Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2007. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, MA

Isaiah 2:1-5 Romans 13:11-14
Psalm 122 Matthew 24:36-44

Now is the Time To Wake from Sleep

N

ow it begins: a fresh start, a new season, a new year. Like a great wheel, the cycle of the liturgical year has turned. Last Sunday the church year ended with the Feast Day of Christ the King, and today on this First Sunday of Advent, we embark on a new year of our life in Christ.

“Advent” means “coming” or “arrival,” and during these four weeks that lead up to Christmas we prepare for the first coming of Christ, when God became incarnate in Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Advent has the makings of a joyful season. We look forward to Christmas, to holiday parties and festive decorations. We anticipate the exchange of gifts and the renewal of friendships with people we might otherwise have lost touch with. We savor the colorful lights that can cheer our hearts when the days grow short, and we savor the joy of making wreaths and lighting candles against the darkness.

But Advent has a sober and reflective side, as well, for in Advent we also look ahead to Christ’s Second Coming. We look ahead to that last, great day in the unknown future when, as today’s Collect tells us, Christ “shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead.” Advent invites us to look up from the immediate concerns of our daily lives – how to get our kids to basketball practice, how to get that stain out of the rug, how to meet the next car payment – and to ask some big questions. Where am I heading? Where’s my life going? To what end am I living – with what intention, with what goal? Knowing our destination gives direction to the journey, so it matters how we imagine the end. Do we think that everything will end pointlessly, with a bang or a whimper? Or is something better coming?

Christianity tells us that at the end of time, everything on heaven and earth will be fulfilled and completed in Christ. We lift up that promise in the Eucharist when the celebrant prays to God, the Father and Mother of our souls, “In the fullness of time, put all things in subjection under your Christ.” What does that mean? It means that at some unknown point in the future, everything will be gathered up in God’s love, and ordered by love, and upheld by love. It’s one of my favorite lines in the Eucharistic prayer. It tells us where we’re heading: we’re heading to God.

But are we ready for that unknown moment when God will meet us and judge us and transform everything with love? Scripture makes it clear that at the Second Coming we must be prepared for judgment as well as grace. I expect that some of us flinch a little when we get to the part of the Nicene Creed where we say that Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” We picture Jesus on the judgment throne, separating the sheep from the goats, rewarding the one and punishing the other, and we cringe. We know the sting of being criticized by a parent or teacher or someone in authority. We know how much it hurts to be found wanting. We can be our own harshest critics, and we fear a God who will pass judgment and condemn us all over again. Are we ready for judgment as well as grace?

When it comes to thinking about the judgment of God, I was very much helped several years ago when I read the text of a lecture given by Huston Smith, a well-known scholar of world religions. His remarks captured my imagination, and I want to share with you part of a letter that Huston Smith read aloud. In this letter, a history professor describes a near death experience that he had in course of a severe illness.

The man reports that he found himself standing in a flat, barren, blue-gray place and that he felt beside him what he calls a “Being” – capital B – whom he never saw. He writes, “Its presence was constant, enormous and powerful. With the Being beside me, exuding love and comfort to me, I re-experienced my life…from three different perspectives simultaneously.

“One perspective was my version of my life as I might have recounted it to anyone patient enough to listen. However, it was not so much the reliving of [outer] events as it was re-experiencing the emotions, feelings and thoughts of my life. Here were the emotions that I had felt and why I had believed that I had them. Here were my conscious reasons for the actions that I had taken. Here were the hurts I felt and my responses to them. Here was my emotional life as I recalled having experienced it.

“However, as I was re-experiencing my version of my life, I was also experiencing my life from the perspective of those with whom I was involved. I felt what they felt, I lived their emotions as they acted with and reacted to me. This was their version of my life. When I thought they were clearly out of line and reacted with anger or thoughtlessness, I felt the pain and frustration my actions caused them. It was an absolutely different view of my life and it was not a pretty one. It was shocking to feel the pain that another person felt due to what I had done even as, when I did them, I believed myself to have been fully justified because of the person’s own actions. At the time, I had told myself that I was justified, but even if that were true, their pain was real. It hurt.

“And there was more. At exactly the same time I experienced a third view of my life. It was not my version, with my justifications. It was not that of the others in my life, with their versions of my life and their own justifications for their own actions, thoughts, and feelings. It was an unbiased view, free of the subjective and self-serving rationalizations that the others and I had used to support the countless acts of selfishness and lack of true love in our lives. To me it can only be described as God’s view of my life. It was what had really happened, the real motivations, the truth. Stripped away were my lies to myself that I actually believed, my self-justification, my preference to see myself always in the best light.

“I did not find myself in Hell, but I was suffering torment. It was horribly painful to experience the fullness of my life and I was filled with contempt for myself. How could I have been so incredibly stupid as to believe my own lies? Why was simple compassion so difficult? In particular it hurt to discover that I had been hiding behind my own version of logic in order to deny emotional truths.

“All of this – the three-way re-experiencing of my life and self-judgment – was simultaneous and yet distinct. There was no such thing as the sequence of events that we believe time to be.

“In the end, I heard a judgment on my life, but it was my own judgment of myself. It came from within me and it had my voice. My life was clear to me. I was a failure.

“And through all this the Being was at my side. I felt nothing but love and support from the Being. It exuded emotion: you are loved, you are lovable; your worst fault is that you are human. It goes with the territory. I remember the words, ‘Don’t worry, you are only human.’

“I was in emotional agony. It was terrible to know that I was a mere mortal, just like everyone else, for I had thought that I was so much better than that. But the Being accepted me. The Being was letting me know that it was not acceptable to hurt other people, but it is part of the human condition. It’s not all right, because it hurts other people, but it is all right, because it is what humans do.”

The account goes on, but I will end here, only adding the man’s closing sentences, which are these: “I remember making a positive decision. I wanted to come back to life. I wanted to do what I would be needed for. I then began my slow climb out of the coma and into consciousness.”*

What a powerful account of what it may be like to stand at last before the One “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid” [Collect for Purity]. Christians believe that the God who will come to judge us at the end of our lives and at the end of time is also the God who created us and who gave his life to redeem us. As a priest friend of mine wrote a few years back, “We [will] stand in the presence of Christ whose hands still bear the wounds he bore to show us how much we are loved” [The Rev. Susan B. Curtis, sermon, 11/27/94]. The eyes that gaze into our soul will be the eyes of love.

We don’t know when that last day will come – our last day or the world’s last day. Jesus himself warns that no one knows the details, no one holds the map or the time-table that can tell us exactly when and how the reign of God will finally be accomplished – not the angels of heaven, not Jesus himself, but only God the Father. But we do know this: at some unexpected moment, that day will come. So we need and want to stay awake. “You know what time it is,” Paul says. “It is now the moment to wake from sleep” [Romans 13:11]. God will come among us, Jesus says in today’s Gospel, as unexpectedly as a flood, as decisively as a kidnapper, as secretly as a thief. These disturbing images can shake us up, and that’s the point: God will break in at any moment. “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” [Matthew 24:42].

So now is the time to clean up our act, to sort out our life, to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armor of light.

Now is the time to abandon whatever stupefies us and puts us to sleep – whether it be the drone of the media or the call to consumerism, a fondness for complaining or the inner voices of worry and self-attack.

Now is the time to lay aside the old habits of egotism and greed, of violence and unkindness – the old patterns, as Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans [Romans 13:13], of drunkenness, quarreling, and jealousy.

Now is the time to look ahead with hope, for, as Paul also says, “the night is far gone, the day is near” [Romans 13:12]. It’s as if we were standing in the doorway of a dark house, looking out to the hills beyond, and in the sky we can see the first glimmer of sunrise. Behind us is darkness, but ahead of us, light.

Christ has come, so the dawn is shining on our faces.

Christ is here, so we know we’re not alone.

Christ will come again, so we step out boldly through the doorway, leaving everything less than love behind.

*Quoted from Huston Smith, “Intimations of Mortality: Three Case Studies, The Ingersoll Lecture for 2001-2002,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Winter 2001-2002, p. 15.