ lives did not match what they professed with their lips.

            Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of them. 
When you stretch out your hands in prayer,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood. 
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan,
take up the cause of the widow. 

We shall be studying this passage, Isaiah 1: 14-17, in depth during our Bible study on Wednesday, but even a quick reading makes it very clear what is asked of those who would say that they are followers of the Lord God. 

There is a crucial thought in these verses from Isaiah – learn to do good.  As we all appreciate, left to our own devices most of us are not by nature attuned to doing good.  Far from it.  We would rather look out for our own interests and those of our own family clique.  That is our nature, but we need to replace that nature by a second nature, and we do that by learning to good, as Isaiah describes it, and then he shows us four ways in which to do it.  And all four have to do with meeting the needs of others rather than our own needs.  I have been saying for years that if you look out for my interests and I look out for yours we shall all get what we need.  But if I look out for my interests at the expense of yours, and you look out for your interests at the expense of mine, then none of us will get what we need, even if we think we will. 

All this is another way of saying that we should love others as we love ourselves, and, if last week’s Gospel reading is any indication, then by loving our neighbours, including and especially those outside our family, even our Church family, in this way, we shall discover that we are doing the will of God and in so doing will be showing our love for him.  And guess what!  When we do the will of God, then Christ will reign in our hearts and minds – and in our bodies.  We shall have received that second nature that we all require.  

Even while we are living in this four-dimensional universe of space and time, we shall find that we have entered what might be called a new dimension in which the Son of Man reigns as King.  In other words, he will have come again to the Ancient of Days to take up the position which is his by right from before time, whenever that was, and for ever.  That is the Advent of our King.  That is, if you will, the Second Coming.  That is the purpose of our being.  That is our end in life.  That is the true End of Life – to live in the Kingdom, having taken upon us that second nature that we are given when we learn to love good and so cease to do evil.