Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead: a sermon for Christ the King Sunday, 2016
Our hymn from Lyra Fidelium describes how the Day of Judgement will unfold, and sets it into its larger context.
Stanzas 1 & 2 begin with a remembrance of the Ascension of Christ.
MISTFUL are our waiting eyes, Philippians 3:20, As of them who saw Him rise From that mountain to the skies. Acts 1:10
Then the holy Angels near, Acts 1:10-11, Gave them tidings of good cheer: “Jesus shall again appear.”
Stanza 3 addresses the present day: we are waiting for the return of Christ.
And we wait an Angel’s cry, 1 Thessalonians 4:16, Piercing earthward from the sky: “Now, behold your Lord is nigh!”
Stanzas 4-6 deal with the day of Christ’s return in great Glory (which we discussed last week).
Yet, who shall abide that day, Malachi 3:2, When the judge with dread array Comes for universal sway? 2 Timothy 4:1
Dreadly shall His summons sweep, Romans 14:10, Heard by those who wake or sleep, 1 Thessalonians 4:15, On the height or in the deep:
Heard by Life ‘mid all its bloom, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, Heard by Death in every tomb – Terrible decree of doom. Psalms 96:13 & 98:9
Note, in stanza 6, that doom means judgement, both for good and for bad.
Stanzas 7-9 actually deal with the final judgment itself.
As the fisher parts his prey, Matthew 13:47-48, Casting these from those away, So it shall be on that day.
For the gathered souls who stand, Matthew 13:49, Waiting that supreme command, He shall part on either hand.
To those souls of quick and dead, “Come,” shall be the blessing said, Matthew 25:34, “Go,” shall be the cursing dread. Matthew 25:41
Stanzas 10-11 end the poem with a prayer to be with Jesus.
Lord, dwell in us now, we pray, 2 Corinthians 6:16, That, in the dividing day, We be not the cast away!
So shall we till Thou appear Blend, in longing eye and ear, Titus 2:13, Holy joy with holy fear!
Note that judgment is both a source of fear and of joy for the Christian. It is scary and painful to be confronted with the full scope of our sinfulness, but we take comfort in the knowledge that Christ made the perfect sacrifice that encompasses the full penalty of all our sins. Though we are all guilty, we don’t have to suffer that guilt in eternity!
Two other songs provide examples of how judgment day has been understood throughout history.
The first example is an old Latin hymn called Dies iræ, dies illa. It is at least 700 years old, and could be more than twice that age, depending on who originally wrote it. Its first verses begin:
Day of wrath and doom impending. David’s word with Sibyl’s blending, Heaven and earth in ashes ending.
Oh, what fear man’s bosom rendeth, When from heaven the Judge descendeth, On whose sentence all dependeth.
Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth; Through earth’s sepulchres it ringeth; All before the throne it bringeth.
Death is struck, and nature quaking, All creation is awaking, To its Judge an answer making.
It goes on to describe the opening of the Book of Life, the vast discrepancy between the all-powerful and majestic God and the feeble human sinner, the atonement Christ made on the Cross, our undeserving of that grace, our powerlessness to save ourselves, and a final plea for God’s merciful loving-kindness:
Ah! that day of tears and mourning, From the dust of earth returning Man for judgement must prepare him, Spare, O God, in mercy spare him.
This hymn has left its legacy both in liturgy and in the broader culture of Western music. It is the traditional Sequence Hymn in the Catholic funeral mass, and a version of it exists still in our own hymnal, #468. The tune of the plainchant, also, has become very well known. If you’re a music buff you might recognize it echoed in the works of a number of famous pieces of music: it’s in Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, “Saturn” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets, Gustav Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, several of Rachmaninoff’s symphonies and piano pieces, and has even found its way into the folk music tradition and the occasional TV show or movie soundtrack.
Both in its musical and liturgical use, it is an icon of death and its mournful side. In recent decades it has become more fashionable to downplay the mourning of death in favor of highlighting the future hope in the resurrection. So from our 21st century eyes, Dies iræ seems excessively morbid. It plays up the sense of fear surrounding the day of judgment. Hope is present, but a lot more attention is given to the sense of fear and dread.
My other musical example reveals how the day of judgment has often been politicized by many different people throughout history, including in our own Anglican history. During the English Civil War, the Church of England was accused by the Puritans of being the evil Babylon foretold in the Book of Revelation. And so there are songs, poems, and hymns from that period of history which mix the political situation of the 1640’s with the religious language of the Book of Revelation.
Hail the day so long expected, Hail the year of full release. Zion’s walls are now erected, And her watchmen publish peace. Through our Shiloh’s wide dominion, Hear the trumpet loudly roar, Babylon is fallen to rise no more.
All her merchants stand with wonder, What is this that comes to pass: Murm’ring like the distant thunder, Crying, “Oh alas, alas.” Swell the sound, ye kings and nobles, Priest and people, rich and poor; Babylon is fallen to rise no more.
Blow the trumpet in Mount Zion, Christ shall come a second time; Ruling with a rod of iron All who now as foes combine. Babel’s garments we’ve rejected, And our fellowship is o’er, Babylon is fallen to rise no more.
Almost the entire song is a rehash of chapters 18, 19, and 20 of the book of Revelation. But, just as with some of our examples last week, the image of Christ’s final judgment over creation is brought into a political scenario that felt like a triumph of God’s judgment amidst a sinful people. Or at least, it felt like a triumph to some people. Where the Puritans won a 20-year period of rule over England with Christmas abolished (along with Bishops, the Prayer Book, hymns, and the remnant of church art that survived the Reformation), the Anglicans came out with a martyr of their own: King Charles I who chose to die for the Church and the Crown rather than acknowledge the authority of Puritan usurpers.
Today we face similar temptations. When big events rock the countries and governments that we love or loathe, we are frequently tempted to cloak it in the language of God’s judgment and attribute it as a sign that Christ is about to return. This is where we must be very careful. Jesus did indeed say that the heavens and the earth will be shaken when he returns, so on one hand such big world events should remind us that Christ could come back at any moment. But on the other hand we must remain calm and skeptical: just because we feel like the world is being shaken, it might not seem that way to others. Remember what the Puritans thought was a victory the Anglicans thought was a defeat. We have to remember to escape the trap of thinking inside our own bubbles. “The world” is a lot bigger than “America,” and the problems we face are hardly unique in the course of world history. Certainly, we should use the present time of strife and division to remind us that Christ will come back to bring his final judgment upon us all; but it would be arrogant of us to assume that the present strife and division is somehow the “last straw” that heralds his return.
Perhaps this is why Judgment Day is associated with such doom and gloom.
There’s so much mystery surrounding the “when” and “how” of Christ’s return, and we tend to have an innate fear and awe of the unknown and the unknowable. But we must remember, God is much the same way – He too is beyond our comprehension. We have many authoritative ways to describe him: Trinity, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, love, just, merciful, covenant-keeping, holy, I Am, unchangeable. But there’s also a great “Cloud of Unknowing” that surrounds God; we cannot understand him completely. That’s part of the bliss of communion with God – we will finally have eternity to see him face to face – and it will take an eternity of such gazing to understand him!
And that, I think, is what Judgment Day boils down to for us, as Christians. Yes it’s scary and unknowable, but it will be the beginning of our life with God unhindered by sin. It will be the end of death. It will be when the entire Creation is reordered aright, where the sun and moon won’t outshine Christ, where the darkness of night and the chaos of sea no longer hold sway over us, where we won’t need a Temple building because God will be with all and in all.
All that’s left to us, in the meantime, is to wait. We know that Jesus is the Kyrie Pantokrator – the Lord and Ruler of All – and that he will come back to begin that rule. For those who want to spend eternity getting to know him better, the Day of Judgment will yield eternal bliss. For those who don’t want to spend eternity getting to know God, the Day of Judgment will yield eternal torment – not because God wants to pick on them, but because God will be Ruler of All, and if they aren’t happy with that, they won’t be happy with the New Creation, and forever “kick against the goads” as did Saint Paul before he was converted.
Are you looking forward to being with Christ face to face?
Then take comfort in the final words in the Bible: ““Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”