You may have noticed there is a lot about rivers in the service. A river is featured prominently in both our readings for today. One is an actual river in the ancient city of Philippi, where Paul went to pray, and where he met Lydia. The other river is from John the Divine’s vision of the New Jerusalem, where a river runs through the heavenly city. Continue reading
(This essay was first written in 1995 for my study of the atonement with Professor Richard Bauckham at St Andrews University in Scotland. It later appeared as a chapter in my book When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement. Some of the references, therefore, are dated.)
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” The death of Jesus Christ was understood by the earliest church, not least by Paul himself, as a divine act of reconciliation between God and humanity. Which is to say that Christ’s death on the cross was understood from the beginning as an atoning death. Continue reading
You all know those jokes that begin ‘I’ve got good news and bad news . . .” Well, in this sermon I’m going to flip it around and talk about the bad news first, because there is lots of bad news in the appointed lessons for today. There is talk of a dreadful “Day of the Lord.” There are dire warnings of impending disaster. Continue reading
Our two scripture readings today both speak about crying. The first reading speaks to the church on earth today, what I was taught as a child to call the church militant, and the second reading speaks to the church in heaven, what I was taught to call the church triumphant. Perhaps those terms are too martial for us today, but by whatever names it is the distinction between the church here and the church hereafter.
In the first reading Paul admonishes the Roman Christians on how to be the church now, and one of the things he tells them they need to do is to “rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep.”
The second reading is from the Revelation of St John the Divine. I have a soft spot for the writings of St John the Divine, as I was baptized at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York, which is the world’s largest gothic cathedral (so I come by my high church inclinations honestly.)
In this beautiful passage from Revelation, St. John describes the holy city, the New Jerusalem at the end of time and history. He says then there will be no more crying there because God will “wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
So in engaging these two texts about the here and the hereafter, I started thinking about the function of crying in our lives, and especially in the church. I did a little research on crying, and discovered that we don’t know all that much about it. There are several competing theories about why humans cry, including those theories of evolutionary biologists who think it may have some social function. Continue reading
My friend and former Pittsfield colleague Karen Gygax Rodriguez is the Pastor of the Federated Church of Green Lake, Wisconsin. On the Second Sunday of Advent, December 6, the baby Jesus figurine was stolen from the church’s nativity scene.
The police investigated, but had no leads. They speculated that the thief was from outside Green Lake, since “everybody knows everybody here, and it would have been returned by now.” Continue reading
I have long been an admirer of the estimable Rowan Williams, the 104th archbishop of Canterbury, since the time I saw him give an awkward, brilliant, and humble paper in 1989 in Oxford. Since then I have read with profit his thoughtful theological books and essays. But I just learned that he also has written poetry. I came across this fine Advent poem today. It is from his first collection of poems: After Silent Centuries (Oxford, 1994), and is now available in The Poems of Rowan Williams’ (Oxford, 2002 and Grand Rapids MI, 2004).
He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.
He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.
He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.
© Rowan Williams
(Photo by R. L. Floyd, 2015, “Autumn leaf after the rainstorm,” Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, Lanesborough, MA.)
In Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall, there is a great scene (click picture above) in which Alvy Singer, the character played by Woody Allen, flashes back to his childhood in Brooklyn. His mother takes him to the family Doctor, Dr. Flicker, an avuncular man wearing a stethoscope, and smoking a cigarette. Alvy’s mom tells Dr. Flicker that 9 year-old Alvy is depressed.
Doctor Flicker: Why are you depressed, Alvy?
Alvy’s Mom: Tell Dr. Flicker.
[Alvy sits, his head down, his mother answers for him]
Alvy’s Mom: It’s something he read.
Doctor Flicker: Something he read, huh?
Alvy: [his head still down, quietly] The universe is expanding.
Doctor Flicker: The universe is expanding?
Alvy: Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!
Alvy’s Mom: What is that your business?
[she turns back to the doctor]
Alvy’s Mom: He stopped doing his homework!
Alvy: What’s the point?
Alvy’s Mom: What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!
Doctor Flicker: It won’t be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvy. And we’ve gotta try to enjoy ourselves while we’re here!”
I was looking for this quote yesterday, and when I found it I put the Yahoo clip on my FB page. A child psychologist friend of mine, who is also a professor, wrote this comment:
I always refer to it when I teach developmental psychology, and I ask how many students remember feeling this way: “What’s the point in doing anything because the sun is going to go out in several billion years?” Many, many young people remember the precise moment when they first felt this way….
Alvy the young fatalist is a stand-in for all of us faced with the futility of a finite world, and with our own mortality. Because Alvy is right that everything comes to an end.
That is our topic for today, “the End.” I loved the way Gail (Miller, our chair) framed the subject for us for this meeting: “The End! How do we talk about the End? – End of time – End of life – End of… Where are Christians headed? In this life and the next? What does Christian Eschatology look like?”
There are many directions one could go with this set of questions, but the common assumption that they would all share is that there is an end. And (pun intended) this is where I want to begin.
I want to begin with Alvy Singer’s question, “What’s the point?” If there’s an end, “What’s the point?” And there is an end. Both our life and the life of the planet we live on are finite. The mortality rate as of this morning is still 100%, and the very best science predicts the likelihood that our sun, which is a star, will some day in the distant future blink out leaving earth without the conditions for life. Whether the expanding universe itself is finite is an open question, but for the purposes of this discussion finitude is what we are faced with.
So how do we talk about Christian hope in the face of our finitude and the finitude of our world? My own answer to this is quite simple. First let me say what we cannot do. We cannot construct hope out of the materials given to us by the fact of our finitude. Christian hope lies elsewhere.
Alvy read the best science and rightly despairs of what that narrative has to offer. But that narrative, though the reigning one, is not the only one. Science can tell us what it can tell us and we are grateful for it.
But science, so good at measuring our universe and examining our bodies, can not tell us what either means.
Marilynne Robinson writes,
The modern fable is that science exposed religion as a delusion and more or less supplanted it. But science cannot serve in the place of religion because it cannot generate an ethics or a morality. It can give us no reason to prefer a child to a dog, or to choose honorable poverty over fraudulent wealth. It can give us not grounds for preferring what it is excellent over what is sensationalistic. And this is more or less where we are now. (The Death of Adam, p 71)
To enlarge our thinking and engage our imagination about what the end of things means we need to look elsewhere than science, and the elsewhere I want to look at is the Christian Story, and especially what it tells us about the character and identity of God.
And, as those who know me will not be surprised, that among the many places in the Christian Story we can turn to know the character and identity of God, it is in the cross of Christ that we get a particularly decisive picture. And by the cross I mean, as our brother Paul did, the decisive act of God that focuses on Good Friday and culminates in Easter.
Here is the love that will not let us go, a love so deep, so broad, so high, as one of our hymns describes it, that it will die for us. So again like Paul, to the facts of finitude, “we preach Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 1:23)
Which is to say I want to argue for a cross-shaped eschatology, one that sees the facts of finitude for us and our world in the template of Good Friday and Easter. ( For a fuller working out of this idea see my “The Cross as an Eschatological Act of God” in Hope for your Future: Theological Voices from the Pastorate. Edited by William H. Lazareth. Eerdmans, 2002.)
Jesus’ death ends his life. But beyond the discontinuity of death, God raises him to new life. There is continuity in that he remains identifiably himself; he bears the marks of the Roman nails on his hands and feet. Yet he is also different. Some don’t recognize him. His glorified body is and isn’t his earthly body.
Imagining this continuity and discontinuity of Good Friday and Easter provide us the model for a proper Christian eschatology.
In that light how do we think and talk about the end? First of all we need to be honest about the impact of the end, just as we need to be honest about the fact of our own death. I once got in trouble for opening my Easter sermon by saying, “On Good Friday Jesus was as dead as a door-nail.” But it’s true. Good Friday was a dead end, and symbolizes all the other ends that flesh is heir to, the end of promise, the end of hope, and the end of all human possibilities.
To get a sense for how it felt then, recall that story you all know well when Jesus meets some of his followers on the road to Emmaus. He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
“What things?” Jesus asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:13-35)
That was the end of that, so, as young Alvy would ask, “What’s the point?”
But that wasn’t that. That wasn’t that. The resurrection changed all that, and changed the world.
But it wasn’t too long before the earliest Christians realized that the kingdom of God in its fullness had not arrived, and so they looked for a second Advent, in which what had begun, even in their midst, and what was promised, would be completed and fulfilled.
So even now, all these years later, we Christians, and our church, live between the times, between the first coming and the second coming. We live in the already of Christ’s appearing, and the not yet of his reappearing in glory to consummate all things.
So our faith is profoundly eschatological. But you would often never know it from being in our worship. For example, the church year has a peculiar feature about it. We end the year on Christ the King Sunday with a flurry of eschatological texts, and then we immediately begin a new year in Advent with another flurry of eschatological texts, and then we don’t really have to think about eschatology in between.
But we should think about. I have been reflecting on something Steven (Small, the local pastor) once wrote to me in reflecting on his Advent Christian background:
A deep hope in the return of Christ is at the center of my eschatology in particular and it informs my theology in general. The Adventists gave us some real gifts: a more gracious view of a loving God through their understanding of conditional immortality for one. There is a tendency to snicker in mainline circles when it comes to discussions of the Second Coming. (But) if we truly believe that Christ has died, and Christ is risen, why would we not be quite certain that Christ will come again.
And as pastors, if we have not thought carefully about eschatology, what do we have to say to those who are facing the end, whatever that end may be: the end of their life, the end of their vocation, the end of their marriage, the end of a relationship with a family member, the end of a dream, a hope, a promise?
Alvy’s question, “What’s the point?” has no good answer apart from faith, and that faith is an Easter faith that lies on the other side of Good Friday.
Because when there was no hope, no human possibilities, when we were done and there was no point, God was not done. And that is who we are, the community that looks for more at the end. The community that believes that God is not done. That God is never done.
The end of life is a fearsome thing. But the God who raised Jesus from the dead is the God we worship. Can that end have dominion over us?
The end of the world is a scary thing. Even 9 year-old Alvy knew this. But the God who created the world, can not this same God redeem and save this world, and create a new heaven and a new earth?
What can we say at the end? What can we say at the several endings that mark our life and our world?
This is what we can say: That God is with us at the end as at the beginning, and all the way through. “I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, saith the Lord. Behold, I make all things new!” Amen.
I preached this sermon on February 7, 2013, at the First Congregational Church (UCC) of West Boylston, Massachusetts for a meeting of the New England chapter of Confessing Christ in the United Church of Christ.