Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow
on Advent Sunday 29th November 2020
Isaiah 64 vv 1 – 9 A prayer for God to intervene
Mark 13 vv 24 – E The distress of the last days
- Introduction. “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down”. Perhaps many Christians, and others would echo that prayer of Isaiah at the beginning of our first reading, to come down and save us from this plague or as we prefer to call it in modern times, pandemic. We long for an end to the restrictions associated with Covid19, especially having just been put in Tier 3. We may be fearful of the impending effects of climate change. As I write a robin settles in the hawthorn bush at the end of our garden, and bobs up and down in agreement. Birds, as well as humans, are under threat. The world seems to be in turmoil. We long for God to come and sort out our mess, to save us in every sense of that word, remembering the words of the Psalmist, “God saves both man and beast” (Ps 36 v 6).
Jesus, in our gospel reading, warns us that cataclysmic times not only on earth, but in the heavens above, will preceed his return to earth.
Today we begin not only the season of Advent, but the beginning of the Church’s year. In the Book of Common Prayer there was not so much consideration of Christ’s return, going straight from the last Sunday after Trinity to Advent Sunday. The Alternative Service Book introduced us in 1980 to the Sundays before Advent and this has been continued into Commom Worship. We have had quite a lead in to the climax of Advent Sunday, not only on the last few Sundays but also in weekday Morning Prayer, reading right through the book of Daniel and much of Revelation. Today we begin Common Worship Year B with a focus on Mark’s Gospel in our Sunday readings. In our Gospel reading today Jesus warns us to be prepared, to watch, to which Luke adds Jesus saying, ‘and pray’ (Lk 21 v 36).
2. Be prepared. ‘Be prepared’, but for what? As three of the evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke, were writing the their gospels, there were two events that were still in the future for them. The first was the destruction of Jerusalem, and in particular of the Temple and the second was Jesus return to earth. One needs to read the whole of Mark 13 to understand what Jesus is saying. As Jesus and his disciples leave the temple, one disciple draws Jesus’ attention to the magnificence of temple stones. You may have seen some of these huge stones in the Western Wall, where Jews today pray individually and conduct religious ceremonies such as Bar Mitzvah. Jesus, whilst having a great respect for the temple, prophesise that the temple will be destroyed in the lifetime of many of them. This may explain the difficult verse at the end of today’s reading, where Jesus says emphatically, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” The temple was destroyed by the Roman army in 70 A. D, following a 4-year siege of Jerusalem, some 40 years after Jesus was speaking and so within a generation. However the verse is difficult because it seems to refer to his Second Coming, as this preceeds it in today’s reading. I would like to think that Jesus is saying, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have been generated.” I am told that neither the Aramaic nor the Greek texts support such a translation. The Greek word for generation is ‘genea’, which actually can be translated ‘age’. It could well be that Jesus is saying of the destruction of the temple that it will happen within a generation, but his coming will happen at the end of the age. There is a link between the two, for the destruction of the temple is symbolic of the end of the Old Covenant and Jesus’ return will be the climatic end, the full accomplishment, of the New Covenant. It is of course Jesus’ return for which we must ‘Be prepared’, to use the motto of the Scouts, or to ‘Watch and pray’ to use Jesus’ words.
3. Signs. ‘Watch’ for what? Jesus gives us the parable of the fig tree. He tells us to watch out for the leaves coming, because soon the young figs that have over- wintered as little lumps, no bigger than my little finger nail, will start growing, then in summer to develop into full-grown ripe figs. Last Autumn I cut down our fig tree, as in 19 years it produced no more than about 5 edible figs. What though are the signs of fulfilment that we should be watching out for? As I mentioned earlier, in weekday Morning Prayer in the pre-Advent season we have been reading through the books of Daniel and Revelation. Not easy books to read and I am wary of trying to select from them precise signs of the coming fulfilment of the Kingdom of God at the return of Christ. I will just point up two signs from Jesus’ own words in the gospel accounts of the end of the age.
Firstly, Luke records Jesus as saying, “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Lk 21 v 24). This time, I suggest, clearly began with the sack of Jerusalem in 70 A. D. From that time forward Jerusalem was under Gentile control right through to the 20th Century, when in 1919, the UK was given a League of Nations mandate to establish in Palestine a homeland for the Jews, with finally Israel becoming an independent state in 1948.
Secondly Jesus says, as recorded by Mark, “First the Gospel must be preached to all nations.” (Mk 13 v 10). You may say, hasn’t this now happened? I think there is not a country without Christians. Perhaps North Korea is the only country without an established Church, but the Gospel has been preached there. Let me though just amplify this a little from the book of Revelation. John says, “After this (this refers to the 12 tribes of Israel), I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” (Rev 7 v 9). Several chapters on, John says, “I saw an angel flying in mid-air, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth – to every nation, tribe, language and people.” (Rev 14 v 6 ). In Mission Aviation Fellowship’s book, ‘Above and Beyond’, in the final section, entitled ‘To the end of the age’ it states, “ According to the Joshua Project, today over 40% of the world remains unreached with the Gospel, and our teams remain committed to going above and beyond to make sure those living in extreme isolation are given the best chance to thrive in the fullness of Christ.” So this second sign may take another 100 years to be fulfilled. Very appropriately the book concludes by saying, “It is our hope that you will join us in the Great Commisssion, knowing that our Heavenly Father will always be with us, to the end of the age.”
4. Prayer. Finally, I will take up the point made by Jesus as recorded in Luke’s gospel, that we should not only watch but pray. When we talk of prayer, we so often think of asking God to do something for us or for other people. There is nothing wrong with that. I began with Isaiah’s prayer, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down”. Let us though put a stronger emphasis on prayer as aligning ourselves with the will of God. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Your will be done on earth as in heaven, your kingdom come.’ The kingdom of God will not come in all its fulness by us trying to twist God’s arm, praying for him to hurry up, but rather by us seeking his guidance, being open to the Spirit, in His prompting about the little things of life, as well as discernibg the way forward in the big decisions of education, career and life partnerships.
5. Conclusion. In conclusion, Jesus warned us that the end of the age would not be an easy time. We are still passing through the the restrictions, the heartache and the myriad impacts of the coronavirus, Covid 19. As the writer of a recent article in the Church Times, wrote (Voice from out of the rubble by Anna Carter Florence, Church Times 20th November 2020 p15) “We can choose to walk through the pandemic, dragging the carcases of our predjudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world and ready to fight for it.” Let us go into this Advent season, this new year of the Church, trusting in Our Lord Jesus Christ, in hope of a wonderful future. I conclude with the final verse of Stuart Kine’s hymn, ‘How great thou art’.
When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And take me home – what joy shall fill my heart!
Then shall I bow in humble adoration
And there proclaim, my God how great Thou art.