By Father Nathan Humphrey
Year C, Advent 2
Malachi 3:1-4 & Luke 3:1-6
9 December 2018
All four members of my household are bookworms. We all love to curl up with a good book and savor it. But we also enjoy sharing books together. Anne typically reads aloud a chapter or two from an agreed-upon “family book” at bedtime. We also listen to books in the car, and once we are done with them in the car, the kids will often re-listen to them in the library while they play.
A few months ago, a parishioner loaned me her set of CDs of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. At the time, however, there was already a very long book cued up in my six CD player in the car, so it was added to the back of the queue. I also knew that it was more of what we call a “Mama-Papa Book” than a “Family Book,” so I had to content myself to wait until I could listen to it on my own on drives to Providence and Narragansett and Boston. I felt guilty with it just sitting in my car un-listened to for weeks on end, and several times contemplated returning it with my apologies. But I’m glad I waited, because Mere Christianity is perfect Advent reading, or in this case, listening.
Traditionally, the sermons on the four Sundays of Advent are dedicated to “the four last things,” Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Heaven, appropriately enough, is taken up on the third Sunday, Rose Sunday, when we lighten the mood a bit, though I’ve also seen it in the order of death, judgment, hell, and heaven, if the preacher wants to end on a high note.
Last week, I spoke of addiction and anxiety, which are a sort of living death that lead to a living hell, but from which we can be delivered by Jesus. This week, I wish to address the theme of judgment, which we hear in Malachi and Luke. In the final book of the Old Testament, we hear, “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’ s fire…”
Note that although the prophet promises the arrival of “the Lord, whom ye seek” and “whom ye delight in,” he then asks, “who may abide the day of his coming?” Other translations render “abide” as “endure.” Who can remain standing before him, for he is like a refiner’s fire? Counterbalancing our hope and delight is a note of judgment. Why?
This prophecy has been applied by Christians both to Christ’s first Advent, and his Second Coming, when he will return again in glory. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis, a World War I veteran, likened the first coming of Christ at the Incarnation to God dropping in disguise behind enemy lines. Later, he addresses those of us impatient for something less clandestine, writing,
Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise…? Why is He not landing in force, invading it? …Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when. …But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realise what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world. When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else—something it never entered your head to conceive—comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing: it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realised it before or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last for ever. We must take it or leave it.
This is precisely what John the Baptist proclaims when he quotes the prophet Isaiah, saying, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Whether all flesh wish to see the salvation of God or not depends upon our preparation for it. For while the salvation of God in Jesus is offered freely to all, it will not necessarily be embraced by all.
So how can we prepare for the coming of Jesus in his glory? How can we prepare to meet our Maker, to stand before the great judgment seat of Christ? By taking to heart John the Baptist’s message: Repent!
As Lewis writes,
… fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realising that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor…This process of surrender…is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death.
The kind of death a repentant person undergoes, however, is nothing like the living death of addiction and anxiety of which I spoke last week. No, it is a death that leads to resurrection life, what Lewis calls “the Christ-life” within, something that begins in the here and now and continues into all eternity. Lewis puts it this way, “…a Christian is not [someone] who never goes wrong, but [someone] who is enabled to repent and [stand] up and begin over again after each stumble—because the Christ-life is inside [that person], repairing him all the time, enabling him to repeat (in some degree) the kind of voluntary death which Christ Himself carried out.”
My brothers and sisters, we cannot avoid the Final Judgment. But we can embrace it by embracing voluntarily Christ’s death through repentance.
I wrote in my Evangelist letter this past Friday of the Rite of Reconciliation, which I will continue to commend to you whenever I have the chance. But all of our Advent observances, rightly done, are both preparatory for Christ’s coming at Christmas and penitential as we look towards his coming again in glory. If you have not seriously taken stock of your life recently, now is the time to do it. “Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last for ever. We must take it or leave it.”