The Second Advent
A sermon preached by Eleanor Childs
Lay Reader on Sunday
29 November – Advent Sunday
Well, as you can see from your notice sheet, today is the first Sunday in Advent. I wonder what images the word ‘Advent’ conjures up for you? For many it is Christmas. The stable scene, babe in a manger, candles and carols, peace and good will to all people. ‘Advent’ as you all know, means the coming, the coming of the son of God into the world. We’ve glamorised the story of the first advent. I sometimes think that even the church has reduced Christmas to a feel-good fairy tale. The birthplace was probably cold and dark and smelly, the teenage mother exhausted after bumping along for hours on a donkey as she and Joseph obeyed the Roman emperor’s command to return to their birthplace to be registered. No accommodation was available, the birth unheralded except to a bunch of shepherds on a nearby hillside and later to a few foreign astrologers. Soon the young parents were to become refugees, fleeing from the murderous intentions of the ruler of their country. That was the first advent, the one we celebrate each Christmas.
But there is a second advent, one we don’t seem to prepare for as much. It is the coming again of Christ in power and glory to judge the world and to establish his kingdom of justice and righteousness. The early church lived with their eyes on that. It was the source of their hope and strength and enabled them to endure great persecution. They lived with the Second Advent in view.
In our lectionary reading for today, Jesus speaks of his second advent. And it’s virtually impossible to turn this into a feel-good fairy tale. It’s a part of a very difficult and somewhat obscure passage and commentators disagree over aspects of it. Jesus’ prophetic announcement about the future is recorded in the 3 synoptic gospels – (ie. Matthew, Mark and Luke) and it takes place after the end of his public ministry and before his passion. The setting of his prophetic speech here is Herod’s magnificent temple in Jerusalem. The disciples had been commenting on the beauty and splendour of the temple. Its pillars were columns of white marble, forty feet high and each made of one single block of stone, its external walls were clad with panels of pure gold. Jesus responds by foretelling its complete destruction, when not one stone will remain on top of another. Matthew’s account records the questions his disciples asked him. ‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ In their minds, the destruction of the temple, Christ’s second coming and the end of the world were all linked.
The problem for us in listening to Christ’s reply to their questions is that we are not sure when he is talking about the near future – the destruction of Jerusalem which took place in AD 70 – and the more distant future when he is talking about his Coming Again, for he moves back and forward between the two and telescopes the centuries in the frequent fashion of prophecy. Prophecy looked into the future as you and I might look into the night sky. When you look at the moon and the stars, and explain to your children what they are you might switch from talking about the moon to talking about the stars and probably omit to mention their relative distances away from us. The stars are not the same distance away as the moon, but they’re thousands of miles further away. Our OT reading for today from Jeremiah has a prophecy in which time is similarly telescoped – ‘”The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, “When I will fulfil the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land.”‘ This is a prophecy of the birth of Christ, who is the son or descendant of David. It sounds like it is going to happen in a few days or years, but actually, this prophecy was written nearly 600 years before the coming of Christ. God has a different time frame from ours and he doesn’t let us in on his timetable. Jesus said, ‘no one knows the time or the hour when the Son of man comes.’ The psalmist says in ps. 90 ‘A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by.’ God doesn’t view time as we do.
The passage immediately preceding our lectionary reading has been about a time of great persecution and the destruction of Jerusalem and it was every bit as terrible as Jesus foresaw when he warned his hearers to flee and spoke with compassion of its victims. The rebellion of the Jews provoked Rome to lay siege to it and its inhabitants were reduced to cannibalism. Josephus, the Jewish historian records that 1.100,000 people perished and 97,000 were carried away into captivity. The Jewish nation was wiped out; the Temple was fired and became a desolation. Both before and after this, his disciples experienced great persecution, and persecution of his followers has continued throughout the centuries and is at a peak in many parts of the world today. And, interestingly, wherever there is persecution, there is church growth. Iran is a case in point.
Today’s lectionary reading is a continuation of Jesus’ prophecy, but without any indication of a change of time frame, so at times it’s difficult to know which event he is referring, the destruction of Jerusalem or his coming again. Now he mentions cosmic signs of approaching terror and chaos, as well as international chaos which will precede his coming again to earth. This time he will not come humbly, unobtrusively, unacknowledged but in power and great glory. Then he says, just as you know spring is coming when the fig tree puts forth its leaves, so you will know these things will come to pass when you see these signs. And then he says all this will happen before this generation passes away. A lot of ink has been spilt trying to understand this. The general consensus is that this comment refers to the fall of Jerusalem which he was talking about in the passage immediately preceding our lectionary reading and this did happen within the life span of his generation, though some commentators draw attention to the fact that the word used in Greek for ‘generation’ can also mean ‘race’ and the Jewish race has not yet passed away.
I’m not going to indulge in any speculation about the time or manner of the second coming. There has been enough hot air spent on this subject. What we do need to take away from this passage is that if we see these signs we are not to be discouraged but to follow Jesus’ counsel to ‘stand up and lift up your heads’, because the kingdom of God is drawing near. Christians believe that history has a goal and that, at that goal, Jesus Christ will be Lord of all, and establish his kingdom of justice and righteousness. We believe that but we do not know his time frame.
What we also need to heed in our passage is Jesus’ warning to be careful, to watch and pray lest we lose sight of the goal and focus instead on addictions, debilitating behaviours or anxieties about our life. If we do that, he warns, ‘the day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.’ Jesus’ coming reign of justice will be preceded by judgment. Justice is inseparable from judgment. The aim is that on judgment day we may be able to stand before the Son of Man, having been faithful.
This aim links our passage with our NT reading. Paul counsels the Thessalonians ‘May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.’
We all believe in the importance of love, and know how hard it is to practice it, especially extending it to our enemies or people who dislike or hurt us or just let us down. But how important do we consider it to be ‘blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes’? And how much effort do we put into working this out.
You know, I groaned when I saw this lectionary passage I was to preach on. It’s a really difficult one to grasp. I’d have much preferred to have had a nice birth narrative to expound. But as I got deeper into it, it wasn’t the things I didn’t know or understand or the things I couldn’t explain clearly to you about eschatology (which is the doctrine of the last things or the end of the age) but the things I did understand, like Jesus’ command to watch and pray and to focus on the coming of his kingdom so we may be able to stand in his presence when he comes again. Our God is a God of love and justice and holiness and we will have to give account of how we have lived our lives. So I’m inviting you to join me in facing this challenge this advent: how do we go about loving those we come in contact with and living blameless and holy lives so at judgment day we may be able to stand in the presence of God? Let me just repeat those questions: how do we go about loving those we come in contact with and living blameless and holy lives so at judgment day we may be able to stand in the presence of God? Will we put as much effort into preparing for the Second Advent as we do into preparing for Christmas, the first advent?