Guilt and fear are poor motivators whereas hope for the present gets people enthused.
Thank you for the
invitation to lead your worship on this first Sunday in Advent –
and also on this, your Caledonian Kirk Service! With tomorrow being
St Andrews Day I confess from the outset that there is not one drop
of Scottish blood in me but my credentials are that I have eaten
haggis twice, preached in Glasgow twice and Edinburgh once, holidayed
in Pitlochry and also near Balmoral, and been on the receiving end of
Scottish hospitality and enterprise when my wife and I were out
walking in the countryside around Balmoral.
When the footpath reached a road the OS map showed it turning to the right and running parallel with the road – but there was a sign saying 'footpath closed' and a second sign pointing across the road into the driveway of a small castle. We crossed the road and found ourselves in a pleasant cafe in the kitchen of the castle. After our coffee and cake we exited through the 'exit' door only to find another sign pointing us back to the same footpath that we had been directed away from half an hour before! That is creative enterprise …..
Anyway, to the sermon for today! With the exception of a few odd Sundays, the Common Lectionary has led us through the Gospel of Mark since the beginning of June and now, the first Sunday in Advent, the Lectionary suddenly takes us to Luke's Gospel - not at its beginning but 3 chapters from the end of the Gospel!
The Gospel of Luke was probably written between 80 and 85 CE in Antioch. In a similar fashion to the Gospel of Matthew, written at around the same time in Caesarea Maritima, Luke plagiarised Mark and what is known as the Q Gospel, adding his own edits and stories to reflect his personal experiences as the gentile that he was, concerned for the outsider trying to be accepted by traditional Jews within the community that followed the Way of Jesus.
It is always important to set Lectionary readings into their broader context. Luke chapter 21 begins with Jesus in the Temple. There is the story of the widow's offering and this is followed by a prophetic utterance that the Temple along with Jerusalem itself, will be destroyed.
Remember that this is written in retrospect a decade or so after the Temple had been destroyed. The writers of the Gospels attributed to Matthew and Luke were putting words into the mouth of Jesus to try to make sense of why the understandings and expectations of the first generation followers of the Way of Jesus, along with the Temple, had all been destroyed.
And now we are approaching today's Lectionary reading with its three sections: signs of the times when the Son of Man will appear, followed by a lesson from the fig tree, and ending with a warning about the final day of the end time.
As I stated in last week's sermon, the story of the appearance of the Son of Man is not to be interpreted, and it was never intended to be interpreted, as some supernatural and unscientific cosmic returning of Jesus in the clouds. Jesus was seen by his first generation followers within the ancient line of Hebrew Testament prophets. The early Jewish followers of Jesus expected Jesus to return to rid the Jewish nation once and for all from Roman occupation, but all the plans and expectations had been shattered during the 6 year Jewish Roman War that had ended in 73 CE at Masada.
The task of the writers of the Gospels attributed to Matthew, Luke and John was to rethink the earlier expectations concerning Jesus as the political Messiah and to explain a new way to experience Jesus as a spiritual Messiah. Implicit in all of this was that the followers of Jesus were to be alert to the changing state of their part of the known world.
And with that background we finally[!] come to the text set for today, beginning with 'The Coming of the Son of Man'. Verses 25-28: ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
Context, as I have already said, is critically important to understanding the text. Verse 25 concerning signs in the sun, moon and stars is not an original statement either from the mouth of Peter or the pen of Mark: not even from Luke himself. The words in this section are plagiarised interpretations of Hebrew texts such as:
Isaiah 13:10, “For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light”, written some 8 centuries before the Gospel writers were seeking out Hebrew texts to explain the life and ministry of Jesus.
Ezekiel 32:7, “When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens, and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light”, written some 5 centuries before Jesus during the Babylonian exile and following the destruction of the earlier Jerusalem Temple.
Joel, also written some 5 centuries before Jesus, during the exile in Babylon and then completed after the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple: “[2:10] The earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.... [2:31] The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.... [3.15] The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.”
Even the reference to “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” is in reality Daniel 7:13, “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven,” written some 2 centuries before Jesus.
I repeat what I said in last week's sermon, I am not into the theology of verse 27 in which Jesus will come again with great power and glory. Nor do I believe that we who call upon his name will meet with him in the clouds at the end of time.
I remind you that these were expectations of a people 2000 years ago who believed in a 3 tiered universe in which God lived above the sky, the earth was flat and hell was beneath the earth. Astronomy has proven beyond any shadow of doubt that the universe is much more that 3 tiered and there is hell all around the planet. My continuing mantra is 'context, context, context' and a second mantra is, “If the Church has a chance of a future, it and we need to stop proclaiming creeds and doctrines developed in a long-gone world of pre-Enlightenment thinking.
And then, Luke 21:28, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” offered comfort to those Jew and Gentile followers of the Way of Jesus who were still caught up in the persecution by Rome and the impact of Roman retaliation for the 67 - 73 CE rebellion in Judea.
And now we come to the second section, the parable of 'The Lesson of the Fig Tree' [29-33] …. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” These verses are a continuation of the theme of this chapter with the warnings that accompany the signs of the times.
But there is an additional element that suggests that in the original Peter / Mark version they were anticipating the imminent return of Jesus to release them from the horrors of Roman persecution: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. ” [Mark 13:30]
However, Luke is writing post- the destruction of the Temple and Jesus had not returned as anticipated. This may have been the reason for Luke adding his unique and encouraging Emmaus Road story of the resurrection journey of Cleopas and his wife accompanied by the Risen Jesus: it is not in Peter / Mark's original account of that first Easter weekend written before the destruction of the Temple!
We need to remember that the Gospel of Mark ends with an empty tomb and a declaration by a mystifying young man that Jesus would be seen in Galilee - there is no resurrection story in the first Gospel to be written that made it into the Christian Testament. Everything after Mark 16:8 does not exist in the earliest surviving manuscripts. The resurrection story in Mark 16: 9 - 20 was probably added to the original text late in the 2nd century.
Our set Lectionary reading ends today with another call to the 9th decade followers of the Way of Jesus to be alert, verses 34-36: ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’
So what has all of this to do with living in our post-modern secular and industrialized world today? "Be alert at all times ...."
Those who follow my sermons on the Internet will know that I am convinced that all the evidence points to the fact that Christendom as we know and experience it is coming to an end. Therefore we and the Church have to be always on the watch, finding new ways of engaging with this ‘new’ and fast changing world so that we can continue to present the always relevant and contemporary Jesus Truth of loving God and loving one’s neighbour; of doing to others what you wish them to do to you; that lasting peace does not come through violent victory in war but through the power of justice and of compassion.
Guilt and fear have been the stock trade of the Christian Church probably from the 4th century onwards when Constantine took the church from the edge of society where it thrived on the power of love, into the centre of Empire where it began to thrive even more on the love of power – and in so doing lost its way.
Guilt and fear are poor motivators whereas hope for the present gets people enthused. Therefore, we in the Church should be focusing on hope for all arising from the God-given potential of people today and every day, finding the Christ in all whom we meet, regardless of their religious affiliations. We should be Namaste people – a Hindu word meaning 'May the God in me recognise and respect the God in you.” Namaste living is truly transformational!
We who follow the Way of Jesus need to be creatively encouraging one another to construct a future for the Church within the framework of the post-modern world in which we now live. That is the challenge to you and to all churches – especially as you continue your search for a new minister to serve the churches in this neck of the woods.
After all is said and done, if the Christian Church is to survive we and it will have to have relevance for the world in which we live. And we may have to eventually face the future without the buildings. We have too many buildings and more often than not insufficient people to keep out the rain from the roof – so few doing so much to keep the buildings open that we have little or no time for the real work of the Kin-dom.
As Anglican clergyman, Giles Fraser, stated in his Guardian article on 16th October this year, “Moses didn't have to worry about the hole in the roof. He worshipped in tents and not temples. And we must learn to do the same.”
But that maybe the real hope for the church and a subject for another occasion!
The Coming of the Son of Man
25 ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Exhortation to Watch
34 ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’
Copyright ©: 2015, Rev John Churcher. All rights reserved. Scripture taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.