Advent Sunday 2015
Isaiah 2, Matt 24:1-28
May I speak this evening in the name of God, whom we know and worship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Firstly a very warm welcome to St Mary’s to the Rev’d Sharon and to our Methodist brothers and sisters in Christ. For those of you from St Mary’s who haven’t met Sharon previously she was licensed as the minister of Higham Lane Methodist Church in September and I am delighted to say that we have already been working a great deal together at Hadlow College, where Sharon has taken up the chaplaincy with gusto.
I am also delighted that our two churches have maintained these links of mutual worship and I hope that these will grow over time. St Mary’s has recently re-joined Tonbridge Area Churches Together and that is already bearing fruit. I suspect we can all sense that the world is changing rapidly and that Christians can no longer sit in separate trenches hurling historical insults at one another, for a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. If we want to build the kingdom of God in this place then we have to model the values of the kingdom in everything we do, and this has to start with truly loving one another.
As I touched on this morning we are living in a slightly strange point in the church’s year. Yes, it is Advent Sunday so are minds are starting to turn towards the events of the Nativity but the readings are still focused on the trials and tribulations of the end of the age before Jesus returns again as King and Judge of all.
In today’s gospel from Matthew some of the disciples were commenting on the beauty of the temple in Jerusalem – they were remarking on its beautiful adornments and the gifts dedicated to God. In Mark’s version of these events the disciples say:
“Look teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”
You can almost hear the ring of a country person going up to London for the first time and being overawed by Tower 42, or the gherkin and now, of course, the Shard. And, for the most part, the disciples were country people – some of them were fishermen from Galilee who probably spent most of their lives on their small boats and off-loading their catch at tiny villages. Now suddenly they were right at the centre of things and the Temple in Jerusalem was undoubtedly a huge and awe-inspiring building. After all it was built not only for the worship of God, like a huge Cathedral, but it was built also to house the very presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. It was a building totally designed to overwhelm the senses and it doubtless felt like the epitome of permanence and stability.
But Jesus was quick to dismiss such illusions:
“Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
The disciples, not unnaturally, want to know when this is amazing event is going to take place. But Jesus does not give them a date for their diaries but, rather, tells them to look out for the signs of the times:
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Only forty years after Jesus’ death the uneasy relationship between the Jews and the Romans broke down into rebellion and suppression and the event Jesus predicted took place – the temple on the mount was almost entirely destroyed, leaving the remnant now known as the Wailing Wall. It must have felt like the end of the world for the Jews as the centre of their world, the very dwelling place of God, was destroyed.
And for the last 2000 years Christians have been reading the signs of the times, as set out in today’s reading and in many other places in the gospels, and trying to work out exactly when the promised return of Christ and the end of time is to take place. We will doubtless all be familiar with stories of various groups who claim to know the exact time and date and who hole themselves up in expectation of the apocalypse. When the predicted time has come and gone they emerge blinking into the daylight slightly disappointed to see that the world is continuing.
Of course the point is that we don’t know when God plans to bring creation to its fulfilment and it is a supreme waste of time trying to work it out. But that doesn’t mean that the end times are irrelevant. On the contrary we are living in the end times now and we, as a church, have been living in the end times since the resurrection and ascension of Christ and we will continue to live in the end times until his return in God’s own time. That may happen today, it may happen in 1000 years or it may happen in a billion years when our sun reaches the end of its life and expands to fill the solar system. The wars and rumour of wars that led to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD were part of the end times, the first world war, the second world war, the fall of the twin towers and even the tsumanis, earthquakes and hurricanes are all signs that creation is groaning in expectation of the new heaven and the new earth that is to come.
But even if the end of the end times is one billion years away nevertheless for each of us here today we could face our own end times at any time. Like Adam we were formed from the dust of creation and like the temple on the mount or the twin towers we can all be called to return to dust and ashes at any time and thence to meet our creator. We are all much less permanent here than we like to imagine.
Our building, our possessions and even our own lives are only transitory and any sense of permanence or security that they give us is an illusion. So what are we to do? There is only one thing to do and that is to cling to God, the only permanent thing in the universe, and to avoid being led astray by all that seeks to offer us false security away from God.
And how are we to cling onto God and avoid being led astray in these troubled times? Well the answer to that would fill another 1000 sermons but my three top tips for today are:
(1) to have confidence in the faith we profess in the knowledge that by standing firm in the face of persecution you gain life,
(2) Never let your love for God and for one another grow cold – evil is never overcome by evil, but only by good;
and (3) as our reading from Isaiah said: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways so that we may walk in his paths.”
It is very easy to be led astray by the events of the world – the news can depress us, the atheistic agenda of much of our media can make it seem as though faith is disappearing from the world and it is tempting to lose heart. But if we keep close to our faith, to one another and most of all to God then he will keep close to us whatever the world may throw at us up to and including the end of these times.
So Sisters and Brothers in Christ let’s not put our faith in large buildings, in pension schemes or even in our own longevity. But let us never tire of doing right in the knowledge and trust that love alone is the motivating force behind the whole of creation and that it is love that will take us home to our maker at our own end of times – our love for one another, our love of God but most importantly God’s love for us shown in Jesus Christ our Lord.