The Day of the Lord’s a Good Thing?

Sermon delivered on the second Sunday before Advent A, November 15, 2020 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 text: Zephaniah 1.7, 12-18; Psalm 90; 1 Thessalonians 5.1-1; Matthew 25.14-30.

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

If you’ve looked at the sermon’s title and are wondering if I have lost what is left of my rapidly dwindling mind, especially in light of our readings this morning, no I haven’t. We are currently in the season of Kingdomtide, that four week period of time in November between All-Saints’ Sunday and Advent Sunday. The focus of Kingdomtide is, well, on the coming Kingdom of God on earth as in heaven with King Jesus ruling God’s creation unmistakably and unambiguously. Kingdomtide is a pre-Advent season of sorts. Advent, you recall, is the season of four Sundays leading up to Christmas, with its focus on the return of our Lord Jesus Christ in great power and glory to raise the dead and renew all things in heaven and earth. We get a sample of this in our readings for today and this is what I want us to focus on. How can we possibly view the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord, the coming day of God’s wrath and judgment on all that corrupts and kills God’s good creation and creatures as a good thing? I will try to make my comments brief and to the point to counteract Father Wylie’s rather, um, robust sermon from last week.

Advent and the season leading up to it, Kingdomtide—formerly one season of Advent, the length of which rivaled the season of Lent—is a season of darkness. The days are shorter, the weather turns colder along with our moods—this year greatly exacerbated by COVID—and the lectionary acknowledges all this by turning to some of the more troubling passages of Scripture (troubling at least for most of us). In both the Old and NTs, the message is crystal clear: God will judge all that is wrong with his world. In both testaments, this is called the Day of the Lord. We see it clearly in our OT and psalm lessons this morning and if you are like me, that Day terrifies me. Now most of us, in our good myopic fashion, are all about having God execute his judgment and wrath on those we dislike or disagree. Serves ‘em right, we say. But we are not so keen on God’s judgment when it comes to falling on us or our friends or tribe. But nowhere in Scripture do we read that we get to dictate on whom God’s judgment falls. That is for God alone to decide. Nowhere do we read that we are exempt from God’s judgment, not even in the NT (cf. 2 Cor 5.10; Rm 14.10)! No, the Day of the Lord, awful as it will be, will fall on every one of us, not just our enemies. 

This is where the terror comes in for me because I know my own fallen heart. I know my own willful disobedience toward God, my own selfishness, my own willfulness, my own transgressions, and they are legion. And if you are honest with yourself, you will admit that for yourself as well. No one is exempt from God’s terrible judgment on our sins and the dark powers behind them. So why would anyone in their right mind, Christians included, actually want the great and dreadful Day of the Lord to come? To answer that question, we turn to St. Paul in our epistle lesson. There he tells us that, “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” (1 Thess 5.9-11). How are we to resolve the apparent contradiction of St. Paul’s logic with the logic of the Day of the Lord?

St. Paul gives us the answer, of course: Jesus Christ. Before we look at this, it is important that we think wisely, humbly, and faithfully about the Day of the Lord and God’s wrath and judgment. For those who refuse to make room for God and acknowledge his order by living wisely and humanly, i.e., as his image-bearing creatures who reflect God’s wisdom and beauty and goodness out into all creation over which we are called to rule, the Day of the Lord will truly be great and dreadful because they, like the rest of us, have failed to live as God calls us to live, and in the process their sin, along with the powers of Evil their sin allows to operate in God’s world, will be rightly judged. In other words, we are talking about God’s good and perfect justice being enforced in God’s good but corrupt world to restore and renew it so that all hints of injustice are forever obliterated. Who among us does not long for such a day? Who, but the most evil and vile among us, does not long for an end to injustice? If God is a God of love, then God must at some point put all that is wrong in this world to rights and hold those who corrupt and destroy it accountable. On that day, it won’t be a matter of personal opinion or your truth vs. my truth. God will judge all according to his Truth, the only truth there is, despite our futile attempts these days to deny its reality. So there will no opinions on that day. We will be held accountable for our actions, good and bad, by God’s Truth, not ours, and all the evildoers, both human and spiritual, will be banished from God’s presence and world forever. So while there is judgment that is coming, it is healing judgment and justice. God loves us too much to let us continue to be plagued by all that currently bedevils us and makes us crazy and less human. If we know we will not be swept away on that day, we can anticipate it with great joy, even as we anticipate it with great fear and trembling. After all, none of us dare presume on God’s great love and mercy. We remember that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rm 3.23). We are all therefore subject to God’s good and perfect justice because we are all part of the problem to one extent or another. As the story of God’s presence among his people in the wilderness attests, when the profane (humans) meets the holy (God) on their terms and not God’s, it never turns out well for the profane (see, e.g., Numbers 15), thus the book of Leviticus and its rules for living in the holy presence of God.

St. Paul understood and acknowledged all this, especially in his letter to the Romans. But St. Paul also knew Jesus Christ, crucified, raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven to rule over God’s creation. This is why he said that those of us who put our hope and trust in Christ are destined to escape God’s terrible judgment that will sweep away all things (and all people) evil because on the cross, God poured out his righteous justice and wrath on our sins by condemning them in Christ’s body (Rm 8.3-4). That is why there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Rm 8.1). We are not exempt because we are special people. Far from it. We are exempt only because of God’s great love and mercy for us shown in Christ crucified. Without the cross of Christ, we are all doomed to destruction. Our response to God’s great love and mercy is to put our whole hope and trust in Jesus Christ and him crucified and raised from the dead. 

Some Christians sadly act as badly (and sometimes worse) than non-Christians, and if we do so on a regular or systematic basis, we demonstrate to God and the world that we have most certainly have not put our whole hope and trust in Christ. Instead, we demonstrate that we are putting our hope and trust in ourselves and/or something else in this world: money, power, sex, identity, security, etc. as the prophet warned in our OT lesson. I am not talking about occasional (or even frequent) lapses. I am talking about regularly acting in sub-human and ungodly ways, where we treat others and God with contempt while trying to raise ourselves and our agendas to godlike status. Those folks have every reason to fear the Day of the Lord.

But those of us whose thinking, speaking, and behavior reflect the fact that we do put our hope and trust in Christ alone and not ourselves, however imperfectly and ambiguously, have no reason to fear the Day of the Lord because we know we are covered by the blood of the Lamb shed for us. We know that on our own we don’t stand a chance on that awful Day, but we also declare that we are not on our own. We are Christ’s and he is our sole hope and chance to experience God’s promised glory in his new creation. This must create in us a deep sense of humility and thankfulness to God the Father for loving us enough to rescue us in the most unlikely way—through the death of his Son. Part of our hope and trust must therefore manifest God’s great love for us by showing it to others, especially the most unlovely in our lives. We realize we are toast (literally) without God and this must create in us a burning desire to warn and encourage others to join us in giving their allegiance to Christ instead of some lesser thing that ultimately must lead to death. 

This is what the seasons of Kingdomtide and Advent are all about. They force us to look clearly at the harsh realities of life, both about ourselves and God’s world and God’s ultimate and loving response to all the corrupts, destroys, and kills God’s beloved and good creation and creatures. Those who reject its reality are living in a deadly denial, just as the folks did in Zephaniah’s day who lived as if God didn’t care or exist or was powerless to do anything about all the wrongs of this old world and its people. The Day of the Lord reminds us that God really does love and care about us and has the power to put all things to rights one day. The dead will be raised as an answer to the ultimate and massive injustice that is Death. All wrongs will be put right and all injustices will be banished, along with those who perpetrate them. For those of us who are covered by the blood of the Lamb, that day will bring about perfect healing and beauty forever. There will be no more sorrow or sighing or sickness or imperfection, either in ourselves or our relationships with God and others as there are now. What is not to yearn about that? 

As you come for prayer and anointing today, remember that these are imperfect signposts of greater things to come. We enjoy God’s healing right now, but that healing is only temporary. Someday we must all die of something. Not so when Christ returns to raise the dead and restore God’s creation to perfect beauty and health. Use this time therefore to reflect on that promise and resolve, with the help of God, to repent of anything you are doing, thinking, and saying that is in opposition to that promise. Doing so will bring about an even greater foretaste of that blessed day. Do it all with a thankful and humble heart, realizing that without the love, mercy, and power of God, you have nothing for which to hope. But remember also that your are not without God’s love, mercy, and power and therefore have every reason to hope because you know you are Christ’s forever by virtue of your baptism, and nothing in all creation can separate you from his saving love and power. Glory to him whose power working in you is more than you can ask or imagine. Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus forever and ever.

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