Friday, April 26, 2024

The Second Coming of Jesus

 Text : Revelation 3.

I shall take as my text for this evening a phrase that is repeated twice in our New Testament reading:  “Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches”.  This phrase comes from the book of Revelation.  In its early chapters a series of letters are written by the author, John of Patmos, to seven churches in Asia.  These letters offer both encouragement and warning to the newly fledged churches. 

We don’t really know who John was.  Perhaps he was John the Apostle – who had actually spent time with Jesus, of course.  But other scholars are less sure.  What is sure is that he felt that the churches were in a crucial period of their life.  They had been established in the decades following Jesus’ death and resurrection, and they had initially been promised that Jesus was going to return very soon.  But, by the last decade of the first century, when the Book of Revelation was written – many were beginning to doubt the prophecy of the Second Coming – and some of the churches were beginning to fray at the edges.  Whoever John was, he clearly wanted to re-ignite their faith in the second coming of Jesus – and he wanted them to be as ready as possible for that great event. 

To all the seven churches, John writes that they must ‘listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches’.  Listening to the Spirit is a difficult task – isn’t it?  There is always the great danger of thinking that we’ve heard God’s voice, speaking to us, or pushing us in a particular direction.  But then, on reflection, we often find that what we’re really hearing is our own voice, or our own desires, coming to the surface.

I tend to think that is what happened with much of the talk of an imminent second coming of Jesus.  To those who had lived with him during his time on earth, his loss must have been devastating.  But, they developed a belief that Jesus had not been wiped out by death.  In fact, they asserted, he had risen from the dead.  And not only had he conquered death, but he would return with power and glory to rule over the whole world.

The trouble thinking of Jesus as a ruler of the Earth, a kind of Earth King, is that it runs contrary to much of what Jesus himself said and taught.  His approach was always to invite and cajole people into his Kingdom – a Kingdom which he stated (to Pontius Pilate) was specifically not of this world.  His Kingdom was a way of life, entered into freely and voluntarily, in which love and self-sacrifice were the law. The idea that Jesus would return to impose a mighty powerful Kingdom, sweeping aside his enemies in the process, really doesn’t sit well with the kind of invitational mode in which Jesus operated.  In fact, it owes much more to the old Jewish notions of a Messiah – something that the Jews and the Christian-Jews longed for as they suffered under the violent heal of Rome.  We should therefore not be surprised that prophets and preachers of the day would keep on encouraging their followers to ‘hold on’, and to promise them that soon, Jesus would come and batter the Romans into submission.

Two thousand years later, we might well ask what has happened to the Second Coming.  And we should certainly wonder what the Spirit is saying to the churches on this topic today.  It doesn’t take a lot of searching on the internet to find that the idea of a Second Coming, and indeed the End of All Things, still figures highly in the minds of some rather imaginative individuals.  A couple of weeks ago, an American Christian organised the importation to Israel of some pure red heifers, in the belief that the end of the world is coming, and that the Temple in Jerusalem will soon be rebuilt.  On that day, one of the liturgical actions which will be required (by the ancient Jewish laws) is the sacrifice of a pure red heifer, with not a single hair of another colour. 

The same people (both some Jews and some very evangelical Christians) are, it seems, positively salivating over the present conflicts in the Middle East – especially between Israel and Palestine, and with Iran.  They detect within these conflicts the promise of Armageddon, and the end of the world.  Any of them would, of course, tell you that they are not looking forward to the misery of Armageddon.  They don’t want to be the cause of such misery. But they believe that Armageddon must come before Jesus will return.  So, they are quite happy to sell weapons to the warring factions in the Middle East. They are equally happy to lobby and fundraise for the rebuilding of the Temple (which would mean destroying the Muslim holy shrine of the Dome of the Rock). All because, as they say, ‘the Bible predicts it’. 

But is this what the Spirit is really saying to the churches?  I’m not so sure.  Maybe I’m just projecting my own thoughts, my own logic and my own desires, and making God in my own image.  But I don’t think so.  The language of conquering, of world domination, of deliberate war-making to bring about the end of the world seems as far from the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth as I think we can get.  In his sermon on the mount, for example, did he say ‘blessed are the war-makers’?  (It was peace-makers that he would bless).  In his parables, did he compare the coming of the Kingdom to the onslaught of an invading army?  Or did he talk instead about the Kingdom as something like salt that flavours food, and light which shines in darkness. The kingdom is precious treasure, or a lost coin – something to be searched for diligently, and personally.  The Kingdom is like the Father of a prodigal child, who finds himself being offered forgiveness and restored life. 

So what is the Spirit saying to the churches, especially about the Second Coming of Christ?  I think the Spirit is saying that Christ comes again every time that neighbour reaches out to neighbour. Every time that a homeless person finds shelter, or a hungry family is fed by a foodbank, Christ comes again.  Every time that someone who has been wronged finds the strength to forgive their aggressor (Father forgive them, for they know not what they do), Christ comes again.  Every time peace is established, in the face of war, Christ comes again.

I therefore believe in the Second Coming of Christ – but not as a mighty warrior upon the clouds, coming to bash heads together and set up a new earthly throne on which he will reign by diktat and compulsion for eternity.  The Kingdom of heaven will not be established by a sword.  Rather, Jesus’ second coming is a gradual process – one that takes place every time we invite him to set up his throne on the seat of our hearts.  It takes place every time that we sincerely acknowledge him as Lord of our lives, and then set out to live his Kingdom laws of love and sacrifice.

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