Our collect this morning offers a reminder that we have begun our countdown towards a new church year. Two weeks from today is the Sunday of Christ the King, the last Sunday after Pentecost. Three weeks from today is the first Sunday of Advent. Hence the note of urgency we hear in the collect is a timely one.
O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Most collects “collect,” of course. They draw together the emphases of the day and assert them in a concise and memorable form. But this one covers even more ground than usual, from the Incarnation of Jesus to the present period of trial and preparation to the end of time on earth and finally to the triumph in which we “may be made like [Jesus] in his eternal and glorious kingdom.”
There is much here that deserves our attention, but one phrase in particular, “when he comes again with power and great glory,” will take on increasing prominence, until, on the Sunday of Christ the King, our lessons will look forward to the judgment at the end of time, the end of the world as we know it, what one commentator has described as “the final act of the drama that opened last Advent.”
Three years ago, you may recall, this time of the year was notable for one other reason. Even as we were hearing our Advent warnings concerning the end of the world, we were supposed to be approaching a mysterious Mayan deadline as well. If we had really believed the world was about to come to an end, our holiday shopping would have become a heck of a lot easier! Of course, as Christians, we rejected this warning as yet one more of the world’s false alarms.
But ever since Christians began to look forward to the “final act of the drama,” which the Letter to the Hebrews mentions this morning, we have had our own false alarms. In just about every decade, there have been self-appointed prophets who have managed to persuade others that the end is near. They get a few headlines, lead some folks out into the desert to wait, and then—they go back to tending their sheep or to selling used cars. Our Seventh Day Adventist friends trace their denomination to what is called “the great disappointment of 1844.” Convinced by a Baptist preacher that Christ’s return was just around the corner, many followers sold or gave away all that they owned. When the second coming did not take place, they were more than disappointed. They were destitute. I should not make light of such an event, but I cannot avoid mentioning a cartoon on this subject that shows a prophet walking down the street carrying a sign proclaiming, “The end is near.” And behind him walks his young son, who is also carrying a sign. “Are we there yet?”
Such irreverence may get me into a lot of trouble if the world really does end anytime soon, but at least it enables us to look beyond the spectacle of a threatened apocalypse to some advice that may be more useful in the near term. In fact, I have taken the title of this sermon from a question posed by the Southern novelist, Walker Percy. He once said, “The question is not what we should do if the world ends. The question is what we should do if it doesn’t.” And two of our readings this morning offer particularly helpful answers to Dr. Percy’s question.
The first source of advice is the Letter to the Hebrews. We are to have faith that the crucified Christ, who had entered into heaven, “appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” “In these last days,” as our Eucharistic prayer says, we are to have faith that, though we will die, Christ will return “to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” These verses from Hebrews are complicated, with frequent shifts of scene, from the ancient Tabernacle and the ministry of the priests to heaven, and from the sacrifice of Christ in the immediate past to the end of time. But the most important elements in this message are not complicated. We can have trust that when we die, even as we face judgment, Christ will be our advocate, there to save us. If the world doesn’t end anytime soon, there can be no more important promise for us, no more powerful source of reassurance.
But we find even more direct advice in our brief Gospel. As you have heard, Jesus, who is teaching in the Temple, criticizes those who have converted their service there into a quest for status and wealth. "Beware of the scribes,” he says. “[They] like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” They may say long prayers, but they use the funds given out of faith to support their high living. The contrast Jesus offers is that of a poor widow, who gives to the treasury of the Temple all that she has, “all she had to live on.”
In the most obvious sense, of course, she is an example of generosity. The rich give more, but by contrast with the widow they are misers and cheapskates because their gifts do not really diminish their wealth. Even more important is the example of commitment the widow provides. She is not apportioning her resources—or her time—or her heart. She is, as we say of the Cavaliers these days, “all in.”
The young church had its problems and its uncertainties, and among them were the ones our reading suggests. As Biblical scholar George Wesley Buchanan says, “enthusiasm was waning. . . . Some . . . had given up regular attendance at congregational meetings.” Sound familiar? So what is the solution?
As our retreat speakers suggested this weekend, we must make ourselves more aware of the needs of others—in our congregation, to be sure, but also in our places of work, in places where we shop, in gyms and cocktail lounges. Long prayers and flowing robes may have their place—but only if we make our priority the needs of others. Of course, we do this at St. Paul’s. Who needs to receive a delivery of flowers? Who is in the hospital? Who wants communion? Who needs a Stephen Minister? We care for one another—a good thing at a time when many in our broader community have found themselves distracted by lesser priorities. But we can do far more.
A second lesson comes at us from the Epistle. Apparently, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews was aware that some converts had lost hope that the promises that had drawn them to Christianity would come true. Again, the writer’s advice is practical. We must understand the difference between sanctuaries “made by human hands,” however beautiful they may be, and the sanctuary in which Jesus appears before God “on our behalf.”
Taken together, these two lessons suggest that taking an active part in the life of the Christian community is not one of several options we choose from on a Sunday morning—it is a critical expression of who we are and of the strength we seek and of the hopes we share. There are many reasons why we worship together and enjoy coffee hour together and experience the Adult Forum together, but the most important is that by doing so we express who we are. Coming together at St. Paul’s, in happiness and sorrow, in prosperity and in need, in periods of growth and periods of challenge, in spiritual confidence and in spiritual doubt—this is who we are, that is where our truest priorities must lie. But the other side of the coin, as we learned at our retreat, is that we must not only “come in.” We must “go out.” We must seek opportunities to pray for—or with—even non-Christians. We must be alert for opportunities to express our faith in quiet and caring ways, to preach to the world a few people at a time through our example.
We hear in our Epistle a first century letter writer trying to revive discouraged Jewish converts one generation after the time of Jesus. We hear from Jesus in the Gospel the example of a poor widow who gives all she has. Both have offered us good advice as we look ahead to the time that will surely come, as foretold by Jesus, when there are “wars and rumors of wars,” when nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom, when the birthpangs of the “end [that] is still to come” will appear. But in the meantime, the question for most of us will be not what we should do if the world ends, but what we should do if it doesn’t.