Rend the heavens and come down

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 17-minute message. Or watch the Facebook video (the sermon starts at about 24:30). Or read the text summary that follows below.

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,

“What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!'”

Featured image from https://wp-media.patheos.com/blogs/sites/333/2019/12/aurora-borealis-69221_640.jpg

Waiting for Christ

Click here to listen to this 23-minute message.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. We need to believe and accept that Jesus WILL return. One day, perhaps not in our lifetime, or perhaps tonight, he will return.

Second,┬áJesus’ 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:

  1. “Therefore, keep watch” – stay awake, be alert – so that when Jesus comes, we will awake to see him.
  2. And keep watch not for the signs, but rather for Jesus himself. It is for Jesus we need to keep a lookout.

Coronavirus

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!

Whoever has ears, let them listen!

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Image from https://www.nbcnews.com/video/flags-of-countries-struck-by-coronavirus-projected-onto-rio-s-christ-the-redeemer-80958021701

There will be signs!

Click here to listen to this 20-minute message.

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.

Feature image from: https://blog.obitel-minsk.com/2017/05/orthodox-understanding-of-the-second.html