St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Alert but not alarmed

Alert but not alarmed

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, 1st Sunday in Advent, 3rd. Decem­ber 2017

Read­ings: Isai­ah 63.15–64.12; 1 Cor. 1.3–9; Mark 13.33–37

The word, ‘Advent’ means com­ing or arrival but Advent for most people means the time to pre­pare for Christ­mas- it means end of year activ­it­ies, Speech Days, Christ­mas pageants, Christ­mas parties, and shop­ping. For Chris­ti­ans, the busi­ness of the sea­son means that it is often dif­fi­cult find­ing time to reflect on the mean­ing of the incarn­a­tion: the great mys­tery at the heart of our faith that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.’ But on this first Sunday in Advent, the focus of our New Test­a­ment read­ings is not so much on the first com­ing of Christ but on his Second Com­ing, when in the words of our Advent col­lect, “he shall come again in his glor­i­ous majesty to judge the liv­ing and the dead.”

Grow­ing up in Baptist Church we were often being reminded of the Second com­ing of Christ. It was a con­stant theme in ser­mons and once a year we had a whole week­end devoted to this top­ic, usu­ally involving a vis­it­ing Pas­tor from the South­ern Baptist Con­ven­tion in Amer­ica. These vis­it­ors were par­tic­u­larly wed­ded to a view of the Second Com­ing of Christ known as the rap­ture. On the basis of a very lit­er­al inter­pret­a­tion of a couple of verses in Rev­el­a­tion Chapter 20 they believed that Christ’s Second Com­ing would be pre­ceded by all the Chris­ti­ans on earth being sud­denly swept up into heav­en leav­ing the world to a des­ol­ate future. As a child, liv­ing in Seaforth and some­times trav­el­ling on the bus with my Mum, to and from Wynyard where my Dad worked, the pos­sib­il­ity of los­ing our bus driver while the old double-deck­er was trav­el­ling at speed down the Spit Hill was a truly fright­en­ing pro­spect. You wanted to be sure you were on the side of the angels’ in that scenario.

Becom­ing an Anglic­an many years later I was sur­prised to find that one rarely heard a ser­mon about Christ’s Second Com­ing. It was usu­ally avoided or glossed over des­pite its appear­ance in the Scrip­ture read­ings and the creeds. Today the situ­ation has changed and fright­en­ing scen­ari­os about the world’s future and apo­ca­lyptic lan­guage are now com­ing from the mouths of sci­ent­ists who warn of the danger to the plan­et from cli­mate change, and our con­tinu­ing pol­lu­tion and exploit­a­tion of our envir­on­ment. If you read the earli­er part of Mark 13 you will find Jesus’ warn­ing of future events: “When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must hap­pen but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation and king­dom against king­dom. There will be earth­quakes in vari­ous places and fam­ine.” We hear some of our sci­ent­ists paint­ing pic­tures of the planet’s future in terms not unlike the words of Jesus.

So what are we to believe about the Second Com­ing of Christ and how should we pre­pare for the future? What does it mean to watch and to be alert? Today’s read­ings may give us some clues. First it has been poin­ted out by recent schol­ars like Tom Wright that the emphas­is in Mark 13 is not on the dis­tant future but on the imme­di­ate future. The chapter begins with one of Jesus’ dis­ciples point­ing out to him the beauty and mag­ni­fi­cence of the temple.  His unex­pec­ted response is to make the dra­mat­ic state­ment that everything they are look­ing at will be torn down and there will not be one stone left on anoth­er. It was an incred­ibly bold state­ment. Ima­gine a politi­cian or some oth­er pub­lic fig­ure declar­ing to an audi­ence that the Har­bour Bridge will be torn down and swept into the har­bour. It would be front page news. The temple was a far great­er icon­ic build­ing than the Har­bour Bridge is to us. It rep­res­en­ted to the Jew­ish believ­er God’s pres­ence with his people. The loss of the first Temple cen­tur­ies before had plunged Israel into a long peri­od of self-exam­in­a­tion and reflec­tion- their whole iden­tity had been chal­lenged and brought into ques­tion. Know­ing the forces at work in the Israel of his day and the grow­ing talk of rebel­lion against Rome, Jesus could see that his own gen­er­a­tion faced a sim­il­ar pro­spect. The hope for the future lay not in war but in repent­ance and renew­al through trust in God’s Mes­si­ah. Much of the lan­guage of Mark 13 can be read as hav­ing ref­er­ence to the cata­clys­mic events of the second half of the first cen­tury: includ­ing the increas­ing instabil­ity in the Roman Empire: after the sui­cide of Nero in 68 A.D. four Emper­ors fol­lowed in rap­id suc­ces­sion and the much vaunted ‘Roman Peace’ pro­claimed by Augus­tus was cor­roded from the inside. And in Israel there was the ill- fated Jew­ish revolt bring­ing on the sub­sequent destruc­tion of Jer­u­s­alem and the temple in A.D.70. This read­ing of chapter 13 of Mark makes sense of the oth­er­wise puzz­ling verse, “Truly I tell you this gen­er­a­tion will not pass away until all things have taken place.”

But although the focus in this chapter is clearly on the imme­di­ate future for Israel the chapter ends with a call to watch­ful­ness, to be alert for that future day when the Lord will return. Jesus says, “Be on guard, be alert, you do not know when that time will come.”  These verses are rel­ev­ant to Chris­ti­ans in every age includ­ing our own. The New Test­a­ment affirms that his­tory has a goal- it is not mean­ing­less but is mov­ing towards the com­ing of the Son of Man when He will com­plete what he has begun and ful­fil all that He has prom­ised. Every gen­er­a­tion of Chris­ti­ans has been able to point to events which are unset­tling and which could be taken as ful­fil­ment of Jesus’ words in Mark 13 and sim­il­ar passages.

Many times Chris­ti­ans have echoed the words of Isai­ah from today’s Old Test­a­ment read­ing: “Oh,that you would rend the heav­ens and come down, that the moun­tains would tremble before you.”  Isai­ah had wit­nessed the destruc­tion of the first temple and the exile of God’s people, he longed for the day of redemp­tion. We live in a troubled world where wars, and nat­ur­al dis­asters are always with us. These things should not lead us to des­pair or unsettle our resolve to be found ready for that day when we will stand before the Son of Man. To bor­row words of a pre­vi­ous Prime Min­is­ter, ‘we are to be alert but not alarmed.’ We are not to spec­u­late about times and dates or likely scen­ari­os but nor are we to be com­pla­cent and dis­trac­ted. Luke’s Gos­pel has a chapter (21), very like Mark 13 which con­cludes with words (v.34) that Eugene Peterson para­phrases in a way we can all relate to: “But be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expect­a­tion be dulled by parties and drink­ing and shop­ping. Oth­er­wise that Day is going to take you by com­plete sur­prise.” The sea­son of Advent reminds us that we live in the time between times, between what is dying and what is being born, between the already of Christ’s king­dom begun on earth and the ‘not yet’ of its ful­fil­ment with his return.

How then should Chris­ti­ans live? Writ­ing to the Cor­inthi­an Chris­ti­ans, Paul encour­ages them with the words, You do not lack any spir­itu­al gifts as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blame­less on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Much of our wait­ing in life, is bor­ing and tedi­ous-we wait for a bus that is late, we wait in the doctor’s wait­ing room, we wait for the nbn. But our wait­ing for the Son of Man is not like that-it is eager, inten­tion­al wait­ing, know­ing that we have a task to do. We live in obed­i­ence to the com­mands Jesus has giv­en us. We are to love God and love our neigh­bours as ourselves. We are to share by word and action the Good News we have received of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.   We are to pre­serve and pro­tect the earth that God has entrus­ted to our care. We are called to be those who pre­pare our world for its com­ing deliv­er­ance and renew­al. In the midst of our sum­mer haze and the busy­n­ess of the Advent sea­son, Jesus sum­mons us to wake­ful­ness, to stand up and look up. “Christ has died, Christ is ris­en, Christ will come again.” Amen.

Philip Brad­ford