God's Coming and Judgment
Hypnos was the god of sleep in Greek mythology. The poets told stories about his cavernous palace built by the river of forgetfulness. Son of darkness and brother of death, of all spirits in that pre-Christian world, Hypnos was especially revered. Hypnotism comes from his name, because of his power. Everyone caught up in his spell, great or small, was totally in his possession. The scriptures urge us: “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14). Spiritual sleepiness is our greatest adversary. Like Hypnos in the Greek myths, the world around us does everything it can to put us to sleep. Christ came to world to wake us up.
“Who are you?” The priests and Levites demanded from John. “Are you the Christ?” “I am not.” “Are you Elias?” “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” “No.” They asked all the obvious questions. He was not anyone they were expecting. So what gave John the right to baptize in the desert? John answered finally, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:19-28). He was the King’s messenger.
There is a famous scene in Kenneth Branagh’s film, Henry V. The British army has landed in France. They have fought their way through the country side and press against the final stronghold. With fire and destruction outside his window, the French Monarch, Charles VI, sits in his chamber, quiet and pensive, waiting. The door burst open. The British duke arrives. He is the messenger come to announce France’s judgment. We will not turn back. The King of England is coming. With the same gravity, John the Baptist cried out to the people, “Repent, the Kingdom of God is Near.”
We are awaiting the final Judgment Day. John the Baptist keeps coming up in all our Advent readings. He is a mascot for the season, the herald of Advent. The Duke of England burst into Charles VI’s dark room. In the same way, John the Baptist bursts into our lives in this season. Christ is coming and we are meant to prepare.
Fr. Seraphim Rose, a monk in Northern California, was a prophetic voice in our times. He is often remembered for urging on his brothers, “It’s later than you think! Hasten to do God’s work!” Vigilance is a constant theme in the scriptures.
“The Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and security,’ destruction will come upon them suddenly, like labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thes. 5:2).
It is interesting that St. Peter used the same phrase in his epistle.
“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness” (2 Peter 3:9-11).
Judgment is a hard topic to teach on. Our country has been burnt out enough with sermons of fire and brimstone. Indeed, so many messages of this kind have hurt people. If you read books by atheists you cannot help but feel sorry for them. Most of the time, you can hear their hurt under their words. They grew up with a Christianity without love and mercy. Their rebellion is against an angry God, not always the one true, loving God that we see in Christ. Yet, as easy as it is to teach too much about God’s wrath and judgment, it is also just as easy to throw it all out.
God is coming, and God is the God of judgment. Indeed, God’s coming and God’s judgment are synonymous. “The earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:10). God’s arrival, his very presence in our lives, exposes who we are.
So what do we need to repent from? John the Baptist arrives to prepare us: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:19-28). What do we need to repent from? Most of all, we need to repent from our sleepiness. We think repentance is about all the big things: murder, adultery, anger. Those do not make things any easier, but the “big sins” are a small part of repentance. The real enemy to the human race is Hypnos, lethargy, indifference, forgetfulness of God.
God warns the Jewish people continually “Do not forget.”
“Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments…[Do not] forget the Lord your God and go after other gods” (Deut. 8:10, 19).
Isaiah says it with the gravest warning. “But you who forsake the Lord, Who forget My holy mountain, Who set a table for Fortune, And who fill cups with mixed wine…I will destine you for the sword” (Isaiah 65:11-12).
In other words, our comforts in our lives drug us. Our television shows, our demanding careers and financial need, our pursuit for entertainment and distraction, our “cups filled with mixed wine” — they have a hypnotic affect. They make us spiritual fat and dumb. God wants us to enjoy life. We are meant to cherish and savor all the gifts around us, yet we must be constantly vigilant less they consume us.
What do I need to repent from? This struck me a few months back. We ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness all the time in our Orthodox prayers. Yet, when I pray, “Lord have mercy,” I often feel indifferent or unconcerned. If I am honest with myself, my prayers can often be lip service — saying idle words without meaning or heart. What do I need mercy for? What is the major sin in my life that I need to be saved from?
I do not think I am alone in this. This seems to be part of the times we live in. We are a sleepy people. John the Baptist came to prepare the way for the Lord. He came to wake up a sleepy nation with the splash of cold water. We too need cold water on our faces, to wake up and prepare for the Coming of Christ.
What can we do?
It is all in a silly little ditty that we sing at home with our children, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105).
St. Athanasius taught: “For therein is constant virtue, for those who are illuminated in their minds, and meditate on the divine Scriptures day and night, like the man to whom a blessing is given, as it is written in the sacred Psalms…It is not the sun, or the moon, or the host of those other stars which illumines him, but he glitters with the high effulgence of God over all.”
In a collect from Mass last week, we prayed, “Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life.”
God’s grace is scattered all around us. His healing love pours out to us through the words of Scripture, in the prayers of our services, in the sacraments and in all the life of the Church, the living breath of the Holy Spirit. We have to immerse ourselves in God’s Church and, with effort and time, we can wake up.