November 25, 2018
The Sunday Next before Advent
(Daniel 7:13-14; John 18:33-37)
A good meal. A meaningful conversation. A lovely afternoon in the park. Perfect moments.
That’s what a man named Eugene O’Kelly began to seek after he was diagnosed with brain cancer. At age 53, he seemed to be in excellent health, traveling and working long hours as chairman and chief executive of a giant accounting firm. At one point in his skyrocketing career, he was so determined to impress a potential client that he tracked down the man’s travel schedule and booked the seat next to him on a flight to Australia. He chatted with the guy halfway around the world, landed the account, and then immediately hopped on a flight back to Manhattan.
But then a visit to his doctor revealed that he had an aggressive brain cancer that would kill him in 100 days.
So, what do you do when you receive such devastating news? “I had focused on building and planning for the future,” said Mr. O’Kelly. “Now I would have to learn the true value of the present.”
Being a goal-oriented, Type-A high achiever, he decided to write a book about his experience: Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life. In his book, one learns that O’Kelly is a man of faith who gives us some tremendously valuable advice about preparing for the end of our days. He decides to “unwind” relationships with important people in his life, taking the time to have intentionally final conversations with those who have meant a great deal to him.
He also goes searching for “Perfect Moments” — times of lingering over a fine meal, enjoying a long and deep conversation, taking the time to soak up the beauty of nature over the course of an afternoon. “I marveled at how many Perfect Moments I was having now,” he writes in his memoir.
Eugene O’Kelly didn’t have much time, so he had to get it right. In many ways he did, turning ordinary experiences into Perfect Moments. Then he died, reports The New York Times, just as his doctors predicted.
The end is coming for every one of us, but so often we behave as though we are going to live forever. What does it mean for us to live with the end in mind, and learn the true value of the present?
Our Christian faith is full of reminders that life has a start and a finish, and it is grounded in the conviction that there is meaning in the movement of our existence from beginning to end.
For starters, our church year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, and then moves through celebrations of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus until we get to the last Sunday of the church year, which is today — The Sunday Next before Advent or also known as Christ the King Sunday.
Our Bible is not a random collection of ancient stories, but it moves in a meaningful way from the creation of the world in Genesis to the completion of God’s plan in Revelation. Even the story of our relationship with God has a purposeful progression to it, with God first speaking to us through Old Testament prophets, then coming to us in Jesus Christ, and finally living in us as the Holy Spirit. For Christians, life is never marked by endless cycles of random events — it always moves from start to finish, in accordance with the Master’s Plan.
So what can we say at the end of an awful year of gruesome news? Rapes, murders, wars, insurgencies, massacres, terrorist threats, natural disasters, and not to mention the political mayhem that have been constant headlines.
How do you find purposeful progression in a year marked by such a discouraging news cycle? How do you break out of day-to-day despair and catch sight of a Perfect Moment?
For us, as people of faith, the best way to clarify the present is to focus on the future.
That’s precisely what the Israelites did when they were living as exiles in Babylon roughly 600 years before the birth of Christ. Years before, they and their people had been beaten to a pulp by the Babylonians and either left for dead like a road-kill armadillo, or deported in chains to a new and strange land. Those who now survived in Babylon felt worse than a brown paper bag. They felt bad and sad. So bad and sad that Daniel and his comrades wonder what it means to stay true to the God of Israel in a place so far from the land of Israel, and they struggle to find joy and hope in a time of desperation and despair. “By the rivers of Babylon,” laments Psalm 137, “there we sat down and there we wept …. How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
But Daniel discovers hope for the present by focusing on the end. Lying in bed in Babylon, he has a vision of God, an “Ancient One” who takes his place on a throne that is blazing with fiery flames. God’s clothing is as white as snow, the hair of his head is like pure wool, and a stream of fire flows out from his presence. The court around him sits in judgment, and the divine record books are opened (Daniel 7:9-10). This is what we would call an “apocalyptic vision” — an unveiling or revelation of God at the very end of time.
As you might expect, God quickly renders judgment on the empires of the world, destroying one and leaving the other three powerless (Daniel 7:11-12). But then Daniel sees “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.” A human being appears, and to this son of man God gives “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him .… and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14).
For Daniel, and for all who have faith in God, this is a Perfect Moment.
And here is the point: God is working to bring order out of chaos and victory out of defeat.
No matter how much horror confronts us nightly on CBS, CNN, ABC, NBC, or FOX; no matter how some commentators on these stations can make us smile about our political and social follies; God is working with God’s people, as he did with Daniel, to ensure that his will is done “on earth, as it is in heaven.” It’s an enterprise that’s marching from heaven to earth and from the future to the present.
The exiles in Babylon might have understood Daniel’s son of man to be the angel Michael, since Michael does battle for Israel a little later in the book (Daniel 10). But Christians see in this text, Jesus as the Son of Man, the one who comes at the end of time as “King of kings and Lord of lords,” a rider on a white horse who judges in righteousness and makes war with evil (Revelation 19:11-16). He is “the ruler of the kings of the earth,” according to the book of Revelation. “He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail” (1:4-7).
The Israelite exile in Babylon, the first-century Christian oppressed by the Roman Empire, the 21st-century believer feeling overwhelmed by desperation and despair — for each the message has been and is the same: God is not disinterested. The forces of chaos and cruelty may take an occasional battle, but they cannot win the war, because the Lord of heaven and earth is alive and well and having an ongoing impact on human life. God’s son Jesus has come to us once, and he will come to us again, to wipe the tears from our eyes and establish a new heaven and a new earth. He comes to show us that God desires an everlasting relationship with us, one that cannot be disrupted by mourning or crying or pain … or even death itself (Revelation 21:1-4).
In the end, it’s all about relationships. Relationship with God, and relationship with one another. Eugene O’Kelly sensed this, which is why he spent so much time with friends and family in the last hundred days of his life. “Must the end of life be the worst part?” he wondered. “Can it be made the best?”
This is a good question for each of us, as we face the end of an exceptionally difficult year. Can this challenging time be the best of times? Can we learn the true value of the present, and find perfection in the mundane? Can we turn ordinary experiences into Perfect Moments — moments in which we see the hand of God at work?
Near the end, Eugene O’Kelly arranged times to “unwind” with people who had been important to him over the course of his life. These “unwindings” were intentionally final conversations, held at a house on Lake Tahoe and in Manhattan restaurants, but also in ordinary gardens, by rivers, and in the middle of Central Park. They were his time to experience friendship, frankness and fun, and he planned each one in order to make it as perfect as possible.
We can do the same. Whether we have brain cancer or not, whether we are having good days or not, we can do our best to have quality conversations with family members, friends, colleagues and neighbors. We can work on our relationship with God by regular worship during the season of Advent, and by serving others in the name of Christ. We can look to the future with confidence and anticipation, trusting that our Lord is involved in our lives in an active and ongoing way, always working for healing and restoration and peace.
If we do, we’ll marvel at how many Perfect Moments we can have right now.
Let us pray.
For those who were not able to share in the blessings of abundant food, family, and friends this Thanksgiving, those who are hungry, homeless, or alone, that God may comfort them. We pray to the Lord.
That we may be a sign of God’s loving care to all those in need, especially during the coming winter months when many people will find it difficult to stay warm. We pray to the Lord.
We remember in our prayers those who suffer because the ones they love have died. We pray that they may know the compassion of Christ, who wept with Mary and Martha at the death of Lazarus. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for our police and all those in law enforcement that they have a commitment to truth, honesty and public service and act only to guard and defend those who rely on them for safety and justice. We pray to the Lord.
For world leaders, for miracles of collaboration that they may see in the migrant and the refugee not a problem to be solved but brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected and loved. We pray to the Lord.
That our lives may show that Christ rules our hearts. We pray to the Lord.
We remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Jesus reminds us that our lives are finite and will one day come to an end. We pray for the wisdom to live each day as if it is our last and to treat all we meet as we would wish that we ourselves are met by God, our Father on our Day of Judgment. Loving God, the Alpha and Omega, fill us with a greater desire to bring your kingdom to this Earth. Mold our hearts, sharpen our senses to hear your voice and fill us with your wisdom and grace. Help us create a world where truth and justice find a home. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA