Thursday, 9 December 2010

Advent 2: The end of the world is nigh?

Isaiah 11.1-10, Matt 3.1-12

One of the great things about having a number of different people preaching in our church “team” is that sometimes you can pick up a thread from a colleague’s sermon and carry it through to your own, and that’s what I want to do this week. Last Sunday Stephen preached about the sense of expectant waiting that Advent tells us to have. He reminded us of the two Greek words for time. There is chronos – the steady, predictable time that ticks past, second by second, hour by hour. But there is also kairos, which is the word the Greeks used to talk about a special moment, a turning point, a time when something significant happens that changes everything.

Stephen was preaching on a passage from Matthew’s Gospel which talked about the Day of Judgement, something which the early church believed was just around the corner. On that day, said the reading “two will be in the field; one will be taken and one left.” Normal time – chronos – would be broken into by kairos time, a special moment. It set me thinking about the whole idea of this Day of Judgement, the Second Coming, the End of the Age. I wondered what we thought about it, how we understood it, whether it mattered, and if so, why.

My guess is that most of us don’t think about it much at all, and we certainly don’t talk about it- we’re afraid people will think we are a bit odd if we do. Apparently, by the way, the latest prediction is that Jesus will return on May 21 next year. I read it on the internet, so it must be true… I just thought I’d pass it on, in case you are planning next year’s holidays…
This date was worked out by a man named Harold Camping, but it is just the latest in a long line of similar predictions. The Baptist preacher William Miller predicted that Jesus would come back on October 22 1844, and he said it with such conviction that his followers gave away all their homes and possessions – what use would they be in the new world? This little episode is now known to church historians as The Great Disappointment…

The doctrine of the Second Coming can seem ridiculous to us; it is easily hijacked by people with very strange agendas. But it is there in the Bible, and in our Creed too – Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” we say each week. It’s got deep roots in Christian thought, and that might mean that there is something in it which we really need to think about and reclaim.

So, what does the Bible say about it? Quite a lot, actually. The problem is that it says a lot of different things about it. It is easy to find predictions about the end of the world in the Bible, but it is impossible to make one coherent picture out of them. If they were jigsaw puzzle pieces we would soon conclude that they’d all come out of different boxes – you just can’t fit them together. That’s because they have come out of different boxes. They were written by different authors at different times for different reasons. Those authors really only wanted to help their people deal with what faced them; they weren’t trying to provide us with a timeline for the apocalypse.

So for example, we read about the Rapture in Matthew’s Gospel, but then we read the Book of Revelation, and where is the Rapture in that account? It’s not there at all. It is quite a different scenario. And what about Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which talks of God in Christ being “pleased to reconcile to himself ALL things, whether on earth or in heaven.” (Col 1.20). It’s a picture of universal healing and redemption. There is no sorting of sheep and goats, no lakes of fire for those who don’t make the grade.

In today’s readings we have yet more visions of the end times. There’s Isaiah, who speaks of God establishing justice, of a time when even the animals will live in peace – the lion and the lamb lying down together. His vision has no angelic beings or last trumps. It’s about flesh and blood, politics and economics. It is set in the world he knows, even if it is a transformed world, not in some heavenly realm.

Then there’s John the Baptist in the Gospel, calling people to get ready for the kingdom of heaven which was coming to birth among them even as he spoke. His vision is of a new community, one where you don’t need to be a descendent of Abraham, ethnically Jewish, to belong. It is for everyone who wants to be part of it. Anyone can be grafted into the family tree and be called a child of God.

These are all visions of the future, descriptions of what the writers think it will be like when God intervenes, establishes his rule, sorts things out, but they are very different visions, both in detail and in mood. Some are strange and mystical, some are down to earth, some are dramatic and sudden, some speak of a gradual unveiling of God’s kingdom. We would be foolish to take any of them literally as predictions of the future – which one would we choose? And yet there are a couple of common threads which run through all these visions, and it is the common threads, rather than the details which I think give us wisdom for our own age.

The first common thread is that all these visions are set against times of trouble, written for people who urgently need hope and strength. Isaiah wrote when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. Matthew wrote his Gospel just after the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70 and the book of Revelation comes from a decade or so later, during another period of savage persecution. For those who first heard these words the present was hard, and the future was terrifying. Could anything ever change? Yes, said the Biblical writers. God had not forgotten them. They might think they were staring at disaster, the end of everything, but God was at work to bring about a new beginning.

Our lives might seem safer but the reality is that we face just as many challenges as they did. There are global challenges: climate change, terrorism, increasing conflict around the world over natural resources as well as completely unpredictable natural disasters. Then there are personal threats, which can feel just as devastating. Illnesses or bereavements strike out of the blue, and though they are individual tragedies, they can still feel like the end of the world to those who suffer them. But the words of the Bible in those ancient times of trouble can speak just as loudly to us now. Hold on. God hasn’t forgotten you. He can bring new worlds out of the wreckage of the old ones. Whatever we go through, God goes through it with us.

The second common thread in these writings is that they remind us that there are things we can do to prepare for tough times, even though we don’t know what will happen or when.

I’m what a Critical Incident Chaplain – I’ve even got the vest to prove it. I’m part of a team of clergy who are trained to respond, under Kent’s Emergency Plan, to major disasters. We were all put on “stand-to” this week because of the snow, though fortunately we weren’t needed. The training we get for this emphasizes that we can’t anticipate every possible problem in detail – every incident is different. What we can do, though, is to develop what is known as resilience – good communication networks, confidence and experience so we can adapt and improvise, resources and tools that will be useful. We can think through what might happen and practice our response in advance, so that the skills are there when they are needed. That’s not just good advice for heavy snowfall, it is good advice for the rest of life too.

I’ve never actually had to put on this vest for real in a genuine disaster, but my day job, as a parish priest involves helping people deal with personal crises on a regular basis – sudden deaths, serious illness, family breakdown and so on. They are all Critical Incidents to the people concerned, private apocalypses. Everyone struggles when these things happen to them, but I have noticed that some seem more resilient than others, and it is usually because of the habits they have built up over the years, habits which pay rich dividends when times are tough.The habit of prayer and reflection helps them keep things in perspective and draw on God’s strength and comfort. The habit of forgiveness and generous love towards those around them protects them from getting bogged down in resentment and recrimination. The habit of keeping their eyes open to God means that they can find him in even the grimmest of times. These are habits that take time commitment and practice to establish if they are to be deep rooted and secure, which is why during times like Advent and Lent you’ll find me producing material for reflection, or inviting you to groups or special services. They are ways in which we can begin to build these habits or practice them together.

Learning these habits often means we need to change, or as John the Baptist puts it, to repent. That’s a word that might sound a bit severe to us, but the Greek word he uses – metanoia - isn’t one which necessarily implies sackcloth and ashes or grovelling in shame. It literally means to change your mind, your attitude to life, to decide to live differently. Do that, he says, and you will find yourself bearing fruit worthy of repentance, fruit which will sustain you in the tough times, and make you ready to find God at work and work with him.

I don’t know how or when the world will end, and neither did the writers of the Bible, but I do know that, as today’s collect puts it, God wants to “come among us and with great might succour us”, giving us the help we need. The question which faces us is whether we have that same desire, whether we are ready to open the door and let him in.

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