Today marks a new year in the church calendar, and you will notice, after a long Trinity season, a different emphasis is present. Advent, which means Coming, is the season in our liturgical calendar which celebrates the coming of our Lord. The season first helps us prepare, by prayer and meditation, to more devoutly welcome the day of Christ’s nativity. This marks the coming of our Lord in the flesh to suffer for us. The season also looks forward to the second coming of our Lord, when he will come to judge the quick and the dead. This is why the season of Advent has always been a season of solemn supplication. We are preparing our souls for the coming of our Lord and asking the Lord to help us die to ourselves so that we might live in him.
Since Advent is the Christian season of anticipating the end times, it has been tradition within the church to preach on the Four Last Things during the four weeks of Advent, Death, Judgement, Hell, and Heaven. And if this seems surprising, think of the process of starting any journey or venture. It is of extreme importance to know the end or goal before you begin. How can you attentively walk through life, if you have no idea of your end? How can you set out on a journey without a goal? To begin this new year, therefore, we will set out as a parish with our eyes set on our end. This week, I want to say a few things about death, next week Fr. Dan will preach on Judgment. On the Third Sunday of Advent, Fr. Gene will take on Hell, and Fr. Mark will finish our series on Heaven right before Christmas.
The text for the sermon comes from the Gospel:
And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this? And the multitude said, This is Jesus the Prophet of Nazareth of Galilee. And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple; and overthrew the tables of the money-changers, and the seats of them that sold doves; and said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.
Using the Gospel as a starting point, I want to bring together two visits to the temple to help us think about the preparation for our own death. Paul writes to the Corinthians that our own bodies are a Temple of the Lord, and with this in mind, we are going to read these visitations to the temple in Jerusalem as a parable for Jesus’ own visitation to us at our death.
Jesus first visits the temple when he is brought by his parents as a baby for the rites of purification. And when he comes to the temple, Simeon is there waiting for him. Simeon has spent his whole life in expectation of the coming Christ. And now that his Messiah has come, Simeon is ready to die in peace. He says:
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).
Simeon knows the face of Jesus—and he also knows the purpose of Jesus.
The second temple visit to examine comes from the Gospel. As Jesus enters Jerusalem, riding on the donkey, the people proclaim that Jesus is the Prophet of Nazareth. It is a triumphant entry, but the people do not know Jesus’ purposes. In fact, they all see him as their political savior, and they must have been incredibly surprised what Jesus did next. He enters the temple and rids it of all money-changers and salesmen. Unlike Simeon, the people are not prepared for the true person of Jesus. When Jesus enters the temple this time, he has to cast out thieves—prayer, which is communion with God, has ceased. The likes of Simeon are gone, and now the temple has been defiled.
If we read these two visits as parables of our own lives, then we are faced with two different responses to the advent of our death. We can be like Simeon, who prepares his life through prayer so that when Jesus comes to him, he recognizes who Jesus is and may die peacefully. Or, we can be fooled by the promises of the world like the masses of the people who can name Jesus, but do not recognize his true mission. Then, our temple is filled with thieves and liars, and we are no longer in communion with God. Jesus Christ is coming, awake your souls and prepare. Prepare your life in the knowledge of your coming death.
It is not hard for us to consider death, if we stop for a moment. Everyone in history, apart from the few biblical examples has faced death, and, presumably, everyone here will also face death. As some say, death is the great equalizer. But, we can so easily generalize death to the point that we succumb to the Stoic acceptance that what must come must come. Why then ponder, why prepare for what might is sure to happen? Worrying too much about the inevitable is just to succumb to ones own irrational passion.
Yet, it is particular deaths that throw off that cloak, that lie—the particular deaths of those whom we love deaths reveal the horrid reality behind this universal experience. Paul says in Corinthians that death is our last enemy. When someone particularly close to us dies, we now see the emptiness which presses out vitality from an individual life. Unexpected and premature death is horrible, painful, and torturous. The hope of a life present with us, the growing and mature, the normal expectations and hopes of what will come are swept away. But even the death of a loved one who has led a full life speaks to this same terror because who was, is no longer present. Life has been pressed out.
And yet, how do we, like Simeon, prepare ourselves to die in peace?
First, as Christians we know that Christ has conquered death, and now death has lost its sting, its sting of eternal death. Therefore, we can have a hope in God’s finality for the world—that what God has declared he will do, will be done. Our souls will be reunited with our bodies and we will live in everlasting life. Therefore, we prepare to die in peace by dwelling upon the hope that we have in God. This is why the choir will sing in a little bit, Psalm 25 for the offertory:
“UNTO thee, O Lord, will I lift up my soul; / my God, I have put my trust in thee. O let me not be confounded, / neither let mine enemies triumph over me. Call to remembrance, O Lord, thy tender mercies, / and thy loving-kindnesses, which have been ever of old. O remember not the sins and offences of my youth; / but according to thy mercy think thou upon me, O Lord, for thy goodness.”
As Christians, we first prepare for our death by claiming the hope we have in Christ’s work.
Second, we prepare ourselves in our own life by heeding the words of Paul we read in the Epistle:
“The night is far spent, the day is at hand; let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof” (Romans 13:12-14).
These are powerful words—in fact, the last verse, “put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ,” was the verse that finally converted Augustine. We have all put on the Lord Jesus Christ at baptism. Paul tells us earlier in Romans that
“we are buried with Christ by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
At baptism we are engrafted into Christ and infused with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. But while God does equip us with these virtues, they need to be fostered, matured, and realized in our own lives.
Here we enter into a great mystery, that goes far beyond just moral commands. We can start, imperfectly to be sure, during our lives now to live unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. But to do that, we must enter into Christ’s death at baptism and continue to die daily to ourselves. Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew:
“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).
And Luke records Jesus saying:
“Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it” (17:33).
The key to living in Christ is death, the daily death of dying to your own desires and giving those to God, in order that, in the words of Paul,
“you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, [which is] your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1).
To die and live unto Christ is to live daily as a sacrifice to God. We are literally offering our lives to be a pleasing sacrifice to God. It is a life of death. Our processional hymn explains this well:
Go, labor on; spend, and be spent;
Thy joy to do the Father’s will;
It is the way the Master went;
Should not the servant tread it still? (Hymn #573, Horatius Bonar)
Our sacrificial life is an imitation of Christ’s life. As we are baptized into his death, we are raised with him into his life; yet, his life is one of ultimate sacrifice.
This must change our goals for our life, does it not? Our desires, hopes, loves, and actions, should be pointed towards Jesus Christ. Simeon, again, is a great example for us. Instead of imposing his expectations upon Jesus, Simeon had obviously spent his life dedicated to learning and loving the true nature of the Messiah. The people wanted and sought after a Jesus for themselves, Simeon had already realized that the mission of the Messiah was for the whole world.
To conclude, let us take a look at the second epistle of Peter, which was the Morning prayer reading all last week, leading up to Advent. Peter writes:
“According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that [pertain] unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Peter 1:3-4).
Peter shows here that it is through Baptism and the nourishment of the sacraments that we are partakers of divine nature. But Peter continues and explains what this looks like on a daily basis:
“And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make [you that ye shall] neither [be] barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-8).
We must nurture these virtues and grow throughout out lives. If not . . . well, Peter tells us plainly:
“But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall” (2 Peter 1:9-10).
This Advent, in order to awake your souls and to live a life of death, seek after these things Peter commends. Seek after them and may, in the words of the Prayer for God’s Protection through the Night following, God “grant us grace always to live in such a state that we may never be afraid to die; so that, living and dying, we may be thine, through the merits and satisfaction of thy Son Christ Jesus, in whose Name we offer up these our imperfect prayers. Amen” [BCP 591].
And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple; and overthrew the tables of the money-changers, and the seats of them that sold doves; and said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.