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.
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”
Jesus acknowledges that sometimes the world will hate us for our faith and teaches two things about this:
He comforts us by sharing that the world hated him first, so we’re in good company, we’re not alone, we’re not the first.
He explains that the world hates us because we don’t belong to the world, we don’t conform. The word ‘belong’ is what he uses in John 17:16, where he says “They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.” The Greek for ‘belong’ or ‘of’ is ‘up out of’, like a plant or a tree grows up and out of the ground. Jesus is saying that we do not come up out of the world, and that this can lead to tension with the world – that the world hates us when we speak the Truth of God.
Our capacity to speak the Truth of God requires us to have a kind of spiritual and moral compass that shows us the Truth of God. A compass that helps us discern the mind of God.
The verse just before our passage (John 15:17) reads:
This is my command: Love one another.
And this verse is the tail end of a longer passage about the vine and branches, in which Jesus calls us to ‘remain’ rooted in him and in his love (John 15:1-17). So our understanding of the world hating us is the context of loving others and remaining in the love of Christ and thus of God. This love – the command to love – is the frame around our experience of being hated by the world.
On the basis of that, I suggest two learnings about our relationship with the world and its possible hatred of us:
First, Jesus calls us to be thoughtful about HOW we speak to the world. Our words need to be saturated in the love of God. In truth, the Church has often been – and continues today often to be – hateful in the way it speaks to the world. Even if what Christians and the church says is True, it is often said in a hateful, unloving, judgemental, diminishing way. This is the not the way of Christ. Jesus was challenging and direct, but he was never hateful in the way he spoke. We need to model our way of engaging the world on Jesus.
Second, WHAT we speak out on is also important. It is not only about how we speak, but also about what we speak. Let’s return to the metaphor of the compass. A compass points to the magnetic north, but this is not the True north. In fact, they are about 500km apart – similar, but not the same. We need to ensure that our words point to the True north, not the some off-centre north.
How do we know what to speak up for and what to speak out against? How do we know what is True? Again, we must look to Jesus. In Jesus’ ministry, he almost always spoke up for sinners and marginalised people, and out against those in power. We seldom hear Jesus speaking out against sinners and marginalised peoples. And the people Jesus usually speaks out against are the powerful – the powerful of the world and of politics and the powerful of the church.
Christians today have tended to invert this, speaking up for the rich and powerful, and against those who sin and those who are marginalised. They have lost their True North. They are not following in the way of Christ. They are not remaining in Christ and not adhering to his command to love one another.
We must go back to the Gospels and model our lives on Christ, in the ways he spoke truth to power, on the issues that he spoke up for and on the issues he spoke out against.
Our text for today is Matthew 11:2-11. It is a story about doubt, questioning and uncertainty and about faith. It is about doubt seeking faith.
2 When John [the Baptist], who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see:5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind?8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces.9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.10 This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
There are three main points in this message:
John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, is highly regarded by Jesus, who sees him as the greatest human to have ever lived. He is the only prophet in the Bible who was himself prophesied about (Malachi 3:1). He was the one who came before Christ, to prepare his way.
Yet this John – this greatest of all humans – expresses doubt, uncertainty, questioning. Despite having witnessed the heavens opening and the Spirit descending and the Father speaking at Jesus’ baptism – performed by John’s own hand – he asks, “Are you the one who is to come? Or should we expect someone else?” John is not the only one in the Bible who has doubts – so too did Peter, Thomas, all the disciples and even Jesus. Doubt is part of the faith journey – it is not the antithesis of faith – it is an integral part of faith. It is doubt seeking faith and faith seeking understanding.
Jesus does not rebuff John, but rather answers him. He draws on patterns of First Testament prophecy to shape his response to John, particularly Isaiah 35:1-6 and Isaiah 31:1-3. Being steeped in the First Testament, John would have heard these echoes and known that Jesus was the God who has come, as promised. Jesus’ answer speaks to what Jesus was currently doing in his ministry and also reminds John of the long passage of God’s working throughout history.
When we are journeying through doubt towards faith, I take two main points to heart:
I should listen for what God has done in my own life – what I have witnessed first hand, and also what those who are close to me say about what God is presently doing in their lives. It is in hearing the present activity of God in the lives of his beloved that we kindle our faith.
I should look for the long history of God’s working in the history of cosmos, which we find primarily in the words of the scriptures. It is in hearing the historical activity of God in the lives of his people through the millennia that we root our faith.
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.
The Gospel of Mark, chapter 6, verses 14-29, presents us with the grisly narrative of the beheading of John the Baptist, at the hands of Herod Antipas, on request of his step-daughter Salome, who was acting on instruction from her mother Herodias. It is a passage that is inserted abruptly in an unrelated narrative about Jesus’ disciples performing miracles and preaching the Gospel. What is the purpose of such a narrative?
In this message, I suggest it serves as a tale about power and corruption. And about our role in the face of such power and corruption. I make three points:
We need to avoid the entanglement of sin and guilt.
We need to recognise and speak truth to the power of the powerful.
We need to accept the cost of discipleship.
Christianity is not just about fellowship and singing choruses. It is not just about the love of God. It is also about challenging power and corruption in the world, about speaking truth to power. It is about championing Kingdom values, such as compassion, integrity, the intrinsic value of every person, equity, justice, the sacredness of the earth. It is about standing against oppression, exclusion, domination, exploitation, injustice and abuse. It is about accepting, even embracing, that speaking truth to power may have negative consequences for us. Christianity is serious business!