Christian eschatology has nothing to do with apocalyptic ‘final solutions’…, for its subject is not ‘the end’ at all. On the contrary, what it is about is the new creation of all things. — Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, Kindle edition, loc.82
The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, is beginning to be at hand; the reward of life, and the rejoicing of eternal salvation, and the perpetual gladness and possession lately lost of paradise, are now coming, with the passing away of the world; already heavenly things are taking the place of earthly, and great things of small, and eternal things of things that fade away. — Tertullian, Treatise 7, On the Mortality, http://www.tertullian.org/fathers2/ANF-05/anf05-117.htm
Yitschak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli activist on 4 November 1995. Rabin was the prime minister of Israel; in 1994, he had received the Nobel Peace Prize along with Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat for building peace in the Middle East. That peace seems a very long way away now.
A short time after his death, there was a memorial service for Yitschak Rabin in the Mary St Synagogue here in Brisbane. I went to this service as the representative of the Uniting Church.
After the service, I was filing out behind two Jewish men. They were saddened, they were thoughtful. One said to the other, ‘It’s almost enough to make you wish the Messiah would come.’
There was a little playfulness there—it’s almost enough to make you wish the Messiah would come—but you couldn’t miss the genuine longing in this man’s voice. A longing for peace with justice. For all people, whoever they are.
We share this longing with Jews, but wait—there is a difference. We claim the long-awaited Messiah has already come. His name is Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth.
The Messiah has come, but like those two Jewish men we still long for peace with justice.
That is actually a Jewish objection to our belief that Jesus is the Messiah; the messianic age of justice and peace has not arrived. They ask: How can Jesus be the Messiah when the world is still the same?
It’s a good question. The Season of Advent is a good time to address it, since it’s the time of year when we reflect on the coming (the Advent!) of Jesus.
Advent focusses our attention on three ways that Jesus comes.
Firstly, Jesus comes to bring the Kingdom of God, the Reign of God, to us. It points to the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven. The ‘coming of Christ’, the Kingdom of God, does not point to the end of the world, but its renewal. We need to keep our eyes open to recognise if something is a sign of Christ’s coming or not.
It’s not always clear. People disagree, we come from different places, we have different ideas about things.
There was a large student strike this week about climate change. I’d like to suggest that it was a sign of Christ’s coming. The continued existence of life on earth must be central to any renewal of the world.
Another sign, perhaps: here at West End, we have discerned that the Assembly made a wise decision last July in allowing same-sex marriages to be held by Uniting Church ministers in Uniting Church buildings. This of course is a conscience position. In ‘Advent’ terms, we discern that the very fact that the Uniting Church is doing this is a sign of the coming of Christ.
But there are other congregations and ministers who disagree with this so much that they want the Assembly to reverse its decision. Some of them even say that we are apostate for the stand we take.
To discern if something is a sign of Christ bringing God’s kingdom, we must be disciplined. That’s not always easy. What do we look for? Do we look for confirmation of our ideas about the Bible, or our opinions being reinforced?
Too many people do that; they may think of themselves as conservatives or progressives, it seems to me that it doesn’t much matter.
The thing is, we have to recognise the Good News of Jesus when we hear it. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release
to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
So: how do we know when we hear the Good News of Jesus? When people are set free, when the poor are lifted up—and, yet more, when the powerful and proud are brought down. I’m riffing off the words of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She sang,
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness
of his servant.…
He has brought down the powerful
from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Mary’s Song is also called the Magnificat, from the first word of the Latin version. We’re going to sing a version of Mary’s Song every Sunday in Advent so every Sunday until Christmas. For today, we’ll sing our own Bev Trimble’s version.
When we see the poor lifted up, we are seeing the Gospel in action. That’s one reason I support same-sex marriage; this holy estate is being extended to people who have been denied it before now.
In countries where same-sex marriage has been established for some time, we see suicide rates of young LGBTIQ people, including children, plummeting. Isn’t that good news? Might that just be a sign of God’s kingdom coming among us?
Secondly, Jesus comes to us today, in Word and Sacrament. When we read and respond to the scriptures, when we hear and obey the Gospel message, when we share our Table with anyone who will come, the Reign of God is taking shape here and now. When our hearts are warmed, our spirits deepened and our lives renewed, Jesus is coming to us.
For Jesus to come to us, we must be prepared with open minds, open hearts and open arms. We can’t come wanting our biases to be confirmed. We have to be prepared to be radically changed by the Good News of Jesus Christ. Even so, so often it feels like the Spirit has to break down our defences.
Still, when the Spirit of Jesus takes root in the ground of our hearts, the fruit is pure and good and liberating.
Thirdly, Jesus comes as a newborn baby, and comes to us in every heart lit by the spirit of Christmas. The eternal Word of God becomes flesh as Mary says ‘Yes’ to God; God becomes an infant suckling at his mother’s breast.
Some people say this is the least important aspect of Advent. They say we should wait until Christmas Eve to bring out the Christmas carols. They’re not wrong. But they’re not right, either.
The stories of Christmas, those that are literally true and those that are not, show us the way God came down to earth. God was born in humility, in a borrowed room. God depended on his mum and dad for life. God learned how to be human, and in doing that brought our humanity into the triune life of God.
Jesus comes today in ways that continue to build humanity in the world. When he is come in all his fullness, it will be to bring humanity to its fullness.
So we’ll sing at least one carol each Sunday of Advent. We’ll celebrate the first coming of Jesus during Advent because it gives shape to every coming of Christ since. (And it makes sense in the Southern Hemisphere, where many people go away for summer holidays at Christmas—else we’d never sing carols with some of our church family. Everyone stays at home in the Northern Hemisphere.)
So, what about that Jewish objection to our belief that Jesus is the Messiah: the messianic age of justice and peace has not arrived. We say it’s here NOW, but NOT YET in all its fullness.
It has arrived, in Bethlehem 2000 years ago in Jesus of Nazareth;
It is arriving now, whenever love and peace and healing flourish;
It will arrive in all its fullness. The Kingdom will come. That’s why we pray
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Whenever Christ comes, it’s never the end; it is a new beginning for the creation he loves. We can experience these new beginnings time and time again. Let’s embrace them and allow them to fill us with hope.
Preached at West End Uniting Church, 2 December 2018