Advent! This is the season when we look ahead to the coming of Christ, both his first coming at Christmas and his second coming on the Day of Judgment. And the latter comes first. On this First Sunday of Advent, the Gospel reading is always about that mysterious event which the Bible calls the “Day of Judgment”, or the “Day of the Lord”, or sometimes simply “that day”, or “those days”. And we’re left wondering: What will it be like? When is it going to happen? Mark says Jesus warned that there will be suffering, and a darkening of the sun and moon, and stars falling from heaven–scary business! Furthermore, says Jesus, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Clearly, Jesus and his earliest followers believed that the Day of Judgment was coming very soon and very dramatically!
But it didn’t happen—and it still hasn’t! And that’s one of those intriguing puzzles that have engaged Bible scholars ever since. St. Paul himself, obviously a brilliant scholar, seems to change his mind about it in his own epistles. In I Thessalonians, which most scholars think is his earliest, he is sure that Christ will return in his lifetime. (4:15-17) But in I Corinthians, written about ten years later, he talks about Christ’s resurrection as the “first fruits” of a future resurrection of all the faithful when Christ comes again. (15:20-23) II Peter, which is thought to have been written much later, and by someone else in Peter’s name, explains the delay by saying, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” (3:8-9)
Good, I thought, when I first read that last part! Maybe God will be patient with me that so I can shed all my sins before Judgment Day! (It reminds me of something G. K. Chesterton, the famous English writer, is alleged to have said to his friends as they gathered around his death bed. They noticed he was thumbing through his Bible, and they asked him why. “I’m looking for loopholes,” he replied!)
There’s no escaping it! The Day of Judgment is real; it’s all through the Bible, Old Testament and New; and on Advent Sunday it stares us again in the face. We’re tempted of course to put off thinking about it–if it hasn’t come by now, why worry about it? Well, here’s why: My own take on Judgment Day—which I believe is faithful to Scripture–is that judgment starts now. John’s Gospel, written well after Paul’s epistles, records Jesus saying that the Day of Judgment is already here—or at least already started. “Now is the judgment of this world,” Jesus says; “now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (12:31-32)
Jesus in all the gospels talks far more about the present than about the future. Take the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer asks him what he needs to do to inherit eternal life, meaning of course a loop hole for the Day of Judgment! Jesus tests him on the law, and the lawyer comes back easily with the commandments to love God and love your neighbor. But then he gives himself away. “And who is my neighbor?” he asks. The man has no clue what it means truly to love—which is what we will all be judged upon. He simply wants to narrow the parameters of his observance of the law so he can be sure to “get by” on the Day of Judgment. So Jesus tells him the story of a lowly Samaritan, one who was despised by Jews, who risked his own life to save a man who had been robbed and beaten, and who had been ignored by both a Jewish priest and a Levite. Then he asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Do you see how Jesus changes the question? To ask, “Who is my neighbor?” is purely self-serving. How well we prove to be a neighbor is what we will be judged by. Jesus pins the lawyer down to the here and now: How is he going to treat other people—all people?
So, my take on the Day of Judgment is that there’s no time to lose—not because we have any certainty about when or how it’s going to occur, but because Christ calls and empowers us to love one another right now. We see that sense of urgency in today’s gospel where he says toward the end, “Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come….” (The master, of course, stands for Christ.) Now let me point out two ways that we need badly to keep awake in today’s world. The first is loving one another and our planet enough to save it from destruction. I believe God’s judgment rests heavily upon us for this.
One of the most important books I’ve read in a long time is Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman. Friedman writes about the urgency of combating global warming, and developing clean sources of electricity, and preserving the environment for our ever exploding population. Today’s gospel about “keeping awake” came immediately to mind as I read the following warning by Friedman: “At the end of the day, no amount of clean electrons, no amount of energy efficiency will save the natural world if we are not paying attention to it—if we are not paying attention to all the things that nature gives us for free: clean air, clean water, breathtaking vistas, mountains for skiing, rivers for fishing, oceans for sailing, sunsets for poets, and landscapes for painters.” (p. 316) This is God’s world! God help us if we don’t love it enough to pay attention to it!
I believe the same judgment is surely upon us when we fail to pay attention and love one another. I feel pangs inside every time we say the Confession: “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” I feel God’s judgment when I miss an opportunity to love. Years ago a friend asked a favor of me. I did the favor, a “Good Samaritan” type of favor which involved a lot of time and some expense—all of which I was perfectly capable of giving. But then I spoiled it by making sure my friend knew what I had sacrificed for him. And our relationship was never the same afterward. That was part of God’s judgment upon me. But there was another part: Not long afterward I asked another friend if he would do a fairly significant favor for me. He readily assented and did it. Afterward I thanked him. And he said to me, “Doug, thank you for letting me do this. I’m honored that you asked me.” I felt both judged by God and healed by God in that moment, and have not been the same since.