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Sermon For Advent Sunday: It’s The End Of The World As We Know It

Mark 13:24-37

Do you check the weather forecast first thing in the morning? I may be doing so in order to urge one of the children to wear an appropriate coat for school. So I may check the weather app on my phone, or I may look on the BBC website. I may just catch the forecast in the regional news on BBC Breakfast, or I may see a video of that same regional forecast in my Facebook updates.

But whatever method I use, I have yet to hear a forecast include the words,

“the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” (Verses 24b-25)

Even Ian McCaskill at his most dramatic never came up with those lines, and nor do these words come from a missing script of The Sky At Night.

Instead, we’re in the territory of dramatic prophetic language. Prophecies of future events in the Bible seldom use prosaic newspaper-reporting-type language: they tend to use coded, strange, disturbing picture language instead. And for his purposes here, Jesus draws on words originally used by Isaiah to foretell the downfall of Babylon and Edom.

And we commonly assume here that Jesus is deploying this apocalyptic language to talk about the end of the world. But at that point, we have to be careful.

Because Jesus speaks in the passage we heard read about two different ends of the world, if I may put it that way. His prophetic weather forecast is not talking about the end of all things – we’ll come to that later as the second ‘end of the world’ – but the end of the Jerusalem Temple.

For that is where the whole of Mark 13 begins. Jesus’ disciples are admiring the beauty of the Temple, only for Jesus to warn them that it will be destroyed, and that Rome will invade it and set up a pagan idol there, a devastating blasphemy for the Jewish people.

We need to begin, then, this morning, with this first end of the world, the end of the Jerusalem Temple. And you may say that shouldn’t be classed as an end of the world. But it was the end of the world at the time for the chosen people. Their whole system of sacrifice and worship was undone by its destruction (even if later they would develop the synagogue approach to faith that was already in existence).

Think of it as a parallel to the old song ‘Don’t they know it’s the end of the world’, where Skeeter Davis sang,

Don’t they know it’s the end of the world,
It ended when I lost your love.

As a romantic break-up can be a personal catastrophe, so much more Jesus knows when prophesying the failure of the Jewish revolt that the carnage and slaughter of life, combined with the annihilation of the central symbol of their faith will be as good as ‘the end of the world’ for his people.

But he also tells his followers that this awful obliteration of the Jewish hope that will come forty years after he speaks will constitute a vindication of him and his ministry. It prompts him to speak about his coming.

Yet – again, we have to be careful! Just as there are two ‘ends of the world’ in this passage, so there are also two comings of Jesus in these verses. And the coming of Jesus associated with the end of the Jerusalem Temple is not what we commonly call his ‘Second Coming’, his appearing again on Earth.

Listen to how he describes it:

At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. (Verse 26)

We have assumed that means his visible return to Earth, but the moment you recognise what Jesus is quoting here from the Old Testament, you will begin to see it differently. Jesus is quoting from Daniel 7 where the Son of Man comes on the clouds of heaven. But he doesn’t come on the clouds of heaven to Earth, he comes on the clouds of heaven to the presence of the Ancient of Days, Almighty God. I believe this is the triumph and vindication Jesus receives after his resurrection when he ascends to the Father’s right hand. His life and ministry receive the big ‘thumbs up’ from his Father.

And in that context, we have a job to do – although again, it’s easy for us, with our wrong assumptions that this is about the Second Coming, to miss that fact. For Jesus says next,

And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. (Verse 27)

We have commonly thought that to mean that God will bring his own people home. But that doesn’t stand up if this is what follows the ascension, Jesus’ coming to his Father, rather than his coming back to Earth.

Why? Remember that ‘angels’ is a word that can also mean ‘messengers’. This is about the proclamation of the Gospel. It is about Jesus’ disciples joining in God’s mission of gathering in his people from everywhere. Christian mission is always the mission of God, in which we are called to participate.

The end of the Jerusalem Temple world and the coming of Jesus to his Father point to the call of the church to engage in the mission of God. Ours is the call to herald the world the One who has been vindicated by Almighty God through his resurrection and ascension. It is our noble call to share in this task, following in the steps of the Early Church. They are the ones Jesus has in mind when he says,

Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (Verse 30)

It is not that Jesus expected his Second Coming to be early and that he was wrong in his prediction, because these words do not anticipate his return. They are about the mission of God taking place after his ascension.

Perhaps this has particular application for churches today. As churches decline and age, there are fewer ministers to go around, and – as we know here – it becomes harder to maintain the building. But these things are our parallel to the Jerusalem Temple – we thought they were essential to the practice of our faith, but they are not. They are props, albeit sometimes helpful props. But God is taking the props away, and we have to focus on the essential call for this age in history. That call is to engage in the mission of God.

So – to sum up this first point – Jesus prophesies the ultimate failure of Jewish revolts against Rome, and knows that many of his fellow Jews will see the destruction of the Temple as the end of their world. God the Father vindicates his unpalatable message and his suffering on the Cross through the resurrection and ascension, in which he is the Son of Man, coming on the clouds of heaven to God. We, knowing that Jesus has been vindicated by the Father, are to hear and respond to the Father’s call to share in his mission of calling people to place their allegiance with the Vindicated One, Jesus Christ.

I said there were two ‘ends of the world’ in this passage. The second I might call any end of the world. That probably sounds absurd to you, but I mean this to be all-encompassing: it can be any personal or corporate disaster where all that we assumed and everything we cherished has collapsed, like the fall of the Jerusalem Temple for the Jews or the collapse of inherited forms of Christianity that we are experiencing. But it could also be the end of all things. I take this view from these words of Jesus in the second half of the reading:

‘But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[c]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: he leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

35 ‘Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back – whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the cock crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!”’ (Verses 32-37)

On the one hand, Jesus points back to what he has just talked about, when he begins by saying, ‘But about that day’[1]. But on the other hand, his story about waiting for an owner to come back to a house is different. The servants are not waiting for a catastrophe; rather, they are going to be held to account for their stewardship of what the master has left when he returns.

And that is where we find ourselves. One day, all our opportunities to witness to the kingdom of God and his love in Jesus will be over. Ultimately, that will be when Christ appears to judge the living and the dead. If we die before that day, then that will be closure for us. But it could be earlier. What if I suffer a stroke and my speech and physical mobility are severely impaired? What if I am diagnosed with a grave illness? What if a tragedy befalls a loved one, and I have to give all my time as a carer, no longer having the chance to be much of a witness in the world? Or maybe my world will close in, due to unemployment. What then?

Jesus calls his servants to ‘watch’ for such times, and that doesn’t mean some passive kind of waiting, it means an active waiting. Servants are stewards of what the master has left in their charge. And we are stewards of the gifts God has entrusted to us. This means our talents, our possessions, our relationships, our work – just about anything we are involved in from day to day. If our lives were interrupted today by Christ’s return, or if our lives were shattered by a turn of events, could we say that we have faithfully been using all that God has put in our hands in a way that gives him glory?

I realised that when I was recently granted the extension to my appointment here, it is most probable that after I leave here in several years’ time, I shall likely only have one more appointment as an active Methodist minister. The question of whether I am ‘watching’ over my gifts and calling to make a difference weighs on my mind.

Those of you who are older, and who have made it to retirement may also need the challenge. Will you be able to say that you have made a difference for the kingdom of God when the master of the house comes back, or will you have been sleeping on your talents? It isn’t too late to do something – our Bible contains enough stories of older people responding to a divine call, from Abraham to Moses, from Zechariah and Elizabeth to Simeon and Anna. But do not wait in a leisurely fashion.

Around the time I was finishing this sermon, a friend posted a video on Facebook. He has been posting two songs a day: one to depress you, and one to be uplifting. Last night’s depressing song seemed apposite to what I am saying here: the late Sandy Denny’s ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’

As we contemplate the ends of our own worlds, or even the end of the world as we know it, may we not look back at a frittered life and wonder where the time went.

[1] Italics mine.

Sermon: The Advent Hope

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 

A fortnight ago I preached on Mark 13:1-8 and said that despite certain appearances that chapter wasn’t about the Second Coming. Today, Advent Sunday, we start a new year in the Lectionary and we switch our main Gospel readings from Mark to Luke. The Luke reading set for today is the end of his equivalent chapter to Mark 13, and I would still contend that – despite appearances – it is more to do with the fall of Jerusalem to Rome than it is with the Second Coming.

Yet the Second Coming is a traditional theme for Advent Sunday. As we enter the season where we prepare to mark Jesus’ first coming, we also look forward to his appearing again – this time, in glory.

It was in remembering that emphasis for Advent Sunday that I decided instead to preach from today’s Lectionary epistle in 1 Thessalonians. There is no doubt that both of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians have plenty of sane things to say to Christians about the return of Christ, and so I want to take verse 13 from our reading as a text this morning to explore this theme.

Let’s read it again:

And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Firstly, let us think about Paul’s statement that Jesus is coming. We have to get beyond some of the silliness around the doctrine of the Second Coming in order to see that actually this is a wonderful and beautiful truth. We shouldn’t be distracted by the lurid interpretations of this. We should pay no attention to those who claim to have made elaborate deductions from Scripture about the relevance of present-day events to a heavenly timetable for Christ’s return. We should ignore those who use this doctrine as a way of scaring people. And I know that last one, having been subjected as a teenager to an American film called A Thief In The Night, which basically tried to frighten young people into following Jesus. It gave the members of some youth groups who watched it nightmares for years afterwards. Its effect was more like a religious horror film than an instrument for the Gospel.

But just because the fruitcake brigade exists doesn’t mean that sane interpretations don’t also exist. To believe in Christ’s return is to have real hope for our lives and for all creation. It is like the mirror image of Christmas. For just as his incarnation was announced by angels, so here Paul envisages his return, flanked by the entire army of angels. Paul refers to ‘the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints’, where ‘saints’ is literally ‘holy ones’ and in this case that probably means angels, not Christians. Jesus is coming back to wrap up what he began. Like Magnus Magnusson or John Humphrys on Mastermind, he is saying, “I’ve started, so I’ll finish.”

To put it another way, let us remember how Jesus came, proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, and indeed had come. The evidence was seen in the healing of the sick, the release of the demonised and the preaching of the good news to the poor.

But it didn’t all come. Evil resisted Jesus, and still does. We do not live in a society where sickness, death and injustice have been conquered. We await that day. In other words, the kingdom of God has come, but not fully. In the words of some, it is both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’. When Jesus comes again, it is, as I said, to finish what he started. It was promised in the ministry of Jesus. It was guaranteed in his resurrection.

How does this affect us now, as we continue to live in a world where we are surrounded by suffering? One answer is that it fortifies us with hope. Other people are driven to despair, but we who live in the light of the resurrection and the hope of the Second Coming know that God will one day make all things new. He will banish all tears and pain.

I am fond at this time of year of telling a story about Tony Campolo, the American preacher, social activist and sociologist. He tells of how someone asked him how come he wasn’t despondent when faced with all the pain and wickedness of the world. He replied, “I’ve got the book and I’ve taken a peek at the final page, so I know the ending: Jesus wins!”

On Advent Sunday, we are the people who believe that Jesus wins, and we, too, are strengthened with that hope as we too live for him in a world that is often otherwise grim.

Secondly, we need to think about a fitting response to the news that Jesus is coming back to complete the coming of his kingdom. How might we be in harmony with God’s kingdom, fully come? Paul certainly anticipates something like that when he talks of us being ‘blameless’ when Jesus comes again with the angels.

What would it mean to be blameless before God? Well, this too is a matter of the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ of God’s kingdom. There is a sense in which we are already blameless, and a way in which we are not yet blameless. What do I mean?

We are already blameless in that we are forgiven by God in Jesus Christ. Our sins are forgiven, we are proclaimed ‘not guilty’ before God and the Great Judge has ‘justified’ us – he has declared us to be ‘in the right’ before him. As the Psalmist says, ‘As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.’ Not only have we been pardoned from all our sins, the record is wiped clean. There is nothing left on our record before God. All has been dealt with at the Cross. ‘He remembers our sins no more.’ That much is our ‘already.’ This is what we already have.

But to hear the word ‘blameless’ is to feel the force of the ‘not yet’ as well. We are not yet fully blameless in the way we conduct our lives. Forgiven and justified we may be, but we do not live in perfect harmony with the will of God. Sometimes we are only too conscious of the ways in which we continue to fail God and disappoint Jesus. We have a long way to go to become blameless in our everyday lives.

Yet what would be more fitting and appropriate in the kingdom of God but to be utterly blameless? If Christ returns to make all things new, to make a new creation where not only is there no more sickness and pain, there is also no more sin and evil, then how would we fit in if we continue to be sinners? Does it not follow, then, that although God has already declared us blameless in his sight, he also wants to make us blameless in practice?

It therefore becomes our aspiration, as Paul says here, to seek greater holiness in our lives. Just because we have been forgiven we cannot sit back and say, “I’m OK, I have my ticket for heaven.” Rather, if we know we have been forgiven by such love and at such cost to Jesus, our response will surely want to be one of gratitude. What can I do to please such a Saviour? What can I do to demonstrate my thankfulness for receiving such a priceless gift? We shall never want to settle for some idea that we have already arrived in the Christian life. There is no room for complacency in the life of the disciple. Disciples are always learning, and not simply learning religious facts. Disciples are learning more how to live after the pattern of their Teacher, Jesus.

The story is told of a little girl who saw her grandma reading her Bible. “Grandma, why are you still reading the Bible at your age?” asked the girl. “Surely you’ve read it all by now. Why do you keep doing it?”

Because I’m studying for my finals,” replied grandma.

This leads us to the third and final theme this morning. How can we achieve such blamelessness? Surely it’s beyond us.

Paul knows that, and he doesn’t expect us to manage it ourselves. Remember how the verse began:

And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless … (emphasis mine)

The third theme is that God makes us ready for his kingdom.

Let me tell you a pretty open secret. You may disagree with me, but one Christmas carol I truly dislike is ‘Away in a manger.’ It’s that silly line, ‘But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’, that always gets to me. If Jesus were fully human, he would have cried! It ranks alongside ‘How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given’ from ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ – words clearly written by someone who had never attended the birth of a child.

But how does ‘Away in a manger’ end? ‘And fit us for heaven, to live with thee there.’ Now while I would still like to finesse that line a little too, because technically in the New Testament heaven is where we go between our death and our resurrection, but after our resurrection we live in God’s new creation, but nevertheless I like the thought that God fits us for eternity. ‘And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness’ indeed.

If God strengthens us, then that usually indicates the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the power of God. Jesus is coming again and will make all things new. We need to be ready for that, yet we are unable to be. But just as God has provided for our forgiveness, so he has also provided for our holiness. When we respond to the grace and mercy he lovingly offers us in Christ and we find redemption, he then grants us the gift of the Holy Spirit so that he can begin his work of fitting us for eternity. The power of God is available to us.

This doesn’t mean we become perfect overnight. Experience tells us that. But let us dwell on that image of being ‘fitted’ for eternity, and let that inform Paul’s teaching that God strengthens us in holiness. Think of someone who goes for a fitting for some clothes – perhaps a bride for her wedding dress. It takes a number of sessions over a period of months. A design is chosen. The bride is measured. She goes back a while later and the measurements have to be retaken, because she is making an effort to lose weight, ready for her wedding day. The dressmaker makes some adjustments, and notes what needs to be changed. And so it goes on, until the great day when the bride walks down the aisle, and stuns everyone with her beauty.

I think that what God does in strengthening us in holiness is a little like that. It is a process over a long time. It involves adjustments and changes. Eventually, one day, we – not as individuals but corporately as part of the Church, which is the Bride of Christ – will walk down the aisle for the marriage to Jesus the Bridegroom, and we shall stun people with our beauty – the beauty of holiness, as the hymn writer put it.

And let us remember also that the fact that God strengthens us in holiness does not absolve us from personal responsibility. We do not sit back and let God take the strain while we have an easy, quiet existence. Oh no. We need to co-operate with the Holy Spirit. The dressmaker would not be able to make the bride look beautiful unless that young woman co-operated with her work. We need to be open to the Holy Spirit, not closed.

This, then, describes some of the Advent hope. Jesus is coming again. He will finish what he started, by making all things new. It is only fitting that we seek holy lives in accordance with his kingdom purposes. However, we cannot do that on our own. Thankfully, God steps in with his Holy Spirit to strengthen us and fit us for eternity.

Our Advent calling, then, is to co-operate with the Spirit’s work in our lives. The same Spirit who brought Jesus into the world is available to us, so that we might live to please the One who came and who is coming.