The Last Judgment

The following is a sermon by H.P. Liddon, appearing in a publication titled Advent in St. Paul’s: Sermons Bearing Chiefly on the Two Comings of Our Lord, Volume I. Rivingtons, London, 1889 [Second Edition, Revised]. As you can see, it is 19th century Anglican preaching, but I think that you may find it very interesting. I take no credit at all for the content; this is strictly Fr. Liddon speaking below.

Sermon II. for the Second Sunday in Advent.  St. Luke xxi. 27.

And then shall they see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Last Sunday we were led by the Gospel for the day to consider the dispositions with which the approach of Jesus Christ is apt to be regarded by the soul of man. Today’s Gospel leads us to consider His second coming to judgment; His second, that is to say, in point of time, but first in the order of spiritual instruction. First, I say, in the order of the soul’s knowledge of truth, and for this reason. it is when God’s judgments are abroad, when they are presented vividly to the contemplation of men, whether in communities or individually, that the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness. (Isa. xxvi. 9.) These judgments are to moral righteousness, at least in part, what miracles are to revealed doctrine: they arrest attention first, and next they imply the reality of that to which they call it. This is the true and highest work of great public calamities, of famines and revolutions, as well as of private suffering, disease, and death; they put us out of heart with that which meets the eye, and bid us plant our foot on some rock beyond the shifting sands of time. And especially when the last and most awful of the Divine judgments is seriously pondered over, men are ready and willing to do this; to take a bona fide and honest survey of their own actual condition before God, and then to consider how the mighty future may be prepared for, by those who live in the Kingdom of the Incarnation; now that the kindness and love of God to-wards man hath appeared, and not by natural works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy, He hath saved us. (Tit. iii. 4, 5.) Thus, in the order of spiritual enlightenment, the study of the Second Advent prepares us for that of the First; the day of the Great Account educates us to appreciate the treasures of love and power which centre in the Manger of Bethlehem.

I.When our Lord speaks of “the Son of Man” coming “in His glory, and all His Holy Angels with Him,” (St. Matt. xxv. 31.) the first question which presents itself is this: Is He referring to an event distinct from any which has yet occurred, and as future to us as it was future to the disciples who listened to Him in the Temple?

Now, here, it must be at once and fully admitted that throughout that most solemn and pathetic series of predictions from which to-day’s Gospel is taken, our Lord is speaking of two distinct events, so simultaneously, that it is at times difficult to say of which He is speaking. The whole discourse took its rise from an allusion of the disciples to the scene around them.

The disciples were expressing their wonder at the great constructive works in the Temple area, which Herod had begun, and which were still in progress; “the buildings of the Temple,” as St. Matthew (St. Matt. xxiv. 1.) has it; the adornments “of goodly stones and gifts,” as St. Luke reports. These structures, so solid, so beautiful, seemed to have been built, as men speak, for eternity; of themselves they seemed to promise and insure a long future of prosperity and splendour. Our Lord knew that the constructions which so impressed His simple followers were raised only to be—almost immediately—destroyed; that, almost before the sculptor’s tool had ceased to echo on the unfinished walls, the ear would detect the tramp of the Roman legions advancing towards the doomed city on their terrible errand of justice and of destruction. “And He said unto them, See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left. here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” (St. Matt. xxiv. 2.) And then when the disciples pressed Him privately for further information as to the time when this catastrophe might be expected to take place, He told them that it would be preceded by the appearance of false Messiahs; by great political troubles; by persecutions of Christians, specially of themselves; by a preaching of the “Gospel of the Kingdom” (St. Matt. xxiv. 14.) throughout the world, for a witness to all nations.”

Were these conditions satisfied before the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus? In a certain sense they were; but only in a modified and imperfect sense. Already our Lord’s thought appears to be passing, or to have passed, from the nearer judgment upon Jerusalem to a sterner and more awful judgment of which it was a shadow.

He has before Him two future events—a nearer and a more distant; not one event. When He is speaking, each of these events is future; and they are, as St. Chrysostom puts it, like two ranges of distant mountains, one beyond another. To the eye of a distant spectator these horizons seem to form a single line. Their real distinctness is only apparent when you approach them, or rather, when you have passed the first of the two ranges. “This generation shall not pass away, till all these things be fulfilled,” (St. Matt. xxiv. 34) could only refer to the nearer judgment. But “the Gospel of the Kingdom must first be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations,” cannot be supposed to have been realized, in its full complement of meaning, even yet. The precept to flee to the mountain (xxiv. 16) districts of Judaea on the approach of the Roman armies, could only refer to the destruction of the Holy City. The prediction that “the powers of heaven should be shaken,” (xxiv. 29) could only be applied to anything that would occur in the Jerusalem of the age of the Caesars—whether its hierarchy or its worship—by very frivolous interpreters. When our Lord said that men would see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with power and great glory, He did not merely mean that they would see in the destruction of Jerusalem a vindication and triumph of the cause of Christ; that His coming in the clouds of heaven was a metaphorical equivalent for the destruction of the city of David amid scenes of fire and blood. If that had been His meaning, it might have been much more simply expressed, and in less misleading terms. If His language is carefully examined, it will be seen that He Himself distinguished the two events, as belonging to distinct periods. He first dwells on the destruction of the city. He then predicts, as a later and an altogether distinct occurrence, His own coming to judgment; although there are also sentences in which He speaks of these events as together embodying that idea of judgment which is common to them both.

Certainly, when our Lord spoke in these solemn terms of Himself, as coming in a cloud, or, as St. Matthew (St. Matt. xxiv. 30) has it, “in the clouds of heaven,” He was appropriating, as belonging to His Person, that vision of the Prophet Daniel in which “One like the Son of Man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. And there was given Him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve Him.” But Daniel (Dan. vii. 13.) says nothing of the judgment; and our Lord, therefore, is not merely applying the Prophet’s language to Himself; He is doing so with reference to a particular occasion which He announces. It is this which would of itself have made it impossible to resolve the allusions to the “clouds” and “dominion” and “glory” into a mere metaphor, descriptive of the spiritual side of great calamities, if indeed our Lord had not, in that great representation of the Last Judgment which is given us by St. Matthew, (Ch. xxv.) and which followed immediately upon this discourse, so expanded what He here refers to more concisely as to make this procedure impossible. That awful picture of the King on His Throne, with all nations before Him, with the hosts of ministering angels, with the impassable chasm between saved and lost, with the twofold sentence, is either in its broad outlines a substantial prediction, or it is a worthless fiction. There is no real room for doubting what the Speaker meant by it; and He will be taken at His word or not, as men believe or do not believe that He is what He claimed to be.

Undoubtedly the destruction of Jerusalem, like earlier judgments, was a shadow of the Great Day. It was to the generation which listened to our Lord and His Apostles what the great judgments upon Assyria and Babylon had been to the hearers of Isaiah and Jeremiah. In the language of those prophets, there is a continual hinting at, a more or less distinct anticipation of, a judgment beyond that immediately in view. With them, also, the frontier-line between the nearer present and a distant future continually becomes indistinct; the horizon constantly widens. Beyond the Eastern metropolis the sin-laden civilization of all ages comes into view; beyond the Rings of Assyria or Babylon, the evil spirit, the prince of the power of the air; beyond the victorious Cyrus and the avenging Persians, we almost discern the form of the true King of Humanity, and of those countless ministers of His who surround His Throne. Every judgment is a forecast of the Last, just as every earlier grace is a type and presentiment of the great Redemption. Every judgment, the greatest as well as the least, is the outcome and expression of an eternal law in the Mind of God; of the law which binds Him, in virtue of His unalterable Nature, to hate moral evil, as being a contradiction of that Nature; to separate it from good; to judge it. In our Lord’s Mind, we may dare to say, the destruction of Jerusalem and the final Day of Doom are two illustrations, on very different scales, of that one and the same aspect of the Being of God which looks towards moral evil. The two judgments melt into each other, because in principle they are one; but they are not the less really distinct from each other either in the language of Christ or in the order of events.

II.The difficulty, which most men probably feel at some time, is how to realize that the Last Judgment will one day certainly take place; as certainly as that we have met in this Cathedral this afternoon. For a man who has any hold whatever upon the Christian Faith, this difficulty exists for the imagination rather than for the reason. if the reason is convinced, first, of the possibility of miracles —and this possibility cannot be denied by a serious believer in a living and moral God—and, secondly, of the truth of the historical fact that Jesus Christ did really rise again from the dead—and St. Paul will tell him that while the fact was in his lifetime a matter of widespread notoriety, it could not be denied without breaking altogether with anything that could be called Christianity ( 1 Cor. xv. 14.) —if, I say, a man be thus convinced that such a miracle as the Resurrection of Christ is historically true, he ought to have no serious difficulty, on the score of reason, in believing the Last Judgment. He has already admitted the truth of the supernatural in an instance of capital importance; he has already admitted, upon adequate evidence, that the Lord Jesus, while upon earth, was not uniformly subject to those laws of life and death which govern us within the range of our present experience. If this fact warrants, as in reason it does warrant, confidence in the Words of Jesus Christ, and confidence in His Power, it obliges us to believe that He will come to judge us. For that He uttered the words of the text is beyond question. The most destructive criticism of the day sees in them, what it condescends to term, one of the really historical elements of the first Gospel. That He had a right to utter them, is proved by the fact of His Resurrection; it set the seal upon His words.

Unless, then, reason takes exception either to the possibility of miracles, and so rejects any serious Theism, or to the truth of Christ’s Resurrection, and so denies the truth of Christianity, reason must perforce admit that the Last Judgment is not a difficulty—at least, for itself.

But it is a difficulty for the imagination; and the imagination has a trick, upon occasions, of making itself look very like reason. The imagination finds it hard to picture to itself this tremendous collapse, this altogether unparalleled catastrophe, after the passage of centuries or of ages, during which the world has pursued its accustomed course. The imagination cannot conceive, amid the well-ordered, prosaic facts of our daily life, so sublime and terrific an interruption, so overwhelming a conclusion of all that we see and are conversant with. That (2 St. Pet. iii. 10.) “the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up,” seemed quite natural to St. Peter, because it had, in effect, been announced by his Master. And when St. Peter foresaw that there would come, in the last times, scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of His coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the Creation,” he dismisses the objection by observing that it transfers to the counsels of the Eternal Mind our petty and cramped ideas about the lapse of time. With Him, in Whose Nature there is no succession of events, Who knows neither present nor future, “one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” ((2 St. Pet. v. 8.) If He seems to delay, it is His mercy, not His forgetfulness or His impotence, that is the reason: He is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to be saved.” (2 St. Pet. iii. 9)

In these days the form of the objection is altered. We do not—at least, with few exceptions— endeavour to decide on God’s movements by anticipation, and then profess ourselves unsatisfied if the event does not, corresponds It is now said that scientific intellect, which might perhaps be more accurately described as scientific imagination, tends more and more decidedly to reject the idea of catastrophes, whether in the physical or the moral world, and to substitute for them the idea of a graduated development. Where a ruder world looked for some personal agencies, our age, we are told, sees the tranquil operation of unchanging laws; and this difference of conception makes the idea of a vast catastrophe, such as is the Judgment, as brought before us in the New Testament, more and more unwelcome to the thought of the time.

And yet, let me ask, is there really any such antagonism as is here assumed between the idea of a catastrophe and the idea of a progressive development? Is it not, at least, possible that a development, whether in external nature or in human life, is the cause of the catastrophes which momentarily arrest it, and give it possibly a new direction?

The outbreak of a volcano, for instance, or a landslip, or one of those vast changes which, at a period, it is difficult to say how remote, upheaved central rocks and, as the geologists tell us, changed the surface of this globe again and again before it was inhabited by man, are examples of such catastrophes. And these catastrophes are each of them the product of a long, unseen process of ferment and preparation. The volcanic lava does not boil for the first time when it breaks forth from the crater; the soil does not disappear in a moment from beneath the topmost stratum, so as to make a landslip possible; and as for those great catastrophes, the history of which is written in the rocks, they can only have been possible after a long preceding travail in the bowels of the earth, which at length expressed itself in a terrific outbreak.

So it is in the moral and social world. There is an old saying that no criminal becomes very bad indeed, quite suddenly. (“Nemo repente fuit turpissimus.”) Nothing may have been remarked in his outward bearing; but there must have been an inward history of the resistance to conscience and spiritual light, that gradually led up to the public crime which has startled the world out of belief in his respectability. In the same way, acts of heroic goodness, which may be observed sometimes in very simple, unpretending people, and which seem to be almost out of place in them, are really the creation of a long secret training by the Holy Spirit, which no human eye has witnessed, but which has at last produced this sublime and unexpected result. So it is in the collective life of man, whether social, political, or national. If ever there was an historical catastrophe, it was the French Revolution, at the end of the last century; the events which began in 1789 are certainly the most remarkable in modern European history. But who supposes that the causes of the French Revolution date from 1789? Every student of history knows that they reach back, some of them into the Middle Ages, most of them to the reign of Louis XIV., all of them, it may be said with certainty, to a time which preceded the accession to the throne of France of the unfortunate king who died in 1793 on the scaffold. They had been working beneath the smooth surface of French life, and at last they took an outward and visible form, and broke up a social fabric which had lasted for a thousand years. It was a vast catastrophe; but it was the result of a still more vast and complex process of development.

Our physical frames afford an illustration of the same law, it has been said that every man in middle life carries about with him the seeds of the disease which, if nothing else anticipates its action, will lay him in his grave. Of course, as we know, the development of this latent germ of death may be traversed and arrested by some other and more powerful cause. A man may be cut off by violence; he may fall a victim to an infection; he may destroy his physical powers by profligate excesses. But, barring these contingencies, he carries within him some constitutional predisposition, some imperfection of a vital organ, some half-concealed but fatal irregularity or weakness which bides its time. It bides its time; and as the years pass it strengthens its hold upon the system. We do not see much difference from day to day, or from week to week; but, looking over longer tracts of time, between this year and that, we see a difference. It bides its time; and at last that up to which it leads, that for which it prepares, has come. It may be the calmest of deaths; so calm that the bystanders cannot say when the last breath is drawn. But, for all that, it is a catastrophe; the cata-strophe which is the product of a long development. That one moment in which we first enter upon another world, and see new sights, and hear new sounds, and find ourselves in a sphere of being utterly distinct from any of which we have had experience, however it may be ushered in, must be to each one of us an unparalleled catastrophe.

Nor will it be otherwise with that mighty event—the Last Judgment—which the Gospel of to-day forces on our notice. Doubtless the date of the Judgment is in the Hands of God; of that day and that hour neither man nor angel knows, but only the Father. (St. Matt. xxiv. 36.) It is one of those times and seasons which He has put in His own power. (Acts i. 7.) And, as the earliest Christians, especially at Thessalonica, found by experience (2 Thess. ii. 2-5) beneath the very eyes of the Apostle, its date cannot be conjectured by man without risk of folly and disappointment. But it is not, therefore, arbitrarily or capriciously fixed in such sense as to have no relation to the collective life of humanity. In this matter, as in all His Providences, the Everlasting Moral Being works by rule. And we may dare to say that the Day of Judgment will have as real a relation to a network of antecedent causes leading up to it, and, indeed, demanding it as necessary to a perfect moral government, as is the case with all the lesser judgments, having this world only for their sphere, which have preceded it. The idea of a “fulness of time” (Gal. iv. 4.) with which we meet in Scripture, as applied to the Incarnation, is applicable to the Judgment. God alone knows when the time is full, when all the necessary probations are over, all the destined siftings and separations are completed, all the measures of iniquity have overflowed,—in a word, when all the process of preceding development is at an end. We can but watch and wait; but if the veil could be removed from our eyes we should see, where now we can at best conjecture. Corresponding to that ceaseless going to and fro before the Throne of those angel ministers of God who do His pleasure, (Ps. ciii. 21.) we should note the gradual ripening and perfecting of good and evil here beneath, the ever-accumulating multitudes of those who will stand on the right hand and on the left, the growth of all the preparations in individuals and in history, which will only be completed, and which will have been completed at the decisive moment when the heavens shall open, and we shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with power and great glory.

III.Brethren, what will be to all of us the significance of that moment? There are many public events of great political importance which take place every year, which affect the destinies of monarchs and of nations, but which do not really touch you and me. We look at them with interest because they are public; but they pass over our heads, and we find that the day after their occurrence is much the same as the day before it. But it will not be so with the Last Judgment. It will come home to every one of us as directly, as closely, as anything can. We shall all see Jesus Christ as He is, in His great Majesty and Glory. He veiled His true dignity when He lived on earth; and it has been hidden in the heights of heaven from mortal sight during the eighteen centuries of Christendom. And so it happens that, comparatively speaking, only a minority think of Him at all, since “the natural man understandeth not the things of the Spirit of God, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Cor. ii. 14.) But when He comes to Judgment, “every eye shall see Him.” (Rev. i. 7.) Jews and Gentiles, Christians and Mussulmans, Buddhists and Pagans, will see Jesus Christ on His Throne of Glory. Those words of David, “The Lord is known by the judgment which He executeth,” (Ps. ix. 16.) will be fulfilled. He will be known in His righteousness and His power; He will teach every soul what He is in Himself, and what He has been to it during the day of life; He will justify His award by a complete revelation of His Mercy and His Justice.

More than this; He will teach us all to know ourselves as we have never known ourselves before. In His awful light we shall see light; (Ps. xxxvi. 9.) we shall see ourselves. All of us, we shall see ourselves; not as we appear to others; not as we appear each to himself, in our self-indulgent thoughts; but as we are. The day for disguises, for false impressions, for half-truths which dare not be more, will have passed—passed beyond recall,—passed for ever.

Those who have really loved and served Jesus Christ, amid misunderstanding and coldness, but with an inward sense of His loving Presence which has made them indifferent to outward things, will then be seen as they are; saved amid imperfections, saved because robed in a Righteousness which is not their own. When Christ, Who is their Life, shall appear, then will they also appear with Him in glory. (Col. iii. 4.) It will be their day of triumph over all the criticisms levelled at their presumed folly; it will be their day of recompense for all the humiliations and sufferings they have undergone.

But not they only will be manifested in the light of Jesus Christ. “God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil.” (Eccles. xii. 14.)

All the sins which have been concealed through shame of discovery, or through hypocrisy; all that has been forgotten, neglected, ignored, will start up before our eyes into vivid reality, as if memory had not grown weak, as if time had not passed, since the moment of commission.  Habits as well as acts, intentions as well as completed efforts, words as well as works, will reappear, each with a photographic distinctness, before our eyes, just as each was present to us at the very moment of conception, or utterance, or action, only illuminated as to its true character by a moral light which nothing can escape.

We shall try to take refuge, perhaps, in the “vain things which charm us most” here and now. But they will then have ceased to charm; they, too, will be judged of by us as they are judged of now by God and His angels. Ambitions, reputations, titles, stations, possessions, which are now so much to us, will be nothing then. These things were really weighed by Jesus Christ when He hung upon the Cross of shame; it was a sentence, the Crucifixion, solemnly passed on the whole outward life of man, as being, relatively to his inward and eternal life, worthless. This is not understood now, except by a small minority; it will be as clear as the daylight to all at the Day of Judgment. “For the day of the Lord of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low; and upon all the cedars of Lebanon, that are high and lifted up, and upon all the oaks of Bashan, and upon all the high mountains, and upon all the hills that are lifted up, and upon every high tower, and upon every fenced wall, and upon all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all pleasant pictures. And the loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be made low; and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day.” (isa. ii. 12-17.)

This side of the judgment will be more readily understood by us in these solemn hours, when the whole nation is watching with breathless suspense at the bedside of the Prince whom it has long learned to look upon as its future Sovereign. (Note: During a part of Dec., 1871, the public anxiety on account of the illness of the Prince of Wales was at its height.) We meet to-day under the shadow of a great anxiety—great in itself and in its possible consequences. But sickness and death know no favourites; in presence of the last realities, we are, all of us—the highest and the lowest—altogether on a level. While we lift up our hearts earnestly to God in prayer for the sufferer, who but yesterday was enjoying all that this world could give, and in whose future his country had so high a stake; while we pray not less fervently for his august mother, our beloved and gracious Sovereign, and for his wife and children, let us not forget to note the lesson which all severe sickness teaches, and which all would have us learn who have to any good purpose been near to death and judgment. All that does not lead to God or come from Him; all that belongs merely to the things and scenes of time; all that cannot, as can God’s grace, and faith, and hope, and love, be truly incorporated with the very life of that soul to which the death of the body is but a surface-incident in its existence—is really nothing, if, indeed, it be not much worse than nothing. The lessons of Judgment which now come to us in the words of Scripture and in the warnings of the Church, year by year, as the dark and wintry days come round in Advent, will be then a most solemn reality. God grant that we may now prepare ourselves for it. As the days pass, the Judgment comes nearer and nearer. As the days pass, we become, for good or evil, more and more like what we shall be seen to be when we are judged. The materials for the Judgment are getting ready, not merely in the courts of Heaven around the Throne, but within the precincts of our several consciences; the Judge’s words will find an echo, for weal or woe, within each one of us. But He Who will judge us then offers to save us now. It is because “we believe that He will come to be our Judge that we therefore pray Him to help us His servants, whom He has redeemed with His precious Blood.” There is still time to be covered with His Robe of Righteousness; there is time to take such fast hold upon His Cross, as to look forward without terror to standing before His Throne.

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About Father D

I am a priest of the Continuing Anglican Church, the continuation of orthodox Anglicanism into the present 21st century. My theology is definitely that of a Reformed Catholic point of view, neither Roman nor Calvinist.
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