Saturday, November 27, 2010

No-one knows the hour...but is the End of the World upon us?

Matthew 24: 36-44 & Romans 13.11-14 & Isaiah 2:1-5
Note:  This sermon is peppered with quotations from the above Scriptures, but not cited individually everytime they are used.  I strongly recommend reading the passages listed above before reading the sermon itself.

A sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, 2010.

 I don't know about you - but I'm pretty useless at waiting for things. I hate using buses - because that would mean waiting for a bus to arrive. I'm useless at waiting for the latest blockbuster movie to arrive on a nice cheap DVD - so I end up going to the cinema...or worse still, get tempted to download it, illegally, from the internet. If I see a book that I fancy, I buy it...rather than dropping hints to my family that it would make a nice Christmas or birthday present. So by the time my birthday arrives, there's nothing my family can buy for me...because I've already bought it! Basically, I confess, I'm just not very patient.

Waiting can be a frustrating thing, can't it? Frankly it can also be a terrifying thing too. If you've ever had to wait for the results of an important medical test, you'll know what I mean. The husbands and wives of service-personnel know all about the agony of waiting too...waiting for news, day by that may bring relief for another day, or terrible, life-shattering news. Waiting can instil within us a sometimes toxic mixture of hope and despair. For those who are waiting to die...or waiting with someone who is dying, the daily grind of slight improvement followed by sinking deeper can be exhausting.

For the followers of Jesus, to whom Matthew was writing, waiting had become a terrible agony too. By the time Matthew wrote his gospel, the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman army. Christians were under immense persecution, along with their Jewish cousins. Some were hiding in underground caves - like the catacombs in Rome. Some prominent leaders - Peter, Paul, Stephen - had already been executed for their faith in Jesus Christ...and there was an impending sense of doom that the soldiers would be coming for others very soon.

But there were stories about Jesus, circulating among these scared early Christians...stories of things Jesus had said. And one of the things he had very clearly said was that he would return. He had promised his disciples that he would not leave them, and that he would be seen again.

But what did he mean by that? Did he mean that he would physically return, like some avenging warlord, leading the hosts of heaven into a final cataclysmic battle against the forces of evil? Many people hoped that he would...not least because their present situation was so desperate. Many people drew on the Hebrew Bible - what we call the Old Testament - for evidence that this is precisely how Jesus would return. They poured over the ancient texts, seeking clues for when Jesus would return. They turned to ancient prophecies, like the words of Isaiah, which promised that the Lord could judge the nations - leading them to turn their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks. Nation would no longer lift up sword against nation, neither would they learn war anymore. (cf Isaiah 2:1-5)

There are many people who still cling on to that kind of hope today, despite the passage of 2000 years. The Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, have based their entire theology and world-view around the idea that the end of the world is coming - and that Jesus will soon appear to 'smite the ungodly', and take the godly to heaven. Others spend years of their time pouring over the more obscure books of the bible - using 'numerology' to try and calculate when the world will end...trying to unlock the secrets of books like Daniel and Revelation.

For all such people - in Jesus' day, as well as now...the waiting can be agonising. Each day they wake up and pray..."Lord, let it be today". They live in a constant, heightened sense of expectation that any minute now, Jesus will physically appear, and all the problems of the world will be solved by his mighty and powerful intervention. In the most extreme cases, this agony of waiting can turn into a sense of utter fatalism. There are towns in certain parts of the world where the expectation of Jesus' imminent arrival is so real, that people have stopped repairing their houses, mending the roads, or educating their children. They ask themselves whether there is any point in trying to make society better, if the world's about to end anyway. Why bother? Why not just sit around chatting to the neighbours, and wait for Jesus to come and sort everything out?

For others, the agony of waiting inspires them to try to hasten the end of the world...believing that they are doing God's will. The book of Revelation speaks in poetic terms about great battles in the Middle East, not least on the plains of Meggido (or Armageddon as we know it) they work to foment unrest in the middle east. They actually want war, because, they believe, war will bring about the end of the world. Others, who have read that the Jerusalem Temple will be re-established, are doing all they can to have the Muslim's Dome of the Rock demolished - because it is built on the site of the Temple. They have already provided all the priestly robes and sacred objects that will be used in the new Temple. They have raised all the funds necessary for the building itself. They constantly lobby the Israeli Government for the right to rebuild the Temple. An alliance has been built up between orthodox Jews and certain right-wing Christian groups - two groups which would normally have nothing in common. But they are both united in their desire to see the Temple rebuilt...because they believe that will cause the end of the world, and the coming, or the return, of the Messiah. One of the most popular series of books ever published is the 'left behind' series - soon to be turned into a major movie...a series of books all about the coming end of the world.

Yes...for all these people...the Jehovah's Witnesses, the numerologists, the Orthodox Jews, and the mainly American right-wing Christians...waiting is agony. They don't want to wait. They want Jesus to come back now...and to sort out all the worlds problems.



For me, as a student of the Bible and a student of Jesus, this is all very frustrating. I'm frustrated by people who don't understand that Jesus almost never spoke literally...about anything. Jesus always talked in parables and riddles. He used picture-language, not literal language, in almost every part of his teaching. He used complex imagery to get over to his listeners what was essentially a very basic teaching: that the world has two paths: a path of goodness and Godliness, and a path of evil...and that God gives us a choice as to which way we chose to walk. He talked of a wise man who built his house on rock, and the foolish man who built on sand. He talked of rich people being in hell, while poor people ended up 'in the bosom of Abraham'. He talked about seed which fell on stony ground or fertile ground. And he talked about the 'Son of Man' coming at an unexpected hour.

The 'Son of Man' was a title which Jesus gave himself...drawing on ancient Hebrew Scriptures. Like all of Jesus' parables and images, it is a title which is meant to make us ponder and imagine. What did Jesus mean? Son of Man? Surely he should have called himself 'Son of God'?

When we try to get our heads around this, we need to remember that to be the 'Son' of something was not necessarily to be an actual, physical child. When Jesus called the Pharisees 'sons of vipers' (or 'a viper's brood') he didn't mean to suggest that the Pharisees were literally small baby snakes. He was using imagery. To be a Son of Righteousness, for example, was to be someone who lived in a righteous way. To be the 'Son of Satan', was to be someone who lived in evil ways. And to be the Son of Man, surely meant that Jesus saw himself as embodying what it meant to be truly Man...truly human.

For Jesus, to be truly human - truly a Son of Man - was to be someone who lived up to all that God meant a Man, a human, to be. God created human beings with infinite capacities for love and for creativity. God created human beings to live together in community - saying of Adam (the archetypal first Man) that it is not good for Man to live alone. Therefore it surely follows that to be a full Son of Man is to be someone who embraces love, creativity and community. A Son of Man is someone who loves, who gives of that love to others, in a never ending creative communion. A Son of Man is what Rowan Williams calls 'the Human One' - someone who has learned to embrace what it means to be truly human.

We need to understand these two basic facts about Jesus: first that he always taught in imagery, never in literal language. Secondly that he holds himself up as an example of what it means to be truly Human...the Human One...the Son of Man. Once we've grasped those two basic facts about Jesus, all of his teaching about the end of the world takes on a very different light...a very different light indeed.

For Jesus, the Human World was a place of ugliness...a place of violence, a place of selfishness...where the rich got richer, while the poor got poorer. He contrasted this human world, with all its ugliness, with his vision of the 'Kingdom of God'...a Kingdom which he taught was already among us. So for Jesus there are two ideas, being held together - two Kingdoms...the Kingdom of the Human World as it is now, and the Kingdom of Heaven...a vision of a world as it could be, and indeed as it was already becoming through him.

So when Jesus talks about the end of the world, he means that there will, one day, be an end to this world's way of being. He means that one day, the Kingdom of the World would be replaced entirely by the Kingdom of Heaven...which is why he taught us to pray 'Thy Kingdom come'. And this, according to Jesus, would finally take place when the 'Son of Man' comes. In other words, the Kingdom of Heaven will come when true humanity comes. The Kingdom of Heaven will be established when people learn, at last, what it means to be truly live in loving, creative, community with each other...rather than selfish, warlike, community-destroying hatred.

And so, finally, Jesus teaches us that we don't have to wait for him to come like some avenging warlord. That after all, is the exact opposite of the way Jesus always did things. When he could have destroyed those who would nail him to a cross, he didn't. He kept on being true to who he was, as the Human One, as the Son of Man...dedicated to living in loving, creative, community. To suggest that Jesus is going to return with some great show of force is an absolute contradiction of who Jesus is.

No, we are not called to wait around for some heavenly firework display. Instead, in Paul's words, we are called to 'put on the Lord Jesus Christ' - we are to put on what it means to be like Christ, to be people who live in loving creative community. Paul goes further. Using two more metaphors, he says that we are to put aside the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light. We are to live honourably, not revelling in debauchery, quarrelling and jealousy. These are not the ways of the Human Ones. These are not the ways of the Sons and Daughters of True Man.

For the Kingdom to come, we are called to do anything but wait around. We called to be up and active! We are called to a man who knows a thief is coming to break into his house. We are called to be pressing on towards the prize (another image from St Paul), doing all that we can to be the true Sons and Daughters of Man that Jesus exemplifies for us. This has nothing to do with waiting around for God to intervene...and has everything to do with us taking part in God's intervention that has already begun.

May you learn what it means to be a Son or a Daughter of Man...following the path the Jesus has already laid out for us to follow. May you know what it means to live in loving, creative community with everyone around you. May you be part of the solution to the evil which stalks the streets of our world. May you be Christ to everyone you meet, and ready to embrace Christ's coming wherever, and whenever, it is experienced.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

The State we are in

Sermon for the Patronal Festival of St Saviours Church, Stamshaw - on the Feast of Christ the King. (21st November 2010)
(2 Samuel 5: 1-3, Colossians 1:12-20, Luke 23:35-43).

I’m sure you’ve heard the quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: "Something is wrong in the state of Denmark". Shakespeare invites us, as he so often does, to hold up a mirror to our own ask ourselves whether there is anything rotten in the state that we live in too. Is there something wrong with the State of our World? Is there something wrong, for example, with a world which, in the last century, slaughtered 150 million people in wars...150 million…that’s more than have died in all the preceding centuries put together. Is there something wrong with a world in which 1 billion people survive on less than a dollar a day...scratching round in rubbish tips for something to eat.

Have you ever wondered how many people is a billion people? Let me give you some idea of the scale....Imagine, if you can, a line of 1billion people, standing 1 yard apart. If I were to get in my car, and drive along the line of people at 60 miles per hour for one hour, I would pass 105,600 people. Do you know how long I would have to drive at 60 miles per hour, all day, all night, without stopping, to pass by 1 billion people? 1 YEAR and 29 days.

Note to my internet's the calculation:
1,760 yards = 1 mile
At 60 miles per hour, after one hour I would pass 105,600 people standing one yard apart (1,760 times 60).Therefore 1,000,000,000 (1 billion) people, divided by 105,600 tells me how many hours it would take to drive past 1 billion people. The answer is 9,469 hours - which divided by 24 hours in the day, is 394 days (or 1 year and 29 days).

That's how many people live on this planet in abject poverty. That's how many live in refugee camps, reliant entirely on aid agencies or other hand-outs just to survive from one day to the next.

Yes, Beloved, there is something wrong with the State we are in.

In a little while, as bread and wine are consecrated, we will remind ourselves that Christ claims dominion over all creation. We will remind ourselves what His Kingdom is like: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace. How very different that Kingdom is from the one which was in place in the time of Jesus…

The Romans believed that they had a duty to conquer and then rule the known world. Not through ideas, not through love and generosity; but through violence. They brought many good innovations with the 'Judaean Popular People's Front' had to acknowledge in the 'Life of Brian'. "What have the Romans done for us...apart from the roads and the schools and the hospitals and the sewerage systems?" But Roman rule was ultimately based on the idea of 'redemptive violence' - the idea that society, and life in general, can only be improved through conquest and coercion.

That had terrifying consequences for the people of Jesus' day – and there were two ways, primarily, that local people used to resist the Romans’ violent oppression. The first was the reaction of the Zealots. They were a small group of revolutionaries, who believed in defeating Rome by Rome's own methods of violence. They ran small scale attacks on Roman installations, and Roman people...trying to drive out the Romans through a campaign of fear. Today, we would call the Zealots 'terrorists'. People who use the fear of attack to change the mind or policy of a ruling power.

The other reaction to the Romans was the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism. The Pharisees, in particular, established a system of fundamental religious law...and a belief that if only every Jewish person would follow all the Laws of God for just one day, then the Messiah (the St. Saviour!) would come to liberate them from their oppressors. There were other fundamentalist religious reactions too…like that of the Essenes, who escaped to the desert, in an attempt to flee the violence of Rome.

Terrorism and Religious Fundamentalism. They sound very familiar. Don't they? The ancient world was so much like our world. In fact, apart from the fact that we have electricity and fast transport systems, there is actually very little that has changed. The world is still ruled by powerful men. Poor people still starve every day. And ordinary people still lose their lives in pointless wars and conflicts. Power, imposed from above, is so endemic that we all know what is meant by that old joke: “What’s the difference between God and the President of the United States? Answer: God doesn’t think he’s the President of the United States.”

That one little joke opens up a whole wealth of meaning: because it assumes that we know exactly what Presidents are like…power-mad. But it’s a worrisome joke too, because it assumes that we all think of God like some kind of brutal power-monger as well. Our view of God is shaped by the society in which we live…we tend to think of God as a sort of bigger, stronger Prime Minister, or a sort of super-Headmaster….ready to punish or reward us at the end of term. We treat God like some distant Emperor who will be cross with us if we don’t behave, and who stands ready to punish us if we don’t believe the right things, or do the right actions.

St Luke was very conscious of the kind of political and religious world into which Jesus came. He frames his entire narrative in terms of Kingship, as we shall hear again through Advent and Christmas. Chapter 1: "In the days of King Herod of Judaea...' Chapter 2: " this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree". Chapter 3: "In the fifteenth year of Tiberias Caesar's reign". Luke framed his story by reference to three rulers...but then, at the end, as we just heard in our Gospel reading, he places Jesus on his cross with the massively ironic legend "King of the Jews" over his head.

But Luke also contrasts the three great rulers with three simple people. In his first three chapters, the references to Herod, Augustus and Tiberius are contrasted with Mary, Zechariah and Simeon: all of whom proclaim a different kind of Kingdom. These are people who, as Rowan Williams says, are 'lifted up by a God who snubs and turns away the powerful'. In Jesus, God has 'turned upside down the assumptions of the world' (see Williams, 2000, 'Christ on Trial' p.51). Jesus presents us with a God who is nothing like the God of our power-corrupted imaginations.

It is perhaps during his trial that we get the clearest sense of what Jesus believed about power. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, for example, Jesus steadfastly resists any attempt to be named as either God's Son, or the Messiah - let alone the King of Kings. He silences the demoniacs, the healed leper, and even Simon Peter when they identify him. But, there does come a point, a crucial point, where he permits himself to be revealed. During his trial, the High Priest invites the prisoner to incriminate himself: "Are you the Christ", he asks, "the Son of the Blessed One?". Jesus answers with the plainest of plain words: "I am".

Why then? Why at that point?

Here I turn again to Rowan Williams for help. In his book 'Christ on Trial' Williams comments that "Jesus before the High Priest has no leverage in the world; he is denuded of whatever power he might have had. Stripped and bound before the court, he has no stake in how the world organises itself. He is definitively outside the system of the world's power and the language of power. He is going to die, because that is what the world has decided. It is at this moment and this moment only that he speaks plainly about who he is. He names himself with the name of the God of Israel, 'I am'…"
(Williams, 2000, Christ on Trial, p.7).

Christ the King is nothing like the Kings we have known. He is much more after the pattern of the gentle Shepherd which David was challenged to pre-figure, in our first reading. According to St Paul's letter to the Colossians, Jesus is the firstborn of all creation, through which everything was made...including even “thrones, dominations, sovereignties and powers”...but his task is to reconcile all that he has made (not dominate it) bringing it together in him, through him and for him by making peace by his death on the cross.

Jesus death on the cross has many layers of meaning, of course. But one of them that we must not miss is that by his death, Jesus unmasks the Kingdoms of this world. He demonstrates that the notion of redemptive violence, practised by the Romans and the Priests, is nothing but a mask for unadulterated evil. By his death, Jesus shows Emperors and High Priests in their true light...bully-boys, whose ultimate achievement through violence is the death of a simple, loving man, and the nailing of God himself onto a cross. It's as though Jesus says, "this is what happens when you live with the lie of redemptive end up squeezing God out, onto the margins, onto a hill outside the City."

But Jesus redeems even such marginalisation. There, outside the City wall, pushed away by the State, he is still at work. He still works to redeem creation. To the thief beside him he turns and promises "Today you will be with me in Paradise". It's as though having failed to persuade the State to embrace a different way, Jesus switches tactics. If the State will not bow to the love and just mercy of God, then Jesus will start from a different point...he will carry out his redemption one thief at a time, one person at a time.

And that finally is where we come in to this story. There is not much that you and I can hope to achieve in changing the State we are in. We can't hope to halt the armies of the world, as they pound each other to dust. We can't hope to shift the priorities of a world economic system which can find £100 billion dollars to bail out the banks, but which can't help those billion people in a line outside our door. But like Jesus, with the thief on the Cross, it turns out that we can do something, after all. One person at a time. One life at a time. We can love our neighbour. We can sponsor a child - just talk to World Vision. We can give the gift of life to a family in the two-thirds world - just 'Send a Cow'. We can choose to live in love and reconciliation with our neighbours, whether they be local or global, next-door neighbours, or religious neighbours.

We can continue to live with the false myth that the State we are in can be improved through violence and coercion - what we might call the 'myth of redemptive violence', or we can wake up to the call of Christ the King, and embrace a different kind of kingship altogether.