Writings from the ministry team
for your refreshment
Advent Sunday 2016 Second coming
Are you looking forward to Christmas? I know I am, because I hope we will be settled our new home then. But seriously, are you looking forward? The first commentary that I opened on these passages began like this: “Looking back on the good old days merely makes you nostalgic. Looking forward, believing that 'the best is yet to come' gives us hope and draws us on.” I really could not better those words, especially now as Mike and I come to the end of our very long time here with this church. We will always look back with fondness at our time here and have wonderful memories – and we look forward because we know we are following God’s will for us.
Today is the first day of the church’s calendar. The church year always starts with the preparations for the coming of Jesus and in most of the Western church, lasts for the 4 weeks before Christmas. Some Orthodox churches have the Advent period for 40 days starting on 15th November. But for our purpose today, I’m saying 4 weeks. We mark the passing of the weeks with 5 candles – one is lit each Sunday and the fifth is lit on Christmas day. The candles are representative, and depend on your local tradition as to which represents what. That could include (in no particular order): Isaiah and all the prophets, the people of God; the Bible which is the Word of God; Mary, the mother of Jesus – perhaps reminding us that Jesus was completely human as well as completely divine and John the Baptist acclaiming the coming of Jesus, of course, the fifth is Jesus, the light of the world. There are special prayers for the Sundays of advent, special hymns, etc. Even the secular world marks the passing of this season with its chocolate filled advent calendars – it is getting quite hard to find one with a Christian message nowadays.
So, we are looking forward, not backwards. We are not looking forwards, however, to a baby being born and laid in an animal feeding trough. That happened a long time ago and would be looking backwards – yes, it gives a nice sense of nostalgia. But we, we are looking forward to something quite different.
Looking around the world today, it is easy to see a very fallen world. Paul advises us not to pass time “carousing, and drunk, in sexual immorality and debauchery, dissension and jealousy”. Yet, that is what the world seems intent on doing. One time, last year I missed the night boat in Portsmouth and found myself looking for a hotel at 11 o’clock at night. I really don’t mind telling you that I was quite frightened. The crowds outside the pubs and night clubs seemed friendly and good natured – but I was very aware of my vulnerability being alone and wheeling a suitcase. Drunkenness, debauchery, probably sexual immorality and dissention surged around me. I felt very lonely and vulnerable. Christians in a fallen world are as alone amid sin, as I was that night.
Jesus warns us that the old order of the world is coming to an end and to be ready for the new order. He has told his disciples some signs to look out for, but adds this warning that we have read today. We do not know when. No one knows when it will happen. Over the centuries many people have theorised about when it will happen. Some have tried to interpret signs – from Roman chariots to German tanks to crazy mathematical calculations and simple banners that claim the end is nigh.
The reality is that no-one knows, not even Jesus himself. Only God knows when. So we have to be ready. As Jesus himself says, if you know when a burglar is coming, you will be ready to prevent him. We need that kind of readiness all the time. On the watch, and living every day in a way that is right with God.
Paul warns us that salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. That is, I think one of the best thoughts on this subject. Get ready, the time is coming and with every passing moment, the day gets closer. Since time began, we have been running out of time.
But I’m going to focus for a while on Isaiah. At this time of year, we read regularly some of his prophecies because he has so many regarding the birth of Jesus. This book, this collection of prophecies, is the largest in the bible, it sits physically in the middle and is worth opening and just reading bits of it regularly and studying them.
Isaiah himself lived at a crucial time, midway between the building of the kingdom under Saul and David and its eventual destruction. A civil war had split the Israelites and the Judeans. At that time, Israel was doing “OK, thank you”. It seemed strong and wealthy. But Isaiah saw signs of danger. Power was being abused; men were getting drunk, women cared too much about their clothes; they gave lip service to God but not much more. The land was vulnerable to surrounding armies, and monster empires were growing on the doorstep.
Now, I don’t know about you – but that feels very familiar. All over the world, especially in the west, there is this sense of we are “OK, thank you”. We have wealth, we have power. All around we see instances of power being abused – sexual immorality – I know that I am sickened by these cases of abuse of children, boys as well as girls. People in power abusing the vulnerable. We read daily of drunkenness and drug abuse in our big cities, and as for the world of fashion – never look at as designer collection, the prices for unwearable clothes is nauseating.
People chip in a bit for the Telethon, Children in Need, Band Aid, Red Nose Day, etc. and then they feel good about themselves. But they shut their eyes to the danger surrounding us.
Right now, the Western world is starting to feel frightened of the threats from the Middle East – and is doing what? Closing its borders. Protecting its way of life and keeping outsiders away. Recent elections and votes have opened the doors to xenophobia (at best) and outright racism (at worst). The trouble with shutting out the outsiders, is that the world’s poor is knocking on our doors. The world will need to repent of all that one day.
What can we do, a small band of faithful Christian believers? Well, we can be ready. We can pray constantly in real repentance for the world and its leaders. This period of Advent is comparable to Lent in terms of fasting and repentance. It’s difficult in a world with multi-coloured decorations, lights and Christmas themes, but we should try.
We can show by our example that when God comes, we are a refuge for the poor and needy. We can support – not just with money given to charity, but in prayer and occasional letters of encouragement. We are older, but it should not stop us encouraging people who are younger and more energetic in their work to relieve poverty and homelessness.
Isaiah says that in the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established. In other words, when God calls a halt to the mess people are making of his creation, then his kingdom will be established. And what a kingdom it will be. People will want to be there, they will beg to be taught God’s ways. The law will go outwards – not the Mosaic Law of Isaiah’s time, but God’s laws of God’s time, rules for righteous living. God will judge between nations and settle disputes. And woe betide those nations found wanting in God’s eyes. But there will be peace. Peace that has never been known. Swords become ploughshares and spears will become pruning hooks – not an image easily we relate to – when did you last see a pruning hook?
There was a letter written to the Guardian newspaper last week. It was in reply to an article that said “Greenham Common is unused now”. The writer of the letter said that is indeed used – by dog walkers, joggers, walkers and people relaxing. It is used by birds, small mammals and insects. It is a peaceful place and shows that “swords can indeed be made into ploughshares”. Weapons of war can and will turn into tools for feeding the world’s hungry people.
Come, says Isaiah, come descendants of Jacob. Now, please don’t take that as any kind of exclusivity. The descendants of Jacob can refer to anyone who chooses to worship the one true God. Just as we are all God’s children, heirs to the kingdom, because of Jesus, so we are all descendants of Jacob.
Come, says Isaiah; come, I say to you now; come, let us walk in the light of the Lord. Spend time in prayerful repentance for the way the world is going and get yourself ready – Jesus is coming.
We don’t know when he is coming, but we are looking forward with hope and a sense of excited anticipation. We believe that the best is yet to come. We have hope and we are getting ready for the day that is getting nearer by the minute.