Image of the invisible God

Over the past year I’ve learnt a lot about the media: what they value in a story; how one article feeds off another; which newspapers are always at each other’s throats. It’s been particularly interesting to observe the tricks of the trade – like ‘noddies’. The TV producer interviewing someone wants some shots of them nodding as they listen to a question – but it’s hard to get that in the actual interview. So you sit there at the end, being filmed nodding wisely – hence the term ‘noddies’.

 

I wonder if anyone here has been in a recording studio? I haven’t, but it must be a strange experience. Watching as a succession of musicians record their pieces in isolation. First there’s the drummer, a solid rhythm for several minutes. Then the bassist plays a few riffs. The guitarist come and goes, then the singer tries a few times to get it right. That’s why they do each separately – so if there’s a mistake they don’t get everyone doing it again. Hearing the piano, the backing vocals and every part separately sounds really strange, but then the tech guys work their magic and it ends up as a beautiful synthesis.

 

The Bible passage we heard from Colossians 1:15-20 is also about a beautiful synthesis. It describes how everything is held together in Christ – how believing in him gives a comprehensive world-view. Jesus makes sense of life and every area of human activity falls into place.

 

Yet for many of us, and for our society, our beliefs may feel more like being in that recording studio. We have a bit of scientific understanding here, maybe some superstition ‘touch wood’ there. We go to church on Sundays, but can end up with a different morality under pressure at work on Monday. There’s the person I am at home, and the happy image I project on Facebook. We easily end up living a compartmentalised existence, allowing Jesus into the smart, well-kept hallway and sitting room of our lives, but no way is he allowed to see the mess in the kitchen or all the rubbish we moved upstairs when we heard he was coming round.

 

It’s similar in our broader society: Christianity is one faith among many. It is tolerated in the public sphere. Christianity may be seen as a matter of curious personal morality, a spiritual comfort blanket, or a part of our heritage and custom to teach children at school.

 

But what Colossians 1:15-20 tells us is that Christ is the integrated centre. Believing in Jesus gives us a coherent world-view. For years science has been searching for a unified theory of everything. Remarkably Colossians tells us we already have it in Christ.

 

The glorious order and beauty of creation – however we think it came to pass – find their meaning in God. The wondrous things of this world are not purposeless but reveal God’s glory. By their life and flourishing and vocation they show his wisdom and love. This universe is God’s, so his presence can be discerned everywhere, we can look for meaning by his Spirit. The rulers and authorities about whom we worry so much are not all powerful – they are under God’s authority. Even the brokenness that we see all around is being redeemed. The new creation is beginning with the church and it will be fulfilled in its marvellous destiny: healed, reconciled and full of the love of Christ.

 

It’s worth looking at this passage more closely, so please do have it in front of you. There’s so much here – but we can’t spend all day!

 

v.15 says that ‘Christ is the image of the invisible God’. In other words, Jesus makes God known. When we look at Jesus we see what God is like, and he completes our understanding of God. On my computer I have a 3D printer app. It’s very clever: the idea is that I can design anything at all – from an alien spacecraft to a new hip joint. I could draw it in 3D on the laptop – and then send it over the internet to a company who will 3D print it, and drop it off to my door. It could do anything – there’s even an old lady walking around who’s got a 3D printed replacement lower jaw!

 

Through a 3D printer, the unseen idea becomes visible. The image becomes concrete. In Jesus, God, who is unseen, reveals himself. God who dwells in unapproachable light makes himself known to us through his Son.

 

So when we look at Jesus we get an accurate picture of God the Father. For me, that brings God so much closer. ‘God’ can be quite a loose word – we can have different ideas of what ‘God’ is like, depending on what we’re like. If I’m a guilty sort of person, then I’ll probably have an image of a vengeful God. If I’m complacent, then my idea of God may be a Santa in the skies. Or maybe my God won’t bother me if I don’t bother him. We can very easily make God in our own image.

 

But if Christ is the image of the invisible God, then we know what God is like. When Jesus heals the sick we feel God’s compassion for the suffering creation. When Jesus weeps at Lazarus’ tomb we see God’s commitment to defeat death. When Jesus rebukes the Pharisees we hear God’s passion for justice. When Jesus clears the temple we see God condemning greed and idolatry. In his words we hear God’s perfect will for us, in his forgiving embrace we feel God’s love for the world.

 

So, when you think of God, do you think of Jesus? If not, why not? Are there bits of the character of Jesus that you do and don’t have in your image of God? If so why? And how can you imagine God in a more Biblical way?

 

Jesus shows us God’s love in this physical world. For God is not part of this creation. Militant atheists like Dawkins are fond of saying that the chances of a supremely intelligent, hugely capable being arising in the universe are infinitesimally small. Which is correct. But God isn’t part of this universe, that he should arise within it. God is totally other.

 

 

 

The Son of God is eternal too. But in the incarnation he takes created flesh. God’s Son becomes a human being. That’s what it means in v.15 when it says that Christ is the firstborn of all creation – he also has the right of a firstborn, of inheritance. As v.16 says, everything was made by him and for him.

 

This doesn’t commit Christians to a naïve view of creation, as if Christ makes the world out of a kind of divine plasticine. The Big Bang and evolution are perfectly compatible with Christianity, they fit with the belief in John’s Gospel Chapter 1 that the creation is ordered and intelligible – and that sense and reason is derived from the Word of God. Paul expresses the same belief in v. 17: ‘He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together.’ Christ is the Wisdom of God and that Word of God becomes flesh and dwells among us.

 

Does it then seem a bit odd for Paul to start talking about the church? We’ve had this amazing scenic sweep through all creation, a grand theory of everything in which Christ is the pinnacle, and now Paul’s talking about the church?

 

We so often sell the church short. The church is not a group of people meeting on a Sunday where we might decide to turn up if the music’s good enough. The church is spread throughout time and space, a vast army of those who have trusted in Christ, people from lands we have never heard of, people who have gone before us, who are alive with God now. The church is eternal, timeless, Christ’s treasured possession and the beginning of his new creation.

 

The church is all about Jesus. Particular denominations here on earth can get distracted by all kinds of issues, but we need to remember that the church’s job is to point to Christ.

 

 

There are many great things associated with the Christian faith: art, architecture, music, education, spirituality, community. Yet none of these is the ultimate purpose of the church. They’re all good things, but they need to be built on Jesus. He is the cornerstone, all else follows. That’s what we’re here for! The church is only the church insofar as it is faithful to the teaching and example of Jesus. We are here to bear witness to the resurrected one.

 

Verse 19 reminds us that ‘in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’. In other words, Jesus is fully divine. Knowing Jesus we can know God. If anyone wants to know what God is like, point them to Jesus.

 

For above all, Jesus shows us the immense love of God. As an accurate image of God, Christ reveals amazing things we could never have imagined had he not come.

 

Picture a naked man, bleeding, battered, gasping his life away, nailed to a rough wooden frame. Not exactly the first image that comes to mind if we’re asked to picture God. But that is the reality. The cross shows us the depth of God’s self-giving love. Paul has been leading up to this picture – the crucifixion of Jesus is the deepest insight into the nature of God, the most profound image of God we can have.

 

A God who loves us so much that he did not leave us unforgiven. He did not leave us hopeless, unable to help ourselves. Despite the immense cost, Christ sacrificed his life for us, reconciling us to God.

 

Later on in Colossians, Paul reflects on how this happens. In Chapter 2 verses 13-14 it says: ‘God made you alive together with Christ, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside nailing it to the cross.’

 

It’s like there’s a record of all the wrong things we have done. The trespasses, the things we did that we shouldn’t have – and the things we didn’t do that we really we ought to have done. For some of us this record will be long, for others a bit shorter, but I guess for each of us we wouldn’t have to think for long to appreciate what would be on that record – or how we might feel about it.

 

But the amazing thing is: God has taken that record away and nailed it to the cross. Does that mean it is gone forever? Yes! Because when something’s nailed to the cross, it’s the charge against you. That’s what they used to do with the charge against criminals. If a thief had been caught and sentenced, the record of their crime was nailed to the cross with them. So ‘the record that stood against us, with its legal demands’ has been nailed to the cross of Christ – the cross on which Jesus died.

 

The meaning is clear: Jesus died to deal with our sins. The verdict, the punishment that stood against us, has been paid for by Christ. Basically, he dies in our place. God’s Son suffers the pain involved in forgiving, gives up his life that we might live.

 

It’s not only for us either, but for all creation. Back to Chapter 1, verse 20: ‘through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself All Things, whether on earth or heaven, making peace through the blood of his cross.’ If you wonder about the future of our planet, if you fear for our earth and worry about how the environment can survive, then this passage can give you hope. The new beginning for us, will also be a fresh start for the whole world. God’s plan is not just for us, it’s huge.

 

In this we see above all what God is like. Through the whole life and ministry of Jesus, God reveals himself to us. On the cross he pours out his love for creation and calls us back to himself. What an amazing God Jesus has made known!

 

 

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Mark 1:21-28

What difference does following Jesus make? Or, to put it another way, what would life be like if you weren’t a Christian? What would you miss? What hope would be absent?

 

Jesus makes a difference to people’s lives. He transforms us, changing us in many ways. Our reading from Mark 1:21-28 tells us that Jesus makes a difference in our lives today because he is the Son of God, because he has authority.

 

That authority comes up several times in the gospel reading. We first see it in verse 21 ‘They went to Capernaum.’ Who is ‘they’? Simon, Andrew, Peter and John. The fishermen who left their nets in response to Jesus’ call and followed him.

 

Do we imagine this as a completely spur of the moment decision? The reading we had from John’s gospel a couple of weeks ago suggests that Jesus had met at least some of these men before. Some of them had been disciples of John the Baptist, who pointed Jesus out to them. So it wasn’t a completely random leap into the unknown. They knew Jesus, had seen and heard him, had a chance to be convinced. When he called, they put down their nets and followed him.

 

Maybe you’ve known the call of Jesus as voice beckoning you on? As an irresistible draw, a deep longing, a knowledge that he has what you’re searching for, an understanding that life without him will never fulfil. Some people he commands clearly and suddenly, others grow towards him like a plant seeking the light.

 

And Jesus keeps on calling us. When we decide to follow him, our journey is only begun. In each different circumstance of life Jesus calls us to be faithful, to discern his will and grow the Kingdom of God in the best way we can. Sometimes he calls us to other places, to something new. Sometimes he calls us to an adventure in the place where we already are. Don’t imagine you have to become someone else to respond to Christ’s call. Ask him what he wants you to be, here, now.

When we respond to his call, we begin to change. I wonder if you have seen this happen with someone else? A new light in their eyes, a new demeanour, the sharp edges being rubbed off as the Holy Spirit gets to work, a more compassionate more servant hearted personality.

 

The disciples in the reading are only beginning their journey with Jesus, and they still have a lot to learn. If you ever take a trip to the Holy Land, one of the highlights is the tour round the ruins of Capernaum. You can still see a synagogue, built later on top of the one in which Jesus taught that very day.

 

It’s interesting that Jesus did teach. For he wasn’t a priest. He hadn’t been to the university or scribal school. And yet, as v.23 tells us ‘They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.’

 

What does that mean? If you look at records of teaching from those times, it often follows a particular pattern. There will be a Bible verse –and someone will ask a question about it. So there’s a verse in the Old Testament which talks about lying. Somebody asks, are white lies ok? Here’s a real example: they ask: should you say a bride is beautiful, even if she’s not? Rabbi Shammai says no, you should never lie. Another Rabbi, Hillel, says all brides are beautiful on their wedding day. And then the teachers would discuss the relative merits of each viewpoint.

 

It reads like case law. It cites verdicts and appeals to precedent. It’s practical, wants to do the right thing, but is backward looking and often patriarchal. Seldom in this approach does God’s Word come to life, it feels like a dusty text, the object of study in a museum case.

 

Jesus is completely different. He goes straight to the heart of the question. When they asked him ‘Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ he asked for a coin. ‘Whose inscription and image is this?’ ‘Caesar’s’, they replied. ‘Well then, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’ He always had a new angle.

 

Jesus recognised this himself. Often in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches: ‘You have heard that it was said’ – referring to the arguments of the Rabbis – ‘but I say to you…’ I say to you? Who is this who can sweep aside centuries of tradition? Who has the audacity to ignore the opinions of the elders, and set forth his own as a replacement? Who can speak as if he alone knows the true meaning of God’s law? Who does Jesus think he is?

 

God’s own Son. Only the Son of God could reinterpret God’s Word with such authority and clarity. Only He could distinguish so clearly between the true intention of Scripture and the layers of encrusting tradition. The way Jesus teaches shows us his authority as Son of God. When we read Jesus’ teaching, let’s not turn it into a dry study. Let’s not make it a project of acquiring knowledge. Let’s ask him to show us the living beating heart of his word. His glorious will for us.

 

The implications of the way Jesus teaches may not be clear to everyone in the reading, but one man grasps it. With supernatural insight, in verse 24 he cries out ‘You are the Holy One of God!’ He is correct in that, but Jesus tells him to be quiet. For this revelation has not come through the Holy Spirit, but though spiritual forces opposed to God. ‘Have you come to destroy us?’ they cry in fear. No, Jesus has not come to destroy people but to set them free.

 

And so Jesus heals the man and liberates from the spiritual power which oppresses him. This is really important, because it is a sign of the Kingdom of God. When evil is defeated, when people are set free from spiritual darkness, then the Kingdom of God really is among us.

 

I knew of a woman who had got involved in the occult. At first it seemed fun, fascinating even. Then it was an opportunity to make money, as friends turned to her for readings and mediumship. But after a while, the darkness began to grow and take over. She started experiencing weird things, hearing voices, she was no longer in control, running scared.

Desperate, she turned to the church and was prayed for. She repented of what she’d done, turned to Christ and was delivered from the oppression. It was an amazing liberation for someone very troubled.

 

We might not think that kind of thing happens very much, but you’d be surprised. The name of Jesus has power – to bring peace to disturbed homes, calm into troubled lives. The Kingdom of God defeats evil.

 

In many ways, Jesus’ authority can set us free, from all sorts of things. I know a man who was dependent on alcohol. Not strictly an alcoholic, but relying on a drink or two to get through the day. The power of Jesus has set him free.

 

Now, that man has to watch himself in future. He knows that a single drink might make him fall off the wagon. The legacy of his past will probably stay with him for the rest of his life. There is healing, but not to make the problem vanish. He must still depend on God. I know several faithful Christians who are just about managing to keep their heads above the water. People who are using all the grace God can give to deal with depression, ME or other illness. It’s a real struggle for them to get by.

 

Why does God not simply take it away? If Jesus has authority over the chains that bind us, why does he not set us completely free? Why this day to day struggle? Why a kind of partial healing, depending on God until the day comes when we are fully free? It feels like that with physical healing too. In the verses after this reading, Jesus heals Peter’s mother in law. She has a fever, and Jesus helps her up and she recovers completely. Jesus has power over sickness, so why is that not always experienced?

 

I live with that question all the time. I live with a child who in many ways has received healing. People have prayed earnestly, and he has done much better than expected, miraculously he keeps on going. His capabilities have exceeded anything anyone dared to predict. A week on Monday he will be the subject of a documentary about his political campaigning and poetry – yet he still inhabits a broken body.

 

To Jonathan the power of Jesus to change lives is real. He knows the difference God has made – and is the most content person I have ever known. He looks forward to the day when he shall be made complete, healed in eternity. That overarching perspective reminds us that the Kingdom of God is not yet complete, that our final liberation is yet to come.

 

For in this reading, the King, the Chosen One, the Son of God begins to bring in his Kingdom. The signs of the Kingdom of God are everywhere. All around us. We see the Kingdom of God when people find new life in Jesus. When lives are transformed by Christ’s authoritative teaching. We experience the power of the Kingdom of God in victory over evil. When lives are set free, broken creation is healed and restored. We respond as Jesus calls us to journey with him and play our part in growing the Kingdom of God.

 

The Kingdom of God begins, and it continues to grow, until eventually it will be fulfilled in God’s presence. Jesus changes lives. He did so then, and he does so now. This is the message, and the power, that he invites us to share. Let us seek to live by Christ’s authority in every area of life. Let us submit everything to him. And may we see his power to bring change impact positively on those around us.

 

Come and See

When was the last time that you just had to tell the world? When you got so enthusiastic about something – a new car that you couldn’t wait to demonstrate to a friend? A grandchild’s winning sprint posted on Facebook? Or even just boasting about the Jamie Oliver puddings you picked up for £2.50 in the post-Christmas sales?

 

In this reading from John’s gospel, Chapter 1 verses 43 to 51 the first disciples get so enthusiastic about meeting Jesus that they just have to tell someone. It invites us to think about how we meet Jesus today, what he means to us personally, and how we might invite others to him.

 

This church season of Epiphany focusses on Jesus being revealed, people discovering who he is. So several of the gospel accounts we read come from the beginning of his ministry. Here Jesus returns from the desert regions to Galilee and chooses his disciples. He’s already called Andrew and Peter, and in verse 43 he says to Philip ‘Follow me’.

 

And then something important happens. Philip finds Nathanael and says to him ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote: Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Philip has found Jesus. He searches out his friend Nathanael and full of enthusiasm, he shares his discovery, in his own words. Philip is the first ordinary person to tell someone else about Jesus. He does something so important – for if people everywhere will become part of the Kingdom of God, then one must tell another. We too can share our faith – it is a duty and a joy to do so.

 

But Philip’s efforts don’t meet with a warm response. ‘Nazareth? Can anything good from there?’ The place was totally unremarkable. About ten acres in size, with a population of 200 to 400 peasant farmers. They lived in houses which were half building, half cave burrowed into the soft rock. Can anything good come from there? But isn’t that the point? Precisely the place where God enters humanity at its humblest, identifies most closely with us by sharing human hardships. That’s what the incarnation is about – the dump is where God is most likely to be.

Rather wisely, Philip just replies ‘Come and see’. Give Jesus a chance, try him out and make up your own mind. Philip says ‘Come and find out for yourself. Experience and find out if it’s true.’

 

At Christmas we got given a board game – it was one of those that has complex symbols printed on a board, hundreds of little plastic shapes, piles of cards that all mean different things, and tiny tokens to punch out and lose. The instructions ran to a small booklet – two whole pages on just setting the game up!

 

Did we sit down and read the manual aloud to the assembled players? Did we work it through in our minds before we began to play? Of course not! We just started playing and found out the rules as we went. ‘Now it’s your turn. Move your token. Roll the dice. 7. What’s that mean? The plague – what are the rules for the plague?’ And so on.

 

Now there were some complaints that Daddy was finding new rules at times which suited him. Yet overall, it worked really well, and it was a fun, well designed game. Ok, for the first time we were a bit confused. But when we played it again, and again, we really got the hang of it.

 

It can often be the same when people encounter Jesus today. There is a proverb that people belong before they believe. In other words people appreciate the friendship of a Christian community, they are drawn to the joy and mystery of worship, they take part, even get stuck in – and then something of faith stirs and grows into understanding. People come and see, experience the living Christ, and then believe.

 

Even before someone comes through those doors, they will have seen the Kingdom of God at work in the world. Maybe the church’s work in a food bank or a Romanian orphanage, or a kind friend, will lead someone to take faith seriously, will help them realise that those words mean something. The Christian faith is experienced, desired, caught, which generates the willingness to learn and understand.

So for Christians, when we seek to share our faith, let’s remember that explanation is important – and it is made real by genuine experience of God’s love. It is fine to issue an invitation – which will be effective when it is backed up by a faith that making a difference in the world. Neither words nor actions are enough on their own. We must have both.

 

And then Jesus will do his own thing. I have learnt not to try and control people’s path to faith. For Jesus has his own way of dealing with each person. He knows them far more intimately than I do. So it is my place to watch and listen for what he is doing – speak the word in season, invite when the Holy Spirit prompts, challenge when appropriate, all the while trying to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit.

 

Jesus works his own particular way. The conversation in 47 onwards is rather odd. Jesus greets Philip with the words ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.’ In effect ‘Here’s a genuine bloke, there’s no messing about with this man. He’s an honest seeker.’

 

Nathanael seems to recognise this is fair, but he is surprised: ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus replies ‘I saw you under the fig tree, before Philip called you.’ Apparently this is enough to convince Nathanael who immediately jumps to the astonishing conclusion ‘Rabbi you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel!’

 

What’s going on here? V.50 suggests that Jesus had seen Nathanael by some kind of prophetic insight. A supernatural ability which combines with Philip’s words and the presence of Christ to convince Nathanael.

 

Probably also Nathanael is meant to be an example. He’s the open minded, fair, faith-filled and hopeful Jewish person waiting for the Messiah. Perhaps there were such people among the first recipients of the gospel. Perhaps they themselves were puzzled as to why so many of their fellow-Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. Indeed the Christians had been expelled from the synagogues. Perhaps Nathanael is an example to them of what ought, what could be.

 

 

For us too, Nathanael reminds us that some people will get it. Jesus meets them and wham! Perhaps we may know people whose initial scepticism has been replaced by faith. Suddenly the Holy Spirit surprises us by what he can do in someone’s life. Meeting Jesus in worship, acts of service, prayer, stillness is incredibly powerful.

 

We have to face up to the fact that many Christians today, myself included, often have a negative assumption about how people will react when we speak about faith. We assume they won’t be interested. Or we give up at the first sign of reluctance, when maybe the invitation to come and see might be effective. Perhaps we are conditioned by the secular society around us not to share our faith or to be shy in doing so. In reality, folks are curious to find out about other people’s lives – if we share humbly and don’t lecture we often get an interested hearing.

 

Perhaps also we think that the people around us know about Christianity. We’ve all been brought up with it, we heard it all at school. What can I tell them that’s new? For starters, you’d be surprised what people don’t know! And for those who feel they’ve been there and done that, a radical servant Christianity brings them up short and makes them realise that the Kingdom of God changes lives.

 

Perhaps faith seems too big a thing to convey – after all it’s easy enough to enthuse about a bottle of wine – but faith is so life changing and so big it’s hard to sum up adequately. So maybe the answer is to try and convey a bit at a time. To respond to ‘how do you cope?’ with a personal explanation of the real difference faith makes in that situation. To be ready to explain the particular life choices we make due to faith. And to be ready to say ‘Come and see’ – not try and fix it with our explanations but invite people onto their own journey of discovery.

 

Bringing people to encounter Jesus, giving birth to faith is ultimately the Spirit’s work. Our role is to pray, listen, serve, speak, invite and accompany. For when we make space for the Spirit to work, he can do amazing things through us. Very soon the person we have taught will be teaching us things!

If there hadn’t been Nathanael, there wouldn’t have been v.51. Maybe it is a bit obscure: ‘you will see heaven opened and the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’

 

But for those who were brought up with the Hebrew Bible, they would have instantly thought of Jacob. This Old Testament patriarch was running away from home. While sleeping rough, with a stone as a pillow, he dreamt he saw heaven open and a ladder connecting heaven and earth. Angels were ascending and descending on the ladder. Jacob took it as a sign that God was with him. In the morning he set up his stone pillow as a pillar to remember that God is here.

 

Jesus says that the angels ascend and descend on the Son of Man. On himself. He takes the place of the ladder linking heaven and earth. This one is the fully human, fully divine, son of man. In him God’s eternity and creation come together. In his body – perhaps hinting at the cross – he bridges the gap.

 

We do not climb a stairway to heaven by being good or keeping all the rules. It is Jesus himself who brings heaven to earth and earth to heaven. This is what is unique about him. Jesus does not point to a code to follow, nor a culture. The centre of Christianity is Jesus himself. That is why we say ‘Come and See’. Come and experience the life of the community in which Christ lives. Come and join the worship, come and receive the word and sacrament in which Christ is known. Come and serve, build the Kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. Come and see.

 

Epiphany

Epiphany is about Kings – but which ones? This story from Matthew seems to focus on kings– but not the ones we might think of. ‘We three Kings of orient are’ goes the carol – yet the Bible doesn’t call them kings, rather Magi, often translated wise men. Perhaps if they had been had been wiser, their gifts for a new mother might have been nappies, enough casserole to last a week, and a plentiful supply of chocolate…

 

So the Magi aren’t kings. What about Herod? Yes, he’s just a puppet of the Romans, yet Herod has real power over life and death. However v.1, in that little double edged phrase ‘in the time of King Herod’ hints that Herod’s time is passing away. The first readers of Matthew’s gospel would have known that Herod died soon after these events.  His earthly kingdom will not last.

 

Really, the king here is King Jesus. Herod in his splendour, the wise men with their gifts, these are not the true kings. The baby lying in the manger will grow up to be God’s king. In Jesus, God’s promised Saviour comes to reign. He offers us the way into God’s Kingdom. How then we will we respond?

 

It’s worth thinking about what we mean by the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom does not just mean that God reigns in heaven and one day we shall go to join him there. If that was all it meant, then why did Herod feel so threatened? Why bother to kill Jesus if his purpose in life was just to sort out what happens after we die? If Jesus came preaching a privatised spirituality or a personal morality then why was he crucified?

 

The Christian church has often misunderstood the Kingdom of God; narrowed it down, turned it into something purely spiritual. Often we’ve focussed so much on the truth that Jesus offers us eternal life, that we’ve forgotten that this world matters to God too. Both are important. We’ve emphasised that Jesus died on the cross so our sins could be forgiven – without realising that also means that all of God’s glorious creation will be healed. He plans a total restoration.

Jesus did not just tell us how to live as we wait for heaven – he told us how God’s Kingdom begins, grows and changes this world.

 

The Kingdom of God breaks in whenever God’s reign is recognised. We join it when we accept Jesus as Lord – and we grow the work of the Kingdom as we live God’s way. The Kingdom of God brings justice, joy, peace, forgiveness, a new community following Jesus. It has implications for all of life: political, economic and environmental.

People sometimes say that the church is irrelevant – but look at the places where the church is making a difference today: debt cancellation; campaigning and practical steps to end modern slavery; providing food banks so families in a poverty trap can get a decent meal; inquiries like that for Hillsborough which bring truth and justice.

 

So when we look at our New Year’s resolutions, how does faith make a difference? Are the things we hope to do all about ourselves: lose weight, eat better, drink less, get healthier – or can we include hopes, steps towards a better world? Where can we see the Kingdom of God growing around us? Can we listen to what God is doing and join in?

 

For the Kingdom of God affects this world. It’s obvious in the passage we’ve just read: the Magi are Gentiles which tells us that this Jewish Messiah has come for all people. Even the natural world is affected as a star points the way to his birth. It is a Kingdom for this earth, in all its messiness, making a real change because it comes in a different way.

 

There was a remarkable example of the way earthly kingdoms work just this past week. Kim from North Korea had boasted about his nuclear button. Donald from the States went onto Twitter to say that his nuclear button is much bigger than Kim’s, and what’s more it works.

 

That’s all about power and force. But the Kingdom of God doesn’t work this way. The Kingdom of God doesn’t even move forward by the good guys being stronger, in a traditional way, than the bad guys.

The Kingdom of God is not about doing what the world does. Nor is it about doing something a little bit different, more moral, but in a bigger and better way. Its ethos is radically different.

 

I wonder who’s seen the new Star Wars film? I really enjoyed it – it’s a break with tradition, refreshing. And to get the best from the action, it’s really worth seeing in the cinema.  I’ll try not to give too many details away – hopefully this doesn’t need a spoiler alert! There’s a bit where one character saves another – and she says: ‘that’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.’

 

It reminded me of the cross. Those gifts that the wise men bring are a kind of prophecy. Gold speaks of royalty; frankincense symbolises an offering; while myrrh is used at the time of death. This is a king who will bring in his kingdom in a totally new way.

 

The gospels point towards the cross as the place where Jesus wins his victory. They allude to it as being like a throne. Which seems a bit odd – given that to all intents and purposes death by crucifixion looks like an abject failure. Yet this is God’s way of victory. For Jesus does not defeat evil by having a larger army. He doesn’t squish empires by force of arms. What happens on the cross is that God’s Son Jesus, as a representative of humanity, allows evil to do its worst to him. He offers himself, makes himself vulnerable, and evil pours itself out in hatred upon him until it has nothing left. Jesus wins the victory by draining sin of its power, by dying our death, saving us whom he loves.

 

Which may help us to face the obvious objection: If you say God is the King of our world, have you looked out the window recently? Since 2018 began we’ve had stabbings, riots and threats of nuclear war. So if God’s supposed to be reigning what’s he up to?

 

 

Our reading from St Matthew is well aware that evil can still wreak horror. Immediately after this reading, Matthew tells of how Herod in his jealous rage ordered the death of every boy under the age of two in Bethlehem. Herod planned to wipe out the infant Messiah.

 

 

Yet for all his anger, Herod was unsuccessful. God’s plan was not thwarted. Today evil still rages in our world, but its ultimate defeat is guaranteed. Jesus has won the victory on the cross – and the Kingdom is growing. Small at first, like a mustard seed or a handful of yeast it will nonetheless spread through all the dough. And eventually the time will come when Jesus returns and the whole creation will be judged and renewed.

 

When William Wilberforce and his friends won the key vote to ban slavery in the British Empire, there were still struggles. The law had to be implemented, patches of resistance cleared up. Even in our own day, people are had up for forced labour and domestic servitude. But the passing of that law was the decisive victory.

 

In a similar kind of way, Christ’s victory has been won on the cross, but God’s people may still be called to follow in that way of the cross. Working for the Kingdom of God may involve sacrifice – the wise men travelled many miles, endured danger, and gave generously. Staying in God’s plan may involve us setting off into the unknown, like Mary and Joseph who fled to Egypt.

 

As we begin a New Year, we do not know what the future holds. We may be called to trust God in the midst of darkness. We may be asked to make sacrifices. If we do, let us remember that we do so knowing that Christ is King and that the world is his. If we face challenges, let us remember that Christ has won the victory. And may we, like the wise men, know the presence of the King and be filled with his joy.

 

How do we make sense of the Second Coming?

When I was at primary school I had a thing about dinosaurs. I think it drove everyone round the bend. It didn’t just stop at a plastic Tyrannosaurus fighting a toy Triceratops – I had to go the whole hog and convert my bedroom into a museum. Birthday presents were dinosaur themed – usually the latest book on prehistoric monsters.

 

I remember one book which was properly scientific, written by a leading expert. In one chapter he discussed a great mystery: why did the dinosaurs become extinct? In the early ‘80s this was a complete unknown. Of course, there were some ideas that were completely bonkers: they were all eaten by cavemen or wiped out by asteroids.

 

But as we now know, it was an asteroid wot done it. Since that book was written, scientists have discovered a whacking great crater in the Yucatan peninsula. There, 65 million years ago, a 6 mile wide space rock slammed into a shallow sea, blanketed the world in a cloud of dust that dropped global temperatures and finished off the dinosaurs.

 

Now, you haven’t taken a wrong turning today and ended up in a palaeontological lecture! The reason I’m saying this is that in the past few decades modern science has proven that truly catastrophic events do occur. Things that we once considered bonkers, wild fantasies, the result of an overactive imagination, are now respectable scientific fact.

 

I remind myself of that whenever I come across passages like this one from Mark’s gospel, chapter 13 verses 24-37. Because, if I’m honest, when I read things like v.24 ‘the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven’, it all sounds a bit way out. Weird and scary and hard to understand.

 

Do you remember that time a couple of months ago when there was a storm and lots of dust got whipped up from the Sahara? The sunlight turned red. The sun itself was the colour of blood. It felt really freaky. Windswept but no birdsong. As if something was about to happen. I could see how events like that might make people think the end is nigh!

So what does this reading mean? Are we meant to take it literally or as a symbol? Does Jesus here foretell a dramatic end of the world event, like a supernova, before he comes again? Or is it religious language for a revolution in society, turning the tables as the Kingdom of God comes?

 

Whichever way you look at it, clearly it describes a remarkable act of God. The Lord intervenes to transform the status quo and then Christ will reign. So firstly it asks us if we do believe that God can act? Can God transform situations? I believe that he can – I’ve seen it happen.

 

You may be aware that a couple of years ago my son Jonathan was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension. This is a bit of a one way street, to be honest, it can’t be cured. The doctors weren’t even treating it, because of the medicines’ side-effects. Anyway, a few weeks ago Jonathan had his cardiac check-up – and the results were normal. No sign of it. I can’t explain that. It seems miraculous.

 

Nothing is beyond God’s power. The God of the Resurrection can resurrect a dying world. A dramatic end to existence as we know it, and the beginning of a new creation, is within God’s power. This is the hope of the church. Why we are here. To be a sign of the Kingdom.

 

So why might it feel hard to believe? Is it perhaps a failure of imagination? Type verse 26 into Google images: ‘son of man coming in clouds’ and you’ll see what I mean. The artwork doesn’t help – it’s straight off the pages of a Jehovah’s Witness magazine. What is described here is beyond the abilities of our limited imagination.

 

It may help to realise that Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament. V. 26 comes from Daniel 7 verses 13-14 about the Son of Man being given power in God’s presence. Verses 24 and 25 are from Isaiah, in the middle of a passage talking about the historic fall of Babylon. Isaiah describes the total destruction of the enemy city, which will never be built on again. Only this kind of apocalyptic language can do it justice.

Bishop Tom Wright, who’s a respected New Testament scholar, argues that people at the time of Jesus were not really expecting the stars literally to fall from the sky and the moon turn to actual blood. Tom Wright says they used this language to speak of dramatic world changing events, times when God does something completely new. After all St Peter quotes those exact verses to explain the arrival of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. The moon did not literally turn to blood that day, or even just turn red – something more remarkable happened: God through his Holy Spirit came to live in human beings.

 

Yet Jesus doesn’t just quote, he adds to the words from Isaiah. In v 27 he talks about the angels gathering the elect from every corner of the earth. He really does seem, in v.32, to have a particular event in mind, that he will actually return, whatever signs accompany that day.

 

And Jesus says all this, not to satisfy idle curiosity, but so that we can be prepared. Take a look at verses 28-29: ‘from the fig tree learn its lesson, as soon as the branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves you know that summer is near. So you also when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near.’ Is summer a good thing? Yes! By February how we long for sunshine! Are figs good? Yes, they’re delicious! Is the coming of Christ therefore good? Yes.

 

Jesus tells us that he will reign, he will be a loving and just king, that the creation will be the beautiful and joyous place that God intended. When we read these parts of the Bible we can get overwhelmed by the challenge, the warnings, the tribulation. But Jesus tells us that these are the birth pains – what you have to go through to get to the new life. Yes evil will be destroyed. Yes, there will be a judgement.

 

God tells humanity this so that we can turn from evil, be forgiven, and enjoy the new life that is to come. If we trust in Christ we have nothing to fear at the judgement because we are forgiven. Christ gave himself on the cross, taking the punishment that should be ours, so that our sin can be wiped away. It asks us: have we accepted Christ as our Saviour?

 

It is good news, but when will it happen? Verses 30-32 seem to pull in different directions. V.31 says that ‘this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place’. As you read the New Testament it seems clear that some people in the Early Church expected Jesus to return very soon – within a few years of his Ascension. The Second letter of Peter tells us that when Jesus did not come back quickly, scoffers began to say ‘where is this coming?’ to which Peter replies ‘with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day.’ Expectations had to be adjusted.

 

But in v.32 Jesus had said that ‘no-one knows the day or the hour, neither the angels in heaven, nor even the Son himself, but only the Father.’ So if it is unknown we must be prepared. It is like a boss unexpectedly dropping in on a factory to see what’s really going on. Like OFSTED inspectors who give a school just 24hrs so you can’t make it up!

 

We do not know when Christ will come. You and I may still be around when he returns. Or we may return to him first. We do not know the day of either of those events! There’s another way of looking at it: Jesus may come in the crucial encounters of life.

 

Think about it: the times when we have to make decisions, when the rubber of our faith really hits the road, when we react one way or the other to another person. Those also are times when we encounter Christ. In a sense Christ comes at any time when our instant reactions reveal the attitudes and habits we have built up over the years. When we see if we are truly in him. That’s why the church is here – to encourage and support us as we try and be faithful to God.

 

How then should we live? In 1 Corinthians chapter 1 verses 3-9 Paul gives us a very simple answer. We should live by grace. Let’s just turn to that briefly.

 

 

Grace is the gift of God. Freely given, received as a gift, not earned by us. When I was a student there was a poster with a big picture of Jesus on it and the words ‘Jesus is coming. Look busy’. That’s a trap we can easily fall into with all these warnings about being prepared, keeping watch, and so on.

 

But Jesus does not look for us to be busy. He wants us to live by grace. Paul teaches us, in v.4, that it is the grace of God which calls us into a relationship with God through Christ Jesus. In verses 5-7 it is the grace of God which gives us all the gifts that we need as we serve Christ and one another. And in verse 8 and 9 it is God himself – his grace not our efforts – it is God himself who strengthens us so that we may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

It’s as we live by grace, as we trust God, that we become ready for Christ. It is through depending on him that the life of God’s Kingdom appears within us. However he comes, whenever he comes, may he find us trusting in God and abiding in him.

Sheep and Goats

I never thought I’d say this, confession time, but Saturday evening in our household is Strictly Come Dancing night. The girls are totally hooked to the costumes, the dancing and the excitement of who will get chucked off each week. I wander in and out as I get things ready for Sunday – but I have to admit, in a strange way it draws you in.

 

One of the things I find fascinating is how people react to being judged. Sometimes they seem on the verge of tears – which I find quite understandable – you’ve given your best to something, not your natural talent only to have your efforts archly, condescendingly ripped apart. But of course the contestants could take the judges’ comments as advice, timely warnings that if taken could avert catastrophe. If only Jonny had managed to do what they said and keep his rear tucked in!

 

When we hear passages about judgement in the Bible, like the gospel reading from Matthew 25, we face a choice in how we approach it. The message of judgement will not be comfortable, it would be tempting to stop up our ears, carry on and hope for the best, but if we listen and take note, it will do us a lot of good.

 

If you had come to this church 500 years ago, on the eve of the Reformation, this chancel arch would have been one huge painting. Up at the top, Christ was seated in majesty, judging the world. On his right, and your left, the blessed rise out of their graves to everlasting life. On that side, demons haul sinners away to the gates of hell. I imagine that when the sermon got boring, our predecessors would look at the picture – maybe some got drawn to the images of bliss, others of a more nervous disposition were fascinated by the gory scenes on their right.

 

And when we read Matthew 25 verses 31 to the end, we may identify more with one than another. Do you see yourself as a sheep, looking forward to eternal life in the presence of Christ? Or does a guilty conscience trouble you, as you worry about the fate of the goats?

 

Christianity comforts the disturbed, and disturbs the comfortable. It may be that if we identify with the sheep, we might need to be challenged. And if we worry about being goats, maybe we need to hear the good news of God’s invitation, to be forgiven and free. So as we think about this part of the Bible, please do consciously engage with the bits that might not at first sight appear to apply to you.

 

When I prepare a sermon I always ask ‘Where’s the good news here?’ For however challenging or difficult a part of the Bible is, we must believe that in the end God’s message to us is good news. There is a lot here!

 

Firstly, it tells us that Jesus will reign, that’s what we remember this Sunday as we think about Christ the King. Kings and Queens today are either found in fairy tales, or they are constitutional monarchs, like our own Queen and Prince Philip celebrating 60 years together. The Biblical background to Christ the King is an all-powerful monarch who nonetheless gives himself to save his people. In v. 31: ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.’ Even now, Jesus is at the right hand of God, and one day his kingdom will come with power. The whole world will be as God intended it to be. Over it all, as King, will be Christ.

 

Secondly, we are invited to join that Kingdom. If we have faith in Jesus, that promise of verse 34 applies to us: ‘You that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ It has always been God’s plan that his people should live with him in a perfectly renewed creation forever. He invites us – so let us respond, take up the invitation.

 

Thirdly, the good news is that good will triumph and there will be an end to evil. We see very clearly here that kind, loving, serving deeds are rewarded by Jesus. These are simple practical actions in verses 35-36: clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick.

It’s not hard to think of equivalents today: Doing the shopping for the housebound lady next door, putting a tin or two in the supermarket’s box for the homeless. Popping in to check on those who are unwell, phoning those who are going through hard times. Sharing garden produce, welcoming the less well-off to a church social. Giving to charity. Defending those who are oppressed. Hosting a refugee family.

 

Some of these actions are simple: like the guy who approached me at Chippenham station and pointed out I was standing on a platform where there were no train tracks, and the one I wanted was over there. Others are more complex – I’m sure I’m not the only one here who’s given money to a beggar, feeling sorry for them and a bit guilty too because I’m also wondering how it will be spent. I got sent this excellent guide: ‘How to help homeless people’ by the Church Housing Trust, because we have to be both generous and wise.

 

In the first century AD, when Jesus taught, most people lived in small communities. They knew their neighbours but not much further afield, they knew who was in need, and were mutually accountable to one another. Today we are so interconnected that we daily see images of suffering people from the other side of the world, yet at the same time we may have little relationship even with the folks next door.

 

We are so aware of need, we could give our all, but what then? We can be bewildered as to how to respond, feel guilty turning away the charity doorstepper. As St Paul says in Corinthians, it is important to give prayerfully, generously, without compulsion and responsibly. God wants us to develop maturity in our giving, so each one of us needs to work this out for ourselves. And the question is not ‘How little or how much must I give?’ but ‘How much of me, my life in Christ, and all that God has entrusted to me is reflected in my giving?’ For giving changes us. We are transformed, and others are transformed by our gift.

 

 

It may do so in a deep way. Martin Luther King said: ‘We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring’

 

For instance it is good that the government has reduced the waiting time for Universal Credit – people claiming benefit just don’t have 6 weeks’ living expenses in their back pocket.

 

Making structural changes involves difficult issues, and I have sympathy for those who implement them. One thing we can be sure of, our fourth point: that when the Kingdom of God comes, suffering will be no more. Evil will be destroyed. This is really the other side of the same coin. If the new creation is entirely good, there can be no evil. None at all. I used to homebrew wine – make a gallon at a go, but if a single tiny fruit fly got in the whole lot would turn to vinegar. Even a tiny bit of wickedness would spread.

 

The challenging thing about the people in the passage who are described as goats is that if we met in the street we wouldn’t think they were bad. In v. 41-43 Jesus does not call them murderers, thieves, adulterers, drunkards – because they weren’t. They probably seemed very moral. They just didn’t help those in need. Maybe they lived in nice bungalows with well maintained gardens; they were quiet neighbours, kept themselves to themselves. Never hurt a fly. They just didn’t help either. ‘Not my problem. The state will sort it out. If I get involved where will it stop? It’s probably their fault anyway.’

 

 

I know that I’ve reacted to the needy like that at times. Rather than responding out of guilt, I should remember that fifth piece of good news: that when we help those in need we help Christ himself. In v.44 they ask: ‘Lord when did we see you hungry and not feed you?’  -the implication being that if they knew it was Jesus they would have done something. But Jesus says ‘Whatever you do (or do not do) for one of these, you do for me.’ In serving others, we serve Christ.

 

One of the big questions in this passage is when Jesus talks about ‘members of my family’ who does he mean? Does he mean Christians, who certainly often suffer double discrimination? Or does he mean that we are all children of God? It’s not entirely clear.

 

Maybe the biggest question though is what am I? Am I, are you, a sheep or a goat? Which side of the chancel arch are you? Destined for eternal life, or destruction?

 

The temptation is to respond by reflecting on what we do. how well do we measure up? So I do try and respond to need. But sometimes I walk on by – it seems too complicated or I’m caught up in my own world or don’t want to be drawn in. I give to charity but how much? – I suppose I could go the extra mile like John Wesley who gave up drinking tea so he could give to the poor. There’s always more that could be done.

 

Am I therefore a sheep or a goat? I feel like both. Which predominates? Have you done enough good, been enough of a sheep, to outweigh any goatish behaviour? To compensate for the wrong done? Let alone any good not done?

 

How do I know where I will be when Jesus divides us in two? How can anybody reach God’s perfect standard? Surely the answer is that We can’t. We cannot wipe away our sin, that foul spot never washes out, except when God forgives us through Jesus.

We could never do enough to reach some divine standard. The only offering that will satisfy is the perfection of Christ, his sacrifice of himself for us on the cross.

 

Our mixed nature, the sheep and the goat within each of us, can only be dealt with by being born again in Jesus. When we commit ourselves to him we receive new life that lasts for eternity, and the old way finally perishes the day that we die. In the light of the rest of the Bible, we cannot read this passage as an exhortation to do more so that we can be saved. It is not that. Instead it tells us that true faith results in actions.

 

If we trust in Christ, if we are truly his, then we will want to make a difference for others. If Jesus’ spirit is in us, then we will feel compassion for those in need. Yes, we may be puzzled by how best to help, yes we will still wrestle with our innate selfishness, but by the grace of God we should see progress. We will do something! Motivated not by guilt, but by his love, the love that was first shown to us, we will reach out in love to those in need and in so doing serve Christ himself.

Matthew 24:1-14

As Hurricane Irma bore down on the Caribbean in September, one group of people knew exactly what to do. Richard Branson, his family and his staff headed down into the wine cellar of his luxury retreat on Necker Island. Underground, not sure if they would survive, they did the obvious thing and started on the high quality contents of the cellar. I imagine them emerging after many hours, bleary eyed in the bright sunlight and taking in the devastation around.

 

Branson can rebuild, but others have lost everything. Fair play to him though, despite media interest he insisted the story was not about his experience but about the thousands of poor people in the British Virgin Islands who had lost homes and livelihoods.

 

I wonder how we would react in a similar situation? What would you do if you thought it might be your last few hours on earth? Some people eat drink and be merry; some might take the chance to do something they’d always wanted to do; others might tell those most precious to them of their love, or feel the need to make their peace with God.

 

Those range of reactions will be familiar to us from any number of disaster movies. It may be floods and giant waves, alien invasion, asteroids or flesh munching zombies – whatever the peril our culture seems to be fascinated with end of the world scenarios.

 

I wonder why that is? Do those apocalyptic films address some kind of deep fear within us? Of chaos bubbling up? An anxiety that our complex society is actually rather precarious? That despite all our knowledge and technology we are still not in control of our lives? Do we perhaps instinctively know that there will be an end, that we shall eventually stand before God and be accountable to him?

 

It is after all a common theme in the Bible – that God will one day create a new heaven and a new earth. From the Old Testament to the Book of Revelation there is this great promise.

Our broken world will not always be this way. God will destroy all that harms his creation. There will be an end to sickness, pain, death and evil. Which is bad news for those who cling to evil – part of this renewal is the judgement when every person is accountable to God for their sin. Those who cling to evil will be swept away with it, but there’s a great hope for those who trust in Christ to be forgiven and start again.

 

People in Jesus’ time were not that different from us. They too thought about earth-shattering events, the end of the world as they knew it.

Look at verse 1 in our reading. The disciples were simple country types from Galilee. They were overawed by the huge buildings of Jerusalem; the vast white stones weighing over a hundred tonnes each. Herod’s temple was so grand that even the little spikes to keep off the pigeons were plated with gold. But Jesus is not so impressed, in v.2:

 

‘Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here on another, all will be thrown down’. Barely thirty years later this prediction came true. Roman armies surrounded Jerusalem in a lengthy siege. With much suffering the city fell, and the temple was burnt to the ground. All that remains is a layer of stones at the bottom of the Wailing Wall.

 

For the disciples such an appalling event, the destruction of God’s own temple, could mean only one thing. Surely the end of the world must follow? How could the world carry on without Jerusalem? Without the temple? So they want to know, in verse 3: ‘Tell us when will this be, what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?’

 

But notice how Jesus doesn’t give them the answer they’re looking for. He pointedly doesn’t give them a date – in fact in v.36 he says ‘About that day or hour no-one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son but only the Father.’ Only God knows when this will happen. Jesus also refuses to give the disciples clues, precise signs that will allow them to work out that the end is just about to happen. Instead Jesus tells us how to live our lives in the meantime.

It’s all very practical. Keep faithful. Don’t be panicked by events in the world around. Endure persecution. Stay steady to the end. Don’t waste time on speculation but live in readiness for Christ, whenever he comes.

 

After all, if we knew when our time would come, if we knew how long the earth had left, would it change human behaviour? And if so, for better or for worse? I read an interesting novel over half-term. It’s called ‘Numbers’ and it’s all about a teenage girl who has what I suppose you would call a psychic ability. Whenever this girl looks into someone’s eyes she sees the date when they will die. So how does she react? Does she tell them? Do they believe her? Can they change the future? And if she tries to change the future, do those new events just lead to what was going to happen anyway?

 

It’s a fascinating idea. If we knew when Jesus was coming back and it was a long time, would people’s love grow cold? If it’s a short time, would people change their behaviour? But then if it’s right to live a certain way, surely it’s right to do that whether the timescale is long or short? Would knowing make a difference? Should it?

 

It doesn’t stop people trying though. The Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted it in 1920, and then again for 1975. The predictions keep on coming from all over.

 

So the first thing Jesus says in verses 4 and 5 is: Don’t be taken in. Many false Messiahs will come, many people will be deceived by cults which claim to have found secret codes. I’m amazed it keeps on happening because Jesus says very clearly that if anyone tells you the date, don’t believe them! The new creation will happen one day, in God’s good time. Jesus affirms what the rest of the Bible teaches. He says there will be a judgement, and a new beginning. But it will come at a time we will not expect. Don’t waste your life reading Nostradamus!

 

Secondly, Jesus says: don’t be alarmed by what is going on in the world. I wonder if you’ve heard of the Doomsday Clock? This is an imaginary clock in which midnight represents global human-made catastrophe – nuclear war and the like. How close the minute hand is to midnight represents how bad the situation is. Anyone like to guess where we are at the moment? Apparently it’s two and a half minutes to midnight, up from 14 minutes to midnight at the end of the Cold War, and the second worse it’s ever been, after the year in which hydrogen bombs were first tested.

 

Whether that’s an objective assessment of risk, I don’t know, but it certainly says a lot about society’s anxiety levels. What does Jesus say? In verse 6: ‘You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but don’t be alarmed for this must take place, but the end is not yet.’ He’s not at all saying that we shouldn’t care about these events; he’s certainly not saying that we shouldn’t do everything in our power to prevent famine and climate change. Compassionate Christians have to act. We have to bring these things to God in prayer. We will feel the pain of our world!

 

Yet almost every generation has fallen into the trap of thinking that their times are so bad that they are unique, that there is no hope, or that the end is nigh. Jesus teaches us to be hopeful, to trust in God. God’s plan is not derailed. As he says in verse 7: ‘Nation will rise against nation, all this is but the beginning of birth pains.’

 

An important image to hang on to. Birth pains are not much fun – so I’m told. At the time they’re all encompassing. Afterwards, the pain is forgotten in the joy of a new life. What comes afterwards should make it all worthwhile. Keep that picture in mind as we look at the last few verses in our reading.

 

In verse 9 to 12 Jesus tells his disciples to stand firm, to keep faithful, even in the midst of persecution. Opposition, violence, even execution were a reality for those disciples. Jesus wanted them to be prepared.

Christians today in many parts of the world suffer for their faith. In Saudi Arabia it is illegal to own a Bible or a crucifix. In Pakistan recently a schoolboy was beaten to death by his classmates because he was the only Christian in school. We must remember our brothers and sisters in the suffering church, pray for them, give to the charities that support them.

 

We too should be prepared – the words of Jesus envisage that faithful Christians could be persecuted anywhere. In our society we need discernment. We need wisdom to see clearly those things on which we cannot compromise, as opposed to fighting battles which make Christians look ridiculous or legalistic.

 

As Jesus says in verse 13, ‘anyone who stands firm to the end will be saved.’ Therefore be confident because your time is in God’s hand. Your lifespan, the world’s existence, is held by God. The end, the new beginning will come, in God’s good time. For the good news must be preached to all nations.

 

So do not worry, but be faithful and consistent. Stay in the grace of Christ, keep on using the means of grace he has given us. Pray, meet together, worship, serve. For in so doing we work with God’s plan, and we wait for that day when his plan is gloriously fulfilled. Amen.