Last week we learned some Advent yoga – reaching back and seizing hold of the promises God made and fulfilled in Christ, which God has fulfilled, which feeds our faith; and reaching forward and grasping at the promises God has made that still will be fulfilled in Christ, which gives us hope. Today we focus forwards towards the hope of things yet to come. Central among this is Jesus’ second coming.
Our readings today (Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11 and Luke 3:1-6) all speak about the anticipation of Christ’s coming, including his second coming. Malachi (and Jesus) speaks about the second coming as being sudden, unexpected, which gives us a fright. We don’t know when to expect him. Malachi also says, when the Lord comes, the messenger we long for, the Son of Man, who will be able to stand? It will be daunting. (Though Jesus prays in Luke 21:36 that at the end times “you may be able to stand before the Son of Man”.)
Malachi, John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul all tell us we need to prepare for the coming of Christ. We must be ready. We must repent of our sins and receive God’s forgiveness, then we are made right God, and ready to receive Christ. Malachi speaks about purification – metal purified by fire and clothing cleansed with launderer’s soap.
There will be a sifting, a separation. Malachi calls it a sifting – of flour from chaff and sand and stones. Jesus speaks about it as a separation of sheep and goats, of pruning away and discarding unproductive branches off a fruit tree.
But it is not all challenge and judgement. It is also about hope. HOPE! The hope that comes through Jesus Christ and the great work he has done for us. Zechariah, praying over his new-born son, John (the Baptist), uses words of hope like: salvation, mercy, rescue, forgiveness, peace, covenant, righteousness, tender mercy, sunshine, rising sun. And Paul, writing to the Philippians, speaks of love that may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.
Let us prepare for Christ’s return. And let us hope for what he will accomplish in and around us. Let us articulate and pray for what we hope for – our lives, our world as a better place, as redeemed and sanctified. Let us pray with hope for the world we desire God to make real for us.
Advent is a between-times season – between Christ’s first coming (with all the prophecies before that in the First Testament) and Christ’s second coming (with all the prophecies for that in both First and Second Testaments). In Advent, we look forward to celebrating Christ’s first coming and also anticipate his second coming – which could be today or in a thousand years.
One part of us looks back in time and grabs hold of all the prophesies that were given about Jesus’ first coming, knowing that these were fulfilled. These fulfilled prophesies strengthen our faith to know that God is good on God’s word – what God says will be, will indeed be. And that nourishes and vitalises our faith. So, we have to read back into the past and clasp those promises made and fulfilled by God, because they nourish and enrich our faith in God.
And another part of us looks forward in time and reaches out to the fulfilment of the prophesies concerning Jesus’ second coming, with the hope that they will be fulfilled. Our hope is not blind, nor futile. Because we have the evidence of previously fulfilled prophesies. Thus our faith flames our hopes.
During this between-times, we are encouraged by Christ to “stand up and lift up your heads” (Luke 21:28). And so, in this very short homily, I act out (in a kind of ‘Advent yoga’) this reaching back and grasping the fulfilled promises of God, and stepping forward and reaching out towards the yet-to-be-fulfilled promises of God. And I get the congregation to stand up and join me in this.
Today, the central question I am asking is, What kind of people are we?
Or phrased differently, What kind of people ought we to be?
John the Baptist was the last in the line of First Testament prophets. He, like those who came before him, pointed the way to Messiah, the Christ, who appeared as Jesus of Nazareth. Mark 1:1-8 introduces John to us, telling that he came as a messenger in advance of the coming of Jesus, the Son of God, to prepare the way for the Lord.
John did this preparation by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This was his clear message. And instead of pointing to himself or puffing himself up, he continually pointed to the one who was still to come, saying:
After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1:7-8)
When John was a new-born, his father Zechariah said much the same about him in Luke 1:67-79. After eight verses about the coming Messiah, Zechariah finally gets to his own son, and in just four verses proclaims his mission:
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5)
All of these passages have this in common:
John prepared the way for the coming of Jesus by preaching repentance, forgiveness and comfort
John came, Jesus followed and John died. And then Jesus died, rose again and ascended to heaven.
We are now waiting for him to return. And while we wait:
We are to prepare the way for the second coming of Jesus by preaching repentance, forgiveness and comfort
So, as we prepare for Jesus’ return, we need to consider who we are pointing to and what message we are proclaiming through our actions and words. In 2 Peter 3:11, Peter asks this penetrating question, “What kind of people ought you to be?” He asks this in the context of second coming of Christ Jesus. Given that he is coming back soon,
What kind of people ought we to be?
We at my parish, St Stephens in Lyttelton, South Africa, are currently conducting a survey among our parishioners about what kind of church we are and what kind of church we aspire to be. One of the questions we asked was, “What qualities, values or characteristics you would like St Stephen’s to embody?” We’re still busy with the survey, but here is what we’ve learned so far:
Focus on God, honour God’s commandments, serve God
Prayer, spirituality, faith, hope, wisdom
Love, care, kindness, compassion, tolerance
Friendliness, companionship, good relationships
Sense of community, collaboration
Equality for all
These qualities, values or characteristics align well with Paul’s encouragement in Philippians 4:8:
Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
A church that embodied these kinds of values and qualities would surely be a church people would want to attend, and would surely help to prepare the way for the Lord’s return, and would surely be pleasing to God.
Today is the first Sunday in Advent, a season in which we look forward to the coming of Christ into the world – historically 2,000 years ago (which we celebrate at Christmas), in this very moment (Christ is continually coming into the world) and one day in the near or distant future (when Christ comes again). Today we reflect on the last of these – Jesus’ second coming.
Our reading is Isaiah 64:1-9, which opens with these powerful words, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” While this sounds like a joyful call for Christ to return, the passage is filled with caution and a call for critical self-reflection.
Let me summarise the flow of thought. Initially, there is a call for Christ to come down, to make the mountains tremble, to set fire to the world, to cause the nations to quake and to make his name known to his enemies. This passage seems to work from the assumption that there are clear enemies of God, and implicitly that we are in the right:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. (Isaiah 64:1-3)
Second, there is a similarly smug and self-satisfied view that God is inevitably on our side – that we are right, and everyone else is wrong, because we wait for Christ, we gladly do right, and we remember his ways. There is a complacency that we are right and thus God is for us – a complacency that easy slides into arrogance – an arrogance that easily slides into hatred and judgement of everyone else:
Since ancient times no-one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. (Isaiah 64:4-5a)
But third, it seems that Isaiah pauses and reflects. He becomes self-critical, as he writes, “But…” That ‘but’ initiates a series of recognitions that there is little difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’. He faces up to our continued sin, our uncleanness, that even the best we do is like filthy rags, that we are shrivelled like a leaf, that the wind of our sins will sweep us away, and that we neglect to call on God’s name or to strive towards him. Isaiah recognises that, as a result, God hides his face from us and gives us over to our sin. And so he says, “How then can we be saved?”:
But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No-one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins. (Isaiah 64:5b-7)
And then, out of this stepping down, stepping back, looking within, critically self-reflecting, challenging himself and his religious community, Isaiah comes to some important realisations. He starts the next passage with, “Yet”, signalling that he has recognised something new. He discovers afresh that God is our father and we all are his children. That God is the potter and we are but clay in his hands. That God is merciful and does not store up anger against his children. That God sees us as we pray. And that we all are God’s people, all the work of his hand.
This last line is perhaps the most the important of all – having started by dividing the world into right and wrong, good and bad, saved and lost; and then realising that we also are wrong, bad and lost – he realises that God is for everyone. God desires to save everyone. God longs to reconcile with all of us. And that we can be reconciled only through the work of Christ, not by us being ‘more right’ than anyone else:
Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, LORD; do not remember our sins for ever. Oh, look upon us we pray, for we are all your people. (Isaiah 64:8-9)
As much as we long for Christ to return – for the rending of the heavens and the coming down of Christ – let us recognise that we are little different from anyone else. We are as dependent on Christ for our salvation as anyone else, because we are as sinful as anyone else. That when we become smug about our salvation or about how spiritual or righteous we think we are, we are actually moving away from God, not towards him.
And so let us be cautious, humble, critically self-reflective and watchful. As Jesus says at the end of Mark 13:24-37,
I preached this message on 1 December 2019, the first Sunday in Advent, but did not have a chance at that time to publish it. I thought today would be a good day to post it, given that so many people in South Africa and globally are staying away from church to promote physical distancing during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. In the recording, I apply the message to Aids and violence against women and against children. But in this blog, I apply it to the Coronavirus.
This message draws on Matthew 24:36-44, where Jesus speaks about That Day when he will return – one day still in the future (as of writing this blog!). Jesus’ teaching in his passage tells us two main things:
First, God does not want us to know when he will return again.
Indeed, he explains that NO-ONE knows. Not even the angels. Not even the Son of Man! If God wanted us to know, God would have told us. Or at very least, God would have told the Son. This means for us:
We need to stop worrying about when he is going to come back and should stop believing people who think they’ve worked out the date.
We need to believe and accept that Jesus WILL return. One day, perhaps not in our lifetime, or perhaps tonight, he will return.
Second, Jesus’ return will be unexpected.
Whenever it is that he returns, we will be caught off guard. Jesus uses the story of Noah and the flood as an example – in those days, life was just going on as usual. There were no signs to warn anyone of the flood, until the day the flood started – then it came unexpectedly. This means for us:
“Therefore, keep watch” – stay awake, be alert – so that when Jesus comes, we will awake to see him.
And keep watch not for the signs, but rather for Jesus himself. It is for Jesus we need to keep a lookout.
During this time of the Coronavirus – as we watch the death toll rise by the hundreds day by day, and as we experience countries closing borders, hear of people stopping work, see the empty streets – we may think that these are the signs of the end times.
But no! Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24 clearly indicates that because we might think these are the signs, he will not be coming back now. If we are expecting him to return, he is not returning.
There are many things we may learn from Coronavirus, but it is not about the End Times. Rather, it is about the present times. What may we learn?
We may learn how reversable the negative impact of humanity on the environment might be.
We may learn how important human relationships are, while we have to keep away from each other.
We may recognise the vulnerability of certain groups of people, such as those in precarious employment, older persons and single parents.
We may learn that we are not really in control of the planet and that nature can, if it wants, profoundly disrupt human society.
These are not lessons for the End Times. Rather, they are lessons for the present time and for life after the Coronavirus. Just imagine how stupid we’d have to be to exit the Coronavirus crisis and revert to our former ways of living. How dumb would be? I don’t believe God has sent this virus to punish or teach us. But I do believe God desires us to learn something important from this virus.
The summary of this message:
Live your life in such a way that, when you are surprised by Christ’s return, you will be ready for him!
Today is the first Sunday in Advent – the four Sundays leading up to Christmas – during which time we reflect on our preparation for Christ’s comings into the world – his first coming some two thousand years ago, and his second coming some time in the future.
Today’s Gospel reading, Luke 21:25-36, presents part of Jesus’ prophecy about the future, specifically, the Day of the Lord, or the day on which he will return, aka the ‘second coming’. He opens this passage with the words, “There will be signs…”
We all look for signs – signs about our past, to explain where we come from; signs about the future, so we know where we’re going; and signs about the present, to help us make sense of our current situations. In this passage, Jesus gives us insights into all of these.
Advent is a time of going back more than 2000 years, so we can look forward to the birth of Christ, whose birthday we will celebrate in a few weeks. In those days, people were looking for signs of the long-awaited Messiah. Now, today, we are looking forward to his second coming, and looking at the signs that foretell this.
Jesus’ teaching in Luke raises both the light and dark of Jesus’ second coming, some time in the future. He cautions us about the dangers and risks of that time. And he also encourages us to be faithful during these times.
Drawing on Christ’s teaching, I suggest that he calls us – in our faith, and also in our private and public lives – to cast one eye on the future and the other on the present. I explain why he says this and why it is a useful approach for contemporary living. I argue that we should live in the present, with roots in our past and looking forward to the future.
‘Advent’ means ‘coming’ and is the time we remember God’s first coming into the world in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, as well as look forward to God’s second coming into the world when Christ returns to bring cosmic history to fulfillment (the second coming). Often, we think of Advent as a season in the Christian calendar – the four Sundays before Christmas. But let us rather think of it as a type of ministry or mission, which we see most fully expressed in the work of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-11).
This Advent Mission is particularly important in a world that seems to have gone made this year: in South Africa we experience profound loss of confidence in the integrity and ethics of our presidency; Trump was elected President of the USA, giving platform for racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and the exploitation of women; the Middle East continues to explode, with profound devastation in Aleppo, Syria; the president of the Philippines is promoting the unregulated execution of anyone involved in drugs; the president of South Korea has been impeached; the UK exited the EU; Europe is seeing a dramatic rise in right wing politics; HIV continues to threaten human development; and women continue to experience profound violence and degradation at the hands of patriarchal men. We live in an increasingly hate-filled world. More than ever, we are in need of Advent.
An Advent Mission means two main things:
First, we cultivate a vision for the cosmos that God envisaged at the time of creation and still envisages for one day in the future. This vision is expressed in wonderful poetry in Isaiah 35 and Psalm 146, and is shown in the life and ministry of Jesus in the Gospels. The Isaiah passage in particular contrasts the ecology of Israel (similar to the Karroo – beautiful but rather desolate) with that of Lebanon (similar to the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal coastlines – lush and verdant).
Second, we root ourselves in the present world, living out our faith in ways that contribute to the building of the Kingdom of God, while we wait for God’s return. James 5 points to three key things we should do while wait:
We should be patientand persevere, continuing to journey forward, living out our faith, being faithful, and putting one foot in front of the other as we journey through life with God.
We should not grumble against others. That is, we should be kind, considerate and caring, particularly towards those who are different from us, especially in a world characterised increasingly by hatred and intolerance for those who are ‘other’.
We should be hopeful, that God will do what God has said, that he will return, that he will restore, that he will reconcile the whole cosmos together in union under the headship of Christ.
Today is the start of Advent, that season in which we reflect back on Christ’s entry into the world some two thousand years ago and anticipate his coming again, one day, in glory. Western Christians (in contrast to Eastern Orthodox Christians) have tended to reduce Advent to a celebration of Christmas – the birth of Jesus. But the incarnation properly starts at conception. Somehow – who knows how! – God spliced himself into Mary’s egg. The incarnation is a full blending of human and divine in the individual called Jesus. It is a profound mystery that I really cannot explain. But we assert that Jesus is both fully God and fully human. What we learn from the Orthodox tradition is that this is the central event in Christian history – that in the incarnation God changed the course of history forever – changing the genetic makeup of humanity and opening up a spiritual path that had til then been closed.
In this sermon I try to unpack this in terms of two central theologies:
The notion of kenosis, that God emptied himself in order to merge with Mary’s egg – emptied of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence – to be teeny tiny small; left the eternal and perfect union between Father, Son and Spirit in order to join with humanity; immersed himself into human experience with all its sorrows and joys. Kenosis is a profound and radical expression of God’s lovefor humanity. What else could prompt such an extravagant and risky venture?
The notion of theosis, that the chasm between God the uncreated and humans the created creatures was closed when God became human, thereby opening a path for humans to participate in the divine. That God would have incarnated even if humanity had not fallen. That the purpose for Jesus coming into the world was not merely to die on the cross, but to pioneer a path for humanity to reconcile with God. Theosis points us towards hope– hope for the future, hope for what God is able to achieve in us, hope for the coming transformation and restoration.
This is a rather cerebral sermon – be warned! It invites us to engage with ways of thinking about the incarnation that may be unfamiliar to us. Don’t feel obliged to agree with what I say – I myself am not sure about all of it! But engaging with different Christian perspectives can be deeply enriching. I do, however, assert that Love and Hope are key Advent themes, and hope that these reflections on kenosis and theosis may provide some food for thought to underpin these themes.
Oh, and it is World Aids Day today, so I attempt to make some links from all of this to the ongoing fight against HIV and Aids.