Sermon - 1st December 2013
The Day of the Lord
Scripture - Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Today the Christian Church starts its preparations for Christmas – maybe this seems a little late as the Christmas lights went up in town a few weeks ago, the Christmas market has been going for two weeks, and all the TV adverts are now in full swing.
[PLAY JOHN LEWIS CHRISTMAS ADVERT]
What do you think of the advert? I thought it was rather good and it reminded me a bit of some of the passages in Isaiah about the lion and the lamb lying together in peace.
I liked it as the commercialism was rather subtle; there was the idea of the simpler things in life; some of the tree decorations were a bit ragged around the edges. I smiled when the young fox played with the wrapper of the present more than the present – our dogs do that too.
But I also thought it was rather good as it resonated with the feelings of this season – or at least what we want the feelings to be. There were ideas about living in peace – all those animals who would, probably, most often be dinner for each other, playing and rejoicing, there is the idea of giving and the idea of inclusion.
Of course it’s a John Lewis advert so isn’t going to focus on conspicuous consumption – that wouldn’t fit with the middle class fantasy of going shopping without being swayed by consumerism – and the idea is that we give people a Christmas to remember by buying presents from, of course, John Lewis. But these messages are somewhat secondary to the main meanings people see in the piece.
At the heart of the advert for me is a yearning for peace, for love and companionship, for inclusion, for celebration and for giving. These are basic human needs – we all share a yearning for these things and because of the all the cultural references to Christmas being a time where these things are celebrated the advert is rather powerful. It’s powerful as it taps into this deep human yearning. Maybe we displace that yearning with buying things; maybe we displace that yearning with hoping for the perfect Christmas; maybe we displace that yearning with a search for pleasure: but the yearning is there none the less. Isaiah deals with this yearning too when he casts his vision of the way in which the Lord will come and bring healing.
This passage from Isaiah casts, like all our Advent readings from Isaiah, a powerful vision of the future when God will dwell in the midst of His people. Isaiah, like all the prophets, is able to paint a powerful picture of what is wrong with his society. As we read Isaiah we see his condemnation of false religion, of clergy who encourage the people that all is well when it isn’t, of how people worship God but refuse to obey His commands and so oppress the poor. But Isaiah's message is more than a condemnation of the unjust: it’s also a picture of what God will do about things and what he wants us to do. Isaiah reminds us of the centrality of justice, mercy and discipleship.
His vision of the Last Days has the Jewish Temple as the focal point of humanity. Here people of all races, nations, cultures and ways of life will gather as a pilgrim people to listen to God who will dwell in our midst. Here we will learn of God’s ways of peace and our weapons will be beaten into welcoming signs and our lust for power will be transformed into a desire for peace.
These are powerful visions of an age still to come, an age we desperately want to believe in but find so difficult when we see the world at war, or if not at war then preparing for it. It’s so hard to believe that this vision is any closer to fulfilment when we realise how much money our world spends on weapons, on keeping people out instead of finding a better way to share our resources. It’s hard to believe that this vision will come true when the leaders of the world are so concerned with division, with might, with influence and with warfare as a means of resolving conflict.
Isaiah’s picture of the future is one of justice, peace and unity with God; it connects with our deepest hopes and yearnings – in much the same way that the John Lewis advert does. The advert, like so much of what we do at Christmas, taps into our sense of excitement at this time of year, our yearning for peace, inclusion, love and companionship and harmony in community: hopefully we could see in it a desire for something deeper, something more authentic to our faith and something which comes close to Isaiah’s great vision.
As much as we may long for a day when weapons are laid down, hearts are transformed, and peoples are drawn together, we find it hard to believe that such a day will actually come. Even to speak of the end of time, or of a time beyond time, when God will set everything right, is a stretch for many of us. Isaiah's vision may be even more preposterous than that as he announces that this Day will come in time and history. It’s easier to pin our hopes and dreams on a perfect Christmas than on the failed peace treaties in our world, division in our culture and broken relationships in our own lives. This leads to disappointment and disillusionment. Isaiah offers a different vision, a vision of a future not based on human actions but on God’s sovereign will and intervention; he also calls us to live now in anticipation of that Day – as does Jesus in our Gospel reading.
The Gospel reading reminds us of some of the distinctiveness of Christianity. Many Eastern religions see humanity as trapped in a cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth in a never ending cycle throughout time. Christians, however, see God acting in time and history: at Creation; through the history of the Jewish people; in the person of Jesus; through the Church; and, ultimately, at the consummation of all things when Jesus returns. We look back and think of God’s deeds in the past and we look forward with hope to the final intervention to come at the end of time.
I was reading from a passage by St Cyril of Jerusalem this morning – he was a bishop from the 4th Century who lived and worked in Jerusalem and is acclaimed as a saint by most parts of the Christian Church. The passage I read this morning focused on how most things we reflect on with Jesus have two aspects: we think of his birth in the stable and his coming again at the end of time. The first coming was hidden from view in the obscurity of Bethlehem; the second coming will be before the nations in glory; the first coming involved him being wrapped in swaddling bands; at his second he will be robed in light; in the first coming he endured death on the cross; in the second he will be in glory escorted by angels. In his first coming he did not judge, in the second he will come as judge of the earth.
Jesus reminds us that his return will be unexpected, some will be prepared for it, others won’t. The hymns we sing today remind us of this aspect of our faith and encourage us to live in readiness to greet our Lord again. A little later in St Matthew’s Gospel Jesus preaches about his Second Coming and says that we will be judged on how we have treated the least of those around us – have we fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the imprisoned?
So this Advent as we share in the yearnings of our world for love, companionship, joy, and harmony we show that these things come from a relationship with God and loving service of others as we live what Pope Francis called this week the “joy of the Gospel”. This is more important, more lasting and more fulfilling than the things we so often use to displace that sense of yearning in our lives.
Isaiah proclaimed a glorious vision of the end where, like those animals in the John Lewis advert, we will live in harmony with each other and with creation. Jesus tells us that we cannot predict the day nor the hour of when He will return to fully establish Isaiah’s great vision. In the meantime we work for the coming of the Kingdom, by living with the knowledge that the Kingdom is breaking through, by pointing towards it in our lives and by becoming its heralds as we serve others in Christ’s name.