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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on December 4, 2005

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Advent II

Sermon preached by

The Rev. Ethan Cole

December 4, 2005

In Advent, the Church has historically contemplated the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. The reading from Second Peter today invites us into that sort of contemplation, proclaiming starkly, "The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and the heavens will pass away with a loud noise." The disturbing baptizer in camel's hair appears today demanding that we, "prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." Most of us are not comfortable doing so, but in this season we are invited into a consideration of the end. Not just our own end, but the final cosmic end of all things.

Robert Frost wrote, "Some say the world will end in fire. Some say in ice." The scientific speculation of modern physicists seems to confirm these two options. Some say that the universe will crunch back together in a reverse of the big bang, ending like it began: in a singularity of fire. Others say that the universe will continue expanding as they can now measure it doing until there is not enough energy to hold two particles together and finally creation is nothing more than a cold fog of low grade radiation. Like Robert Frost, of these two options, most physicists seem to favor fire. But ice is also great and would suffice to bring to an end the cosmos as we know it.

The epistle of Peter seems to favor fire, too. He writes, "the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire." But no matter how you prefer to think of the end, scientists are certain that the conditions that create the possibility of human existence, and any life, and in fact any physical world as we know will eventually come to an end. Just because the final end of the possibility of life is billions of years off, this does not mitigate the fact that there is a final futility to the human endeavor. To the atheistic mind, at best we are trying to create a little island of meaningfulness amid a sea of chaos and meaninglessness which will eventually sweep us all away. As Shakespeare put it, this universe, and the meaning we try to make in it is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

This is the despair of those who without God try to stare into the face of the scientific reality of the universe and its ultimate destination. In fact though, there are few who truly despair, few who truly dare to stare into these cold facts-there are those (many in my generation) who have a vague unsettled sense that "this is all there is" but refuse to face that vague sense head on-so they medicate it with alcohol, drugs, sex, television and video games; or they sink all their energies into some cause, some political or social crusade, in an attempt to carve some meaning out of chaos however fleeting that meaning might be. Finally, there are those who erect a faith system that denies both scientific evidence and common sense so completely that it has little connection with actual reality as you and I experience it.

But, as bleak as this sounds, this is not in fact where most of us-especially Christians-find ourselves. Our vision of the future is strangely characterized by hope. Hope is an intuition that rings true. As sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, observed, parents are not lying when they tell their children who awake from a nightmare that, 'everything's okay.' This is not a denial of the holocaust and hurricane Katrina-but a deep-seated spiritual insight phrased famously by Dame Julian of Norwich as "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."
The prophet Isaiah says (and we are about to sing) "Comfort, O Comfort my people…." How can this be so if the scientists are right and all that is or could be is headed for fire or ice? How can the prophet promise comfort if our world is a small eddy of self-created meaning in an ocean of meaninglessness?
We hear the cry of comfort and believe it because the intuition of hope that is in our hearts is placed there by a living God who is faithful. Because in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and declared them good-because the same God has promised in the prophets a new heavens and a new earth-because this same God is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob (not was, is) and is the God of you and me and those we love who have gone before us, each of us known by name as alive in God in the same way as Abraham is-this is why we hope, trusting in the faithfulness of God.
Advent is a time when we can contemplate the faithfulness of God. It is a time of unfulfilled promises. Comfort. I am coming. It is the faithfulness of God that has brought us this far, and will bring us to the end he has prepared for us. Not the secular apocalypse of a dead universe burned up or frozen, but the end the faithful God promises. From the letter of Peter:

But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for a new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Amen.

 

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2005 St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo New York