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.
Tomorrow (Saturday) I begin a week’s leave to spend half term with Debbie and the children. I have just finished writing my sermon for Sunday week, when I return to duty. Here it is.
All around me I find people struggling for hope. For some, it is the economic uncertainties of the recession. Will they have a job? Can they pay their mortgage? For others, it is the onset of serious or potentially terminal illness. I think of two families I know where a child has cancer. Or people wonder what legacy we are leaving to our children and grandchildren from the environmental devastation our greed has caused.
And of course, I find it in the church. I think of one church facing an imminent decision about possible closure, and another where the signs are not promising for ten years’ time.
I’ve come to the conclusion that our problem is that we conceive of hope wrongly. This is all hope based on circumstances, or on what people do. It’s an uncertain hope: “I hope that such-and-such will happen.” Such-and-such may or may not happen.
Christian hope is different. Let me introduce it this way. A couple of weeks ago, Debbie and I went to a concert by the worship leader and hymn writer Stuart Townend. We sang his hymn ‘In Christ Alone’, and it’s easy to slip past the profundity of that first line: ‘In Christ alone my hope is found.’ The Christian hope is in God. Our hope is in God in Christ.
So to our passage from Revelation. We’re familiar with it at funerals, where its words bring comfort, and that’s good. But there is so much more it can offer us. Why? Well, if you want a bunch of people who needed Christ-shaped hope, the first readers of Revelation would be good candidates. Facing persecution in the AD 90s under the Roman emperor Domitian, they saw loved ones arrested, tortured and killed. Our troubles look small fry in comparison. The vivid pictures that John gave them form a Christ-shaped hope. I believe we need a Christ-shaped hope to fit a Christ-shaped hole in our lives. Come with me as we explore this. Let it strengthen us for whatever we are facing.
Firstly, there is hope for creation. Whenever we go on holiday, an important item on my check list for packing is books. This year, I packed three but only got through one. Last year, I took a couple and only managed one. You’d have thought I’d have learned my lesson this year, wouldn’t you? But you’ll perhaps remember I never want to be caught short of reading material!
And the book I read on holiday last year was one that has helped a lot of people rethink their understanding of Christian hope. It is called ‘Surprised By Hope’ and was written by Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham. One of the most important slogans in the book is this: ‘Heaven is not the end of the world.’
Got that? Heaven is not the end of the world. We frequently speak about the Christian hope after death as being the hope of going to heaven to be with the Lord. That is true as far as it goes. But the Bible talks about so much more. The biblical story doesn’t end with heaven: it ends here with ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. In some way that Revelation doesn’t explain, heaven and earth will be renewed. 2 Peter speaks about the destruction of the earth, but again followed by a new earth where righteousness will reign.
Our hope is not to be disembodied spirits floating somewhere in space, it is physical. God is interested in the physical and the material. He made it and he will redeem it. Just as God will not simply leave the dead in Christ in heaven but will raise them to life with new bodies, as he did with his Son, so he will also bring in a new creation.
What does that mean for us? It gives us hope for creation. Since God cares about his physical creation, so do we. Christians should be at the forefront of concern for the environment. We shouldn’t be like some Christians who say that the human race was put in charge of the earth and we can do whatever we like with it. That’s wrong. It’s God’s world, and we look after it as his stewards. One day he will renew it.
Debbie and I are no experts on green issues, but we see it as our duty to encourage Rebekah and Mark in a responsible attitude to the creation – not in a negative, hectoring way, but by filling them with a sense of wonder. Every now and again, we visit a country park near Basildon and Pitsea called the Wat Tyler Country Park. There are plenty of the usual attractions for children there, but there is one place we always visit when we go there. The RSPB has a place there, and we take the children to that so they may gain more of a sense of wonder about wildlife. It does help that Rebekah fancies herself as a young Doctor Doolittle anyway, but Mark enjoys the activities, too – I recall him coming out once, very proud of the wormery he had made!
As adults, we know this is serious stuff. You may well be aware of the forthcoming Copenhagen Climate Summit. At the time I prepared this sermon, European Union leaders were in deadlock about how to take further steps in reducing climate damage. So I’ve done my little bit of lobbying. Various organisations make it easy to do this, especially if you are online. I use something called Superbadger from TEAR Fund on Facebook. Recently, I have sent a couple of emails to Gordon Brown, asking him to continue his efforts in this area. So have thousands of others.
But let’s remember, this is about hope. The fact that God will replace the current heavens and earth with a new one means that whether we succeed or fail in our efforts, the purposes of God will not be thwarted. We put ourselves in harmony with his purposes when we care for creation. Done with the right spirit, creation care is for Christians an act of worship, and a sign of God’s hope.
Secondly, there is hope for humanity. The holy city, the new (there’s that word again) Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven, like a bride adorned for her husband (verse 2). Mention of the bride makes me think about the Church, the Bride of Christ, rather than a literal city. This speaks of the redeemed community.
The hope for humanity is a simple one: God dwelling in the midst of the redeemed community, for the voice from the throne says,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them …’ (verse 3)
You may think me odd, but this puts me in mind of Magnus Magnusson on old editions of Mastermind. This is one of those “I’ve started, so I’ll finish” moments. Why? Let me render part of verse 3 more literally: ‘See, the tabernacle of God is among mortals. He will tabernacle with them …’
Perhaps you remember the tabernacle, the ‘portable sign of God’s presence’ in the Old Testament. Holding that in your mind, go back with me to John chapter 1, where we read of Jesus, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among them’ – or, more literally, ‘The Word became flesh and tabernacled among them.’
So here in Revelation 21, God’s purposes in John 1 are fulfilled. What God started in Jesus, he will finish. The mission of Jesus will be fulfilled. God will dwell with ‘his peoples’ – and note it’s ‘peoples’ not ‘people’. The Bride of Christ will be composed from every tribe, tongue and nation under heaven, a vision that must be anathema to Nick Griffin and the British National Party. How distorted is their attempted takeover of Christian language. In Christ, people are reconciled to God and to one another. It’s a sign of hope for a divided and troubled world. Be clear about one thing: the extinction of the Church is not on God’s agenda. Rather, it has a vivid, glorious, multi-coloured future in God’s new creation.
What is our part in this now? If God’s mission to dwell in the midst of reconciled peoples was expressed in Christ dwelling in the midst of the human race, then we are called to something similar. For Jesus said, ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you’. Therefore, just as Jesus dwelt in the midst of those he came to reconcile to the Father and each other, so must we. No religious ghettos. No spiritual escapism, where we run inside our castle, pull up the drawbridge and be relieved that we can worship without the distractions of the world. No more the increasingly futile approaches to mission that wait for ‘them’ to come and meet ‘us’ in our comfort zone. Instead, as the Father sent Jesus, so he sends us. Our sharing in God’s hope for humanity means we choose not to engross ourselves in church-filled lives but live out God’s love in the midst of the world, where we are needed. For now, I’ll limit myself to these words from Henri Nouwen:
More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.
Thirdly and finally, our passage has hope for the individual. I want to consider those famous words from verse 4 that make this reading so apposite at a funeral:
‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
To those who first read Revelation or had it read to them, these words had immense impact. Remember ,they were facing hideous persecution. Tears, death, mourning, crying and pain frequently soundtracked their lives. How they longed for it to pass. How they, the suffering ones, longed for justice – which is surely why Revelation takes delight in the downfall of the wicked.
So this constitutes the good news of God’s hope for individuals. Whatever we struggle with in this life will be abolished in the new creation. Be it sickness or injustice, its days are numbered. One day, God will call time on all that corrupts the beauty of his creation and will restore all things. Indeed, this is so important that when the voice from the throne says in verse 5, ‘See, I am making all things new’, this is at most only the third or fourth time God himself is reported as speaking directly in Revelation. Not only that, God has given an advance sign of his promise to do all this in the Resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection constituted amongst other things – the healing and transformation of a body traumatised to the point of death, and God’s vindication of his Son in the face of those who condemned and executed him. The Resurrection is healing and justice. We look forward to both of those in full measure when God’s new creation comes. The Resurrection guarantees our hope in God’s healing and justice.
But meanwhile – what do we do? Shall we lie down and allow pain and wickedness to walk all over us and others? By no means! We pray for healing, we campaign for the oppressed and we accompany the suffering – for that is what we must do if, like Jesus, we are to dwell in the midst of the world, with all its pain. Sometimes, we shall see victories and rejoice. At other times, it will seem like evil has won the day. But when it does, with Christian hope we can laugh at the darkness, for whatever battles it wins, God’s hope means the war is lost. Whatever discouragements we have, our certain hope in God means we need never completely lose heart. We have a vision of hope to fortify us, and the Resurrection to guarantee it.
In conclusion, let me take you back to that Stuart Townend concert I mentioned near the beginning. He introduced another of his famous hymns, his version of the Twenty-Third Psalm, ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’. He talked about how loved that psalm is by millions, both inside and outside the Church for its sense of comfort.
However, he said we needed to do something with that comfort, and that was why he wrote the chorus with its words,
And I will trust in You alone.
And I will trust in You alone,
For Your endless mercy follows me,
Your goodness will lead me home.
If we are comforted, then we need to trust, he said. And I think it’s the same with the Christian hope, which we find ‘In Christ alone’. We may be encouraged by the prospect of God’s hope for creation with its new heaven and new earth. We may find succour in the hope for humanity found in the God who dwells in the midst of peoples reconciled to him and to one another. We may be comforted by the thought that one day, sickness and injustice will finally be completely conquered when all – like Christ – are raised from the dead.
But we need to trust. And that means action. Action in creation that is consistent with God’s purposes of renewal. Action in the church, as we dwell in the midst of the world to offer reconciliation in Christ. And action for the sick and oppressed, as we anticipate the fulfilment of their hope in Christ.
Let us be strengthened in God’s hope. And let that hope propel us to trusting action.
 Robert H Mounce, The Book of Revelation, p373.