Advent is a season of waiting, waiting for God to fulfill His promises. We know that most of His promises from the Old Testament were fulfilled magnificently by Jesus, but as St. Paul reminds, we have received but the first fruits of His work in our soul (cf Rom 8:23). The created world and our physical bodies still await the full implications of what He has done. We still await a new Heaven and a new earth where the justice of God will reside (cf 2 Peter 3:13). We still wait for that time when God will renew and restore all things in Christ and will vanquish Satan and his followers so that they can no longer cause harm.
There are times—times like these—when many may be discouraged. There are times when evil may seem to triumph and the victory of Christ seems far off. For indeed, we live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures.
As Advent progresses, however, there comes a word of encouragement from Isaiah, who is the main prophet of reference during this season. Addressed to the fainthearted, it is an unambiguous declaration that God is working His purposes out and that nothing in this world can prevent His plan from being fulfilled.
It is God who speaks through Isaiah. These words are highly worth reading out loud:
I am God there is no other. At the beginning I foretell the outcome; in advance, things not yet done. I say that my plan shall stand. I accomplish my every purpose. Yes, I have spoken, I will accomplish it; I have planned it and I will do it. Listen to me you fainthearted, you who seem far from the victory of justice: I am bringing on my justice, it is not far off, my salvation shall not tarry; I will put salvation within Zion, and give my glory to Israel (Isaiah 46:12ff).
Consider three conclusions for us to take to heart.
1. THE PLAN – In Heaven there is no panic, no puzzlement about what to do, just plans. God says this His plan will stand. The foolish and the self-described “wise and learned” of this world may well scoff and think they have found something greater than God’s wisdom and knowledge. Many secular people dismiss God as a myth or as irrelevant. The wicked may think they can mock God forever, but God’s plan will stand. The works of evil are going nowhere. Scripture says in Psalm 2,
The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying, “Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” … Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling give homage to his Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Yes, God’s plan will stand, no matter the plans of man. Those who mock Him, or build Towers of Babel, or lead others to sin are going to be surprised; they will have to answer to God.
2. THE PARADOX –God speaks of the “fainthearted” as those who feel far from the victory of justice. He tells them that His justice is near and that it will not tarry.
God often accomplishes His purposes in paradoxical ways! Simply go to the foot of the cross to see that. What sort of King is this? What sort of triumph is this? Yet it is a masterful inversion of Satan’s scheme, a stealthy action. Just as Satan is doing his victory dance, Christ is emptying out Sheol.
Christ conquers by refusing Satan’s terms, by refusing to seek to impress the world on its prideful and vengeful terms. For indeed, darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. Pride cannot conquer pride; only humility can do that.
The world demands that Christ become merely a bigger version of Satan: bold, brash, arrogant, and disobedient. It demands that Jesus fight the fight on Satan’s terms, using Satan’s techniques. Jesus will have none of it; He cancels Satan’s pride by humility and obedience. To the proud, the disobedient, and the boastful, the message still goes forth today: My plan shall stand. I accomplish my every purpose!
To the fainthearted goes the message that God’s justice is near, but we must also learn that it comes, paradoxically, through the cross. Just as the first victory came on the Sunday after Good Friday, so the second and final victory will rise in the wake of the cross. It will come—not on the world’s terms and not by Satan’s tactics but by the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
3. THE PERSPECTIVE –There are many today who like to announce that the age of faith is over, that God is but a myth and faith a superstition. People who speak like this know little of history.
For indeed, the Lord’s Church has been here for more than 2000 years, more than 5000 if you count the Old Testament years. During this time, empires have come and gone, nations have risen and fallen, heresies and philosophies have waxed and waned. Self-declared enemies have said that they would bury the Church, but the Church read the funeral rites over them. Where is Caesar now? Where is Julian the Apostate? Where is Napoleon or Hitler or Stalin or the USSR?
When the Muslims wiped out the North African cradle of the Church, Europe lit up with converts from the barbarians. Just when two million Europeans walked out of the Church during the Protestant revolt, nine million entered in Mexico following the apparition at Guadalupe. Today, when Europe is largely divorcing itself from Christ, Africa has lit up again like a great wedding feast with a 7000% increase in the number of Catholics over the last fifty years.
People who say that the age of faith is over or that the Church is doomed have not read history. They lack perspective because they do not know God, whose plan will stand. That the powers of Hell will strive to destroy the Church is evident. That they will fail to prevail is revealed in Scripture (Matt 16:18) and has been shown through all these centuries now. When the current scoffers are dead and gone, the Church will still be here preaching the Gospel. The Lord does not guarantee that we will always be numerous, but we will be here for as long as the sun shall shine and until the Lord comes again.
To the fainthearted, the Spirit says, “Be strong. God’s plan will stand.” And so the Lord Jesus says, Heaven and earth shall pass away; but my words shall not pass away (Lk 21:33). These are difficult days, even inside the Church, but the Lord is still the Head of His Body. God’s plan will stand.
As we continue to ponder various advent hymns, let’s turn our attention to one that is much more familiar to Anglicans and Methodists than to Catholics: “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending.” In fact, it is considered one of the “Great Four Anglican Hymns.” Its text was written by John Cennick and Charles Wesley in 1758. Deriving much of its content from the Book of Revelation, it is a magnificent meditation on the glorious Second Coming of Christ.
Let’s consider the hymn verse by verse. Several of the verses draw on an opening vision in the Book of Revelation: Behold, he cometh with the clouds, and every eye shall see him: and they also that pierced him. And all the tribes of the earth shall bewail themselves because of him. Even so. Amen (Rev 1:7). Depending on their state some will be consoled, and others confronted, but they shall all behold him. The opening verse sets the scene:
Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of His train:
God appears on earth to reign.
Scripture attests that Christ alone is the judge. Jesus says, The Father judges no man: but has given all judgment to the Son, that all men may honor the Son, as they honor the Father. He who honors not the Son honors not the Father who has sent him (John 5:22-23). However, although He alone is the Judge, He does not come alone. Myriad holy ones, saints, attend Him. Here we need not think of saints as merely human beings, for among the holy ones are angels, such as Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael. Scripture says, When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him (Matt 25:31-32). Similarly, of the heavenly company it is said that in addition to the 144,000 from the tribes of Israel, there is also a multitude too large to count, from every nation and tribe and people and tongue, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands (Rev 7:9).
It is as Joel prophesied:Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision (Joel 3:14).
Every eye shall now behold Him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold Him,
Pierced and nailed Him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.
The Book of Malachi describes the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord. In that vision there are two groups whose reactions and experiences are quite different. Of unrepentant sinners it is said, For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace, when all the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble; the day is coming when I will set them ablaze,” says the LORD of Hosts. “Not a root or branch will be left to them (Malachi 4:1). But of those who repented and sought the Lord it is said, But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings, and you will go out and leap like calves from the stall (Mal 4:2). Yes, for those who have been brought up to the temperature of glory and are accustomed to the light, the Day of the Lord will be as a beautiful, sunlit day. For the unrepentant, that same fiery light will seem an inferno of blazing heat and blinding light. This distinction unfolds in this and the following verses.
Here and in the next verse, those who pierced and nailed him now see what they have done—they opposed and killed our very God and Lord, Jesus Christ. The Lord speaks of their angry lament as the “wailing and grinding of teeth” (e.g., Matt 22:13, 24:51).
Every island, sea, and mountain,
Heaven and earth, shall flee away;
All who hate Him must, confounded,
Hear the trump proclaim the day:
Come to judgment! Come to judgment!
Come to judgment! Come away!
Creation itself falls back before the glory of God. The entire cosmos seems swept aside. The Lord judges the living and the dead by fire. This fiery judgement will remake and renew the created world, which has longed for this day. St. Paul attests, Creation waits in eager expectation for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will, but because of the One who subjected it, but in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. Yes, we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now (Romans 8:19-22). But now the trumpet has sounded (1 Cor 15:52); the earth yields its dead, and all creation with humanity stands before God.
Now redemption, long expected,
See in solemn pomp appear;
All His saints, by man rejected,
Now shall meet Him in the air:
See the day of God appear!
In this verse, attention is turned to those who rejoice on this Great and Terrible Day of the Lord. Here, the Lord answers the martyrs cry, which John heard; I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony they had upheld. And they cried out in a loud voice, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe and told to rest a little while longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers, were killed, just as they had been killed (Rev 6:9-11). Yes, here is the reckoning and revelation of those who won through by the Blood of the Lamb, as opposed to those who rejected His offer of salvation.
Answer Thine own bride and Spirit,
Hasten, Lord, the general doom!
The new Heaven and earth inherit,
Take Thy pining exiles home:
All creation, all creation,
Travails! groans! and bids Thee come!
Here, the Church, the Lord’s Bride, also rejoices, for her stance has always been, as St. John says,[The Spirit and the bride say,] “Come!” Let the one who hears say, “Come!” And let the one who is thirsty come, and the one who desires the water of life drink freely…. He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus (Rev 22:17,20). All creation groans, too, seeking to hasten the Lord’s return: We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until the present time (Rom 8:22).
The dear tokens of His passion
Still His dazzling body bears;
Cause of endless exultation
To His ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!
The Lord’s scars are the glorious sign of His love and His conquest. Another hymn of the Church, “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” has this among its lyrics:
Behold His hands and side;
Rich wounds yet visible above
In beauty glorified:
No angel in the sky
Can fully bear that sight,
But downward bends his burning eye
At mysteries so bright.
Finally, let’s look at last verse our great hymn, the doxology:
Yea, Amen! let all adore Thee,
High on Thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for Thine own;
O come quickly! O come quickly!
Everlasting God, come down!
It is truly a literary masterpiece; it masterfully sums up the Book of Revelation and paints a picture of the Second Coming in sweeping, majestic poetry. Cherish it and meditate on it frequently.
In the performance below, it is sung to the tune “Helmsley,” which was first published in 1763:
In the first reading for Tuesday of the first week of Advent is expressed the implicit longing of all creation for healing. Isaiah tells us of the healing that will one day come to creation when prey lie down in peace with their predators:
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:6-9).
Hence, when Christ from His judgment seat shall finally say, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:5), and when with John we see “a new heavens and a new earth” (Rev 21:1), I have little doubt that animals will share in that recreated and renewed kingdom where death shall be no more (Rev 21:4).
In this passage, St. Paul goes so far as to “personify” creation:
For indeed, creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Romans 8:19-21).
Yes, creation itself eagerly awaits the day when God will say (in the words of an old spiritual), “Oh, Preacher, fold your Bible, for the last soul’s converted!” Then creation itself will be set free from its bondage to death and decay and will be gloriously remade into its original harmony and the life-possessing glory that was once paradise.
Maybe now, through the mystery of our interaction with our pets, God is giving us a glimpse of the harmony we will one day enjoy with all creation. Perhaps our pets are ambassadors for the rest of creation, a kind of early delegation sent by God to prepare the way and begin to forge the connections of the new and restored creation. Maybe they are urging us on in our task of making the number of the elect complete so that all creation can sooner receive its renewal and be restored to the glory and harmony it once had. Who knows? But I see a kind of urgency in the pets I have had over the years. They are filled with joy, enthusiasm, and the expectation of something great.
They show joyful expectation! Yes, there was a kind of joyful expectation in the dogs of my youth: running in circles around me, dashing to greet me when I arrived home, and jumping for joy when I announced a car ride or a walk. My cats have always sauntered over to meet me at the door with a meow, an arched back, and a rub up against my leg. Somehow our pets manifest the passage above: creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed (Romans 8:19).
While I realize that we humans often project what we want their behavior to mean, I am still fascinated by the way our pets come to “know” us and set up a kind of communication with us.
Dogs, especially, are very demonstrative, interactive, and able to make knowing responses. Cats are more subtle. My cat, Jewel, knows my patterns. She also knows how to communicate to me that she wants water, food, or just a back rub. She’s a big talker, too, meowing each time I enter the room. Sometimes I wish she could just tell me what she wanted!
Yes, this interaction with our pets is indeed mysterious. I am not suggesting that animals are on a par with humans intellectually or morally; Scripture is unambiguous that animals are given to us by God and that we are sovereign stewards over them. However, animals—especially our pets—are to be appreciated as gifts from Him. Scripture is also clear that animals will be part of the renewed creation that God will bring about when Christ comes again in glory.
They are part of the Kingdom! Without elevating pets (no matter how precious to us) to the full dignity of human beings, it is not wrong to think that they will be part of the Kingdom of God in all its restored harmony and beauty.
One day when Christ comes again, creation, now yearning, will receive the healing for which it longs.
The first song in this video, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” takes some of its lyrics from earlier verses in Isaiah Chapter 11, from which we read this day.
As winter approaches and the end of the liturgical year draws near, we ponder the passing quality of this world and the fading of its glories. Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading must surely have shocked, even horrified, His apostles. Let’s look at His stunning words and seek to apply them in our own life.
The Place of this Gospel – Jesus is standing just outside of Jerusalem. In the last two months we have followed Him on His final journey: leaving Galilee, heading south along the Jordan River, passing through Jericho, and now making the nearly 2000-foot ascent to Jerusalem.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is at the top of the Mount of Olives with His apostles. From this vantage point, they look across the Kidron Valley to the magnificent Temple and all of Jerusalem spread out before them. The apostles marvel at the glorious beauty of the Temple. Its large, perfectly-carved, white, gilded, ashlar stones gleam like the sun. Indeed, it was one of the wonders of the ancient world, so beautiful and majestic.
Jesus challenges their admiration. He shocks them with the admonition that all the glory they see is soon to be destroyed, that not one stone will be left on another, that it will all be thrown down (Mk 13:2). Shocked, the apostles ask Him when this will happen and what signs will precede this awful event.
In what has become known as “MountOlivet discourse,” the Lord warns, in great detail, of the coming destruction of the Temple and indeed of all Jerusalem. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all contain similar descriptions of what Jesus said on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem in her glorious heyday.
Jesus warns of wars and rumors of wars. He speaks of a time in the near future when nation will rise against nation and a terrible conflict will ensue. In effect, He warns His disciples and their followers to have nothing to do with the coming wars. He tells them that when they see Jerusalem being surrounded by an army, they should know that her destruction is at hand. If someone is on a man’s rooftop, he should not to go back into the house to gather his possessions; rather, he should get out immediately. If someone is out in the field, he should not reenter the city of Jerusalem; rather, he should flee to the hills. Jerusalem is doomed for its lack of faith and zealots are picking up the war with the Romans that they are destined to lose (Luke 21, Matt 24, Mark 13).
All of this leads us to today’s Gospel (from the Mount Olivet discourse), which picks up in the middle. Jesus warns of days of tribulation, when the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky!
In reading a text like this, we must not fall prey to an overly literal interpretation. Jesus is using prophetic language, a way of speaking that is meaningful, but not to be understood scientifically or literally. Stars do not actually fall from the sky!
If I were to say, “The world has been turned upside down,” you wouldn’t expect that if you looked back toward Earth from outer space you would see Australia at the top and North America at the bottom. If I were to say, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” you wouldn’t expect to look out your window and see animals coming down from the sky and landing on the front lawn. Although I’m speaking figuratively, you understand what I mean.
So it is with Jesus’ use of prophetic imagery. Speaking of the heavenly luminaries as being darkened or cast down is a prophetic way of saying that all the fixed points, all the ways by which we tell time, know the seasons, navigate, and find perspective will be lost to us! The world as the Jewish people know it, centered on the Temple and rooted in their liturgical calendar, is about to be swept away. To the ancient Jewish people, the Temple was Big Ben. It was both the clock of the liturgical cycle and the great visual center of Israel.
The Lord is teaching them that what they see as the hub of all they do is about to be taken away. The Temple, with all its rituals, its liturgical cycles, and its endless slaughter of animals in sacrifice for sin, is about to be replaced. These ancient rituals merely pointed to Jesus and all that He would do. Jesus is now the Temple; He is also the Lamb Sacrifice. All that the Temple pointed to is fulfilled in Jesus. Thus, the Temple is at an end. Jesus is ushering in a New Covenant.
In the MountOlivet discourse, Jesus prophesies the end of the Temple, which will take place in a biblical 40 years. Sure enough, 40 years later (in A.D. 70), the Roman Army, after having surrounded Jerusalem for a period of 3 ½ months, breached the walls, poured into the city, and destroyed the Temple and all of Jerusalem. In this epic battle, according to Josephus, 1.2 million Jewish people lost their lives. As Jesus prophesied, not one stone was left on another. According to Josephus, so complete was the destruction of Jerusalem, that when the Romans had finished their work it was not clear that the city had ever existed.
So, this is the place of this Gospel, a place of epic significance in the ancient world. An era of 1000 years was coming to an end. The world as the Jewish people knew it was ending. The Temple has never been rebuilt; it has been replaced by a Judaism without sacrifice, a rabbinic, a synagogue system. In 2000 years, despite several attempts, the Jewish Temple has never been rebuilt. Everything Jesus predicted came to pass. This is the historical place and context of today’s Gospel.
What does this mean for us, some 2000 years later? Let’s consider three basic themes.
1. The Perspective of Passing– Toward the end of the Gospel passage, the Lord says, Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Note the definitiveness of this statement: this world will pass away. All of the things that impress us: the might of the powerful, the influence of the popular, the glory of all the glitterati—all of this will pass away.
Indeed, even now it is passing away, its destruction is at hand. Scripture says,
The world in its present form is passing away (1 Cor 7:31).
We have here, no lasting city (Heb 13:14).
Put not your trust in princes, in mortal men in whom there is no hope. Take their breath, they return to clay, and their plans that day come to nothing (Psalm 146:3-4).
Yes, all of the glory, even what seems beautiful and fair, is passing away. Don’t be so impressed by this world’s offerings. All of it—no matter how powerful, influential, or sturdy it may seem—is slated for destruction. It is already passing away.
Some years ago, I was in a museum and in one of the exhibits saw a photograph of a family from about the 1880s. At the bottom of the photo was this inscription: “My family, as it appeared for a brief time last summer”—a poignant caption. I thought of the people in that photo, every one of them now dead. I also knew that the house in front of which the photo was taken had long since been destroyed, replaced by an expanding city district of buildings. All is passing; nothing remains here for long.
Painful though this perspective may be, it is important and healing. It brings with it a string kind of serenity. Like every truth, the truth that all things are passing sets us free. As for man, his days, or the flower of the field are like the grass. The wind blows, and he is gone, and his place never sees him anymore (Psalm 130:15-16). We are reminded not to set down too many roots here so that we are not resentful when this world passes away.
2. The Permanence Proclaimed – The Lord tells us that His words will not pass away. Although the world will pass away, the truth and the Word of God will remain forever.
Too many people root their lives in passing things. The challenge for us is to root our lives in the Word of God, which remains forever. Worldly glories, power, access, and wealth—all these things fade and disappear, but God’s wisdom and His plan remain forever.
Consider, for a moment, the Church. The Lord has said that the forces of Hell would strive to prevail, overpower, and destroy the Church, but He promised that such attempts would never be successful (Matt 16:18). The Church is indefectible, by God’s Word, by His promise. No weapons, no war waged against the Church, will prevail.
In all of this the Lord has been proven correct. The Church has seen the Roman Empire, the Carolingian Empire, the British Empire, the Soviet Socialist Republic, and many others rise to power only to fade and disappear.
How many heresies, how many philosophies have come and gone in the age of the Church? How many have laughed at the Church, announcing that she was passé, that her day was over, and that they would bury her? The Church has buried every one of her undertakers, outlived every one of her critics. Despite every prediction of her demise, she has persevered until this very day. By God’s grace, she has a permanence that outlasts every one of her enemies. She has read the funeral rites over every single prophet of her doom, and she will continue to do so.
In recounting all of this we do not simply gloat that an institution known as the Church has survived. Rather, we announce that the Church is the Bride of Christ and also His Body. The Church cannot be destroyed, not because of human ingenuity but on account of the power and grace of God. She will endure even though at times she will suffer, be ridiculed, or be marginalized. She will outlive every enemy. She will emerge from every persecution. She will never be removed. For the Church is the Body of Christ, the living Word of God. Though the world will pass away, the Word of the Lord will remain forever!
3. The Priority Prescribed – If this world as we know it is passing away, and the Lord, His Kingdom, His Church, and His Word will remain forever, what should be our priority? The Lord says, in effect, that we know very well what our priority should be, but we willfully ignore it.
Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates (Matt 24:32-33).
Yes, we know very well that the Day of Judgment is coming. Too easily, though, we dream on and do not follow the prescribed priority. Wealth, fame, and glory are all uncertain and clearly passing, but death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell are certain and remain forever. We too easy fiddle on with things that are uncertain and passing while neglecting what is certain and eternal. Ridiculous!
It would be foolish to book passage on a sinking ship. Similarly, it is imprudent to make this world and its demands our fundamental priority. It is wise to set our sights on, and lay hold of, the Kingdom that lasts forever.
It is sad that so many spend people their time “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” of this world. It is tragic how much time, effort, and passion we spend on things that pass through our fingers like sand. So much of our effort is expended on furthering our career, amassing wealth, and enlarging our home; so little is spent on improving our spiritual life.
Parents spend more time worrying about what college their children will attend than where they will spend eternity. If their child is failing math, they will go to great lengths to hire tutors to improve his test scores. Never mind that the child barely knows the four Gospels, the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament, or even who Adam and Eve were. Never mind all that; we need to make sure they understand polynomials! It is fine that parents care about math scores and college venues, but how sad it is that eternal things often go unattended.
The greatest duty of parents is to prepare their children for eternity, yet far more time and effort is often spent preparing them for passing things like a career. While education and career are important, eternal life is far more so. A son or daughter may graduate from Harvard Law School and become a famous attorney yet still go to Hell!
What are our priorities? Frankly, most of our priorities are not things that matter to God. Even if we attain the passing things for which we strive, they will all ultimately slip through our fingers. We obsess over passing things like our physical health while neglecting enduring things like our spiritual health. We should care for our bodies, but even more should we care for our souls. If we would expend as much effort looking for a time and place to pray as we do searching for a restaurant for dinner, we would be spiritual heavyweights rather than physically overweight.
In today’s Gospel the Lord stands before the Temple: an impressive building, a symbol of power and of worldly glories. Impressed by it though the Apostles are, the Lord is not impressed with passing things. He counsels us to get our priorities straight and to focus on things that last: His Word, which never passes away, and our ultimate destiny, where we will spend eternity.
We find time for everything else, why not for prayer, Scripture, fellowship in the Church, and the sacraments?
What are your priorities? Be honest, now, be honest.
This world is passing away. Far more essential for us than power, prestige, money, possessions, worldly philosophies, and the latest trends, is the Word of the Lord, which never passes away.
The world will laugh and say that God’s word is out-of-date, old-fashioned, or even hateful, bigoted, and intolerant. In the end, time will prove where wisdom is. Long after our current critics, those who scorn the teachings of the Lord in the Scriptures and the Church, have passed on, we will still be here preaching Christ and Him crucified.
None of this is meant to sound triumphalist. It is simply rooted in a Word of truth that the Lord spoke long ago on a hillside overlooking glorious buildings soon to be reduced to rubble and an age soon to pass away. He said simply this: Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away.
In the end, Jesus wins. I know because I checked the end of the story. You can look it up (Rev 20-23). Get on the winning team. Stop trying to amass a treasure here that you can’t keep anyway.
In the Gospel for Tuesday of the 29th Week, Jesus reminds us to be ready, but what does that mean? Let’s consider four ways that the Lord describes.
READY to WORK – Jesus says, “gird your loins,” which is the ancient equivalent of saying, “roll up your sleeves.” The Lord has a work for us and wants us to get to it. He’s not thinking of a worldly career, but rather things such as raising children in godly fear, pursuing justice, and growing in holiness. The Lord wants us to work in His Kingdom.
We must commit to prayer, Sunday worship, reception of the sacraments, obedience, and holiness. The Lord has a particular work for each of us based on the gifts He has given us. Some can teach, others work well with senior citizens, still others have a good head for business and can provide employment at a just wage. Some are called to priesthood or the religious life. Some are called to suffering and to offer that suffering for the salvation of souls. Some serve in strength, others in weakness. In some way, all are called to serve, to work. So, work with what the Lord gave you to advance His Kingdom. Part of being ready means doing our work.
READ the WORD – The Lord says, “light your lamps.” Taken from a literal standpoint, this refers to getting ready as described in the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). In another sense a lamp is a symbol for Scripture. For example, Your Word, O Lord, is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path (Ps 119:105), We possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:19).
So, from today’s Gospel we can also understand that an essential part of being ready is being rooted and immersed in Scripture and in the teachings of the Church. In this increasingly secular world, so hostile to the faith, our minds are bound to be sullied unless we read Scripture every day. How can our minds be sober and clear if we are inebriated by the world? Being ready means reading Scripture each day and basing our life on it.
REMAIN WATCHFUL – The Lord says, “and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. … Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”
There are different ways to watch and wait. There is the passive watching and waiting such as one might do when waiting for a bus to come, but there are other more active ways such as a waiter might exhibit as he hovers in the background anticipating the needs of the diners. It is this watchful and waiting spirit that the Lord has in mind here. If we have invited guests to our home, we prepare our house and make sure everything is in order as we await their arrival. In a less literal sense, to set our house in order is to sweep clean our soul of sin and all unrighteousness, by God’s grace, and to remove the clutter of worldliness. Regular confession and daily repentance sweep clean the house of our soul; simplifying our life and minimizing worldly attachments de-clutters the house of our soul.
Have you prepared the house of your soul for the Lord’s arrival? If you haven’t, the Lord says that you may experience him as a thief; He is not really a thief, though, because everything belongs to Him. If we have not renounced our worldliness and greed, if we have not de-cluttered our lives worldly attachments, the Lord will come to take back what is His; He will seem a thief to us because we think it is ours. It’s never a good idea to call God, the Lord and owner of all, a thief!
REFLECT on your reWARD – The Lord says, Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them. And should he come in the second or third watch and find them prepared in this way, blessed are those servants.
The Lord is clear that He has a reward for those who are found ready. It is prefigured in the banquet of the Eucharist, wherein the Lord prepares a meal and feeds us. The Lord says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20). And I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:30).
For most of us in the Western world today, food is easy to come by and not given a great deal of thought. In the ancient world this was not so, and one of the pleasures people looked forward to most was a hearty meal in the company of friends and family. The Lord offers us the magnificent blessing of Heaven, where we will be with Him and those whom we love forever in unspeakable joy and peace.
Do you meditate often on Heaven and long for its rewards? It seems strange to me that we speak so little about Heaven. Because it is not a place any one of us has been, it’s hard to fully understand what it will be like, but we should be reflecting often on the joy awaiting us there. Part of being ready to go home to Lord is longing for that day. When we want to do something we eagerly prepare for it; we are motivated and make sacrifices to do it.
Last year a group from my parish traveled to the Holy Land. Many of them saved money for two years through a payment plan to be able to go. In preparation, we gathered together periodically, studying maps and reading Bible stories. On the day of departure many in the group arose early and arrived at the airport hours ahead of time. Eagerly reflecting on Heaven and the joy awaiting us there should be similar. If we desire Heaven we will more naturally get ready and lay aside whatever is necessary to make the passage there.
So, here are four ingredients constituting a recipe for readiness. You’d better set your house in order ’cause he may be comin’ soon!
In the car commercial below every imaginable attack is waged on the driver by various nefarious figures, but the driver just keeps on driving. Similarly, we must just keep on preaching and teaching no matter what foolish or evil things assail us, no matter the obstacles. St. Paul reminds us,
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Timothy 4:1-5).
I’m not quite sure what to make of the woman at the end of the commercial. Let’s just call her Mother Church. Christ and His bride will win! The wicked will wage their war, but in the end, they will turn on one another. Evil cannot endure. Jesus and His bride win! Viva Cristo Rey!
As the end of Advent approaches, the Office of Readings features some final admonitions from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. On the one hand they console; on the other, they challenge us to remain firm.
Isaiah addressed a people in exile who still awaited the first coming of the Lord. Today, these texts speak to us in difficult times when, exiled from Heaven, we await His magnificent Second Coming.
Let’s look at these admonitions from the Lord (Isaiah 46:3-13), which were addressed to three different groups in ancient Israel. However, let’s apply them to three groups in our own times: the faithful remnant, the foolish rebels, and the fainthearted at risk.
To the Faithful Remnant – Hear me, O house of Jacob, all who remain of the house of Israel, my burden since your birth, whom I have carried from your infancy. Even to your old age I am the same, even when your hair is gray I will bear you; It is I who have done this, I who will continue, and I who will carry you to safety.
This is directed to the devoted, to the remnant, to those who remain after the cultural revolution in our times, to those sometimes discouraged and sorrowful over the infidelity of loved ones and of the world around them. To these (often the elderly among us who remember a more faithful even if imperfect time) the Lord first speaks.
In effect, He says, Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Who are the mournful? They are those who see the awful state of God’s people: not glorifying the Lord in their lives, not knowing why they were made, spending themselves on what neither matters nor satisfies. Yes, those who mourn shall be strengthened, and, as their sorrow has motivated them to pray and work for the kingdom, they shall be borne to safety.
Such as these, the faithful remnant, should never forget that God has carried them from the beginning, even in the strength of their prime. Now, reduced by age, they are still carried by the Lord. He has never forgotten them and will carry them to safety; their faith in difficult times will be rewarded.
To The Foolish Rebels – Remember this and bear it well in mind, you rebels; remember the former things, those long ago: I am God, there is no other; I am God, there is none like me. Whom would you compare me with, as an equal, or match me against, as though we were alike? There are those who pour out gold from a purse and weigh out silver on the scales; Then they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god before which they fall down in worship. They lift it to their shoulders to carry; when they set it in place again, it stays, and does not move from the spot. Although they cry out to it, it cannot answer; it delivers no one from distress.
The word “rebel” is from the Latinre (again) + bellum (war). In this context it refers to those who are forever at war with God and His plan for their lives. They foolishly forget His saving deeds. They imagine vain things: that there are other gods or entities that could save them. Even more foolishly, they craft other “gods” that they have to lift upon their shoulders to carry.
Many in our day act in the same way: always at war with God, His Church, and His plan. As G.K. Chesterton once noted, when people stop believing in God, it is not that they will believe in nothing but that they will believe in anything. Chesterton also wrote that when we break God’s big laws, we don’t get liberty; we get small laws. We transfer our trust away from God to false, crafted gods like government, or science, or the market. We hope that they will carry us, but we end up carrying the weight of these gods on our own shoulders. We carry this weight in the form of taxes, debt, and anxiety about everything in our health or environment (demanded by the increasingly politicized scientific and medical communities).
Science, the market, and government are not intrinsically evil, but they are not gods, either. They cannot deliver us from ourselves; only God can do that. To the many who rebelliously and foolishly persist with their “non-gods,” He says, “I am God; there is no other.”
To the Fainthearted at Risk – Listen to me, you fainthearted, you who seem far from the victory of justice: I am bringing on my justice, it is not far off, my salvation shall not tarry; I will put salvation within Zion, and give to Israel my glory. At the beginning I foretell the outcome; in advance, things not yet done. I say that my plan shall stand, I accomplish my every purpose. I call from the east a bird of prey, from a distant land, one to carry out my plan. Yes, I have spoken, I will accomplish it; I have planned it, and I will do it.
Among the faithful there are some who are at risk, who are nearly ready to give up. God encourages them, but also warns that His plan will stand whether or not they endure. Thus there is an implicit warning from Jesus here (and an explicit warning elsewhere) that we must persevere. Jesus says that because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved (Matt 24:12-13).
St. Augustine wrote,[God has] devised a plan, a great and wonderful plan … All this had therefore to be prophesied, foretold, and impressed on us as an event in the future, in order that we might wait for it in faith, and not find it as a sudden and dreadful reality (From a discourse on the psalms by Saint Augustine, bishop (In ps. 109, 1-3: CCL 40, 1601-1603)).
God’s plan will stand whether or not we do. We must stand as well, even when we want to faint or fall back. Our love must not grow cold nor our strength fail. God has triumphed and Satan has lost. We must choose with whom we will stand.
The evidence of the present age does not seem to show this, but as Scripture reminds us,
Therefore, we do not lose heart … So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:16-17).
For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever (1 Jn 2:16-17).
Here, then, are some final instructions from the Lord this Advent, instructions for us who wait for Him: be faithful; the plan will come to pass. Do not be a foolish rebel, nor one of the at-risk fainthearted. Rather, be part of the faithful remnant. St. Paul says, Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved” (Romans 9:27).
The song performed in the clip below is entitled “Lord Help Me to Hold Out.”
The second reading for Sunday Mass speaks to us of “the fire next time” and reminds us of the need to be ready for the coming of the Lord. In this homily I will focus on that reading, in which St. Peter reminds us of the passing that will come for us all one day.
Because Advent is a time to prepare, through prayer and repentance, we do well to heed this sacred teaching and warning. It is echoed by St. John the Baptist, of whom the Gospel today says, A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk 1:2-3).
I. The PATIENCE that is PURPOSEFUL– The text says, Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
Though the Lord seems long-delayed in coming (about 2000 years!), the text tells us that this delay is so that as many of us as possible can be saved.
Notice that the text says that God wants us to come to repentance. God’s patience should not be seen as an excuse for presumption, but, rather, a time for repentance. This is no time to be saying, “Later.” It is a time to be serious about repenting and about preparing to meet the Lord.
The Greek word here translated as repentance is μετάνοιαν (metanoian), and refers not just to better behavior but also to a new mind. Our transformation is not merely external, but internal as well. When what we think changes, so does our behavior. When our thinking is conformed to God’s revealed truth, our priorities, feelings, desires, and decisions all begin to change. Conversion and repentance are the result of becoming a changed and transformed human being with a new mind.
II. The PASSING that is PERILOUS– The text says, But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.
In effect, the text says that God’s gonna set this world on fire one of these days. When He comes it will be
Sudden– The text says that the day of the Lord will come like a thief.
This image is quite a consistent with the one Jesus used for the Day of Judgment. However, this image should not be the future for those of us who wait and watch. St. Paul says, But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief … So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled (1 Thess 5:4,6).
Further, the image of God as a thief is not appropriate for us if we realize that all we have and all we are belongs to Him. For those who are worldly and who claim authority over themselves and their things, God is a thief who comes suddenly and in a hidden way. He overtakes their perceived ownership and possession, putting an end to it. To them, God seems to be a thief, as He “steals” what they consider theirs. They are badly misled.
For those who watch and are prepared (pray God), the Lord comes not to take but to give. He comes to bestow and reward as we inherit His Kingdom.
Shocking– The text speaks of the roaring heavens and of a fire that overwhelms; all will be dissolved by fire.
This image, though shocking, should not alarm us if we are already on fire. At Pentecost, as well as at our individual baptism and confirmation, the Lord lights a fire within us in order to set us on fire, to bring us up to the temperature of glory. For those in the Lord, the “weather” on that day will seem just fine.
The prophet Malachi speaks of the different experiences of the day of the Lord in this way: Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire, says the Lord Almighty. Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. Notice therefore, that for some the Day is burning with wrathful heat, but for the just, it is a sunny day wherein the sun of righteousness will bring warmth and healing (Mal 4:1-3).
An old spiritual refers to this verse saying, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no water but the fire next time.” God wants to get us ready by setting us on fire with His love and grace. If God is a Holy Fire, then we must become fire ourselves in order to endure the day of His coming.
Showing – The text says that all things will be revealed.
It would seem that this fire burns away the masks that many people wear, leaving them to be seen for what they really are. The Lord says, But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken (Matt 12:36). In the Gospel of Luke He says, There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs (Lk 12:2-3).
Even the just may wince at this, for all of us have a past; most would prefer that the past stay in the past. When I have visited “12-Step” meetings, I have sometimes seen people recount what they did when they were drinking. They seem to do so with little shame and much laughter, probably because they are sharing it with others who understand, who have also been set free from the source of the problem. Perhaps, for the just, the “day of disclosing” will be like that.
For those who are unrepentant, though, imagine their embarrassment and fear as their secrets, sins, and past injustices are disclosed to those who are also unforgiving and unmerciful. It’s a bad scene, really.
III. The PRESCRIPTION that is PROCLAIMED– The text says, Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire … Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.
The text asks us to consider what sort of persons we ought to be.
In a word, the answer is “fiery.” God has lit a fire within us to purify and refine us. Hence, on that day when the Lord will judge by fire, we will pass through. Although some final purifications (purgation) may take place, because the fire has been kindled in us and has already been fanned into a flame, we will be purified, not destroyed.
St. Paul describes the just as going through the purgatorial fire that leads to purification rather than destruction in Hell:If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:12-15).
So the prescription for us is to let God set us afire now so as to purify us, making us more holy and devout. The fire of His Holy Spirit is the only thing that can truly prepare us; it will permit us to endure the day of His coming and be spared the “wrath to come” (cf 1 Thess 1:10; Matt 3:7; Romans 5:9; 1 Thess 5:9), when God will judge the world and everything in it by fire.
IV. The PERFECTION that is PROMISED– The text says, But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
This text presents the possibility that the created world will not so much be destroyed as purified by God’s fiery judgment. While it may also signify a total destruction of all that now exists and a replacement of it by new heavens and a new earth, some argue that it means that the created world will instead be renewed rather than destroyed and replaced. This view is supported by other passages (e.g., Isaiah 11 and Romans 8). For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:20-21).
Whatever the answer to the debate, the bottom line is that the new (or renewed) world will be a Heaven wedded to earth; the full righteousness of God will be manifest. Further, we will be without spot or blemish; we will be at peace. Yes, God’s gonna set this world on fire one of these days, Hallelujah! God’s fire purifies that which is holy and burns away all else. God will restore all things in Christ!