Sunday, November 29, 2015

advent 1: death

Almighty, eternal, and merciful God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: we pray that as we meditate upon your Word you will lead us deeper into all truth that we may better know and do your will and grow in holiness day by day. Amen

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. During this season it is traditional to preach on the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. And being someone who thinks tradition is important, especially within the Church, we begin today with death.

Death has always been something of a mysterious subject throughout all of human history. How is it that one moment a person can be alive and the next dead? Why can a person sometimes can survive what appears to be catastrophic injuries and recover fully, while something that seems trivial in comparison can carry someone off within moments? How is it that an apparently frail human being can be afflicted with some serious and chronic condition and yet go on and on living for years, while a robust and healthy person can contract what seems to be no more than a bad cold and yet can slip rapidly from his loved ones into the unyielding embrace of death?

And yet, mysterious as this cessation of life has been, mankind has always instinctively known that death is not the end. We know this from archaeology, and the respectful way that even from the earliest times man has treated his dead. Buried with people are often found provisions, tools, weapons, and jewellery; all things that are needed by the living but are of no apparent use to the dead. They speak of an understanding that life continues beyond the grave. And the mythologies of later cultures developed that understanding into stories of what form that life might take – generally seeing it as being a shadowy kind of existence that was grim compared with this life. It matters little that their notions of what life after this life might be like was different; what is important here is that the idea was widespread and spoke of a universal tendency to find irrational the thought that the spark that had brought life to the dust of which we are made could ever be totally extinguished.

The tendency to realise this is, I would suggest, a form of natural revelation, knowledge of how the universe works gained from observing the natural world. It is the same reason that most people, even without exposure to religion, intuitively understand that there must be a God, for without a creator how could anything exist? Or the natural inclination toward morality and realising that certain things are right and certain things are wrong. But it is only through Divine Revelation that man is guided towards being able to take things to the next level, so to speak. Therefore, through natural revelation we know there must be a God; but it is through Divine revelation that we know that he exists in Trinity; natural revelation gives us some sense of morality, but Divine Revelation tells why it is that certain things are right and others wrong, which is that which is wrong does not conform with the Creator's intentions for how those he created should behave; and natural revelation speaks to us of life after death; Divine Revelation gives a vision of what that life will be, which is that it is eternity in heaven with the Creator and the reason for which he created us in the first place.

This knowledge of what life after death is and that it is part of God's plan for us is of unimaginable importance. Without that knowledge the life we have on this earth has very little meaning. What would be the point of life if everything ended in decay; if all we had done would be forgotten shortly after we die in the vast majority of cases and even those handful whose names live on for generations will eventually be lost, for in time all the universe will be gone? What would be the point of struggling to lead a good and moral life if its sole reward was the good opinion of those around you who will themselves soon enough be dead and forgotten?

But the right understanding of death granted us through Divine Revelation prevents that; it prevents us from falling into the trap of thinking life is ultimately meaningless and as a result leading a life that is useless or hedonistic. God created us for a purpose; and that purpose was to love him, to show that love in the manner in which we lead our lives, and at the last be with him. Whether we are, at the last with him, depends on how well, with the help of God's grace, we live out the words of Christ that those who love him are those who hear and do God's will. Whether we have done so, and therefore hear the words on the last day that we are good and faithful servants who are to welcomed into their master's joy, or wicked servants cast out into the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth, will be decided when Jesus returns again to judge the living and the dead. But as judgement is our topic for next week, I will simply end here with the prayer that all will use the time granted them during this Advent season to prepare well for when he comes again and by it not be found wanting on that day.

To the Almighty and Eternal God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to him be all honour and glory, now and unto the ages of ages: Amen. 

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