Lectionary Reading: Luke 21:25-33
I believe the Church in its wisdom put these two things together: the Second Coming of Christ passage, right in the middle of Nativity season, for a reason. Because, there’s a reason we’re supposed to think about them at the same time.
So I want to ask you something. I want you to think about your spouse, ok? Think about your husband. Think about your wife. Or think about your parents. Think about your mom or dad. Think about your children. Get a picture in your mind of your boss, the person you directly report to, the person you work with. Think about the face of your next-door neighbor, whoever lives next door to you. Do you have some different faces in mind right now, some certain human beings in mind? Now, don’t answer out loud, but just in your mind, I want you to answer this question:
How incredibly impressed are you by these people?
When you think of your spouse, do you just almost want to fall down and venerate, and bow before them? When you think of your parents, when you think of your children, do you just go, “Oh my goodness! They’re awesome! . . . They’re just so fantastic! I am so impressed!” When you think about your brother, when you think about your sister, do you just walk around with your jaw dropped, in awe that you get to be in the presence of those people . . . that you actually got to be born in that family, and be with that person that’s your sister or your brother?
Now, just gauging by the looks of faces, I don’t feel like I’m really hitting a chord here. I don’t feel like I’m really . . . (laughter) . . . Nobody really seems to be jumping for joy at what I’m suggesting here.
But I want to ask, “Why not?”
Because here’s what I want to ask you: That little baby in the manger . . . Is that a different person than the one that comes in the clouds with great glory, riding the white horse, with His vesture dipped in blood, and a name written on His thigh, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords”? Are those two different people? No.
Every morning–every Sunday morning–before Liturgy, Subdeacon Ambrose and I–off here in the back, just the two of us–we pray the rosary. And years ago, I used to think that the rosary was just a bunch of Hail Marys in a row, which would be fine–nothing wrong with that–but I thought, “It sounds kind of boring.” And then I found out that’s not what it is at all. That’s just a small piece of it. It’s an important piece, but it’s just a small piece. See, the way the rosary works . . . you start off, you pray the Apostle’s Creed–just like we do in Matins and Vespers every day–so you confess the Christian Faith, the precursor to the Nicene Creed. Then you say three Hail Marys, [then] “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit”–you’re magnifying the Trinity–and then there are these different “mysteries” of the Faith. And there are just different scenes throughout the life of Mary, and throughout the life of Christ. And so one of these, we think about the Annunciation–It’s when the Incarnation took place. Another one is where we think about the Nativity of Christ, where Jesus is born. Another one is the baptism of Christ. Another in the Transfiguration of Christ on the mountaintop. Another one is His institution of the Eucharist. There is the death of Christ, His crucifixion on the cross. There is Jesus, ascending into heaven. There’s the Dormition of Mary. There’s all these different scenes from the lives of Mary and her Son, Jesus Christ. And the way the rosary works is, after you pray the first few prayers, then you announce one of those mysteries. So, for example, you might call out aloud and say, “The birth of Jesus Christ”. And then you say the Lord’s Prayer, and then ten Hail Marys. And while you’re praying those ten Hail Marys, mentally you’re supposed to have a picture in your mind and really be thinking and focusing on the birth of Christ. So you’re praying the Hail Mary while you’re thinking of the birth of Christ.
And then–one of the other mysteries–later through there maybe you say “Glory be to the Father . . .”, and then the next mystery, maybe you call out the Transfiguration of Christ. Then you pray “Our Father . . .” and ten Hail Marys. And the whole time you’re praying those ten Hail Marys, you are thinking about the Transfiguration of Christ. You’re focusing on this time when His glory was revealed to His apostles, to the extent that they could bear it. And then the death of Christ, the resurrection of Christ–same thing, you’re praying the Hail Marys, using the beads to help you count, but while you’re praying the Hail Marys, you’re focusing on the resurrection of Christ. Now, what’s the effect of this?
Well, the Hail Mary prayer itself–we heard the first half of it in our Scripture reading today during Matins, in the book of Luke, in the Gospel there, Gabriel is the one that said, “Hail, O highly favored one”, or “Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with you.“ And later in the same chapter, in the Gospel of Luke, Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” She was talking about Jesus. So, we’re focusing on the Nativity of Christ. We’re focusing on the Incarnation, of Christ becoming Incarnate in the Virgin’s womb. And then with the rest of the Hail Mary prayer, what are we saying? “Holy Mary, mother of God”–by calling her the mother of God we’re acknowledging that Christ is 100% and 100% human; we’re acknowledging the reality of the Incarnation–“Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” So, in this prayer, we’re confessing the Incarnation of the Son of God. We’re confessing that He became Incarnate in the Virgin’s womb, and that He was born of the Virgin Mary. And simultaneously in the rosary you’re thinking of His Transfiguration on the mountaintop.
You’re thinking of Him as a baby, and you’re thinking of Him transfigured.
You’re thinking of Him as a baby, and you’re thinking of Him baptized.
You’re thinking of Him as a baby, and you’re thinking of Him proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven on the Sermon on the Mount.
You’re thinking of Him as a baby–the Word incarnate, the Son of the Virgin Mary–and at the same time you’re thinking of Him rising from the dead and ascending into heaven, in great power and great glory.
And so, it dawned on me, “We’re doing the same thing in the rosary that the Church is doing in the lectionary!” We’re preparing for Nativity, we’re wearing purple because it’s the season of Advent–penitiential season when we look forward to the coming of Christ in the flesh, the first time–and at the same time we’re given a Gospel that focuses on something much later in His life, the Second Coming. And so, at same time, we’re thinking of Christ incarnate as a baby, and at the same time we’re thinking of His Second Coming, when He’s returning with great power, with great glory, with us, and with all the saints at His side, ten thousands upon ten thousands, and thousands of thousands, millions and millions of faithful Christians, millions and millions of faithful angels, all in the royal court of this magnificent King that comes back to clean house. That’s glorious! That’s awesome!
And yet, who knew? Honestly, think about it. 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, how many people were in that town? A lot, because the inn was filled. So, not just the people that lived in Bethlehem, but even all the visitors, the Holiday Inn was full, the Motel 6 was full. They had even paid the extra 10 bucks a room to put a cot out. I mean, it was packed. It was a lot of people! And this woman gives birth. She has a baby. You know that–at the inn when they tried to check in–that said, “no, you can’t be here”, that there were people there in the lobby saying . . . “what’s going on here?” You know that after the baby’s born, the baby cries, and people hear this baby crying. “What’s that? … What’s making all this noise?”
How many people heard the baby Jesus cry after he was born, and thought, “You know what? One of these days, He’s gonna come back and take over this whole place”?
Nobody. Nobody was thinking that. Maybe Mary, maybe the three wise men (or however many wise men there were), but most people just saw a really poor Jewish girl, some (in their eyes) bum of a husband that couldn’t afford a room for her to stay in, and had gotten her knocked up before they were even married. They thought Jesus was a bastard, an illegitimate child. They thought that she was a whore. And, in fact, some of that is still recorded today in the Talmud. Did you know that’s how the Jews look at Mary and Jesus? The Jews who reject Christ cannot believe that he’s God incarnate, or else they would have to become Christians. So, to this day, the Jews believe that Mary was a whore, [and] that Jesus is a bastard. It’s pretty bad! It’s pretty mistaken. And yet, even of the people that didn’t think that badly about them, still they just thought, “This is just another Jewish girl. This is just another baby. I’ve seen it all before.”
But you see, God veils his glory. God likes keeping secrets. In Old Testament Israel, He didn’t come down in the middle of the desert there, and reveal Himself for the whole world to see. No, He said, “Look, I want you to build this Tabernacle. And inside the Tabernacle I want you build this Holy of Holies. And inside the Holy of Holies, where the High Priest can only go once a year . . . that’s where my glory is gonna shine. That’s where the light of the presence of God is gonna radiate between the Cherubim.” And so God is camping out. He’s in a tent among His people. And for many observers, all they see are these two million people just going camping, nomads across the desert. And they see this really big tent in the middle, but they don’t know Who is staying in there. And then maybe they hear, “Well, that’s where we go to worship our God.” But they don’t know what’s in there. They didn’t have Polaroids. They didn’t have digital cameras. They didn’t have YouTube. They didn’t know what was inside. It was the presence of the living God, in a tent, veiled, in a tabernacle.
And in John, chapter 1, it says, “And the Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us.“ He did the same thing again! Except now, instead of inside a tabernacle, it was a tabernacle of human flesh. So here comes God, to Earth, hidden, veiled, in the flesh of baby Jesus, in a manger with animals, in a poor family, in a little backwater town that people thought was worthless. “Can anything good come out of Bethlehem? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?“ [They’re] just little nothin’, backwater towns. They’re nothing . . . kind of like Omaha . . . “just a little town in the middle of southern Illinois, with some weird people that meet on this hill there in Omaha, this brick church, but we don’t know what they’re really doing in there.”
So what’s the point? C.S. Lewis said that you have never met a mere mortal. You want to know about something that is mortal? Well, nations, kingdoms, cultures, arts . . . those things are mortal. They will pass away into dust and to forgetfulness, and compared to us, they are about as valuable as a gnat. But it is immortals that we work with, marry, snub, exploit. It is immortals who we are related to. It is immortals that we live next to. It is immortals that we work with. And every human being that you meet is created in the image of God, and one day will either be such a horror in hell, that if you were to see now what they will be then, you would outdo the worst nightmare that you have ever had. And some of them will be so transformed into the likeness of Christ, so perfected, so glorified, so radiating with the uncreated light of God, that if you were to see now what they will look like then, you yourself would be tempted to fall down and worship. And with every word that you say, with every prayer that you make, with every action that you do or don’t do, you are helping each person in your life towards one of those two ends. You are helping your spouse, your children, your parents, you coworker, your neighbor, to one of those two destinations.
So, let me ask you, knowing what you know now about the Second Coming of Christ, the power, the glory, the radiance, the majesty–If you could get in a DeLorean, and kick it up to 88 miles an hour, and go back 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, and you could look at that little baby and that little poor Jewish girl, with what awe would you look at them? Would you look at them in awe because she’s female? Because she’s Jewish? Because he’s a human baby? No, you’ve seen all of that before. You would look at them in awe because you would know that *that* is the person–right there–that little baby right there–*that* is the person that is gonna be riding the white horse. He is the one that’s gonna come in the clouds with great glory. He is the one! Oh my goodness! He died for me, He instituted the Eucharist, He founded the Church, He’s coming in great glory on the clouds, He’s gonna reign forever as King! He is the one! That is why you would look at Him in awe, not for what you see, but for what you know about what he will become.
So how should you look at your spouse? For what you see, or for what you know that they very well may become?
What should you see when you look in the eyes of your kids? Should you see little snot-nosed brats that don’t always obey, and they hop around like popcorn, and they are loud, and they make noise, and they fight? Or should you see future kings and queens in the glorious presence of God, sitting down with Him in His throne in heaven? If you read the book of Revelation–and you don’t focus so much on the 666, and trying to time everything and figure out when the Second Coming is–if you read the book of Revelation, it says that all of us who are saints, all of us who are faithful to Christ, will reign with Him, and will sit down with Him in His throne as kings and queens. When you look at your little five-year-old kid, and you look at your eight-year-old kid, ten-year-old, whatever age they are, do you see future kings and queens? Do you see royalty?
What about when you look at your dad or your mom? Do you think about how badly they have messed up until now? Do you look at them as, “Well, ok, they’ve done OK, I guess?” Or do you look at your mom and dad as a future king and queen, who will sit with Christ in the heavens, and will sit down with Him in His throne?
Your boss, your coworker . . . what do you see when you look at another human being?
If you can look at little baby Jesus in the manger, and see the Second Coming, then you need to start doing that with every person that you meet in your life. And that’s not just the Christians. A Muslim in the middle-east who just bombed a place and killed a bunch of kids, the rapist on T.V. that they just caught and they just locked up in the prison (and you know how he’s ruined the lives of all these different women and children), that family member that has just completely rattled you and ripped your heart out and really impacted your life in a negative way, that person–that Muslim, that rapist, that family member–they were created in the image of God too. If their heart’s still beating, if they’re still breathing, they still have the opportunity to repent. They still have the opportunity to be conformed to the image of Christ. They may be one of the people that you sit down with in heaven, side by side, with Christ, in His throne. Have you thought about that?
How do you look at your neighbor? What are your priorities? Are your priorities the here and now, and what I see, and what I feel, and what I know from my own past experience? Or is your priority the same as Christ’s, to say the past is past? And all of us–it is God’s will for us to go on to glory, it’s God’s will for all of us to go on to be conformed to the image of Christ. And that will only come about through great suffering and sacrifice, which was done preeminently by Christ himself. But we too are called to be crucified. Some, in our flesh. Others, metaphorically, in our desires, and in the pain that we go through in giving them up in sacrifice.
The apostle Paul–in one of his epistles–he said, “I fill up in my own body what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.“ See, Christ is not the only one who is called to suffer. He has called everyone who would be conformed to His image, every person who would allow themselves to be molded in the image of Christ–that means we also have to be molded into the image of His crucifixion, His sacrifice. He suffered greatly at the hands of those who unfairly hated Him. And if we would be like Christ, that means that–in love–we must suffer greatly at the hands of those whom we love, and [who] do not love us back. We must suffer greatly at the hands of those who hate us unfairly and treat us unfairly. And the more we are willing to become like Christ, the more we ensure that we will be among those who sit with Him in glory, and come with Him at His Second Coming. But additionally, in our sacrifice, in our love, in our patience, in our giving, in our suffering for other people, the more we will help them to make that same journey, the more we will help each one of those people to be conformed to the likeness of Christ.
And that should reset our priorities. That should change the way that we look at other human beings. We need to look at the poorest, smelliest, rudest person that you can think of, and see Christ. You need to look at the human being that upsets you the most in the world, and see the face of God. And then have the love and compassion necessary to pray that God will take that cloth and wet it down and gently wash all the dirt off of that image, until finally, you can clearly see Jesus.
So why has the Church, in its lectionary, given us this picture of the Second Coming of Christ, during the season when we are supposed to be focusing on the birth of Christ?
I think one of the reasons is to tell us to stop looking at things with our temporal, human eyes. To stop having priorities that focus on the here and the now, and what I’ve experienced in my short life. And instead, to say . . . “I see the Second Coming, even when I look at baby Jesus, because I know that’s what He’s destined for. And so, similarly, when I look at my brother in Christ, when I look at my sister, when I look at my children, even when I look at my enemy, I see a human being that is created in the image of God, someone that was created for me to love, someone that was created for me to suffer for and to sacrifice for, even if they don’t return the favor, and to look forward not to what they are now, but to what they may be in glory.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. God is one.
This sermon was preached on Sunday morning, December 9, 2012, at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.