Thursday, December 3, 2015

But who may abide the day of His coming?

A Sermon preached at an Evensong on Wednesday Dec 2 at Christ Church Cooperstown, part of a series exploring Handel's Messiah.

You have to admit, the contrast is rather striking. Immediately after Thanksgiving the Christmas cheer already begins to gush forth. It’s the most wonderful time of year, and everybody is on tip toes in expectation for the joyful festival. Santa and Mrs. Claus were escorted on to Main Street here in Cooperstown, accompanied by Princess Elsa from Frozen, on a horse drawn carriage. The lights and bows are already visible all over our village, and yet here at Christ Church we don the violet color of repentance and sing of the coming judgement. The readings for the first week in Advent are not about the sweet baby Jesus asleep in the hay, but of his coming in a cloud with great power and glory amidst roaring waves and cosmic tumult. It is not the sound of merry voices that is heralded but the deep wailing of terrified and remorseful people.

What is the deal? I have to admit I was somewhat puzzled by Advent when I first began attending traditional, liturgical, worship. Sure, I had heard of Advent, we observed it in the Presbyterian church I grew up in by lighting candles each week at Church, but the impression I got was that it was really all about counting down to Christmas day. And it is, of course, at least partly about that. It is the sober time of preparation before the feast, but there is a whole other element that had eluded me before. Advent means coming, it mean awaiting the coming of the Lord not just Christmas. While we remember the Lord’s incarnation and birth among us, we wait for the day in which he promised to return again.

The Advent of the Lord, his coming, or his appearing is something much more dreadful than Santa’s arrival at the Christmas village. The Lord is holy and pure and nothing unclean can stand in his presence. His arrival is a day of reckoning. It cast a flood light across every dark corner of our heart. No secrets are hid from him. Are we ready for that? Are we ready for his appearance?

In keeping with this theme, I would like to say a little about the Scene 2, movements 5-7 of Handel’s Messiah which consist of verses from the third chapter of Malachi about the coming Day of the Lord.  But first let me say something about the story behind the libretto. The music for Messiah was of course composed by Georg Friedrich Handel, but the text was assembled from the Authorized Version of Holy Scripture by Charles Jennens a wealthy English landowner and patron of the arts. Jennen’s wrote his great masterpiece in response to a well known Deist author Anthony Collins. Although Deist believe in a deity of sorts, a remote creator, they deny God’s intervention in human affairs and thus call into question much of holy scripture. Collins, in particular, wrote a book which challenged Jesus’ role as the Messiah. 

One of the traditional view’s most eloquent defenders was Bishop Kidder who’s book A Demonstration of the Messiah served as a basis and inspiration for Jennen’s text which itself demonstrates how Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messiah find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

Movement 5 of Messiah with a text from Haggai, similar to that of our Gospel reading from this Sunday powers of the Heavens being shaken, the sea and dry land with the coming of the Lord. The reference is not here to the Second coming of the Lord, but of his first! It is combined with a verse from Malachi 3,

“The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the Covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts.”

The Gospel of Mark, unlike the other synoptic Gospels, does not begin with the birth of Christ, but the ministry of John the Baptist announcing his imminent coming. This is the “messenger of the Covenant” here referred to. In chapter 4 Malachi is more explicate, “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

John the Baptist came in order to turn the hearts of the people to repentance in order that they would escape the dreadful day of Judgement that was coming. The Lord was soon to appear, the day of judgement was near. We don’t often think of Jesus’ coming as an act of Judgement, but it was. Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem. He came to the Temple in Judgement. Remember how he overturned the tables and cast out the money lenders? That was an enacted sign of the Judgement to come. The wickedness and corruption of the leaders were exposed in the fact that they seized and crucified the Lord of glory. Jesus’ death and resurrection was as much an act of Judgement as it was an act of salvation.

Jesus foretold his own death and resurrection. He also foretold the destruction that was coming upon the Temple. Not one stone would be left on the other. The moon would be turned to blood. The powers of the heaven would be shaken. A terrible time of tribulation would come on the Earth. When we hear these words we can’t help but think of the day when Christ promised he would return again, but we must not ignore their more immediate reference to the time of their original hearers. Jesus said that the generation would not pass away before these things came to pass, and Jesus’ words of judgement were indeed fulfilled in destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. At that time the prophesies of Malachi, John the Baptist, and Jesus Christ were vindicated. The Lord visited the temple with fire and Judgement. He brought the Old Covenant to a conclusion but he made a new Covenant with his Church.

Movement 6 continues Malachi’s prophesy with the ominous question, “But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He Appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire.”   

Jesus told the people to be alert, to pray that they may have strength to escape the judgement and stand before the Son of Man. The coming of the Son of Man, the Lord himself, is Judgement to those who reject him but is the vindication and deliverance of those who put their faith in him. Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

When the Lord appears again in Glory, it will be a day of judgement just as that day was. For those who have put their faith in Christ, it will be a day of Joy when they behold their savior, but for many it will be a day of terror and remorse when they behold the one who they have pierced, the one they rejected, enthroned in Glory.

It will also be a day of cleansing. All that is dross, all that is worthless, all that is contrary to God will be burnt up. Who can abide his coming? When he sends his refiners fire what in you will endure? What has been built upon the foundation that has been laid for you in Christ? Will the Son of man find faith when he returns? Will he find works of righteousness and love? Saint Paul writes,

“Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.”

Brothers and sisters be ready. Cleanse your ways. Prepare your heart for his coming. Pursue those precious things that shall endure on that day. Who shall abide the Day of His coming? Who shall stand when he appeareth?