ADVENT 2  (7 Dec 14)

Isaiah 40. 1-11    2 Peter 3.8-15a    Mark 1.1-8

Surely the most famous depiction of the Last Judgement is to be seen on the wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican . Millions go there every year to admire Michelangelo’s stupendous frescoes and the other marvellous paintings in the chapel. In 1508 Michelangelo began the frescoes on the Chapel’s ceiling of the bible stories of the Creation. Twenty years after its completion he began the Last Judgement.

It was an inspired decision to create the fresco of the Last Judgement close to the Creation. The two themes are closely related: the beginning and the end of the Universe. In the first depiction of the Creation there are no human figures. God alone brings the sun and moon, the earth and the sea, into existence. Then the finger of God gives life to recumbent Adam. Next Eve rises from his side to worship the Lord, who stands beside them blessing them like a Priest at a marriage.

By contrast, the Last Judgement is full of figures: saints and sinners, angels and demons, swirling in a great vortex round the majestic figure of Christ descending from high up the fresco, his right arm raised in condemnation. Close beside him the Blessed Mother kneels as she looks with compassion on us sinners. Judgement and mercy are movingly portrayed.

Already we can see expressions of judgment and mercy on the ceiling.  Adam and Eve succumb to Satan’s wiles and instantly are driven from Eden by the seraph with the flaming sword. Their descendants multiply their sin and God is set to destroy the lot with a great flood.  Yet there is a sign of salvation in the ark. Noah and his family and representatives of the species of beasts and birds and even insects are saved.  As Noah offers sacrificial worship to God a rainbow in the sky is a sign of God’s covenant of love and mercy.  

We return to the Last Judgement, to the figure of Christ and notice that he bears in his body the marks of the Passion and Resurrection in his hand and feet and side. His Resurrection and Ascension are closely related to the Last Day. The resurrection anticipates and foreshows the victory over Satan and all evil and promises the salvation of sinners and the reconciliation of humanity with all creation to the Lord its Maker. The Ascension promises that Jesus will come again from heaven where now he reigns. Doom’s Day is the fulfilment of what Christ’s Passion and Resurrection achieved. Those who repent and believe in him will receive his merciful judgement.    

What of us? Where will we stand?

If we truly look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, our hope must be expressed in practical ways now.

First as the Advent collect boldly says we must cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light that in the last day we may rise to the life immortal. That means we must sincerely repent of our sins and purpose to amend our lives. We must love God with our whole hearts and our neighbours as ourselves.

At Mattins this morning we heard a reading from Isaiah. It was the opening words of Handel’s Messiah sung by the tenor solo, ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says your God.’ The prophecy reaches its climax when we hear the full choir for the first time, singing the thrilling words ‘And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’ The prophet was originally addressing the victims of war who had been exiled to Babylon . Now some fifty years after the exile, they hear the wonderful words of Isaiah’s prophecy. ‘You can go home. Get ready.’

To us, exiles, as we are, from our true home with the Lord in heaven, Isaiah’s prophecy has a different meaning but it should be no less thrilling. On the Last Day we want to hear the Lord Jesus say to us ‘You can come home. I have prepared a place for you.’

We don’t know when the call will come. It will be totally unexpected like a thief coming at night to ransack your house. So we should take precautions and always be ready. Don’t put off your confession. Make amends while there is time. Do that good deed while it is fresh in your mind. Let your behaviour be holy and just. Lift up your hearts to the Lord.

Crispin Harrison CR