SUNDAY 29 NOVEMBER 2015 – Advent Sunday
1 Thessalonians 3.9-end
The Gospels are full of the sayings of Jesus which you can only describe as apocalyptic, in other words they announce that something dramatic, even world-changing, is about to happen. Today’s Gospel reading, in fact the whole of Luke Chapter 21 comes into this category; in verses 5-6 and following Jesus casually says that not one stone of the Jewish Temple will be left upon another, that all will be thrown down. The disciples are dumbfounded and want to know when the Temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished. The Jews were very keen on signs and portents.
The biblical experts seem more or less to agree that these two questions are separate from each other, although you could quite easily draw the conclusion that the destruction of the Temple might be the sign of what is to come, since it was a colossal building, with enormous stones, and represented a triumph in engineering and construction. It was already several hundred years old at the time of Jesus, having been begun by King Hezekiah and completed by Herod the Great. A small part still exists today, the Western Wall, which can be seen and is used by Jews for their prayers. I’m sure some of you have been there and seen it, and maybe even prayed there yourselves.
So the destruction of such a building would seem to be a sign for the Jews that significant events were about to unfold. But when ? and what events ? Of course we have the benefit of hindsight, and we know that barely 40 years later the Temple was indeed utterly destroyed in AD 70 by the Romans who were fed up with the Jews constantly rebelling against their rule. But Jesus seems to intend this statement about the Temple to be just an example of many other terrible events to come, so the main thrust of verses 7-8 appears to be clear: the disciples are not to be led astray by various events into thinking that the End of the world is about to come. These verses are a warning against overenthusiasm. Such events must take place first, but they do not indicate that the present world order is about to come crashing down. When I was working in the City at Lloyd’s insurance market, there was a man who ran a restaurant nearby carrying a sandwich board in the street outside: on one side were the words “the end is nigh”, and on the other the words “but my restaurant is just round the corner”. Life must go on.
But before saying these things about catastrophic events to come Jesus makes a few strange comments: “Be on your guard, be alert, so that the Day does not catch you unexpectedly” and “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say ‘I am he !’”. As it is Jesus who is speaking these words, it’s not quite clear what such people might be claiming: to be Jesus himself returning from the dead ? to be divine beings ? to be the true Messiah ? or to be the Messiah’s agent or representative ? There is a similar warning in other Gospels, notably in Mark Chapter 13, which is much clearer about the existence of messianic claimants other than Jesus. Luke’s Gospel is rather more obscure on this, which may simply indicate that the presence of false claimants was felt as a real threat at that time.
So where does this leave us today ? As we know all too well, wars and calamities have continued. Another Remembrance Day has come and gone, when we have honoured those who lost their lives in conflicts of the 20th century and already in the 21st. Even more recently we have witnessed terrible killing and maiming in Paris and other places. Nothing much seems to have changed, two thousand years on, but that should not deflect us from pursuing the goals of the Kingdom of God which Jesus came to usher in. In a way, the readings from Jeremiah and Paul’s first letter to the people of Thessalonica are well chosen and more helpful in keeping us on track: Jeremiah prophesies that God will cause a righteous branch to spring up, to execute justice and righteousness, and this branch will be called “The Lord is our Righteousness”. In other words Jesus came to us in order to help us to a right relationship with both God and our neighbour, and we ourselves are encouraged to lead many others into such a right relationship, as we see the Day approaching. Paul in 1 Thessalonians prays that God may so strengthen our hearts in holiness that we may be blameless before him at the coming of our Lord Jesus. And what does this coming represent ? What is it ?
I see the Day (written with a capital D) or the coming of Jesus as representing the Kingdom of God in the here and now, not as something which lies a long way off. It lies in the small print of our imperfect daily lives, which are the raw material of our prayers. Our daily lives are full of worry and uncertainty on many levels, and particularly for this church community at the present time, but it is in the way we behave towards each other, in all the different parts of our lives, working in love for peace and justice both corporately and individually, this way is the litmus test of our faith in Jesus Christ.
So, during this Advent season, as we approach his coming, both as a tiny child and in a deeper sense of the coming of his Kingdom, and as we approach his table with a true heart, let us once more renew and refresh ourselves for our service in his world, in this world which he has given us in order to show the fruits of our faith, by accepting his body and his blood as he commanded us to do.
PBW – 26.11.2015