Monday, 28 November 2016

Waiting for the Lord, walking in the light

Sermon preached on 27th November 2016 (Advent Sunday), at Creaton URC. Texts: Matthew 24:36-44 and Isaiah 2:1-5. The sermon refers to my recent blog series on Revelation.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? That’s the beginning of Psalm 13. It’s a question that many people have asked. The world is in a terrible place, Lord – hunger and disaster and violence and economic crisis and political idiocy right and left. Or for other people: my life is in a terrible place, Lord – I have no direction, my beloved family members are suffering, I don’t know what to do. Or for others again: how long do I have to suffer for my faith Lord, being treated so badly by those around me simply because I want to worship you in ways that others don’t like? When Lord? When can we go up your holy mountain and see you turn swords in ploughshares? When will you return to give hope to your people?

And the answer of the gospel writer is: Wake up! Listen! Christ could be coming back at any moment! Be ready, for the Son of Man is returning – 3…2…1… NOW! Or if not now, it could be any time.

The reading from Matthew is powerful and rather disturbing. It clearly belongs to the form of writing that is called apocalyptic, concerned with the end of the world as we know it. Now, I have to tell you of the project I’ve been doing lately. Just over two weeks ago, I felt a strong leading to read through the book of Revelation prior to the start of Advent. There’s a certain church tradition in reading Revelation in the weeks leading up to Advent, and the way the past year has gone, culminating in Donald Trump’s election, it just felt really timely. So I’ve read through either one or two chapters per day, and written a blog post on each day. My wife describes it as “Magnus is reading Revelation, so you don’t have to”.

It’s a deeply weird book. But it’s taught me a lot about apocalyptic writing and about the many things people have written about the Son of Man. Earlier this year I preached on the coming of Son of Man in the book of Daniel, so my head’s been in the end times this year! Two things I want to say about apocalyptic writing.

First, it’s always written by people who are oppressed, and it’s always about their situation and God’s reaction to it. The reason why books like Daniel and Revelation, and passages like this one from Matthew, seem rather wild and over the top, is that the people writing them are hurting. They have great faith in God, but they have no power in the world, and they are being treated like dirt. And their reaction, sometimes, is to tell themselves and each other tales of God’s justice, of their persecutors being brought to book, and of a future time where righteousness prevails. Sometimes that’s for their own people, sometimes it’s for all people. But it’s always a reaction to being downtrodden. Be very suspicious indeed of apocalyptic literature written by those in powerful places – this is why the American evangelicals who obsess on Revelation and write ridiculous fantasies such as the Left Behind books, are so dangerous.

The second thing about apocalyptic literature is this: it’s deeply symbolic. It’s full of strange imagery, numbers, ideas. But it’s not intended to be taken literally. It’s a bit like an optical illusion or an Escher drawing – if you look at it straight on for too long, you go cross-eyed and start to feel a bit queasy. But if you look at it out of the corner of your eye, at an angle, then you can begin to see the point. I’ve spent the past fortnight with images of dragons, angels, lakes of fire, bowls with plagues, horsemen and many other things. They’re not predictive, they’re not literal; they show pictures, offer symbols.

So it is with this passage. I think it’s a mistake to focus on the details too literally. The discussion of Noah is clearly meant as a metaphor. Likewise the parts about one person being left & the other taken. Some take these phrase to suggest that one person will be taken to heaven and the other left on earth to face the coming wrath of God; but it’s just as possible to read them as saying that one will be taken away to some uncertain fate, while the other will continue to faithfully live out their life in God’s sight.

It’s not clear whether the coming of the Son of Man is intended to be a happy event. This is a figure who first appears in the book of Daniel, as one who came on clouds, and was given dominion by God. He pops up in a number of works written between the old and new testaments, appears a number of times in the gospels, and then makes a big appearance in Revelation.

In all these cases, the Son of Man is a figure of power and majesty. He’s a frightening figure. He’s not God-made-man, he’s not the Jesus who lived and walked round with his disciplines and ate fish in Galilee and spoke deep and wise words. The Son of Man is a totally different kind of figure. He’s a figure of great majesty. Jesus has a famous parable in the next chapter of Matthew where the Son of Man comes to judge the righteous from the unrighteous, favouring those who have helped people in need. In a different sort of judgement, Revelation has the Son of Man as a figure with a sword coming out of his mouth, destroying the armies of the beast; and holding a great sickle scything across the earth to destroy evildoers. Church tradition, to some extent backed up by the scriptures, equates the Son of Man with Jesus, but in a very complex way.

So for Jesus to say that the Son of Man will come at an unexpected hour is not a reassuring statement. The word of the year has been the Danish word ‘hygge’, which means warm, friendly, cosy, the feeling you get from low lighting and candles and warm fires against the cold fire, shared with good friends and good food and drink. There have been cookery books and lifestyle magazines and all sorts of bars and restaurants around this idea of hygge. Alas, Northampton’s Bar Hygge only lasted a year, but it’s a comforting concept for cold and dark nights. I like it.

But there is nothing in the least bit hygge about the coming of the Son of Man. It’s not cosy. It’s not comforting. It’s exactly the opposite of mulled wine and sentimental Christmas carols and a baby gurgling in a manger. Truth be told, there’s not much cosy about Jesus’ birth either – the baby born to refugee parents with a taint of immorality around them, in a dirty place surrounded by animals. Christmas carols and nativity scenes tell a lot of lies.

It’s often said that Advent is about both the first and the second coming of Christ, the second coming being the coming of the Son of Man. Neither of them is especially comforting or cosy. Jesus is giving us a warning as much as a promise. Beware! Things could happen very quickly that you don’t expect.

We’ve seen this happen again and again this year. There’s been terrible event upon terrible event – violent extremists with various agendas murdering tourists in Paris, Marseilles and Brussels; nightclubbers in Florida; a British MP in West Yorkshire. All of these came totally unexpectedly. I have my own views on the right and wrong of the EU referendum and the US elections, as I’m sure others do; but the result came as a surprise in both cases, to the groups who won and lost, and the public as a whole. Their effects will take a long time to be felt.

Image: Let Us Beat Swords Into Plowshares, statue at United Nations, New York (via Wikipedia)
The kind of change that Jesus tells us to be ready for, however, is a magnificent kind. It will come with great difficulty and danger. The transition could be unpleasant. But the results could be amazing. Because here is the promise – as Isaiah says,
He will settle disputes among great nations.
They will hammer their swords into plows and their spears into pruning knives.
Nations will never again go to war, never prepare for battle again.
How wonderful a promise that would be. War is a great crime against humanity. I believe with all my heart that war is never appropriate, never justified. We are a century on from the battle of the Somme, where a million died; and the battle of Verdun, where a million more died. Their deaths achieved essentially nothing. I know that some people will justify one war or another because of the actions of an evil general or dictator, and there may be times where it’s hard to see another way. But God can see other ways, and God knows that ultimately war has no purpose. So the promise, in the old song, that “I ain’t gonna study war no more”, is a great one. How we get there, I have no clue. It comes in God’s time, not in our time.

In the book of Revelation, the coming of the Son of Man, and his battles against the great beast and the devil, lead to terrible destruction and suffering on earth. But they ultimately lead to the creation of a new heaven & a new earth, and a holy city, a new Jerusalem, where heaven and earth come together, and God dwells with his people and sees them directly. In that place, we are told, God will wipe away all tears, and there shall be no pain and no death. It’s an amazing vision.

How do we get to that place? We can’t. It is in God’s time. But we are given two exhortations in these passages which show how we can be ready.

The first comes from Isaiah. The last version says of our reading urges the people of Israel: “let us walk in the light which the Lord gives us”. We must walk in God’s light. Do not be people of darkness. We have a God who lights the dark places, who gives sight to the blind, hope to the downtrodden. Israel’s God is the one who liberated them from slavery in Egypt, who liberates us from the things that enslave us. We must walk in that light, following that example, not in the darkness of prejudice and hatred. And we must follow that example, to liberate others and to give hope to this around us who are downtrodden. We are a people of hope.

The second is the urging of Jesus, to ‘stay awake’ or ‘be watchful’  or ‘watch out’. The word indicates alertness, readiness to take action – it’s the state of mind of a night watchman on the walls. In some of the versions of this story in other gospels, Jesus tells us to stay clothed, ready to go when needed.

And it’s this watchfulness that’s the key to Advent for me. It’s so easy to go through our lives being tired, slightly out of it, not fully engaged. Jesus came to shake us up, to wake us up. Imagine what we could do as individuals, as a community, if we were fully awake. If instead of being drugged by the rubbish of consumerism and trash telly and Christmas paraphernalia, we were able to say like Mary did: here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be according to your will. If we were able to be fully alive, to be fully present, to be fully part of our own lives, to be fully aware of the role of God in our lives, to be fully part of the relationships we have with others, to be fully part of the world around us. Think what an amazing thing that could be. Think how much that would let us walk in the light of the Lord.

So be ready. Be alert. Be awake. Because the Son of Man is coming at an hour we do not expect. And he will bring things we do not expect. And we can live in that power, in the wakefulness, in that light of the Lord, right now, in this Advent season, and in all our lives.


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