Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Christmas : The beginning of a marriage between heaven and earth?

To make sense of Christmas, I believe we need to look right to the end of the Bible, to the book of Revelation:

Revelation 21:1-6

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

I would like to see the start of a rebellion.  Now, as we celebrate the birth of the one Christians call the Prince of Peace, this may not be the kind of thing we might expect to be thinking about, but nevertheless, I want to see a rebellion, a rebellion that is against the belief that what you can see, touch, taste, listen to and measure is all that there is.  Such a rebellion could profoundly alter the West.  Our culture is dominated by a belief that reality consists entirely of what is material, and I think it’s time we challenged that with a message that starts at Christmas and finds its fulfilment at Easter, and it is all to do with heaven, or more precisely it’s all to do with heaven and earth.  But when we think of heaven, what are our first thoughts?

Many of us have had to bury loved ones as we have had to come to terms with their deaths.  So for many of us when we think of heaven what we think of is somewhere, far away, where our loved ones now live.  Our natural inclination is to think that heaven is distant because our loved ones seem distant; they’re no longer with us.  But I think we need to change this belief, because it is so very mistaken on two counts.  Firstly because we have come to think of heaven as primarily a place where the souls of our loved ones go when they die, and secondly because that implied distance makes us think heaven is a long way away, when actually I think it is far closer than most of us have ever imagined.  So let’s think about these two points and how heaven relates to Christmas and the Christian understanding of God's plan for humanity and for our future.

The first thing we have to alter is our belief that heaven is primarily where the dead go when they depart this life.  Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the dead don’t go to heaven, but what I think we need primarily to change is our belief that this is the most important characteristic of heaven, because it isn’t.  By far and away the most important thing about heaven is that it is the primary dwelling place of God.  Now it is my belief that the presence of God is felt through every fibre of the material world in which we reside; that God is as much, ‘here’ as he is ‘there’.  However I also have to recognise that if God’s presence was fully realised in this place, then we would lose our free choice of whether to seek him out of not.  We would be overwhelmed by God’s glory.  And so God veils his presence here, but in heaven God resides in all his fullness.  And it is not only God who resides in heaven, but all the angels do too, all the thousands upon thousands of them.  We may think of angels as primarily being messengers that come from heaven to earth but it seems that the limited numbers of accounts about heaven and angels in the Bible suggest otherwise, that there are only a small number that do that.  So the first and most important thing for us to take on board is that God’s full presence is revealed in heaven, and that is it’s main reason for existence, as God’s residence.  Now if we can take that on board, and shift the emphasis away from it being all about where the souls of the living go, then we can also begin to get a grasp on the second point, that heaven is not far away. In fact heaven is actually very close.

Think about it like this, and this is of course a metaphor, but this is just to get an idea of distance.  In this world we think of three different spacial dimensions.  There is up and down, then at ninety degrees to up and down there is left and right, and then at ninety degrees to up and down, and left and right, there’s near and far.  Three sets of dimensions all set at ninety degrees to each other.  But what if we could turn another ninety degrees to those three dimensions?  Bit of a mind-bender that one, but if you can get your head around it, then that would mean that heaven isn’t ‘up there’ somewhere, it’s actually right here, right alongside us, just at a metaphorical ninety degrees to our reality.  Yet there is some evidence for this, such as at the beginning of the book of Revelation.  In chapter one St. John explains that he was in the Spirit on the Sabbath, clearly praying very deeply, when he hears a loud voice from behind him.

From behind, not from above.

Then he writes that he turned to see who was speaking to him, and turned his face to see straight into the face of Christ standing in the midst of heaven.  He turns, he doesn’t have to look up or go anywhere.  He just turns.  Heaven is right there alongside him.  Heaven is right here alongside us.  This chimes far more with me than this idea that God is in his heaven, far away, and sometimes he chooses to come here.  Now that won’t come as a surprise to some of us.  Many people reading this will at some time have had an experience of the presence of God or maybe of an angel, and we know the truth of this, that heaven is close, it’s just that it’s masked from us.

And this is the kind of idea that you find growing throughout the Bible as it begins to become apparent that God created heaven and earth at the same time, right there in Genesis 1:1, and both of them were only ever meant to have a finite existence, to be here for a time and then to pass away.  Heaven is a spatial place which lies alongside this spacial place.  It is a real place, and the deepest presence of God dwells there.  But this is not God’s final plan.  God’s ultimate plan is for heaven and earth to be completely joined, and towards the end of the Bible, in the reading we had from Revelation, God declares that plan, that there will be a new heaven and a new earth because the first heaven and the first earth have passed away.  And the comment there about there being no more sea refers to what they used to think of as the waters of chaos that sat between heaven and earth, dividing them.

In other words the very end of the story of this creation is about a new creation, where heaven and earth are joined and God dwells amongst us.  All of which brings us back to this service because when we celebrate Christmas, what we are celebrating is God making a crucial step in the unifying process by coming to us, born as one of us.  It is supremely difficult for us to access heaven because although 'spatially' it may lay alongside us, in terms of its nature we’re right to think of it as somehow being ‘up’.  Heaven is a place of much greater dynamism than this, making it difficult for us to consider how we could be there.  This is why most of the experiences that we have records of are of people having visionary experiences of heaven rather than actual ones.  So we can’t go ‘there’, but God can come ‘here’...

...and so he did.

To get our head around what that means, consider the amount of emptying out of his power that the Son of God had to do.  The one who created all things, both seen and unseen, was able to set it all to one side, allowing himself to step through reality, to step sideways.  Let’s be honest, it is hard to get our heads around it, but I believe it to be true, that the Son of God, the Word of God who was with God in the beginning of heaven and earth, slipped into this world, born as one of us.  No kings were summoned to the party, just the lowly shepherds, who really were the lowest of the low in that culture, and for them the veil between heaven and earth, so close together, was slipped back as they witnessed the angels singing out of this great mystery, that God should come to earth.

So this is what took place that first Christmas.  Heaven is so close to earth you can almost touch it, especially at those thin places where God’s presence resonates with the surroundings, but at that time and that place they did touch, and by his birth Jesus began to open the door through which heaven could pour in to earth.  This is why Jesus calls himself the way - because he is the way into the presence of God, into God’s dwelling place, so close to ours.  This is why in worship we sometimes feel caught up into heaven, it’s because we actually are!  This is why some of us have glimpsed angels in worship, because we are sharing in an activity that is happening at both places at the same time.

And when we come to Easter we’ll consider how Jesus not only pushed the door between the worlds open, but he pulled it off the hinges.  But for now, this Christmas, let’s start the rebellion.  This world that you see, this isn’t all that there is.  There is so much more laid alongside us.  Christ slipped between the worlds so silently, but it was just the first step in the plan that will one day culminate in heaven and earth being joined.

But for now, for this celebration, it is enough just to remember that heaven is close.  Join the rebellion, because if we start to consider just how close heaven is, then with God’s help, we can change the world.

Friday, 20 December 2013

When doing the right thing is not enough

I find that people often equate being a Christian with doing the right thing.  But does that reduce Christianity to being merely an ethical path? 

Matthew 1 :18-end
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’  All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Going beyond 'the right thing'
Would you like to be a part of the story of our salvation?  That is the challenging question that today’s Gospel reading brings to us, and it all revolves around the story, not of Mary, but of Joseph.  Mary’s story is the one that we always seem to tell at Christmas.  Maybe it’s because children delight in the story of how a young woman had to travel in difficult circumstances in order to have a baby in a stable.  But all of that happening depends on the decisions made by Joseph, a man who is put in an impossible situation.  So let’s consider a little of what takes place in the life of Joseph.  We don’t know much about him, although his absence from the picture of Jesus’s life and ministry have led many people to assume he was older than Mary and had died by the time Jesus was thirty.  We simply don’t have access to that kind of information.  But Matthew does tell us something of supreme importance: Joseph was a righteous man.  This is vital because it tells us something about values.  Joseph was a man who would keep the ten commandments.  He wasn’t anything special, just a builder, a first century peasant trying to make his way in life, and trying to do the right thing.  And so he is engaged to be married to Mary.  Culturally this would have been very different from a modern engagement, and perhaps we don’t always appreciate just how different the culture was.  Let me therefore make it as clear as I can that marriage and sex were inseparable in that culture.  It was unacceptable to have one without the other.  But in the engagement there was no sex.  In fact once they were engaged it would be about a year before they married, and part of that delay may have been to show that they approached marriage in a state of being pure of heart.  In an age before contraception, it would therefore be obvious if they were unable to control themselves.

We have seen sweeping changes in our own cultural understanding of sex and relationships in the last two generations and so for many people today it is difficult to appreciate quite how difficult this was for Joseph and Mary when it became apparent that she was pregnant.  Two things appeared to have happened.  In Luke’s Gospel we learn that very soon after Mary learned she was pregnant she went swiftly to the hill country to stay with her relative, Elizabeth.  Now why would she have done that?  Mothers, who did you most want around you when you first fell pregnant?  Many women, if they have had a good experience of childhood, will say that it was their mother.  So why did Mary literally run to the hills?  I want to suggest that she knew she was in real danger.  You see marriage and sex were so inseparable, and Mary was already engaged to Joseph, that her pregnancy and his denial of being the father put her at risk not just of public humiliation and shame, but of being stoned.  Betrothal was almost as binding as marriage, so if she was pregnant and Joseph declared himself not to be the father, then that would have made Mary an adulteress.

So Joseph knew the risks for Mary, which is why he was going to quietly break it off, so as to not draw attention to her.  But also what about his feelings?  In a culture where virginity before marriage was absolutely sacrosanct, can you imagine how he would have felt?  For any man to  discover that their fiancee was pregnant from another man would be utterly devastating, but even more so when it was such a strong cultural taboo.  He would have felt utterly, utterly betrayed by her.  Now it is a mark of the kind of man that Joseph was that even despite his own feelings he still did not want to expose her to public shame.  How would we have responded I wonder?  That kind of shame usually leads someone to take action to respond to the hurt that has been caused, but Joseph planned to dismiss Mary quietly despite what must have been incredible feeling of turmoil and anger. 

Joseph was a righteous man and he planned to do the right thing.  That is until the angel of the Lord comes to him in a dream and changes everything, and Joseph discovers that the right thing to do is not the righteous thing to do, which presents him with a new and greater challenge.  Now he has to face public ridicule and shame too, because in hastily marrying Mary he is publically owning her pregnancy which would make the others in their tiny village of Nazareth assume that the child was his, in other words that he and Mary hadn’t been able to wait until they were married.  Sex outside marriage did happen from time to time, and children were conceived and the law made it clear that if a man took a woman’s virginity then he must marry her.  To the outside world that would be how it would have seemed, and Joseph would have to bear the shame of people gossiping as he walked by, ‘Look there goes Joseph, the man who couldn’t control himself throughout the betrothal.’  Rumours like that stay with a person throughout their life, and indeed it seems to have followed Jesus.  Thirty years later, in an argument recorded in John 8 where it seems to be that Jesus’s accusers throw at him the charge of being illegitimate.  It seems that as a Rabbi he still had to live with this stigma.

This passage raises a question for us.  I think it asks us about our use of scripture to shape our morals.  Like Joseph, we can live a wholly righteous life according to the rules in the Bible...

...but it might not be enough.

God may ask us to do something else.  This is one of the reasons I have huge problems when people reduce Christianity to ethics or depend utterly on the Bible as a rule book when God sometimes asks us to go beyond the so-called righteous norms.  So when people talk about trying to live a Christian life, you can see the shortcomings of that in the light of Joseph’s experience.  He was a righteous man trying to live a good Jewish life, but it wasn’t enough.  Living ethically may be good for your neighbours, but unless we live both ethically and spiritually we can entirely miss what God is asking us to do.  Thankfully Joseph was a strong enough person to be able to step back from merely doing the right thing and go on instead to do the difficult thing.  And that is what following Christ may demand of us.  We can try and be good people and lead good lives, what we might even call Christian lives, but that may not be sufficient, not if we want to be a part of the story of salvation...

...which brings me back to the question I began with; do we want to be a part of the story of salvation?  Think about Joseph again for a minute.  What if Joseph had not been awake to revelation?  What would the story have been like then?  What if Joseph had just done the right thing because he was not in the state of mind and spirit to hear an angel in a dream?

But he was and his story is a cornerstone of our salvation story.  So let me suggest that if we listen out for revelation from God, then we to may be a cornerstone in someone else’s salvation, and I use the word salvation in a broad sense here.  For example some people may have significant resources which they are generous with according to biblical principles, tithing a certain percentage.  This is biblically the righteous thing to do.  But are they listening for revelation from God to do something else?  Or some people may be good at being friendly but what if they became aware of the call of God to befriend someone difficult?  And believing in Christ may well affect how we live our lives, but what if someone asks us about what we believe?  Are we spiritually aware enough to know what to say?

What we believe should definitely affect our morality, but living a good life may not accomplish the plans God has for us.  Sometimes the challenge is to do something very difficult and in so doing to be a part of the story of salvation for someone else.  Are we awake enough to revelation for that to happen?

Friday, 6 December 2013

One Bible - One God - One Evolving Revelation.

I guess that I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about the Bible.  I have an issue with people reading it as if it was a scientific textbook when in reality it is a library composed of numerous different genres, some poetic, some didactic, some narrative, some prophetic and so on.  All of it was written in a culture different from our own, and so all of these things have to be taken into account when we read it.  That means sometimes we have to wrestle with it...

Reading : Romans 15:4-13
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.  May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.  For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name’;
and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
and again,
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him’;
and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

One God?
Many times I have heard people say something along the lines of, ‘Why do we have to read the Old Testament?’  This is normally backed up by comments about how the God of the Old Testament bears no resemblance to the God of the New Testament, appearing to be somewhat warlike, cruel, and unrecognisable from our picture of the One about whom the New Testament writer St. John wrote, ‘God is love, and those who live in love live in God.’  I think we need to address this for a number of reasons. 

Firstly, in the next few weeks and over Christmas we are going to hear quite a few prophecies from the Old Testament that we will apply to Christ.  My feelings about this are that we should not cherry pick just the bits we like - to do so feels to me like it lacks integrity.  So we either have to forget the prophecies we use at Christmas, or we accept the Old Testament and wrestle with it as a foundation to the story we share.
Because that’s what it is.  Our New Testament reading starts with:
    “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” 

‘Whatever was written in former times’ is what we call the Old Testament, but for Jesus and St. Paul who wrote this letter, that was the only Bible they had; that was their ‘Word of the Lord.’

Secondly, once you start looking at Matthew’s Gospel, the first book in the New Testament, you begin to pick up from the very Jewish feel that he put into his writing that Matthew simply considered he was writing the next book in the evolving story of God’s dealing with God’s people, and in this book the message that had formerly just been for the Jews was now to be taken to the rest of the world.  Matthew didn’t think he was writing the beginning of some New Testament.  As far as he was concerned, this was continuing the same story, not beginning some new story.  And that is perhaps the most important point that we need to get our heads around.  We may call them the Old and New Testaments but they are both parts of the one library of books that we call the Bible.  So if the Old Testament is the foundation on which the New Testament was written, how are we going to deal with it, because deal with it we must since it is a part of our spiritual heritage.

I want to suggest to you that we see it like this, that the Old Testament contains the evolving revelation of the nature of God to God’s people.  It is a story that is told over many generations of upheaval and social change, with some stories being written down long after they actually took place, and when you read it in the chronological order in which it was written it often looks as if their understanding of God evolved as more of God’s nature was revealed to them.  But to read it chronologically is quite difficult.  For example for the last hundred and fifty years or so modern biblical scholarship has recognised probably four different authors with different understandings of and names for God in just the first five books of the Bible, with a fifth group pulling their writings together into what has been called the books of Moses.  Each of these four come from a different time period with different experiences of God but their sections are often mixed together.  If you want to test this for yourself just look at the two different names for God used in just the first two chapters of Genesis.  Each group has its own style and tended towards one of several names for God.  If you want an introduction to this have a look at the wikipedia article on the subject at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Documentary_hypothesis  

Now I recognise that for some this could be disquieting.  But knowing more about the background and the context does not diminish the Bible, it just helps us read it more intelligently.  We have always believed that the Bible was written by people through the Holy Spirit, not dictated by God, so what we are reading in the Old Testament is the experiences of God with cultures very different from our own.  I know that some want the Bible to be a textbook that can be read in any context to teach us something straightforward about God, and lots of it does exactly that.  However there is also much that we have to wrestle with and for those parts we need to know the context in which they were written.  Only then can we see the whole book as a structure that gradually builds towards the revelation of the Son of God coming amongst us.

Let me say just a few more words about how radical this growth in understanding was.  Remember that the culture in which the followers of Yahweh was birthed was a polytheistic one.  We know that the Canaanites, the dominant people of the middle eastern region that came to be Israel, worshipped a multitude of deities.  So it should come as no surprise to us that coming from within that culture there is a strong suggestion in modern scholarship that God’s people had to learn monotheism, but didn’t start with it.  Monotheism was a new thing.  Just like each one of us, they had to seek revelations from God about God’s nature and then gradually change their world-view accordingly.  An awful lot of scholars believe that at the beginning of the Hebrew understanding they were not wholly monotheistic but were in fact henotheistic.  Henotheism is the belief that there are many gods but we worship only one of them.  That suggests that earlier on in Israel’s history the people believed in the existence of gods of the other nations around them, but that Yahweh was their god.  Later on comes the idea that Yahweh was actually the supreme God, and finally comes the belief that Yahweh was the only God. 

In the midst of this were many battles against other nations.  Their god, so they believed, rode out in battle with them against the gods of other nations.  When they defeated an enemy it may have been because they believed Yahweh had defeated the other nation’s god.  Now in that context we can begin to see why God appears warlike, because within the context that those stories arose the nation was battling for its survival.
By the time we get to the exile of the sole remaining Israelite tribe of Judah, the Jews, in Babylon we find the prophets appear to be monotheistic, stating that God had used another nation to judge them.  This is a change from a belief that their God had been defeated and marks a clear monotheism that isn’t so well defined earlier on.

I don’t want to spend ages on this, but just to prove a point, Daniel 11:36 (Daniel is actually quite a late book) refers to the God of gods, and Psalm 82 seems to have similar inclinations as God takes his place in a divine council of deities as their chief God.  (Bear in mind that there are many different ways to understand these passages, some of which are not henotheistic).  There are plenty of other passages too such as the plural God uses in Genesis 1 when God says, ‘Let us make humankind in our image’.  Who did they think he was talking to?  Some have suggested angels, yet angels were created not creators.  Some have suggested an early sense of plurality within God’s singular nature - a forerunner of the Trinity if you like, and others that they believed Yahweh to be chief among the gods and he was speaking to other deities.  The truth is we can never know for certain, we can only follow the lead of theologians who suggest that there is much to be understood and wrestled with in the Old Testament.

The point I am trying to make here is that if we are going to take the Old Testament seriously, which I believe we must, then that also means that we must be prepared to wrestle with it and acknowledge that in order to understand what is written then we need to understand the history surrounding it.  When we do that, and when we read it as St. Paul suggests in this passage, as words of encouragement, then we can see that God’s plan in the Old Testament seems to unfold as gradually, first to individuals and then to a new nation, God reveals who he is, to the best that they can understand within their own context.  Then, as they begin to understand the magnitude of this new monotheism, so God reveals gradually that his plan is for the news about him to be carried into the rest of the world, and those are precisely the passages that St. Paul quotes in the Romans passage; the promises that the message about God was going to spread from Judea to people of other nations, to the Gentiles.

So in a sense the books we call the New Testament are just the next stage in that progression, and this comes out clearly in the Gospel reading as John the Baptiser bursts on to the scene with Matthew affirming that he is the one spoken about in Isaiah, and again we can see that there is continuity here.  Matthew isn’t starting a new book but continuing the progressive revelation from God of who God is that started way back when Abraham encountered him.  And what is more, and again I know this is perhaps controversial, but even though the canon of scripture has been closed, God continues to reveal more of his nature to us through history.  For example there is very scant evidence for a doctrine of God as a Trinity anywhere in the Bible as we understand it now, and where it is mentioned there are suggestions that they may be later additions.  It actually took another four hundred years before the understanding of the Trinity we have today reached its current form.  It’s not fully affirmed in the Bible, though it is strongly suggested, yet in church we recite creeds that make it a clear part of Christian doctrine.

And so it continues in the lives of each one of us, if we choose to do so.  You see I can teach about God from a Christian perspective to the best of my knowledge and from reading the Bible and the theological texts that help interpret it, and that’s a part of what I am called to do.  But each of us needs to experience that personal revelation of God too, and to grow in our own understandings.  We may struggle with an Old Testament image of God as being warlike, yet have you not had times when you have felt as if God was fighting for you?  And some of us may struggle sometimes with what some feel is a little too much of a touchy-feely God, yet in the experience of many of us there are times when in the depths of despair there has been a gentle caring touch of a parent, like one bringing peace in the night to a distraught child.

We see different faces of God in the Bible because God goes far, far beyond our understanding, and we need to recognise that.  If we’re not wrestling with the images of God in the Bible then we’re treating it like a scientific text book that gives us all the answers rather than as a book that should provoke us with more questions to go deeper into our experience of God.  But all of these different images of God in the Old Testament, so it seems to me, are there to focus our attention on Christ.  All of the Bible, from the very beginning of God’s revelation, makes it clear that God desires us to know how close he truly is, and who, because there was no other way to convey it, came even closer to us by being born as one of us, that in all his infinite majesty and love that is beyond us, we might finally begin to understand something of what this God is really like when he empties himself and becomes one of us.

And if we struggle with some of the Old Testament pictures of God, then we will probably also struggle with some of the New Testament pictures of Christ for they are all part of the same story.  We cannot have just the Jesus who blesses the little children without also having the raging Christ who deliberately makes a rope to whip the moneychangers.  We cannot have the Jesus who washes his disciples feet without also having the Christ who curses a fig tree and disowns his family, and also tells people they can’t follow him unless their desire to follow is so strong that it appears that they hate their family.  They are all the same God, revealed to us, and if we’re not struggling with some of these aspects of Christ, then we’re perhaps not seeing the big picture.

I think we struggle with the Old Testament because perhaps we’re cherry picking just the nice bits out of the New Testament.  But they’re all about God, and if we haven’t had to wrestle with some of what the Bible says about God, then maybe we need to read it a little more.  Maybe sometimes we even have to even ask if the context in which they wrote distorted the truth!

So this Advent, as we prepare to receive the nice prophecies about Jesus from the Old Testament, may we be challenged to read the other parts too, because it is all a part of one whole narrative, a narrative that is continuing today.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The end of the world?

My apologies but this is all based on a long reading.  The thing with Jesus's sayings about the end of the world is that there's a reasonable amount of them.  So rather than just picking a little up out of context, here's the whole relevant section.  I've left the verse numbers in because I refer to them from time to time below.

Matthew 24

24As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2Then he asked them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. 5For many will come in my name, saying, “I am the Messiah!”* and they will lead many astray. 6And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines* and earthquakes in various places: 8all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
9 ‘Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. 10Then many will fall away,* and they will betray one another and hate one another. 11And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. 13But anyone who endures to the end will be saved. 14And this good news* of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.

15 ‘So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), 16then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; 17someone on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; 18someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat. 19Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! 20Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath. 21For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. 23Then if anyone says to you, “Look! Here is the Messiah!”* or “There he is!”—do not believe it. 24For false messiahs* and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25Take note, I have told you beforehand. 26So, if they say to you, “Look! He is in the wilderness”, do not go out. If they say, “Look! He is in the inner rooms”, do not believe it. 27For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

29 ‘Immediately after the suffering of those days
the sun will be darkened,
   and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
   and the powers of heaven will be shaken.
30Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory. 31And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

32 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33So also, when you see all these things, you know that he* is near, at the very gates. 34Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 35Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

36 ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son,* but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day* your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

The end of the world?
In my earlier days as a theological student I was forever bombarded with words about which I had no comprehension...

...words like ‘priest’ and ‘church’ and ‘God’.

But in the midst of those were some nuggets of real incomprehension; words like apocalyptic and eschatology.  One of the lecturers saw the worry on my face and said to me, ‘Paul, don’t worry if you don’t know what eschatology is, it’s not the end of the world!’

For those who don’t understand the reference, of course that is exactly what eschatology is, the study of the end of the world, and that which is apocalyptic is actually about revealing what is taking place behind the events in the world and what they mean.  So this is all about the end of the world.

Or is it?

Well actually the truth is that serious theological scholars are utterly divided on what exactly is going on here with some saying that this entire section is all about the end of the world and others saying that absolutely none of it is about the end of the world whilst yet others say that only some of it is about the end of the world.  Since knowing how this world will end and how close we are to that end is something that everyone is interested in, it seemed to me pertinent that we look at the whole section and see what Jesus is actually saying here.  We local clergy were lucky enough to listen to Paula Gooder, a Birmingham based theologian, speaking about this recently, and she takes the third view, that some of this is about the end, and some of it isn’t.  That was a relief to hear for me because that was what I was taught and I haven’t read anything yet to contradict that point of view.  So we’re going to take a whistle-stop tour from two thousand years ago to the end of human history, all contained within one chapter, and then we’re going to ask what it means to us.

The first part of reading was one where you find yourselves feeling a little sorry for the disciples.  They have just arrived in Jerusalem and are awestruck by the Temple.  Bear in mind that by this time construction of Herod’s temple has been going on for decades leading to a colossal building of astonishing beauty, standing more or less where the current Dome on the Rock stands, but something like three times the size.

Alison and I visited Salisbury cathedral for the first time last year and were awe-struck by its beauty and architectural magnificence, but imagine how much greater the effect would have been if we had never seen a cathedral before.  That’s really how it was for the disciples.  So they make a passing comment which is more or less, ‘Wow Jesus, have you ever seen anything like this?’  It’s just a passing comment, no big deal, but you have to feel sorry for them by the way Jesus leaps in with a prophecy that has probably been on his lips for some time, waiting for an opportune moment.  The shocking news that this amazing new temple will fall leads the disciples to ask two questions, when will this happen and what will be the signs of the end of the age?

We need to recognise that there are two questions here, not one, and that the answers Jesus gives relate to both questions.  His first answer is a broad brush stroke painting of history, warning people not to pay attention to false signs and to expect persecution in the coming generations.  We forget, because this is a so-called Christian country, that Christians in other nations are imprisoned and executed for their faith today, not to mention the hideous ordeals that the early Christians went through.  It is from verse 15 that we start to get into the meat of the passage when Jesus warns that when the desolating sacrifice stands in the holy place then everyone should run away from Jerusalem as fast as possible because a great disaster is about to befall them.  The question is, what is this desolating sacrifice?  When the prophet Daniel used the term it referred to an incident between the Old and New Testaments when Antiochus IV Epiphanes set up an altar to Zeus in the Temple and sacrificed pigs on it around the year 167 BC.  But that event was in the past when Jesus spoke.  So what was he referring to, even though he was quoting directly from Daniel, a book that was very popular in Jesus’s time?  Well I can promise you that whole books, indeed whole theologies have been constructed around this statement, and the matter is still not settled.  However most modern serious Biblical scholarship believes that Jesus was referring to the armies of Rome beginning to mass around Jerusalem in AD66 for the most appallingly long siege, and their ultimate placing of their standards in the temple when they finally captured it.  In other words he was simply warning them not to get drawn into nationalistic fervour when they saw the Roman army start to gather, because God wasn’t going to bring about his new kingdom through war with the Romans.  Instead they should get out of Jerusalem and run for the hills because God’s judgement was coming on the city, and that they should pray that it wouldn’t come in winter and that they wouldn’t have small children to care for. 

So this middle section isn’t actually about the end of the world at all!  It’s all about the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, event that took place between AD66 and AD70.  But then in verse 29 Jesus shifts his focus abruptly to what does indeed appear to be about the end of the world as he tells of cosmic signs in the heavens.  Again we simply have no consensus as to what this means.  It may be colourful language in the style of  Jewish Apocalyptic, the same style that John wrote Revelation in, to predict massive social upheaval, or it may have a more literal meaning that there will be astronomical signs.  I can’t tell you which because even the best scholars are divided on this one.  We don’t even know what the sign of the Son of Man appearing in heaven will mean.  Again there is no consensus.  The only thing we can actually be sure about is that the text indicates that at some point God will send Christ once again, only not to be born as a baby as at Christmas but to come with power in such a way that it is unmistakeably him.

But when will this happen?

That’s the other question the disciples asked and it’s one that every believer wants to know.  When will the end of the world come?  You can find books and websites geared up to making this prediction.  So let us be absolutely and totally clear on this because Jesus made it very clear.  No one knows, not even Jesus.  And if he doesn’t know then we can’t.  How many stories have we read in the newspapers about people who have exposed themselves as crackpots for making predictions about the end of the world?  No one knows when it will happen and Jesus makes it clear that life will be going on as normal when it does happen.  In other words most people will be caught out.  But not, he says, us, if we’re careful.  So what are we to do with this array of stories?  Well to be honest it strikes me that this is a very good time in human history to be putting all of this together because we are able to use the records of the past to judge the reliability of the predictions of the future by the way earlier predictions appear to have come true.  For example, the Old Testament is littered with predictions of the arrival of Jesus as an earthly incarnation.  Yes, if we read them with integrity so we can see that many of those passages have two points of focus, one close up and one far off.  Many of the prophecies that we read as predicting the birth of Jesus were fulfilled firstly by the coming of others to the Jewish people, anointed as God’s servants, as what we might think of as types of Christ; forerunners.  When Jesus himself arrived he fulfilled or re-fulfilled a significant proportion of them.  But not all of them.  Some of them suggested that God’s anointed one, his Messiah or Christ, would come in power, something that Jesus most definitely did not do.  Yet here Christ himself talks about the Son of Man coming in great power to mark the end of this age, and so we have evolved a doctrine of the second coming, that the Old Testament prophecies were indeed all true but marked two separate roles for God’s anointed servant.  The first was his incarnation as a lowly child of Mary and the second was his return at the end of the age.  It is to these prophecies of return that Jesus is referring in this passage.  But as we have seen, some of them refer to the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD70 when the Romans utterly destroyed the newly completed Temple and not to the end of the world.

There is a fairly clear pattern for us here.  If Jesus’s birth fulfilled half of the Old Testament prophecies about him, and if he himself added prophecies about the fall of Jerusalem, then shouldn’t we be taking seriously his claim that he will return one day in power?

And that is really the point of all of this.  Parts of the Old Testament predict his arrival as one who comes almost silently and gently.  That happened.  He predicted the fall of Jerusalem, and that happened.  So if he says that one day he’s coming back, well shouldn’t we be taking notice?  So when will it happen?  Well therein lies the problem.  Jesus made it clear that even he didn’t know.  Only God the Father knew. And the Father was keeping the knowledge to himself.  You can understand why because not knowing encourages us to live in a particular way, which is in a state of waiting readiness, observing the signs of the age.

The whole meaning of this entire chapter can be brought down to just two words at the beginning of verse 42: ‘Keep awake.’

But what exactly does he mean by that? 

A group of us debated this during the week and one person explained her fear that maybe this meant we were supposed to live every day as if it were our last, because if that was the case she’d have to spend every day on the ‘phone to her relatives telling them how much she loved them.  Well maybe we shouldn’t put off telling people what they mean to us, but personally I don’t think that’s really what it’s about. 

To me this passage asks us a fairly simple question: Are we living each day to the fullness of how it should be lived?  Are we trying to live holy and complete lives within the boundaries of the cards that have been dealt to us?  Are we putting things off day after day that need to be dealt with?  Are we conveying our love to the people who matter to us?  Are we praying and growing spiritually?  Or are we simply coasting - waiting for something to happen?

The truth is that no one knows when the end will come, and now I’m not speaking about the end of the world, but about the end of our lives.  Each of us prays that we will reach the end having had all of our allotted time span and with no regrets, but there are no guarantees that this will happen.  Most of us have lives touched by unexpected death or loss of health.  So I want to suggest that this passage is asking us to live lives that are filled with expectation as we wait for the return of Christ, whilst living out each day to its fullest as we explore what Christ has asked of us, using the gifts he has given us.

Advent is meant to be a time of waiting, but that isn’t meant to be sitting around metaphorically reading a book or watching a film as we wait for something to happen.  It is meant to be about a waiting which involves an active preparation for the events that are to come.  So as we wrap the presents and send the cards, as we plan the Christmas dinner and put up the decorations, we should ask ourselves this question:- Are we putting as much active spiritual effort into actively waiting for Christ by the way we live and pray as we are putting physical effort into waiting for Christmas?  If the Turkey isn’t basted and the potatoes aren’t peeled then it won’t be ready for Christmas, and if the prayers aren’t said and the lives aren’t lived, when our time comes, neither will we be ready to meet Christ.  Just two words sum up all of this, the words of Jesus to his disciples: Keep Awake.