Look to the Rising Sun
PENTECOSTIDE (LAST SUNDAY BEFORE ADVENT) 25 November 2018
A Sermon Delivered by Subdeacon Steve Wallace
Today is the Sunday before Advent. It is the beginning of the last week of the liturgical year. It is the end of ordinary time. This year our calendar has literally run out of church year. As a matter of fact, we have been at the end of our liturgical calendar for the past three weeks. This is because there are only 23 Sundays of Pentecost in the Western Rite. Because of the dating of Pascha, on some years, such as this year, a very early Lent and Paschaltide means that we will run out of liturgical year before we actually get to the end of our calendar. It seems strange that the Western Rite calendar doesn’t line up the same way each year and is automatic - like Thanksgiving is always on the fourth Thursday of November, or that Christmas is always on December 25, no matter the day of the week. These are fixed and are always easily added to the calendar. The answer is that the early Church sorted this out centuries ago and never meant for it to vary. The Orthodox Church has tried to maintain fidelity to those early decisions made official by church council. We try not to take these things for granted. However, two circumstances in history have affected our liturgical year that the Fathers of the Councils could have never imagined. We use a different secular calendar and the Church in the West has corrupted the dating of Easter. This causes for us in the Orthodox West a gap as it were this year, between the end of the liturgical year and the beginning of Advent, which is always the start of the new liturgical year. When that happens, the Vicariate’s plan is to use up the remaining Sundays of Epiphany that were never observed due to the early start of pre-Lent with Septuagesima back in early February. So in reality, last Sunday was the VI Sunday after Epiphany and the Sunday before that was the V Sunday after Epiphany. Kind of hard to get your mind wrapped around that because we typically think of Ephiphanytide as being only in January and February.
So why is all this important? Why make a big deal out of the end of the liturgical year? What is it about the end that makes us anxious about the proverbial “then what?” What comes next? I think the answer comes in the significance of the concept of the end - what we can expect at the end of time. This is traditionally the subject preached upon the Sunday before Advent. It is very appropriate at this time of year. The Greeks call this Parousia - what happens at the end of time, or the Second Coming of our Lord. Throughout scripture, our Lord tells us we must be prepared, we must be faithful, we must be watchful for the Son of Man will come at a time that we do not know and cannot calculate. Being prepared. This is the reason why all Orthodox Church buildings are always oriented towards the east. We face east when we worship. The altar is found in the east part of our worship space. The word itself - “orient” means having to do with the east. Why is that significant? Matthew’s gospel gives us the main clue. In chapter 24, Jesus himself speaks of the Second Coming - the Parousia. Our Lord says, 13 “But he who endures to the end shall be saved.” 14 “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.” 21 “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until now, nor shall ever be.” 27 “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.” There it is it right there. The Son of Man, Jesus Christ Himself, will come from the east. He tells us so. Jesus’ words are fulfillment of the prophecy given through Malachi. In chapter 4, it says, 1 “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven [the day of prophecy], and all the proud who do evil will be stubble. That day that is coming and shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave neither root nor branch.” 2 “But to you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in his wings.” [Malachi spells it ‘sun’ to signify the rising of the sun in the east.] 2 “And you shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. You shall trample the wicked and they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day that I do this says the Lord of hosts.” Jesus’ words are also a confirmation of the words of the prophet Job. In chapter 38 God asks Job, 12 “Have you commanded the morning since your days began and caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the ends of the earth and the wicked be shaken out of it? It is changed like clay under the seal and is dyed like a garment. From the wicked their light is withheld and their upraised arms are broken.” That first sentence, “Having commanded the morning” is a reference to the coming of the Messiah, the chosen one of God, who will raise all of the dead. Therefore the Church teaches us to build our places of worship so that the people will face east in anticipation of the Parousia - the Second Coming of Christ.
So what is the major thing that happens when Christ returns? In I Thessalonians, chapter 4, St. Paul writes that 16 “the Lord Himself will descend from Heaven with a shout of command; with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.” In John’s gospel, chapter 5, Jesus says 25 “Truly I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, in which all who are in the grave will hear the voice of the Son of God and come forth.” So one of the events of the Parousia is the raising of the dead. But for what purpose? Jesus continues in the same Gospel, 29 “Those who have done good will be raised to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil will be raised to the resurrection of condemnation. I can of myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge, and my judgement is righteous because I do not seek my own will, but the will of the Father who sent me.” In other words, the dead are to be resurrected for judgement. That’s why we bury our dead with their feet toward the east, so that when Christ comes again, they will be raised facing Him who comes from the east. However it is not only the dead that will be judged at the Parousia, but the living as well. So if we are living in expectation of the second coming of Christ, one might ask, “When is He coming? I need to know so that I can be ready.” Jesus also said in the Gospels, “Watch therefore and be ready, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” Jesus is telling us plainly that we will not know the time of His Parousia - His return. Therefore that is why He tells us to watch and be ready all the time.
In the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew, chapter 18, Jesus says, 23 “Therefore the Kingdom of Heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.” The settling of accounts is an analogy of the Parousia - the Second Coming and the Judgement. The coming of Christ may seem ominous and scary, but we know as Orthodox Christians that the fear of God is a good thing. St. Paul also gives us some encouraging words in his second letter to the Corinthians. He says in chapter 4, 14 “We know that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus and will present us with Him, for all things are for your sake; that grace, having spread through the many may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart, even though our outward man (that is our outward body) parish, yet the inward man (our soul and our heart) is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction is but for a moment and is working for us a far more exceeding eternal weight of glory, because we do not look at the things which are seen, but to the things that are not seen. For the things that are seen are temporary, and the things that are unseen are eternal.” How often do we think of our trials and afflictions as “light?” Not very often. Usually we think of them as unbearable. Of course Paul says they are light because he compares them to the eternal weight of glory. Paul makes the point that heaven is far more important than our earthly existence. At the same time though, we have to remember that how we live our lives here on earth determines how we will live our resurrected lives in heaven. Remember Jesus says everybody is going to be raised from the dead. It’s about what kind of life are you going to be raised to for eternity. Some will be raised to life and others will be raised to condemnation. It all depends on if our lives have been a struggle for goodness or if it has been dominated by unrepentant sin and evil.
In conclusion, when St. Paul says we should not look to the temporary things which are seen, he means that our life should not be focused on houses, cars, clothing, money, possessions, and the like. Rather, he instructs us to look at the eternal things that are not seen - things like love, mercy, justice, faith, hope, forgiveness, and repentance. We cannot grab love and put it into a bottle or take faith and put it on a shelf. We cannot buy hope and we cannot sell forgiveness. Therefore let us look to the east and watch for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ and be ready for the judgement unto eternal life.