The Four Last Things: Death

Sermon delivered on Advent Sunday, Year C, December 2, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 33.14-16; Psalm 25.1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Happy new year, St. Augustine’s! Today is Advent Sunday. We begin a new calendar year, a new lectionary cycle, and have lighted the first purple candle on our wreath that represents the patriarchs. Advent comes from the Latin word, adventus (parousia in Greek), and means coming or arrival. Advent begins in the dark. It is a time for us as Christians to take stock of the darkness of a sin-sick and evil-infested world as well as the darkness of our own lives as we await God’s final defeat of the powers of Sin and Evil that sorely afflict us. Advent is a time for us to ask hard questions such as where is God in the middle of the darkness that afflicts us or why isn’t God acting to end the suffering and injustice and evil that exists in his world? But we must always ask these questions in light of our Christian hope that insists God actually is in the midst of our darkness and suffering and will come again to finally make all things right. Advent is therefore a season of expectation and preparation in which the Church focuses primarily on Christ’s Second Coming or his final advent as judge at the end of history to judge all that is wrong with the world and us. Advent is not part of the Christmas season but rather a preparation for it. Without Advent and its invitation for us to peer into the darkness, the meaning of Christmas is diminished to the vanishing point, disappearing in the lights and other trappings of Christmas as secular society celebrates it, all designed to provide sentimental and festive good cheer, the kind that is false and will ultimately fail us because it is based on unreality.

Now in any parish that observes Advent, St. Augie’s being no exception, you will find two groups of people. One group, seeing the purple hangings and hearing the readings about sin, judgment, and the wrath of God, will perk up and say, Ah! Good. It’s Advent. It’s good for us to get real! The other group will look around and ask where the Christmas decorations are and grumble that we are not singing Christmas carols the way everybody else is. This second group, admittedly much larger than the first, tends to look at the first group as being touched in the head, and in a significant way. Why look into the darkness when you can have such pretty music and lights? But this misses the meaning and purpose of both Christmas and Advent with the latter’s call for us as Christians to live faithfully and with hope in the darkness of a sin-marred world, trusting in the only One who has the power to make all things new and right. In reality, of course, most of us are members of both groups. I confess that outside of church I am a Christmas junkie as secular society likes to play it. Our house, thanks to the Herculean efforts of my wife, is bursting with the gaiety of Christmas and my collection of Santa Clauses. But inside these walls, I am chastened to remember that all that glitters isn’t gold, that I need to focus on the hope and power of God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom God has promised to end our suffering and darkness forever. This focus on the end times makes Advent an appropriate time for us to reflect on the Four Last Things—Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. While none of us really want to talk about these things (myself included), talk about them we must because they remind us of the reality of our standing before God without his merciful and gracious intervention on our behalf, and no amount of denial or discomfort on our part is going to change that fact. Better for us to think clearly and soberly about the human condition and our relationship with Almighty God than to whistle through the graveyard hoping everything will turn out all right in the end. So today we begin our preaching series on the Four Last Things by looking at Death.

Death is the greatest of humankind’s enemies, a relentless Grim Reaper that shows no respect for age or wealth. It robs parents of a precious child, leaving them to mourn their loss for the rest of their lives. I have been ministering to a woman afflicted in this way and it is heartbreaking to watch. It deprives wives and children of their breadwinner and protector, leaving them vulnerable in a hostile world. It takes away an aging spouse, leaving a senior citizen without a lifelong companion and closest friend when he/she needs that companionship and friendship the most. Sometimes it arrives suddenly and unannounced like it did with the recent wildfires in California. At other times it approaches slowly like it does with many diseases, stalking or taunting its helpless victim. Sometimes it hauls away its victims en masse like it does in the spate of mass shootings we’ve had to endure with disturbingly increasing frequency. On other occasions it targets individuals. It uses a variety of methods and weapons, but only rarely does it capture its prey without inflicting pain and terror. Power, beauty, and wealth can usually overcome any obstacle, but in death they meet their match. As the eighteenth-century poet Thomas Gray wrote, “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike the inevitable hour; The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

Scripture personifies death as being a hungry and crafty enemy (Isaiah 5.14; Habakkuk 2.5a) that uses snares to trap victims (Psalm 18.4–5) and sneaks through windows to grab children (Jeremiah 9.21). In Ecclesiastes the old Preacher declares that death renders everything in life meaningless. St. Paul called death the last enemy to be defeated whose fatal sting is caused by sin (1 Corinthians 15.28, 55–56; cf. Hosea 13.14), an inescapable (Ps 89.48; Ecclesiastes 8.8), terrifying (Hebrews 2:15) and relentless (Song 8.6) foe with which no one can strike a lasting bargain (Is 28:15,18). Ironically, death finds its origin in God, the giver of life, who decreed that death would be the ultimate penalty for disobedience to his revealed command (Genesis 2.17, 3.19; Psalm 90.3–11). When the first couple ate the forbidden fruit and rebelled against God, death accompanied sin into the world and has reigned over humankind ever since (Rom 5.12–21, 6.23; James 1.15).

Clearly then, death is a terrifying part of God’s judgment on our sin and all forms of evil that corrupt us and God’s good creation, and this makes us very afraid. We hear it in this morning’s psalm with the psalmist’s desperate cry to God to forgive and rescue him. This is a classic Advent theme because it is a prayer of waiting that contains a mixture of desperation and hope. The psalmist doesn’t tell us what his sins and transgressions are that he fears his enemies will discover. Like us, he keeps his sins secret. But they aren’t hidden from God and the psalmist knows it. And so he pleads for God to act on his behalf in mercy and grace. If we understand this dynamic, we are close to understanding the meaning of Advent.

Likewise, our fears about death are heightened when we read Jesus’ warnings about the trials and tribulations that would one day beset Jerusalem because of its rejection of him as God’s true Messiah. We are afraid of trials and tribulations, in part, because in the context of our gospel lesson, Jesus clearly saw them as being part of God’s judgment on our sin, and we know we are not immune to that judgment. As we contemplate this, we know that death with its power to sweep us and our loved ones away is part of that judgment. An honest admission of our standing before God without his gracious intervention on our behalf is also part of observing a true Advent because we know we are powerless to prevent our own death. We can exercise like crazy, eat right, and take great care of ourselves, but we will still die, and no amount of facelifts, tummy tucks, boob-jobs, vitamin regimens, miracle drugs or anything else, including the Christmas cheer we attempt to create to distract us from this grim reality, is going to change that fact.

But we are Christians and so we have real hope, the sure and certain expectation that God has acted and will finally act to rescue us from his fierce judgment on our sins and the death that results. We see it in our gospel lesson where our Lord tells us not to cower in fear when we hear or experience great trials and tribulations, but rather to stand up and raise our heads because our redemption is near. Why is our redemption near? Is it because we find special favor in God’s sight or are exempt from God’s judgment and death because we are somehow deserving of God’s favor? Of course not. We are sinners like everyone else. What is different is that we have seen the power of God at work in the death and resurrection of Jesus and we believe it is the only power under heaven that has the power to rescue us from God’s wrath on our sins. We see this promise echoed in our OT lesson with God’s promise to send his people a Messiah to rescue them from the exile their sins have caused and to rescue us from our exile to death that our sins have caused. And so God in his great mercy and love promises to set all things right and rescue us in the process so that we do not suffer ultimate destruction. God did this, of course, by sending his Son to die for us and absorb God’s terrible wrath that was reserved for us, thus freeing us from having to suffer it and removing any reason for us to fear God’s wrath and death anymore. We don’t fear death because we know its power over us has been broken forever in our Lord’s resurrection that gives us a glimpse of what awaits us. 

And what awaits us as Christians? Resurrection and new creation. Because we have been freed from Sin’s tyranny by the blood of the Lamb shed for us and because we know the power of death has been broken by Christ’s resurrection, we no longer need to be afraid. Of course, God’s victory over the power of Sin and its partner death has not yet been fully realized. We must wait for the Master’s return for that to happen (Mark 13.35). But Advent proclaims the Master will return and God’s initial victory will be fully consummated so that we can live in this life as people with real joy and hope that is not contingent on the circumstances of this world. It is contingent on the love and power of God. When that day comes, our mortal bodies will be raised from the dead and reanimated by the power of the Spirit, not by flesh and blood. God the Son will judge all things on behalf of God the Father and bring into existence a new world, the new heavens and earth, that will be suitable for our new bodies to live in forever, and where there will be no more sighing, sorrow, sickness, death, tears, alienation, loneliness, or disease. Ever. To be sure, this is a future promise and expectation, and that can drive us crazy in a world that demands instant gratification. But think of a future without this hope, where death and eternal destruction is your destiny. See how that works out for you and as you live out your mortal days. 

So what are we to do in the interim? Does our future hope and promise mean that we have to wait to have a real relationship with God? Of course not. Eternal life starts right now because God hasn’t given up on us or his creation. It involves living our lives together in righteousness and faith based on a real hope that God is good to his word. God gives us his Spirit to live and love each other as a renewed family, the people of God formed around his eternal Son Jesus Christ, who is our only life and hope. This is what St. Paul is getting at in our epistle lesson today. Loving God and each other, engaging in God’s word and the sacraments, all allow us to peer into the darkness and realize that the night will not last forever, that the forces of evil, including death, have been defeated and will one day be vanquished at the last judgment. This is what Advent is about. It means living with a lively and real faith in Christ, realizing that God could have chucked us and his entire creation and started over but didn’t because God loves us and wants us to live, not die. Let that knowledge heal and transform you as you peer into the darkness this Advent. Let it heal you because you know that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. That’s the hope and anticipation of Advent, my beloved, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.