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 day...news 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)...so 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 human...to 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 alert...like 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.