There is a depth to the season of Advent that makes it my favorite season of the church year besides Easter (what can top a 50 day party?). Themes are layered within this season like a rich and surprising dessert. There’s hope, preparation, expectation, longing; there’s the movement into the darkest part of the year while defying that darkness with light. Advent is also a season to reflect on Last Things. As I preached about last week, “Advent…is a time of preparation for the coming of Jesus—preparation for the celebration of his first coming, as a child in a manger in Bethlehem, and preparation for the day when he comes again in great power and glory to judge the world and rule over the nations.” This dual focus means that Advent has been the traditional time the church reflects on four interrelated themes: Death, Judgement, Hell, and Heaven. Doesn’t that just give you the warm and fuzzies? Nothing makes me want to cozy up near the stocking lined hearth, to watch snowflakes fall, and drink hot cocoa with the vocal stylings of Bing Crosby gently playing in the background like a good discussion about the end of all things. Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but I don’t think these themes are out of place in the weeks leading up to Christmas, especially because the holidays can be a difficult time. For many of us ,they are a time when we poignantly remember those we love who have died. The holidays can be a time when feelings of loneliness and loss can creep up on us very easily and unexpectedly.
So, there is some wisdom and, yes, even healing to found in taking a little bit of time to acknowledge the facts of life in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Death is real and happens to us all, but Christian reflection never ends there. As surely as death is inevitable, God’s love for us is invincible. God and God’s love are not defeated by death.
God’s judgement is also real. Scripture is full of reminders that we must give an account of this life to God. We affirm every Sunday that Christ will return to judge both the living and the dead, and that’s no joke. Perhaps the only things clearer in Scripture than God’s righteousness and justice, however, is God’s indestructible mercy. Our patience and ability to forgive is so disproportionately small compared to God’s capacity for patience and forgiveness, they counted on different orders of magnitude. All the sins, all the evil, of all the world in all times is like a handful of sand compared to ocean of God’s mercy. The Advent themes of judgement and hope, then, are completely compatible when we are talking about our God. Scripture puts it this way: Nothing we do and nothing that is done to us can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:35-39). God will never abandon the living, and neither will God abandon the dead.
Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell: what all this will actually be like, I cannot say. What I can say is that the same love that reaches down to us at Christmas, the love that caused God to come down to earth as a human, is the love that is going to sort out all things at the end of our days, and at the End of Days. And that is good news of glad tidings, indeed.