Advent 1, 2018. The Kingdom of God is near
Sermon preached at Enmore, Advent Sunday, 2nd. December 2018
Reading: Luke 21. 25–38
Advent Sunday means the start of a new Church year and a new Gospel for this Year C in the lectionary cycle-the Gospel of Luke. We are thrown in at the deep end of the book and find ourselves in the second half of a chapter of apocalyptic writing about the last days. The word apocalypse means revelation-to uncover or reveal something. In Biblical apocalyptic writing such as the Book of Revelation or parts of the Book of Daniel, the focus is frequently on the end of the world as we know it and the beginning of a new world order. In the chapter before us this morning, Chapter 21 of Luke, historical events are joined with descriptions of what is happening behind and beyond history. Major historical crises often triggered apocalyptic thinking. In Luke as in the other Gospels which contain similar passages the significant historical event was the destruction of Jerusalem.
Jesus’ teaching in this chapter is occasioned by some comments made to him about the beauty and size of the temple building. We read this earlier part of the chapter a couple of weeks ago. Jesus’ response to these remarks is to make the solemn prediction that the days are coming when the temple will be torn down and not one stone will be left standing on another. It was a shocking statement because the temple was not just a beautiful place of worship- it was at the very centre of the nation’s life. It was the symbol of God’s presence with his people and was for the Jewish community the most holy, the most sacred place on earth. We have no equivalent in our own rather secular nation-perhaps the closest we can get is the War Memorial in Canberra-for most Australians our most sacred site. Imagine someone standing on the steps of that impressive building and declaring loudly that this building will soon be destroyed and reduced to rubble. They would probably be arrested for creating a public disturbance. But what makes Jesus’ prophesy even more disturbing is the implication that the destruction of the temple will be no bad thing. Remember that only a short time before, Jesus had entered this temple and thrown out the money changers and the traders, declaring that they had changed the temple from being a house of prayer into a den of thieves. The temple had become a symbol of a religion desperately in need of reform- rather like St. Peter’s in Rome at the time of the reformation.
So in the first half of chapter 21 we find Jesus speaking of the terrible events that will surround the destruction of the temple. Jesus warns that there is going to be huge distress on earth and that Jerusalem will be ‘trampled by pagans’. All of this was fulfilled in A.D. 70 when the Romans put down the Jewish revolt, destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and cruelly put nearly a million people to the sword. However, in the second half of the chapter, the emphasis seems to move from the immediate future to the more distant future. Jesus speaks of the entire cosmos being disturbed, the powers of the heavens being shaken, and distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves. These words have a contemporary feel to them because it is the climate change scientists who have become the modern day apocalyptic writers. Their vision for the future is not unlike what we find described in these verses. We live on a fragile planet at risk of calamity. The question the passage poses is how should we respond when we find our world in confusion and people are filled with fear and foreboding? Jesus says, we are to stand up and raise our heads because our redemption is drawing near. He uses a mini parable about the fig tree. When you see the leaves appear you know that summer is just around the corner. So Jesus says when you see the world in turmoil, don’t be paralysed by fear but look up because the Kingdom of God is near.
The early Christians who lived through the dramatic events of A.D.70 expected that they would see the return of Jesus with ‘power and great glory’ in their own life time. There is evidence from some of Paul’s early letters that he expected the second coming of Christ very soon. So in 1 Thessalonians ch.3, read this morning, Paul counsels the young Christians to live holy lives so that they “may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” Later on Paul came to the view that this event might not happen any time soon so Christians were to get on with their lives but always remain ready and alert, to meet their Lord. Throughout the ages Christians have read passages like Luke 21 or Mark 13 and come to the conclusion that they are living in the last days. But Jesus himself made it clear that we should not try to predict the coming of the Day of the Lord- that time is known only to God. So if that is the case, how are we to understand this expression, ‘the Kingdom of God is near’?
Earlier in Luke’s Gospel (10.9) he has described the way Jesus sent out seventy of his followers with the instructions to heal the sick and to say, ‘the kingdom of God has come near to you.’ ‘Nearness’ in the New Testament is not about waiting for something about to happen it is about discovering what has already taken place, namely that in the coming of Christ our redemption, our deliverance has already begun. Writing to the Philippians Paul encourages the believers not to be anxious about anything because ‘the Lord is near’. Christ’s presence is with us in every circumstance of life- he is not distant but always close to us.
Looking at the situation globally, we might well describe it using the words of Jesus, “distress among nations”; with the strained relations between China and the U.S.A., the ongoing tensions in the Middle East, the prolonged and unwinnable war in Afghanistan, and the millions of refugees. In our own nation we have plenty of apparently unsolvable problems, including a Federal Parliament in some disarray. Faced with this situation there are two common responses: one is despair and the other is dissipation. We can retreat and disengage because it all seems too difficult or we can take the ‘eat, drink and be merry’ attitude that Jesus warns against in this passage. Verse 34 in the Eugene Peterson paraphrase has, “Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping.” Advent calls us to a different response: ‘Stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption is near’. Christians believe that there is a future for planet earth- God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. We look forward to a world redeemed, set free, restored to God’s perfect plan. From Moses to Martin Luther King Jr. history has given us examples of men and women who had the vision to see the promised land from a distance, trust in the promise of a better future and as a result found the present not just endurable but hopeful. The day before Martin Luther King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet he preached that famous sermon in which he said: “we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. …. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land. …… Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
I don’t think you could have a better summary of the message of Advent. Amen.