“Last Things First” (November 30, 2014: The First Sunday of Advent–Year B; The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana)

“And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”—Mark 13.26[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen!

“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,”[2] so begins the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel principally appointed for reading in lectionary year B, which officially begins today, the First Sunday of Advent. This introductory verse from Mark, I feel, is very relational to Advent Sunday in general, regardless of the particularly lettered year. Every year on Advent Sunday, not only do we begin a new cycle of lectionary readings, but we, once again, begin the journey through the Christian liturgical year, divided into a series of seasons, each with its own theological emphasis, altogether telling the greatest story that has ever been told—the story of humanity’s redemption brought to pass by Jesus Christ, the Son of God. So every year on Advent Sunday, we come to the beginning of the most wondrous story—“the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”   “Come and hear, all you who fear God,” says the Psalmist, “and I will tell what he has done for me.”[3]

But every year on Advent Sunday, when the Christian story begins again, the lectionary focuses the hearers’ attention on last things. For many, it may seem a bit odd to hear a story begin from its back pages, but by choosing to start from this point, the organizers of our lectionary[4], I feel, felt it to be the most appropriate place to begin, considering the story that it tells and what all is at stake by its telling. In today’s Gospel from Mark 13, Jesus says, “…They will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven…Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Listen to what Jesus is saying: “They will see the Son of Man coming…,” “He will send out the angels, and gather his elect…,” “This generation will not pass away before all these things take place,” “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not…” The “wills” and “will not’s” are signifiers of the paradox with which the Gospel presents us: being in the state of “already, but not yet.” The Christian year appropriately begins with an address from Jesus to us who live in this “already, but not yet” time. Already have the means for humanity’s restored relationship with God been made possible, but not yet are we in the absolute completeness of that restored relationship.

With the lectionary putting before us Jesus’ words concerning those last things to come, we are being presented with a very bold claim—that the story that we are about to hear, everything about it is true! We are being presented the claim that Jesus, the central character of the Christian story, is the Messiah whom we await this Advent season and through whom all things, first and last, will be made complete. By the lectionary intentionally starting us off from the back of the story before heading to the front, we today hear the proclamation that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” and how that is and will be so. Right up front, we are being shown that the Christian story is one of victory, that all is well at its end. We see the truth of John the Divine’s proclamation: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him…When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand upon me, saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.’”[5]

Although it has already been inferred, I feel it important to note that Jesus’ words to us in today’s Gospel isn’t just simple talk about last things to come, but is about The End. When The End will come is in the realm of the unknown, save only to God Himself. Because we will never know exactly when The End will come, Jesus says that we should not spend all of our time worrying about it: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”[6] But the one thing we do know is that there will be an End. The possibility of all of us not being around when The End happens is highly likely; our end will (most likely) come in death. Because of Jesus, death is an end that can be met with joy: “…If we die, we die to the Lord…For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”[7] In being confronted with The End as the beginning, Jesus is being proclaimed as the One from whom the Christian story has its beginning and through whom its end will be made complete. In the beginning, we see Jesus. At The End, we will see Jesus.

That very point—the presence of Jesus at both the beginning and The End—describes well the full circle that is the Christian story. This previous Sunday, the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Christian liturgical year, we heard Jesus say, “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.”[8] This previous Sunday’s Gospel from Matthew 25 presented us with a picture of the Final Judgment, by which it will be ALL nations, ALL people of the earth that will be judged, of which Jesus will serve as the Judge and by which He will sit on the throne as King. Literally every single person ever born will be there: those, at the time, still alive and those who have died; those that were famous and those that were not; those that we know either very well or a little bit or not at all; everyone from eras past, in this current era, and in eras to come up to that point will all stand before Jesus the King. Everybody will be divided: those who endeavored to feed, provide drink, offer welcome and do all other sorts of kind deeds to the least among them, which Jesus says would be like doing such things unto Him, will be on His right side as sheep, representational of His approval; those who do not endeavor do such things will be on His left side as goats, representational of His disapproval.[9] In the words of the rock band R.E.M., it will be “the end of the world as we know it.” In its place will be a whole new world, brought to pass by Jesus Himself and in which His people, the sheep, will be its inheritors. Last Sunday, we saw at the end a beginning—the beginning of a whole new world, of which Jesus reigns forever as King. Today, we see at the beginning a foretaste of The End—the completeness of humanity’s restored relationship with God already begun through Jesus. This is the story of the Gospel in full circle.

The lectionary does a good thing by having us read about the last things first, for it conveys the essentiality of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as the Beginning and End of all things. The crucial key to Christ’s essentiality as the Beginning and End of all things is the Incarnation. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth…”[10] At the very heart of today’s Gospel, of the last things to come, of the Christian story’s beginning, middle, and end, is the love of Jesus for all of humanity. The Incarnation of Jesus is the greatest explication for His love and of all that has been, is, and will be. Through the Incarnation, Christ came down to Earth out of love to redeem us; He died, triumphantly rose, and will come again! When the time for The End comes and Heaven and Earth pass away, the love of Jesus, the Word of God, will not pass away. Today’s Gospel is indeed good news, for it assures us that Jesus, the Protagonist of the story that we will soon hear, is our Beginning and End, in whom there will come “a new heaven and a new earth…the holy city, new Jerusalem…He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people…He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall their be mourning nor crying nor pain any more…”[11]

But, again, we should not be so consumed about when The End will come, for “that day or hour no one knows…but only the Father.” Although we have already been given a glimpse into The End, it is important that we go back to the front and continue with the story from there, for continuing on from the front will give us the focus we need to live in the here and now, to value the time we have been given to be in relationship with Jesus in the present. To be so concerned with the future is to miss Jesus in the present and to miss Jesus in the present is to risk not being prepared for the future and for The End. That is why Jesus’ word to us today is this—“Beware, keep alert.” We are able to best do that by going back to the front of the story and reading on. By going back to the front of the story, we keep ourselves awake and alert by learning and living by those things taught by the Christ who has come, died and was raised from death, and will come again, preparing ourselves for life in the new Heaven and Earth that He will bring. By going back to the front of the story, not only will we prepare ourselves for the coming End, but will come to feel the presence of the living Christ in the here and now, experiencing a foretaste of the glorious realm that is to come.

Our King and Savior now draws near: Come, let us adore Him. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Old Testament Section, Copyright 1952; New Testament Section, First Edition, Copyright 1946; Second Edition © 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] Mark 1.1

[3] Psalm 66.16

[4] The Episcopal Church utilizes the Revised Common Lectionary (otherwise known as the “RCL”) for its Bible readings at Sunday celebrations of the Holy Eucharist.

[5] Revelation 1.7, 17-18

[6] Matthew 6.34

[7] Romans 14.8-9

[8] Matthew 25.31-33

[9] Matthew 25.34-46

[10] John 1.1, 14

[11] Revelation 21.1-4

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