Sermon - 2nd December 2012
Scripture - Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video]
We live in difficult times: you’ve only got to listen to the news, read a paper or observe the world around us. There is war in Syria, on-going conflict in Gaza and Afghanistan, oppression in many countries, grinding poverty at home and abroad fuelled by the economic problems that we’re seeing in the UK at the moment. The central government cuts in spending make life difficult for many but our austerity measures are nothing compared to what is happening in Spain, Portugal and Greece where there is increasing social unrest and, in Spain, moves to break up the Kingdom. Different motivations are leading to calls for this realm to be divided. I don’t know whether these moves away from nation states are a good or bad thing, but they do introduce notions of change and uncertainty into our thinking.
But the difficult times affect the Church too. The public perception of us is that, at best, we’re irrelevant or, at worst, dangerous. The recent decision of the Church of England not to consecrate women as bishops has made the rest of us look daft too – even those of us who come from traditions which think that bishops are not a good idea in the first place! We live in a world of great social change and complexity. In an age of mass immigration and a search for authentic spirituality, religions other than Christianity have grown at astonishing rates in the UK whilst fewer and fewer people are interested in the Church. The decline in the numbers of people going to Church have made all the denominations think deeply about finance, sustainability, and survival and mission.
Now all this is challenging, interesting, depressing and frustrating, but it’s the world we live in – or at least it's part of the truth of the world we live in. But this context gives rise to different reactions amongst religious people – who often don’t deal with change very well. Some religious folk like to offer simple answers to the complexity of the world in which we live and here - I hope I’m not being unfair - is where I’d probably cite our street preachers. In a changing, complex and difficult world they offer a simple way of coping and understanding – one that many people find satisfying.
The readings in Advent remind us of serious things but they also remind us to see these things from a perspective of ultimate security in God’s love. We are given the twin poles of ultimate fear and ultimate security to work through. Street preachers often seem to work from the pole of fear but I think the situation we find ourselves in is more complex.
Jeremiah’s age was also complex, dangerous and full of unwelcome change and there was the ever-present temptation to offer easy answers. He was the son of a priest, but an outsider to the power circles in Jerusalem as he lived 2 miles out of Jerusalem. He lived in a time of great insecurity for the Jews due to threats to overrun them by surrounding powerful nations – the superpowers of Babylon and Assyria rumbled in the not too far off distance in the North, and Egypt was the main power to the south with Israel and Judah caught in the middle.
Jeremiah’s ministry was often about warning the leaders not to put their trust in foreign alliances but in God. The simple solution of the time was to form strategic alliances with the superpowers; yet Jeremiah’s message was much harder – to trust in God not in others. He didn’t reassure the people that all would be well but, instead, spoke God’s truth into the troubled situation of his day and, as a result, became rather unpopular. He held out a vision even when the people couldn’t understand it.
In a time of national fear and insecurity it’s difficult to talk sense. After the dreadful events of 9/11 in America no amount of common sense would stop the Americans launching a disastrous war with Iraq – they were attacked and they wanted revenge, and those with the prophetic ministry who pointed out the insanity of it all were ignored. Our own leaders followed the same policies and the cost was high.
In Jeremiah's time the forces arrayed against stability and security were formidable: the Assyrian power was at its height, threatening the people of Israel. Jeremiah spoke the word of the Lord under three rulers of Judah, warning against listening to the wrong voices. He told King Josiah not to side with Egypt. He castigated false prophets during the next reign, preaching that failure to obey the Lord would bring the nation to ruin. He urged King Zedekiah not to fight the Babylonians. In the end, no one heeded Jeremiah's warnings. When he was about 35 years old and seasoned as a prophet, Assyria was finally defeated by a coalition of peoples including the Babylonians. This did not usher in a peaceful time for Judah; everyone was exiled to Egypt, including Jeremiah.
His message was about avoiding easy answers to complex questions, to avoid seeing human alliances in foreign policy as a source of security, and to trust in God’s ultimate purpose for the people. In this context of his wider message we can make some sense of today’s short extract from his teaching. In the context of political unrest, disastrous world events and the threat of exile, Jeremiah looks to a future of safety and security in God’s own time. A time when the promises of old would be fulfilled and a righteous leader would be raised up to lead the people. Christians have always understood this prophecy to refer to Jesus, and many of the traditional advent songs make references to Jesus being descended from David.
In our reading from St Luke we have a rather gloomy set of sayings from Jesus. He talks about reading the signs of the times and being alert to the signs of the coming Kingdom – but the signs are difficult to read. Christians have, since the earliest days of the Church, anticipated Jesus' return and have interpreted wars and rumours of wars and unrest as signs of the imminence of Jesus’ return.
This isn’t part of the vocabulary of most Christians – the type of Christians that speak a lot about Jesus’ return make us as uncomfortable as do the Street Preachers. Yet the Bible and the classic Creeds of the Church clearly state that Christ shall return; liturgical churches that celebrate Holy Communion every week normally assert, “Christ had died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” in the middle of the Communion liturgy – and this is one of the oldest parts of the liturgy. Wesley, in the song we started worship with, clearly used the imagery of today’s Gospel reading to inform the first verse of his hymn.
Jesus foretold the coming of the kingdom and that it will come in all its fullness at the end of time when he returns. In the meantime we have to be patient, watch, wait and be alert to the signs of that coming Kingdom. Jesus is clear in this passage that his Second Coming will appear like a trap and that we should pray for the strength to stand before him. Again, we are faced with two poles: the pole of the fear of facing His coming judgement; and the pole of security in our ultimate knowledge that because we are in Christ – that is faithful to following him, holding fast to him and his message – we can be confident in his love.
Signs of the Kingdom
So what are the signs of the Kingdom that we watch for? It’s easy to watch for the apocalyptic signs of wars, famine, oppression, and the rest as we see them transmitted into our homes, onto our phones and computers and into our radios. But the signs of the Kingdom are perhaps more subtle.
We see the kingdom coming every time we do what Jesus told us to do – his most famous parable of the Kingdom in St Matthew 25 tells us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty and visit the imprisoned. Much of Jesus’ ministry was about proclaiming justice – not because it was trendy or because of an embryonic Human Rights Act but because justice is a hallmark of God’s righteousness: justice is what is expected by God of His people.
For Jesus the command to love and serve the poor, the command to love our neighbour as ourselves (and to expand our vision of who our neighbours are) goes hand in hand with the idea of being faithful disciples and being close to God. Many churches emphasise discipleship as a set of spiritual exercises – Bible reading, retreats, even fasting, and regular prayer. Others emphasise the “social gospel” of loving neighbour in practical acts of service. For Jesus these are two sides of the same coin – our love of God is expressed in our love of neighbour and the ability to love our neighbour comes from an abundant spirituality and awareness of God’s loving kindness.
And so this Advent as we reflect on Jesus’ coming among us as a weak helpless babe and as we reflect, perhaps more uncomfortably, on his return in glory, we should also reflect on how we balance those two aspects of our discipleship – the need to express our love of God in faithful and selfless service of others and the need to draw strength from a relationship with God which is nurtured by regular prayer and worship. The two disciplines together will help us as we watch and wait for the signs of the Kingdom approaching.