Sermon at St James, Colwall, Advent 2016
Isaiah 2.1-5; Romans 13.11-end; Matthew 24.36-44
To hear the sermon as you read:
The preacher realises he confused the names of the prophets Micah and Amos in his original script and has corrected those errors in this text.
In our readings this morning, we are introduced with a bang to the main theme of Advent and also to what seems – to me at least – its central paradox. Think about those readings, one by one. Let me remind you:
“the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.” That was Isaiah, of course. The author probably wrote that a long time before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the exile of his people in the kingdom of Judah. In those days, the main threat to Judah was from its northern neighbours. Those were the tribes of Israel (they lived in Galilee – can any good thing come from Nazareth in Galilee?!) and of Samaria, and also the peoples of modern day Syria – then as now governed from Damascus. But the decisive defeat and destruction of Judah, when it came, was from the east, from modern day Iraq. The prophet believed that the God he worshipped in Jerusalem would one day be recognised by the tribes of Israel and of Syria, and by their conquerors in Iraq as the one, only and true God, the ultimate ruler and governor of the whole world and indeed of the cosmos. The salvation of Judah would also be the salvation of the whole world: we would recognise God’s rule on earth and the rulers of every nation would troop to Jerusalem to worship that God.
Saul of Tarsus (Greek speakers called him Paulos) shared those beliefs many centuries later. In his day, the world was a much bigger place than Isaiah had known: the empires of Rome and the more distant ones of India and China were known to him, as were those of the ancient civilisations of Africa where Rome could trade but not conquer. All of their rulers would, Paul believed, come to recognise and worship the one true God. The difference between Paul and Isaiah was not just that the two men had different understandings of the size and complexity of the knowable world, but it lay too in Paul’s belief that the salvation for which Isaiah (and Micah, who uses almost identical phrases) had longed was now made real. The birth into the world of God’s anointed one, the Christos [χριστος] or mashiach had changed everything. Even though – in fact, because – God’s Christos [χριστος] had been killed, there was clear evidence that God’s kingdom was moving into its establishment phase. No more looking, no more longing. Here, in Paul’s understanding, was certainty because the resurrection of Jesous [Ιησους] (Jeshua in his mother tongue) and the ongoing power of Jeshua’s spirit was, as he put it, the “first instalment” (2 Cor.1:22) of what is to come.
With all this background from Isaiah and from Paul, what are we to make of the Matthew gospel reading? Well, we have some research findings which may help us to bring these things together. First, we can be pretty confident that the gospel was written later – perhaps 30 years later – than Paul’s letter. It was probably – though by no means certainly – written not on Paul’s Greek side of the Mediterranean but either east or south of Palestine – in a Jewish community anywhere from Judaea to Jordan to Syria or even Alexandria. The author, whoever he was, was a Jewish teacher or a rabbi writing for a Jewish audience. He would have known Isaiah's writings from childhood. We cannot know if he had come across any of Paul’s letters, and he would probably have been uneasy about Paul’s embrace of the goyim – that’s us gentiles. The gospel dedicated to Matthew ends with the resurrection of Jesus and his commission to his disciples. The Passion narrative is preceded by a couple of chapters (from which our reading today is taken) which are full of “the Kingdom of heaven is like this” parables. These parables give us a startling sense of a sharp contrast between the world as we know it now and the world as it will be when God’s rule is established. It will, the gospel tells us, be a sharp contrast in the sense that it will be sudden. And it will be a sharp contrast in the sense that it involves a process of judgement.
So now we have it. The great central theme of Advent, and the paradox of Advent. Let me summarise. God is the Source of all being – of earth and of the cosmos. We are part of that cosmos. The atoms of our bodies are the stardust of that cosmos. We have a role to play as stewards of that creation. We vary, one from another, and from one time to another, in how we play our part. The God who is our source is also our friend, our lover, guide and supporter as we live out our lives. The same God is also a loving judge of all that we do. God has entered our human drama in the person of Jeshua / Jesous [Ιησους]. In so doing, God not only showed us how to live, but empowered us through the spirit of God’s own child, to fulfil God’s purposes for our planet, for our and the other species on it and perhaps for the wider cosmos. This is no small task because human greed, wickedness, lust for power and so forth militate against God’s purposes – in each of us and in all of our relations, friends, neighbours, allies and enemies. There is an ongoing series of choices and struggles to be had which are an intrinsic part of our lives. There are minor battles to be fought and some very large and terrible battles, as well as moments of peace and tranquil co-existence.
We are called upon to establish on earth the rule of God (the heart of the Lord’s Prayer) in our own lives, in our communities and across the whole world. We are also told that there is a reckoning to be made now, and also a reckoning to be had at the end of history – at whatever time and in whatever form that takes. Jews and Christians (people of other religions too, but that is for another day) believe that God will intervene again in human history and usher in that process of final judgement. Jews and Christians have most strongly believed this in times of persecution and war, but also at other times when we might otherwise feel a little complacent. We are told very firmly in the gospel this morning that we do not know and will not know – until it happens – when that moment or process will come. What we do know, and what Isaiah and Paul urge on us, is that we should live now as though that final process is about to dawn on us.
In other words, the wise believer will live today as though there may be no tomorrow. Do not put off resolving that conflict that bugs you. Do not delay sorting out your priorities. Don’t leave it – whatever it is – until you retire: live now as you know you most deeply desire and need to live. Do not fret unduly about your savings or investments – on the day of your death or at the final judgement, they will mean little to you. What will matter to you on that day? Consider that those are the things that should matter most now and should be the priorities of your life.
This is not an invitation to act as some Christians in Thessaloniki did, which is to give up work and wait for the Lord to arrive. Our brothers and sisters who are Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that salvation and judgement have already happened, so they should not get involved in politics or make efforts to bring about social change. Paul told the Thessalonians to get back to work: that’s how you build God’s rule. By the same token, I believe Jehovah’s Witnesses have not understood Paul properly. Because now is the time to get ready for the return of our Jesous [Ιησους]. Unlike the steward in another parable of God’s rule, don’t bury your treasure and wait for your master’s return. Now is the time to invest, to use all that God has given you, to get stuck in, to work, to worship, to pray, to look outwards to our world as we wait in expectation for the rule of God to be fulfilled.