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Advent 1 The Kingdom of God is near.

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.

Philip Brad­ford