Preached May 20, 2012
1 St. Peter 4:7–11
St. John 15:26–16:4a
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today is traditionally called “Expectation Sunday,” the one Sunday between the Ascension of our Lord that occurred this past Thursday and the coming of the Holy Ghost that happens next Sunday on Pentecost, or Whitsunday as we Anglicans usually call it. The term Whitsunday derives from the white robes worn by the newly baptized worn at this time. Thus we are in that brief period of expectation, waiting for the coming of the Holy Ghost after the Ascension, a time in which the disciples were left to wait and watch and pray.
Our Epistle lesson for today begins with 1 Peter 4:7 But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer. The end of all things … what is Peter talking about? Please keep that question in your minds as we turn to consider a part of the account of the Ascension itself, Acts 1:9 And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. What was happening here? Why did it happen in this way?
Let us first remember that Jesus never did anything just because … it was always done for a reason, to glorify God, to show His relation to the Father, to teach, to enable others to believe, etc., but always for a reason. Jesus could have returned to the Father by simply disappearing. It is recorded that He simply appeared in places, indicating that He was able to travel through space and time in supernatural ways, and there is no reason to think He could not have simply disappeared and been gone. But Jesus chose to ascend into Heaven in this way to show us the reality of human bodies made perfect being able to ascend into Heaven itself in order to give us hope. It is the promise to Christ’s followers that they too will one day follow Him where fallen and unredeemed man has no right to go.
The common image that many have of our Lord ascending is something like Superman saying, “up, up, and away,” and streaming away from the earth, but that is not at all what is described in the verse from the Acts of the Apostles just read. Rather it says, and a cloud received him out of their sight. For those who know the Bible, this does not just suggest a clump of water vapor lazily drifting along in the atmosphere, but rather it refers to the Shekinah, the visible sign of the glory of the Lord that occupied the inner sanctuary of the Temple, the “holy of holies,” in Jerusalem. Thus to say that Jesus was received into the cloud is really to say that He was received back into the glory of the Lord, the Shekinah, that had watched over the people of Israel for generations. This is describing the re–unification of the Holy Trinity at that moment.
It is in this entry of Christ, as the great High Priest, into the holy of holies, that finally completes the sacrifice that was begun on Good Friday. As with any sacrifice, the first step is the death of the Victim, and that was accomplished on Good Friday. We remember quite vividly the sorrows of that day! But then Christ is raised from the dead on Easter Day and we tend to think in terms of everything being completed at that point. But we are not really very familiar with the way sacrifice is done. It is not complete, it has no effect until it is offered to God the Father. Thus it is in the Ascension that our great High Priest finally completes the sacrifice by entering into the presence of the Father in the Shekinah, the “holy of holies” not made with human hands but provided by God Himself for the completion of the sacrifice. St. Paul speaks of this when he writes Hebrews 9:11-12 11 But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; 12 Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.
Having completed the sacrifice that is sufficient for the remission of sins forever, Christ is then seated at the right hand of the Father. Thus His work for the salvation of man is completed, and Christ remains with His Father and the Holy Ghost, just as they were when the work of Creation was ended. All that remains now for Christ to do is His coming again at the end of the world to judge the nations.
So let us return to the question, what does it mean when we say the end of all things is at hand? We think we live in a modern world where things are getting better and better by the day. Through technological advances we seem to be able to subdue nature in the most amazing ways. There are many all around us who aggressively insist that there is no God, and that only fools would believe such an fable. Several popular atheist authors such as Richard Dawkins, the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens, and others are very forthright in declaring their advocacy of atheism today, and countless others quietly deny God. But still God forebears.
There are, of course, various ways to organize the history of the world. From a Christian perspective, the really important events, the events that “change the world,” are these:
1) there was the Creation, in which God created man from absolutely nothing at all;
2) there was the Fall, in which man rebelled against God and brought sin into the world;
3) there was the Sacrifice of Christ, including His Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, that redeemed mankind from sin;
4) there will be the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead at the end of time.
In observing Ascension Day, we have just celebrated the beginning of the end of the world. The last phase of the universe began the day that Christ ascended into Heaven, because that is when the countdown began for His return at the end of time. There are no more “major events” left to occur between now and the end of the world. We have no idea when the end will come, and I do not wish to be an alarmist. On the other hand, I do not want to paint a rosy picture that says, “everything is just fine, go back to your knitting,” either.
We all know of various groups that have predicted specific dates for the end of the world. They often sell all their possessions in anticipation of the date, possibly to gather in a particular place such as a mountain top or other symbolic location, and then they wait, only to be disappointed. No, this is not what I want to encourage anyone to do at all.
But rather look again at what St. Peter says: 1 Peter 4:7-8 7 But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer. 8 And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins. There is no doubt but that we live in the end times, but rather only a question about the immediacy of the end. With that last issue completely unknown, we must treat it as immediate, that is, as something that may happen at any moment. Indeed, for any of us as individuals, this is without question true because we have no way to know when our own lives will reach their end, irrespective of whether it be the end of time for all mankind or not. Thus the only rational way to live is to believe that we do indeed live at the end, and to conduct ourselves accordingly. This means, as St. Peter says, to be sober, to watch, and to pray.
To be sober means more than simply not being intoxicated with alcohol or narcotics. It means to have a serious, considered outlook on the world, not given to fantasy, and placing the proper value on everything. We cannot possibly be sober if we do not think of God, of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, of the imminent Second Coming of Christ, as the main considerations in everything we do. All of this is facilitated as we keep watch for Christ’s Second Coming in constant prayer to the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Ghost.
From this short list of major events, you can see that we are clearly in the last phase, and there is only one more major event left to occur. This is why the end of the world has begun; we simply do not know how long it will last.
Let us pray again the Collect for the Day:
O God, the King of glory, who hast exalted thine only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph unto thy kingdom in heaven: We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless: but send to us thine Holy Ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.