Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost November 14, 2021
Practice What You Preach: Pray Daily for the End of Days
Four or five years ago, as some of you likely remember, Henry and I took advantage of England’s Brexit crisis and the resulting drop in the price of the pound to spend a week in London. Our trip was part history, part tourism, and part spiritual in nature, but all, well, almost all, wonderful, and filled with one surprise after another. After all, who would have guessed that possibly the best place in the whole world to get a delicious dish of hummus would be in a London hotel across from the Royal Victoria and Albert Museum? Or that the voices of boy choirs could send shivers up and down our spines. Well, I knew that, and that’s not a surprise given the kind of music I like to hear. But it was a surprise for jazz loving, big band music loving Henry, who is not prone to spiritual flights of fancy. What surprised me was a simple, rusting black box tucked into a corner of a display in Westminster Abby.
That box, unique in the Abbey for its size, deep darkness, and lack of rich ornamentation holds the remains of Edward the First, or Edward the Confessor, the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings or the first of the Norman, depending on how you look at those things. He is, for all that he has been dead since 1307, an ancestor to many an American of English descent and the builder of the original Westminster Abbey. Given his importance to English history and the Abbey itself, it was sort of shocking to see the lack of ornamentation of the overlarge box that holds his remains, especially when compared to the beautifully ornate grave ornaments of his much loved wife, Eleanor of Castille, lying in the same gated enclosure in the Abbey, and of the Abbey itself.
That box shows its age, about 800 years, and gives lie to the apparent bright promise underlying the gilt ornamentation surrounding it. It is the case that the Abbey, begun in 960 ad by that Edward stowed away in the large iron(?) box, looks to be holding its own against the centuries between the laying of its first stone and this present day. But like the Temple of Jesus’ day, Notre Dame de Paris, the Parthenum in Athens, Stonehenge, the Twin Towers of New York City, and all the other great buildings put up by men to glorify God or themselves, all those structures, no matter how magnificent, will someday be just so much ash and dust.
“Do you see those great buildings?” the Lord asks of us as He asked those first disciples long ago. “There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” And so it will be. All things will turn to dust. It was war with Rome that resulted in the destruction of the Temple and many other magnificent structures in Jerusalem. Still, though war is a critical factor in destruction it is time itself that works against any notion of earthly permanence. So, whether it be the simple ravages of time, war, disease, or famine, the world our great-great grandchildren will walk will be vastly different than the one we walk today. And then, give a few hundred or thousand years, the world on which their descendants will walk will be as different yet again. Finally, given enough time, not even the world on which those buildings stand will remain. Nothing is forever.
Nothing is eternal, only God and His Word. And because nothing other than God and His enduring Word is eternal, men and women will fight to hold onto whatever memorials they can construct, whether they be of stone or memory, useless though that effort is when it comes to staving off the havoc time wrecks. This reminder comes to us every year at this particular time in our readings from the Word of God; not to grieve us or to make us despair. After all, no matter how furiously we work to forget just how subject we are to the slow but relentless tide of time we cannot escape the truth of our temporality, much though we would like to do so. The obits of one-time coworkers, the deaths of brothers and sisters in Christ, the last timber to fall from the roof of an old barn we pass every day on our way to work, all speak to us of a truth we would rather ignore. That nothing is eternal, only God and His Word.
Neglecting that truth does nothing for us that is meaningful or life-giving. Rather, it leads us to all sorts of nasty thoughts and bad behavior. All manner of vice becomes more attractive despite its destructiveness; mindless entertainment takes the place of wise reflection; lust takes love’s place; men seek power rather than righteousness; and greed puts an end to generosity. And faith, faith falters, then withers away, for faith is hope in things unseen, in life beyond the grave, in a life promised us in the Word of Him Who is not bound by time, having never been born, and having never faced the reality of death.
With the exception, of course, of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the Father, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and made man by way of the Virgin Mary. In days like these days, days that come at the end of the year, as the cold dark takes up more and more of the day and the warm light less and less; on days like these, the Light of Christ entered into the world at the bequest of His Father and ours, and overcame the chill darkness of sin and death. Eternal like His Father, and ours, Christ willingly took on mortal flesh, suffering not only the ills of the flesh but also its destruction; dying that we might live, and live eternally.
Therefore, we hear at this time of the year of the end times, when all that God has wrought will be reclaimed from the ravages of time, and be made whole and eternal. We hear of the coming of the Day of the Lord, not that we be terrified by the promise of destruction of old norms and means, but that we might be reminded to hold close to that which is eternal. The apocalypse of Daniel, our first reading this morning, reminds us that the time of troubles, unlike any seen previously, is for those who believe a time of deliverance, not death. For those wise among us who believe will awake to eternal life, and “shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
The texts of this time of the year are but loving warnings to be on our guard, for we will be tempted to preach one thing and practice another for safety’s sake, and comfort’s. But it is “only the one who endures to the end,” that wears the crown of righteousness, for he or she has faithfully preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ in both word and deed. So, now in these last days, these days before the Lord’s birth and His return, “let us,” as the writer of Hebrews teaches us today, “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” For as baptized disciples of Jesus Christ, let us “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.”
So, do not, as you read the signs of the times, give in to fear of your deaths, and fail to practice the life you preach. Rather, hold onto your hope in He Who is life, and life eternal, and pray daily for the end of days. Let God be your good above all other, that He make more of your life not less, that He may show you the path of life, where there is fullness of joy, and “pleasures for evermore.”