Sermon preached by the Reverend Richard Tombaugh
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – November 14, 2010
Next Sunday is the last Sunday of the Church Year, the end of what the lectionary calls Ordinary Time. On this, the next to last Sunday, the lessons each year make reference to images of the end of the world, the second coming of Christ and the final destiny of human kind. The lessons today certainly remind us of the phrase in the Creed which we shall soon recite: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” So far so good! But what does all this apocalyptic imagery mean to us as Christians? These lessons and the related creedal statement almost beg for some discussion to help us understand their meaning.
However, wise preachers think twice about getting into this discussion because it is not simple or easy to explain. Often difficult theological issues spawn bumper stickers and jokes, and the issues about the end of the world are no exception. I am sure you have seen the bumper sticker: “Jesus is Coming, Look Busy.” And have heard the joke about the Pope’s secretary saying: “Your Holiness I have good news and bad news.” “What is the good news?” “Jesus is back and is on the phone.” “Wonderful and what is the bad news?” “He is calling from Salt Lake City.” Humor like this suggests that the theological issue is difficult and should be a warning to me not to venture forward. But I am going to ignore this warning and plunge ahead. I invite you to come with me.
The difficulty about our thinking about the end of this world as we know it and the new age that Christ will inaugurate when he comes again in glory is that we have inherited two quite different and equally valid ways of imagining the end of the world.
The most common way of thinking about Our Lord’s birth, death, resurrection and final judgment of the world is linear. We have inherited this view of time as having a beginning, a middle, and an end from the Old Testament. According to the Old Testament in the beginning there was nothing except primal chaos. By divine action the order we know as our earth emerged and triumphed over the chaos – and it was good. In their religious life the Hebrews assessed events in their life in terms of quality, whether they were good or evil. Their slavery in Egypt was evil; their emancipation through the Red Sea was good. The Hebrews were always interested in the past in its relation to the future, because what happened once might happen again. The Hebrews had a linear view of history, past, present and future. Their responsibility was to recall the past, celebrate it, if it was good, and look for it to recur in the future. The present time was a time of celebration of the past and a waiting for the future.
With the help of the prophets the Hebrews became acutely aware of the brokenness of the world and the power of sin. They understood the power of sin within the notion of their calling to be God’s people and of God’s faithfulness and love. Accordingly they constantly looked toward the future for God’s final victory and the recreation of the universe so as to be the perfect expression of His goodness. In today’s lesson from Malachi we have an illustration of one prophetic notion of the coming Day of Judgment which will usher in a new heaven and a new earth.
The study of the idea of the end of the world is called eschatology. The Hebraic notion of eschatology is called futuristic eschatology. At some time in the future God will intervene to recreate His world. The early Christians inherited this way of thinking and translated it into their own beliefs. They believed that Jesus after His resurrection would soon come again to establish the new heaven and new earth. The Book of Revelation describes what one saint imagined was the process for this transformation.
As the first years and then centuries went by without the Jesus coming again to judge both the living and the dead, many the theologians tended to push this eschatological event far into the future and to focus attention upon each individual’s moral life. For many Christians the vibrant images of the Second Coming in the Book of Revelation became metaphors or parables of future divine intervention. Christians who take the wording of the Bible as literally true now believe the Second coming will occur a thousand years in the future at which time dedicated Christians will ascend into heaven in what is called the Rapture.
In contrast to the Hebraic linear view of time which focuses attention on the future the early Christian church inherited from the Greek theologians a circular view of time. This view had originated in the experience of the fundamental rhythms of human life, night and day and the seasons of the year and in the recognition of the cycles of heavenly bodies, the moon and the stars. This view of time sees growth and decay, birth and death, waxing and waning, maturing and disintegration experienced in daily life as an image applicable to universes, worlds, civilizations, generations, and nations, pointing always to an over-arching, all-embracing eternity. The supreme gift of this Greek way of speculation is the emphasis upon the present time and the recognition that all time belongs to God. In this circular view of time the rich and complex experience of the eternal now is of more importance than remembrances of the past or anticipations of the future.
From this view of time it was easy for Greek Christians to think that the anticipated new heaven and new earth already exists because of the resurrection of Jesus. Our Lord’s triumph over death inaugurated the end, the eschaton, and the challenge for everyone is to penetrate the illusory appearances of this world and to gaze on the vision of the eternal. It is not so much that we are waiting for God to act in the future as it is that God has already acted and is waiting for us to act in response. This attitude toward time is evident in the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, which is less interested in moving in a straight line from beginning to end than in creating a sense of timeless connection with God. A number of Anglican theologians have also embraced this view of eschatology, which is called realized eschatology. It holds that the many eschatological passages in the New Testament do not refer to the future but to the ministry of Jesus. Eschatology is not the end of the world but its rebirth instituted by Jesus and continued by his disciples. In short the end (the eschaton) is already realized.
Our challenge is to hold together in creative tension these two different views of the creation of the new heaven and the new earth. We can appreciate both the claim that God works through the processes of history to achieve His final purpose and the claim that the present time is the cradle for the Eternal Now, the immanent presence of the risen Christ in our lives even now ushering in the new age to come.
Both these themes, the endearing vision of God in the present moment and the eager anticipation of the final triumph of God, are captured in our Sunday worship. In our intercessions, confession and offertory our service gathers into its embrace all the sacred affairs of the past week and offers them to God, even as it pre-sanctifies the affairs of the coming week. In so doing it teaches us that the reconciling and recreating power of God is at work now.
Each Sunday as we give thanks for God’s actions over time, for the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus we are remembering the history of the Divine Word in judgment and mercy. We come to see that the framework of time within which we live is broken and disordered by sin and that because of this we stand under judgment as God moves toward the fulfillment of his purpose. Sunday also is a Day of Redemption and new life. It is a day in which our despair is joined to hope and our bondage to sin is joined to freedom. In our worship the present is joined to the past through the victory of our Redeemer and the present is joined to the future as our Eucharistic actions foreshadow the final triumph of God.
To play on the words of the Creed. He who will come again in glory is already here, his judgment is already in motion, and we who worship here already have a foretaste of that kingdom which will have no end.