The following sermon was preached on the first Sunday of Advent, 2015 (Nov 29), at the Church of St. Michael & St. George. Services began with the Great Litany; Advent Lessons and Carols will occur next Sunday evening.
Collect: Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and we mark the beginning of a new Church year: today is New Year’s Day for the Church. Our lectionaries shift to the next year in the cycle, and we begin to rehearse the great festal cycle of Jesus’ birth. We’re back at the beginning.
But I’ve always found it a little ironic that we don’t seem to begin at the beginning. We don’t talk about creation on Sundays in Advent, we don’t hear about the flood, or the promises to Abraham. Instead we start with what looks like the end. In our Gospel today we hear Jesus again, continuing his theme from last week and the week before about the end of the world: the signs of the times, wars and rumors of wars, fear and foreboding, the powers of the heavens shaken.
From ancient time, the tradition of the Church has been to use the season of Advent, the first season of the year, to address the Four Last Things. The Four Last Things: a classical grouping including Death, Judgement, Hell, and Heaven. Why do we do this? Why do we begin our year with the End?
Our annual calendar cycle is not the only time we begin with the end. The Church has inherited from Judaism the tradition that the next day begins at sundown of the previous day. In that pattern, the first prayers of the new day are said as we all go to sleep. Evening Prayer, and Compline are the first prayers of the day, not the last. And as we go to bed we pray that we’ll be kept safe through the coming night, which is always interpreted as a figure of our own deaths. We go to sleep as we would go to the tomb: we do not know if we’ll wake up again. We begin the day in a figure of death, and we pray that we may come out of it again in the morning. The sunrise becomes like the dawn of a new creation and our own rise from sleep like our own resurrection from the dead.
So every day in the church we begin with night, with death; and every year our first season of Advent begins with the Four Last Things, with Death, and the end of the world as we know it. Isn’t this counterintuitive? Backwards? Masochistic, even? Why do we do this to ourselves? Christmas is coming, why on earth should we talk about death?
For two reasons. First, because it’s important not to kid ourselves about how well we’re doing. This year, that seems a little easier than other years. All you have to do is turn on the news to realize we don’t exactly live in Paradise, however we might want to describe it. Not just in our world either: in each of our hearts, in each of our lives, there are always traces of darkness, weaknesses, favorite temptations and sins, that we are loath to name, let alone give up. Any honest examination of ourselves reveals that we are not ready for Paradise, we wouldn’t know what to do with it, even if it showed up. Beginning the Church year with attention to death and darkness makes it clear just how great a Savior it is who is born in a manger: who comes to forgive the sins of the world, and allow us a fresh start.
Second, and even more significantly, we begin the Church year with death, with night, and the Four Last Things, because creation doesn’t actually begin with a new world, fresh with the dew of Eden. Remember Genesis 1: in the beginning the earth was formless and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. Returning to darkness at the beginning of the year is a way of remembering that God made the world from nothing, including you and me, merely by speaking into the darkness. ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. Even before the first Christmas, that Word of God, speaking into the darkness, is what all creation depends on for its continued life. From dust were we made, and to dust shall we return; except that this dust is animated by the breath of God, called into existence by his Word.
In Advent we begin with death and consider our own mortality, the mortality of all living things, and the contingency of the created world. We are here to begin with by the Word of God. In Advent we meditate on this dependency, giving thanks for the grace to continue on living, even in the midst of our sinful, broken world. Meditating on this dependency, we see we have a deeper problem even than our sin: we are created from nothing, and but for the continuous grace of God, we would fly back into the nothing from which we were made, because that is the nature of created, contingent things.
Sin, death, and mortality. A month from now, a Savior in a manger. Focusing on the Last Things allows us to see that this Savior does much more than merely forgive us our sins. The Baby in the manger is that Word of God, spoken into the void to create all things. At Christmas he comes robed in human flesh to knit God himself to his creation, ending mortality and death once and for ever. Even the grave will not be able to keep him, for he is life itself.
In light of such a Savior as this, the Incarnate Word of God come to end the night of sin and death, we see that the Four Last Things — Death, Judgement, Hell, and Heaven — last in the order in which you and I experience this life, are not last after all. They are actually the beginning of all things. Death: the condition of our life in this world, ended by the Incarnation of the Son of God, and eternal life the new order of the Day. Judgement: on our sin and the sin of the world, rendered moot by the Savior who died in our stead, that Innocence might be the quality and currency of his kingdom. Hell: its power broken, its doors thrown down, and its prince bound by the Lord of Glory who stormed its bulwarks on Good Friday. Heaven: God and mortals reconciled, across the chasms of spirit and matter, life and death, the beginning of eternity under the reign of Christ.
Advent, the Four Last Things, darkness, death, and the End. These are the places God speaks his Word, beginning his new work in each one of us and the world: speaking into the void, bringing all creation from nothing; born of the Virgin Mary on Christmas Day, to die for us and break the power of death; born into the heart of every Christian at their baptism, and strengthening them in the life of the Church.
One day this Word of God will come again, to finish what he started. Time will end and eternity will begin: the end of the beginning, and the commencement of the rest of the story. What splendors await us there we cannot know now. But let us practice for it as we can, dying daily to sin, daily working to end the reign of death in our hearts. This Advent, this beginning of the Church year, let us keep in mind the Four Last Things: that when it comes our time to face them at our own death, we might be prepared to open our eyes and behold all of glorious eternity stretching out before us, with Christ our Maker, Christ our Savior, Christ our King.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen.