Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
I spoke last Sunday about the fact that Advent is preparation for the revelation of Christ in His glory, rather than preparation for the Christmas feast; that it’s proper culmination is Epiphany, rather than Christmas Day. On Christmas we remember the birth of eternal divinity into the midst of decaying humanity; on Epiphany we adore, with the magi, the manifest divinity of the Christ-child. The star, a heavenly sign, reveals the good news and the magi fall to their knees.
Today’s Gospel reading makes very clear that this waiting period of ours points to the eternal divine. The reading is awesome, in the true meaning of that word. We have heard God’s word about Christ’s coming again in glory; about the day when the wait is over. We will be called to account, each of us individually, to stand before his throne as the books are opened.
The world as we know it will have come to an end. Even the things that we take absolutely for granted. Matthew writes of that day that then shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken (Mat 24:29). Luke says that 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 (Luke 21:26). He continues, saying that after observing all these worldly signs, 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. (Luke 21:27, 28).
Heady stuff, cosmic events with eternal implications. But this morning of grace, I would like to focus on a much more immediate, but nonetheless important reading of this text. “Only” may be the wrong word, but this is not “only” a symbolic, mystical account of the coming again of Christ at the end of time. It is also an account of the salvation of the human soul. The language, the imagery—the narrative when read mystically, rather than plainly—reveals Christ coming into our lives and establishing the Kingdom in of God in our hearts.
There is no human language adequate to express the nature or essence of the divine. What we have are approximations; analogies in creation of the Creator. Our language, our symbols, will ultimately will fail because the things we can describe in human languages are earthly things; temporary and finite. Yet we are given these images of temporary and finite things in Scripture to describe a reality that most assuredly is anything but temporary and finite. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, in A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, wrote:
The eyes are lifted up to the sky. The image of the sky is impressed upon what is called the retina, and as soon as the image appears there, the message is received in a flash by the express carriers of the nerves to the brain, which is the source of the entire nervous system. And as soon as the contact is made there, the mind is immediately aroused to see the sky. After this perception the mind, by exercising its rational thought, can wonder at the order, the size, the beauty, the light, and all the other attributes of the sky. And in all of these, the contemplative person can see the wisdom, the creativity, the power and the beauty of him who created it. He can thus reason and say: If the sky which is created is so beautiful, so full of light, how much more beautiful and more luminous is the creator of the sky? …And so the mind climbs as high as it possibly can to the knowledge of the creator, and with this knowledge the mind excites the heart with the will to love this creator. St Basil encouraged us to think such thoughts, and through them to rise from the visible to the invisible and from the ephemeral to the eternal. He wrote: “If these ephemeral things are so wonderful, how much more are the eternal? And if the visible are so good, how much more good are the invisible? If the magnitude of heaven goes beyond the ability of human reason to measure, which mind can discern the nature of divine things?”
From the things we know and can talk about our mind is meant to climb to the things that we can only know as infinitely greater, and Scripture is our inerrant guide. We know what a king is, and know also that Scripture describes God as King, and so form ourselves an image of God with the caveat that he is infinitely greater, mightier, more splendid, etc, than any king we have ever seen in the history books. We know what it is to be thirsty and be given water, and can liken salvation to water that quenches more completely a thirst more parching than anything we can ever come across on earth. We know what it is to be hungry, and know also that Christ refers to himself as the bread of life, and from this know that he satisfies a hunger; a state of starvation, but does so in a way that we cannot begin to express. From that which we can describe, our mind moves through contemplation guided by Scripture to that which we cannot express.
There are many layers to all the text revealed to us and when it comes to the Kingdom of God, our descriptions of the unseen divine have parallels also in our personal spiritual life. When we speak about the coming of Christ in glory, our language has parallels in his glorious revelation of himself in the hearts of the faithful. When we contemplate these unseen, unknowable divinely revealed realities, we are at the same time contemplating something that takes place, not out there, up there, over there—but in here; in the human heart.
Our reflection on Scripture moves from the imperfect to the perfect, and then to that which requires perfection. This is not news in the Church. Dionysios the Aeropagite writes this about the limitations of our language: “When for instance we give the name of ‘God’ to that transcendent hiddenness, when we call it ‘life’ or ‘being’ or ‘light’ or ‘word’ what our mind lays hold of is in fact nothing other than certain activities apparent to us, activities which deify, cause being, bear life, give wisdom.’” (Divine Names 2.7)
So what goes on in this reading that describes the reality of the believer? Origen, that great teacher of the saints, noted in relation to this morning’s reading that Christ “comes every day “with great power” to the mind of the believer in the clouds of prophecy, that is, in the Scriptures of the Prophets and the Apostles, who utter the word of God with a meaning above human nature.”
Origen did not imply that this is merely allegorical language; that there is no truth here about the end times—but he did argue forcefully that the text also contains more. Christ comes to us every day in Scripture, and also:
All which the three Evangelists have said concerning Christ’s coming, if carefully compared together and thoroughly examined, would be found to apply to His continual daily coming in His body, which is the Church, of which coming He said in another place, “Hereafter shall ye see the Son of Man. sitting on the right hand of the power of God, and coming in the clouds of heaven,” [Matt 26:6] excepting those places in which He promises that His last coming in His own person.
The power of Scripture to change lives forever is a glorious and powerful thing. In Scripture the Word confronts us in all its glory and that Word is Christ. The Word is the indispensable foundation for our lives in Christ; our guide, our frame, our action plan. When the Word truly enters into our lives, it turns the world upside down. St Hilary of Poitiers writes that “the darkening of the sun, the failing of the moon, and the fall of the stars” spoken of in today’s Gospel reading, “indicate the glories of His coming.” St Jerome writes, “by comparison with real light, all things shall seem dim.” The enlightenment we receive from Scripture is so intense, so searing, casts such a sharp light on everything and everyone, that it even sun itself fades in comparison.
In this sharp light of the Word we see upon the earth the distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring (Luke 21:25). We see clearly that the seas are raging all around us, we feel our vessel inadequate. The bright light of Scripture falls on Creation and we see clearly that on our own, we are doomed. We are moved to call out to Jesus, Master, carest thou not that we perish? (Mat 4:38) And what is his response? And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith? (Mat 4:39, 40)
We are forced, by the sharp light of Scripture, to realize that our faith is inadequate, our hearts fail us, because we are afraid, and because we look to the world for answers. In the sharp and glorious light of the Scripture, we see Christ Jesus coming to us, what Origen called his coming again. The sharp light of Scripture banishes darkness from our hearts and make it a fit altar for Christ. This, friends, is the beginning of our walk with the Word, as we are admonished that, when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh (Luke 21:28). Allow no distractions, fix your gaze on these heavenly realities, because you have taken the first step towards salvation.
This is a truth that we can rely on because, as it is written, 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 (Luke 21:32, 33). What is this generation? Well, it is not a generation in the way we use that terms in human affairs. Origen, again, talks about “the generation of the Church” that shall “survive the whole of this world, that it may inherit the world to come, yet it shall not pass away until all these things have come to pass.” Heaven and earth shall pass away: “But when all these shall have been fulfilled, then not the earth only but the heavens also shall pass away; that is, not only the men whose life is earthly, and who are therefore called the earth, but also they whose conversation is in heaven, and who are therefore called the heaven; these “shall pass away” to things to come, that they may come to better things… But the words spoken by the Saviour shall not pass away, because they effect and shall ever effect their purpose.”
Then, today, tomorrow and forever. May the Lord continue to have mercy on us all. Amen.