Archives for posts with tag: eschatology

Sermon for Holy Communion on the Second Sunday of Easter, 28th April 2019

Revelation 1:4-8, Acts 5:27-32, John 20:19-32

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=423140630

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This Sunday our Bible readings take us back vividly to the life of the apostles just after the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Each passage illustrates a different angle. First in the Book of Revelation.

What is your favourite hymn? A little while ago there was a series in the parish magazine – well, actually in the old parish mag, before the beautiful St Mary’s Quarterly came out, of course – anyway, the series was on ‘favourite hymns’. People were invited to pick their favourite hymn and to explain what it was they liked about it. What would my favourite hymn be? One strong contender in my heart would be ‘Lo! He comes with clouds descending’, one of Charles Wesley’s greatest hymns. It’s number 31 in our hymn book, if you want to look it up.

Like many hymns, it contains several sermons and profound theological insights. It’s based on our first lesson, from the Book of Revelation, which says:

Look! 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.

So it is to be. Amen.

 

The hymn covers the same ground – in rather better poetry, I think.

The Book of Revelation is a book about the End Time, a vision of heaven, a vision of the divine. It’s a vision of God, and of Jesus sitting at his right hand, ‘up there’. Since Bishop John Robinson’s great little book ‘Honest to God’, or Don Cupitt’s BBC series called ‘The Sea of Faith’ in the early 1980s, we haven’t tended to see God as a man with a white beard sitting on top of the clouds. Even if we weren’t influenced by Bishop John Robinson or by Don Cupitt, you might remember that according to President Krushchev, when Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, returned to earth, he is supposed to have mentioned that he hadn’t seen God ‘up there’. The great vision in Revelation is a metaphorical one; its truth is not literal. Our reading from it says

Every eye will see him,

even those who pierced him.

‘Those who pierced him.’ We have to be careful not to take early accounts of the passion and resurrection of Jesus as being very anti-Jewish. The Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, the ‘the whole body of the elders of Israel’, did, as a matter of bare facts, cause Jesus to be crucified: but as Jesus himself said, they did not know what they were doing. They were not consciously killing the Son of God. In the early encounter between the Jewish authorities and the disciples which we heard about in the words of Acts chapter 5, if you read a bit more of the chapter after this, you’ll see that it isn’t simply a question of a brush between the Jewish leaders and the apostles, not simply – or at all, actually – a kind of repeat of the persecution which had resulted in Jesus’ death. The full story tells that the High Priest and the Sadducees, motivated by jealousy, arrested the apostles and put them in prison. But ‘an angel of the Lord’ opened the doors of the prison and let them out during the night, so that when they went to get them in the morning, the police reported that they’d found the prison locked, but no apostles inside. They’d gone back to teaching in the Temple. They sent the police and fetched them to appear before the Council – but without using any force, ‘for fear of being stoned by the people’.

Then comes the passage which was our second reading, the exchange between the High Priest’s group, the Sadducees, and Peter. They asked, ‘Why did you ignore our injunction to prevent you from preaching?’ …. And the answer was, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ Then Peter went on to rehearse the crucifixion story. ‘The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you had done to death’, and most important, ‘We are witnesses’. The Sadducees, extraordinarily, wanted to kill them. They couldn’t cope with how popular the gospel message had already become. To the apostles, it must have felt horribly reminiscent of the time immediately before the crucifixion.

But then another Jewish leader, a Pharisee called Gamaliel, a ‘teacher of the law held in high esteem by all the people’, stood up in the Sanhedrin council and said, ‘Keep clear of these men, I tell you; leave them alone. For if this idea of theirs or its execution is of human origin, it will collapse; but if it is from God, you will never be able to put them down, and you risk finding yourselves at war with God.’ These were wise words – and they came as much from a Jewish source as any of the cruel Sadducees’ threats. Both sentiments came from Jewish sources, enlightened, Gamaliel, or cruel, the Sadducees. You can’t really blame the Jews. They really had no idea what the big picture was.

A quick look back, before we move on to consider Doubting Thomas. An ‘angel of the Lord’ organised the apostles’ gaol break. What was this angel? Given that the name ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’ in the original Greek, rather than thinking about angels as being superheroes like Superman, let’s think instead that they could just have been ordinary Christians, doing the will of the Lord. You can understand quite a few of these apparently supernatural terms in natural, normal terms. Most likely it was just ordinary humans who got them out of jail – but in so doing, they were doing the work of God. But of course, if you want to believe in angels as something magical, between gods and mere men, fair enough. I’ve got no proof either way.

Then we do go on to think about Doubting Thomas. The story of Doubting Thomas has strengthened so many people’s faith. It certainly did mine. ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’. That’s us. We haven’t been able to do what Thomas did and verify empirically that they were encountering the risen Jesus. Our understanding, our trust in the whole Gospel, has to have been based on things we ourselves haven’t seen.

The essence of that faith is that Jesus rose from the dead. That’s not just an extraordinary miracle, something to amaze and delight you, which is really what the word ‘miracle’ meant originally, (something to amaze and delight), but also most crucially it means that God, however we understand him to be, the unmoved mover (according to Aristotle), the creator and sustainer, the Almighty, all-powerful, all knowing, He, has a relationship with the human race, with us.

God is bigger and infinitely more detailed than I, certainly, can comprehend. The Bible says, in St John’s Gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying, that whoever has seen him has seen the father (John 14:9). I suppose if you take literally the passages which have Jesus sitting at the right hand of God the Father in heaven, then those glorious images of a heavenly palace above the clouds will resonate with you.

But I think that I am too much a prosaic, matter-of-fact person to believe literally that that is how things are. I’m with Yuri Gagarin. I don’t actually think that God lives above the clouds, or indeed that he can be tied down to a particular time or place. Except of course he can. He can be tied down in a sense to the time and place of Jesus. If we didn’t know about Jesus we wouldn’t know anything at all about God except in purely functional terms, making stuff, creation, and knowing stuff, omniscience, and so on. And the story of Thomas is the most powerful expression of this.

But hang on a minute: if God isn’t somewhere, if there isn’t a sort of Mount Olympus somewhere, with God and his angels and Jesus together on top of the clouds on their thrones in some glorious palace which looks just as we would imagine 20th Century Fox and perhaps one of those great directors like David Lean would portray it, larger-than-life for sure; if that’s not the way it is, and if Jesus was not saying something completely fanciful, when he said that if we have seen him we have seen the father, then can we actually know God a bit more after all?

I wonder whether the angels are a clue. As I said earlier on, when the angel of the Lord came to let St Peter and the apostles out of the gaol, I did just wonder who the angel was. It occurred to me that, just as we say that the Holy Spirit – which is God in one form – just as we say that the Holy Spirit is in our church, is in all of us, and that we are called ‘the body of Christ’, here today as well, so it means that angels, messengers of God, could be ordinary people, just as Jesus was an ordinary human being in one sense.

So we could be angels. Surely we are angels, when the Spirit is at work in us and when we do God’s work. I’ve preached before about saints. I’ve made the point that the saints are all of us Christians. Another hymn:

For all the saints who from their labours rest,

Who thee by faith before the world confessed.

That’s us. We are in that wonderful ‘apostolic succession’, as it’s sometimes called, from the earliest Christians; and thousands and thousands of new Christians are coming forward every minute, who haven’t seen, but yet believe.

Well that’s great. It’s a very major thing – and we could stop it there and go away from this service feeling perhaps that we’d come a little closer to God. But the other major thing that we must consider is that, if we are to be saints and angels, real saints and angels, we must behave like them.

So today in a society where there is a terrible xenophobia, where people say things against immigrants, ignoring the fact that they are human beings like us, where people blame those who go to food banks, for being in some sense feckless or undeserving, where we turn our backs as a country on our relationships and treaties with other countries, where we fail to take our fair share of refugees, where we allow a government ministry to uproot people who have being here working and making their lives among us for decades, and send them to countries which they have not seen for those decades, on the grounds that they are in some way here illegally, where there are so many instances of our society’s meanness and failure properly to provide for those who are less fortunate than ourselves, where we justify it by shrugging our shoulders and saying that it is all very sad but there isn’t enough money to go round; but then, miraculously, the government finds billions for Brexit.

Yes, what I’m saying is political; but it is not intended to be party political. It’s true whether you’re Labour or LibDem or Conservative. The important thing is that we’re Christians. I’m saying that, as Christians, we should have a view on these things. We should call them out; we should stand against them, because we are Christians. We should, if we have a spare room, consider welcoming some refugees to stay with us when they first arrive. We should tell our politicians that it’s not acceptable not to put sprinklers in high rise council blocks like Grenfell Tower, (even though government ministers have promised to do it); tell our politicians it’s not acceptable not to pay proper compensation to the people whose lives have been ruined by the Windrush scandal; it’s not acceptable that thousands of people – last year, over 4,000 – are denied benefits on the grounds that they are fit to work, and then are so ill that they die within three months of that decision. It’s not acceptable that the newspapers should be full of pictures of a poor man, Stephen Smith, so emaciated that his bones are sticking out, so obviously desperately ill, denied benefits, on the ground that he is ‘fit to work’: he died. But not until he had won an appeal in court, as 70% of the appeals are won. [See https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/22/stephen-smith-benefits-system-dying]

This institutional meanness doesn’t just come out of the air. Just as we are saints and angels with the Holy Spirit in us, we have God’s power in us. We are not impotent. We have God’s power to do something about it. We need to speak to our MP, to write letters, to demonstrate on the streets if necessary, to rise up.

So today the message, the Easter message, is that we have seen the Lord. We have seen him at work in our fellow saints and angels. Let us join them, let us take that divine power and use it.

Stephen Smith

Sermon for Mattins and Evensong on the Sunday after Ascension, 17th May 2015
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; John 17:6-19 (Mattins): Isaiah 61; Luke 4:14-21 (Evensong)

What happens after the main man has gone? You know, at that special conference; the Royal visit; when the prizes have been given out and the speeches made; when the curtain has come down after the climactic finale.

Wasn’t it good? Didn’t he speak well? We all felt so inspired, uplifted, even. With this man Jesus, so many wonderful things happened while he was around. Miracles, maybe. Water into wine at a wedding, somebody said. Getting people who had been wheelchair-bound for years to jump up like spring rams. His medical ability even extended to bringing people who had died, back to life. Think of poor old Lazarus. What a wonderful time! What a wonderful man!

You can imagine how the disciples felt. It wasn’t just the Twelve by this time. There were 120 of them in the upper room – it must have been a big place. But even if it was full of the bustle which goes with a crowded room, they felt flat, empty, bereft.

Jesus had disappeared, he had been taken up into the clouds. According to Luke’s account in Acts, two men in white garments had appeared, as the disciples looked up where He seemed to have gone, and mysteriously said that He would come back the same way he had gone. (Acts 1:10-11)

That’s not very helpful. The disciples didn’t know where Jesus had gone, although from some of the things He had said to them, they could infer that He was somehow going back to His Heavenly Father, to the God who had sent him. He had said, for instance, ‘All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.’ (John 17:10-11)

It’s not surprising that mankind has always been very concerned to know about life after death. There are all the myths of Hades, and people coming back from there – think of Orpheus and Eurydice – and about ghosts. For instance, this week I was fortunate enough to see John Neumeier’s famous production of the ballet ‘Giselle’ at the Staatsoper in Hamburg.

Young Duke Albert dresses up as a peasant, (as you do), and falls for a beautiful peasant girl, Giselle. Giselle is, however, rather delicate. Her Mum, who is blind (and therefore more perceptive, like the blind seer Tiresias in Greek tragedy), predicts that it will all end badly. Giselle already had another admirer, a peasant called Hilarion, before Albert burst into her life, and he just happens to find Albert’s sword, unmasks him, and poor Giselle dies of a broken heart.

In Act 2, the setting is Giselle’s grave. Ghosts, ghosts of girls whose fiancés had deserted them before they married, called the Wilis, appear, along with poor Albert and Hilarion, who are bereft at losing Giselle. The Wilis try to trap all men in a dance of death. They get the poor peasant boyfriend, but not Albert. And then the ghost of Giselle appears too. Happily, she seems to forgive Albert for cheating her, and they dance tenderly together. But the dawn breaks, and he is left alone. So sad.

We find it so difficult when we lose someone, when someone dies. Where did they go to? The Greeks believed in a very well-detailed vision of the world after death: of the underworld, and Hades, and of the gods in heaven, on Mount Olympus.

But in contrast with all that detail about ‘heaven’ in literature and mythology, in the case of Jesus there is no detail; apart from references to Jesus ‘sitting at the right hand of God on high’; it’s rather vague. There is some terrific visionary stuff in the Book of Revelation (chapter 21), but no simple factual guide.

But the disciples, whose sense of loss must have been really acute, didn’t get tied down in this eschatology, trying to capture the truth about life after death. They had work to do in the here-and-now. Jesus had given them the vital task of passing on the good news, the revelation of God among mankind. ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who bringeth good tidings’, as the Ascension Day lesson from Isaiah 57 says.

Father Matthew of the Anglican Church of St Thomas Becket in Hamburg, where I was on Thursday, made the congregation smile by saying that we all had beautiful feet. I hear that Godfrey also preached on Ascension Day about feet – whether they were beautiful or not I haven’t heard. According to Fr Matthew, we weren’t meant to stand around gawping, like the disciples looking up to heaven, but to get on with letting the world know the good news of Jesus. And to the extent that we did pass on the good word, our feet would be beautiful.

Father Matthew in Hamburg, and Godfrey here, weren’t offering some chiropodist’s secret treatment for bunions. The message, the message at this time in the Christian year, is that, whatever the Ascension stands for – the coming of the Kingdom of God, the ‘year of the Lord’s favour’, as Isaiah 61 puts it, which Jesus told them was a reference to Him (Luke 4:21) – whatever that really means (as it is surely a mystery), there is work to do. Next week, on Whit Sunday, we will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, the ‘Holy Ghost, the comforter’. But in the meantime, in the few days after Jesus’ ascension before the Spirit came to the disciples, they still had to organise themselves.

So at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, they had to choose someone to replace Judas Iscariot. To replace Judas – as what? As a disciple, an apostle? A disciple, μαθητής, was a student, literally – it’s the same meaning that ‘Taliban’ has, I understand; a student of Jesus the Teacher, the rabbi. Or an ‘apostle’, a man ‘sent out’, which is what αποστολος in Greek means. It was neither of these. Matthias, the new man, was to be a witness, a witness to the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Greek word is μαρτυρος, ‘martyr’. It has come to mean so much more than just a witness. A Christian witness is someone who is prepared to sacrifice everything in order to witness to the Good News.

It’s interesting to see how they chose Matthias. First they prayed for God’s guidance, and then they ‘cast lots’. I’m not sure whether this was voting, as such, or something like drawing the short straw. Either way it reminds us, as I hope we were reminded at the General Election, that important choices go better if we say our prayers first.

Then, having got the team up to full strength again, they were ready. We should be the same. As Christians, there are times when we may feel a bit lost, perhaps drifting a bit in our faith. Jesus isn’t really ‘there’ for us. All we can see is busyness in our lives, ‘stuff’. The main man has gone. We need the charge of the Holy Spirit in our souls.

We should learn from what the early church did. They got on with practical things, making sure that their leadership team was up to strength. It must have been an incredibly tough time for them. Where had Jesus gone? What did it mean that He would come back the same way that He had gone? No-one knew. And yet: and yet the essentials of the Gospel story were in place. Jesus had come among them, teaching and healing the sick. He had died. He had risen again from the dead – not a ghost, but in person, flesh and blood.

It meant that God is involved with mankind, that He cares for us. Nothing, in the whole of human knowledge and experience, can be more important than that. And it isn’t just a stupendous event, something to leave you gawping in amazement, but it is also a life-changer. A lot of our concerns, a lot of the things we think of as being vital for our way of life, can never be the same in the light of this.

We may feel a bit bereft, like the disciples after Jesus had gone, after the Ascension; but we know more than they did. The Holy Spirit will come – it has come. In reality it is here, ‘open and around us’. It may help us to remember this, by our celebrating Whit Sunday and the run up to it – but the Holy Spirit is always there. He is the Advocate, the Comforter. Let us be comforted, and get on with it.

What is ‘it’, that we’re supposed to get on with?

He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord; (Isaiah 61:1)

How many of those things could we – could you – do? To ‘bind up the broken-hearted’ we can certainly do, by supporting, by being there for, people caught up in sadness of one kind or another. Tick that one.

But ‘To proclaim liberty to the captives’ and so on? Tricky one. Are we being asked to release all the people in prisons? Perhaps it implies that we should support Amnesty International, which works to free all those who have been wrongly imprisoned, in Guantanamo, for example.

But again, perhaps if we ask the Lord in prayer to guide us, He might confront us with what is happening in our prisons here in England. More and more people are being incarcerated, but government cuts have meant that there are fewer prison officers. People are being locked up in their cells for longer and longer at a time, and there are fewer opportunities to attend courses and learn skills which offer the prisoners a chance of rehabilitation in society at the end of their sentences. There is surely work for us Christians to do here as well.

So as we look forward to next Sunday, we pray, ‘Come Holy Spirit, our souls inspire’: but we have important things to do meanwhile, even now, so that we really can ‘proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’. With God’s help, it’s up to us.

Sermon for Evensong on the 11th Sunday after Trinity, 31st August 2014, at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon

Acts 18:5 – When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus.

Who was right? Was Jesus the ‘Messiah’, the chosen one of God, the King, enthroned in the kingdom of God, or not? Jews and Moslems both recognise Jesus as a prophet, but neither accepts that Jesus was himself divine. Therefore they have both regarded Christianity as a challenge to the orthodoxy of their true religion. In places, Islam is doing this right now. Before Mohamed came along, the Bible is full of conflicts between the Jews and Jesus, and later between the Jews and the disciples.

On Jesus’ cross, Pilate had a sign fixed up in three languages, ‘This is the king of the Jews’. For the Romans this was ironic. They could not understand why it was so contentious among the Jews for someone like Jesus to be their king. Since it was clear that the Jews did reject Him – demanding His crucifixion and freedom for the acknowledged criminal Barabbas instead – the distinction of kingship was ironic at best.

Jesus himself was clear that He was the Messiah. He did not contradict Peter when Peter worked out for himself that Jesus was the long-awaited King [Matt. 16]. But what was coming was not an insurrection against the Romans, but something much more important.

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’ (Matt.16:21-28).

The ‘Son of Man’ is Jesus’ way of referring to himself, as Messiah, chosen one of God. Jesus repeated what the prophet Daniel had written in the Old Testament [Daniel 7:13], ‘I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought him near before him.’

Was Jesus saying that the end of the world was just about to happen? Because if so, He seems to have been wrong. After all, 2,000 years later, we still pray,

‘Lord of all life,
help us to work together for that day
when your kingdom comes
and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth.’

[Common Worship, Services and Prayers for the Church of England (2000), London, Church House Publishing, p197 – Holy Communion Order One: Eucharistic Prayer E]

I always pray that prayer very fervently. I feel that we need justice and mercy to be seen in all the earth: because, in so many places, there is no justice and mercy.

We have only to think back over the last week’s news. Are Islamic State, ISIS, full of ‘justice and mercy’? Is there justice and mercy for the poor people in Africa with Ebola? Would the children in Rotherham, who suffered abuse for so long and who were not taken seriously by the forces of law and order, did they receive any ‘justice and mercy’?

It doesn’t look as though Jesus got this right, on the face of things. Surely if the Son of Man had come in power with his angels and set up His kingdom, the Kingdom of God, then surely in the words of the Book of Revelation, ‘… there [would] be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither [will] there be any more pain.’ (Rev.21:4)

But, because it was Jesus who said it – and it seems unlikely that he was mistakenly reported, because three of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, have Him saying almost identical words – just because Jesus Himself did say this, it must be reasonable to assume that he wasn’t just mistaken, just because the end of the world didn’t in fact happen during the lifetime of any of His disciples – but rather we ought to look at the possibility that it doesn’t mean what it seems to at first sight. It doesn’t literally mean that Jesus was saying that the Kingdom of God was synonymous with the the end of the world, and that that End Time was about to happen, in the early years of the first century AD.

We have to acknowledge that the early church did think that was what Jesus was saying. St Paul’s teaching about marriage, in 1 Corinthians 7, where he seems to suggest that it’s best to remain celibate, although ‘it is better to marry than to burn’, reflects the idea that the earliest Christians had, that the Apocalypse was really imminent: think of Jesus’ teaching about signs of the end of the world in S. Matthew 24, and parables like the Ten Bridesmaids – ‘Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour’. Of course as well as the early Christians, other prophets of doom have been forecasting the end of the world ever since – and no-one has got it right so far. It must mean something else. One alternative, of course, is that the Jews and the Moslems are right, and Jesus was just a prophet, nothing more.

Even in today’s world, with all its tragedies and strife, is it still possible that the Kingdom of God is with us? I believe that for us too, even 2,000 years after Jesus, heavenly things do still happen.

In among the unheavenly things which I mentioned from the news this week, in the Middle East, in Africa with Ebola, and nearer to home in Yorkshire, I truly had a heavenly experience – yes, ‘heavenly’ really is the right word – when I went to the Proms on Friday. I heard Mahler’s Symphony, No 2, the ‘Resurrection’ he entitled it. In the 5th movement, the mezzo, the soprano and the great chorus of two choirs, over 200 singers, sing:

Oh believe, my heart, oh believe:
O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube

Oh believe, my heart, oh believe:
nothing is lost for thee!

Oh believe, thou wert not born in vain,
neither hast thou vainly lived, nor suffered!

Whatsoever is created must also pass away!
Whatsoever has passed away, must rise again! [Must rise again!]
Cease thy trembling!
Prepare thyself to live!

[From ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’: Friedrich Klopstock (1724-1803) and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), translated by Ron Isted]

Imagine what an uplifting, amazing moment it was. Huge forces – the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, with 65 string players, 26 brass players, 17 woodwinds, 7 percussionists, the mighty Willis organ of the Royal Albert Hall, and two choirs with over 200 choral singers as well as the two soloists: and in the audience a full house, a complete sell-out, all 6,000 seats and promenade spaces taken.

And they raised the roof. Resurrection. It felt as though it was really happening there. Wonderful. Suddenly it gave me a clue about Jesus’ really being the Messiah, the King.

Resurrection, Jesus’ resurrection, was the coronation, as it were, of Jesus coming into His kingdom. The disciples did live to see it. Indeed they didn’t ‘taste death’ beforehand. In a real sense, the King had arrived. His resurrection was his coronation.

If it had been the end, the end of everything, then there would be nothing more to say. But it wasn’t the end – and clearly Jesus’ coming into His kingdom wasn’t a cataclysmic revolution. The perfect world pictured in the Book of Revelation didn’t miraculously come about.

We must remember what St Paul said, in Romans chapter 7. ‘The good which I want to do, I fail to do; but what I do is the wrong which is against my will.’ [Rom 7:18, NEB]. Even that saint, Saint Paul, fell prey to temptation.

That was because God has not abolished good and evil. God’s kingdom on earth is like any kingdom, in that there are crimes as well as good deeds. God is not a sort of puppet-master who controls all the people, stopping them from doing harm. We believe that God is omnipotent, all-powerful, so He could control everyone, could, theoretically, make us into robots. But He plainly hasn’t done.

Instead He has shown us, by giving us His only Son, that He cares for us. His kingdom is real. Even so, even in God’s kingdom, we still have to choose the right and the good over the bad. We still need to pray; and our prayers are answered.

But we do also have a sense, a belief, as Christians, in a Kingdom of God in the other sense, of a life after death, a spiritual realm at the end of time: strictly beyond our powers to imagine or describe it, but maybe along the lines of the vision in Revelation chapter 21. We can’t say what it is precisely, but we may be able to say what it does – that it takes away pain, sorrow, crying, even death.

God’s kingdom involves an End Time, as well as a Kingdom on earth. In one sense the End Time is ours personally, in our death. In another, there will be, Jesus has taught us, a Day of Reckoning, when, in the words of Matt 16, ‘He will give each man the due reward for what he has done’.

Then at that End Time – and at any time, in fact – we will need to be ready, for Jesus may be there, and He may say to us, ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ [Matt. 25:35f] We know what we have to do. It is the King who has commanded us.

Sermon for Holy Communion at St Mary’s on 1st December 2013, the First Sunday in Advent
Romans 13:11-14, Matt. 24:36-44 – The Thief in the Night

Some of you may know that I have just come back from a visit to the USA, where I enjoyed Thanksgiving with some friends. It’s like a combination of Harvest Festival with Christmas – you eat a massive meal of turkey with all the usual trimmings – and with some things we don’t have, like fresh cranberries instead of cranberry sauce, squash as one of the vegetables, and pecan pie for pudding.

The timing of the meal depends on whether the family you are visiting favours a brisk walk in the park afterwards, playing touch football or watching it – American football, that is. The TV schedule is often influential in the decision concerning the timing of Thanksgiving lunch. Another thing is that you may find that you need to rest your eyes. Somehow there is no need to eat or drink anything more that day!

Thanksgiving is just that, thanksgiving, a season where the Americans give thanks to God for the abundance of good things that they enjoy. It looks back to the hard work of the harvest. It doesn’t look forward to Christmas. It’s not like Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, a blow-out before a time of restraint and fasting.

So in America, on Thursday it was Thanksgiving. I flew back yesterday – and now the season of Advent begins. One is tempted to think that, if one were an American, it ought to be a seamless transition from one season of joy to another. From one turkey dinner to another, at Christmas. Only so many shopping days to Christmas: Christmas parties: starting to think about good resolutions for the New Year. Sit down at the fireside. Happy times.

Even if you can put presents and shopping out of your mind, still at Advent it is wonderful to reflect, to reflect on God with us, how God became incarnate, took on human form, in the birth of a baby in Bethlehem. The deep meaning of Christmas is that it is a sign of the revelation of God to us. We would not know much about God if He had not revealed Himself to us. He was born, he was a human baby – but He was also God, and He showed his divine nature to us – showed it to us in person.

That’s the background to our lessons today. You might think that the Advent time, when the church prepares to commemorate the birth of Jesus, would just be a time of mounting jollifications as a result. Christmas is a happy time, because we are celebrating the tangible evidence that God cares for us. By coming in human form, God shows that He isn’t just the blind watchmaker, setting the world in motion and then not bothering with it again.

But also we have to acknowledge that precisely because of this, it ought to be a time of awe, of reverence, for the majesty of God. Although a baby doesn’t on the face of things, look particularly fearsome, once you fully appreciate what that baby represented, then, indeed as the Wise Men did, you are called, perhaps even feel yourself to be compelled, to show respect, to offer worship.

The lessons set in the Lectionary for today start with Isaiah 2:1-5, which we haven’t read in our service, but which might be a passage for you to read at home after lunch. It is that very familiar passage, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, … that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’. He shall judge between the nations …; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks…’ Isaiah 2.

This time of the Kingdom will be a time of judgment. And St Paul picks up on that in his letter to the Romans. ‘For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.’

And last comes St Matthew’s gospel, recording the words of Jesus himself, rather eerily warning people to be ready for the coming of the Kingdom, as though it would not be unmixed good news. It will come like a thief in the night, unexpectedly. ‘… two will be in the field. One will be taken and the other left’ in Matthew: and the process is compared with Noah’s flood in Romans. This is the end time, the Day of Judgment, the Dies Irae.

At first blush it doesn’t fit such a happy, jolly time as the run-up to Christmas. But traditionally, the church has used this time to reflect on the meaning of God with us, Immanuel, in terms of the Last Things: death, judgment, heaven and hell.

To some extent I think that raises a question what exactly we are doing as we follow the liturgical year. We aren’t literally looking forward to the birth of Jesus – after all, He has already been born. It is a commemoration. We are doing something similar to a serious play. We are acting out a sacred story. By telling the story, we get into it, as indeed actors sometimes say, they get into character.

So we aim, as Christians, to be in character for the Advent drama. That drama is far too awe-inspiring to be just a jolly time. In the time of the Kingdom, the Last Judgement cannot be far away. But St Paul has it right when he says that the impending time, the thing which you must prepare yourself for, is not Doomsday, but ‘salvation’. ‘Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.’ So Advent is sometimes called a ‘penitential time’ in the same way as Lent: but that is rather uneasy. We are looking forward to a happy event, the happy event in the stable in Bethlehem.

So I think that it’s all right to enjoy Advent, all right to look forward happily – as we will do tonight, to sing carols and be merry, during Advent time. But we have to remember that we are at the same time preparing for the end time, whenever it will be. That needs repentance, so that we can be saved. ‘Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light’.