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Standing on the Brink and not Clinging

December 1, 2014

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Matthew 13:33-37

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If we were to sum up our readings for this first Sunday in Advent, I would say they are about living with the end of the world and living on the brink of something new.

I wonder what you think of when you hear the phrase ‘on the brink’? Do you think of disaster? Do you think of base-jumping? Do you think of going through a door way to an unknown situation.

 

Our Psalm comes from the Exile…

Jerusalem, the past, the nation, all their ideas about God and their place in God’s purposes for the world… are in tatters. A world has ended. Its the end of the world.

It’s a bit like the crucifixion of Jesus. The future is lost… but the past too looks like nonsense… All that stuff they used to say and think about God. It looks like stupidity at the end of the world.

 

The Psalm is desperate:

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine that we may be saved.

 

This is the true meaning of Advent… Desperation. Waiting… but not like those sitting at a bus stop filling in time … like those at the end of the world. Living in exile from our past… trying to work out what to think about our future… singing our mournful ‘o come, o come, emmanuel’.

 

Lawrence Moore has, I think, described our exile and our advent situation most clearly. He writes:

“The Christian Church – at least in the hi-tech, consumerist west – has had its day. Its best years are in the past. The old answers no longer work. The gospel appears to have little or nothing to say that sounds as Good News to the increasing millions who have either had nothing to do with Christian faith or who have quite deliberately voted with their feet and left. A look at trends and statistics shows that Christian faith is something for old people, so that ministry appears increasingly to be about hospice care. People are turning not to Christianity, but to other faiths and spiritualities for answers. And those churches that buck the trends are increasingly simply the exceptions that prove the rule. Church has had its day. It is more and more a museum piece, showcasing a past that is bathed in the golden light of nostalgia. That is why people who come back to Church at significant times in their lives (births, marriages, deaths, national events) want Church to be church as they remember it.”

 

Moore says,

“We need to be realistic and work to kill off residual optimism. Unless we do, we will not take seriously enough the crisis we are in and will be unable to respond appropriately. I am not saying that there aren’t signs of hope. I am not saying that this is the story of every church. Yet, if we look beyond the immediate borders of our own localities, we cannot avoid the fact that there is a clear, alarming pattern. … However good our immediate situation may be, we do not and cannot live in glorious isolation from what is happening to the Christian Church more widely. Church as we know it – and spend huge amounts of money, time, commitment and energy on it – is dying. Whether it is right in the forefront of our consciousness or not, most of church life in the west is about survival. And that is not what we’re here for!”

 

Those are strong words… and yet I think he is right … even if no one wants to hear it. We are not here to survive. We are here to give ourselves away in mission and to pray with the Psalmist: Restore us Lord God of Hosts; let your face shine that we may be saved.

 

Jesus too is preaching at the end of the world. This is what we struggle grasp. And the main reason we struggle to grasp it is because we think he is referring to the end of the physical world … and of course 2000 years later we know that the physical world hasn’t ended. Jesus says this generation will not pass away before these things happened. That generation did pass away. So if he was talking about the physical world he must have been wrong… And that’s not a good look for the church.

But New Testament scholar N T Wright argues, rightly… I think, that although Jesus uses metaphors from what we call ‘apocalyptic literature’ about a physical end of the world and a judge who comes down from the sky… they are precisely that ‘metaphors’ for something else.

 

One thing I really hate is the idea that some people (fundamentalists for example) read the Bible literally while others don’t. No one reads the whole Bible literally. And no one reads the whole Bible non-literally (or metaphorically) either. It’s nonsense. Each part needs to be judged on its own merits depending on what the writer mean. So when Paul calls his the Christians at Corinth to love one another he is talking quite literally and we should understand it literally. When he asks them to bear one another’s burdens he is using a metaphor and it should be understood metaphorically.

 

Tom Wright says, when Jesus talks of cosmic disasters in the heavens he is using the metaphors of a particular tradition to dramatise the significance of the situation his disciples were facing… a situation which is for him and for them like the end of the world.

 

At the beginning of today’s chapter of Mark, Jesus is in the temple and the disciples are impressed by the grandeur of the temple building. Herod’s temple… built as a kind of Roman way of pleasing the Jews and a sign of their faith under Roman rule … a sign of their world … a world that Jesus finds so deeply frustrating… a people who have lost their way. …

 

And so Jesus replies to the oohs and aahs about the buildings with the comment. ‘Not one stone will be left upon another’. This is the context for understanding these metaphors. In other words, this world will end… ‘there will be wars and rumours of wars… we are entering a time of crisis… you will be persecuted. Jesus is being quite literal here. Jesus has a very specific end of the world in mind and its not the physical universe. But in verse 24 (at the beginning of todays reading) he changes gear into ‘apocalyptic poetry’ about the sun darkening signs in the heavens and a ‘Son of Man coming in clouds’ is a dramatic way of saying that the powers of the social world are unravelling… and God will act. Talk of “gathering his elect from the four winds” is the language of hope… but, again not literally referring to four winds. We know that… and Tom Wright argues… so did Jesus.

 

So what is Jesus saying that might be relevant to us today … when a certain kind of world is also ending for us.

 

(1) “The end is nigh”… In some ways I think it would be easier for us all if there were some kind of catastrophe to mark the end of Christendom for us… but I suspect not… church in 20 year’s time will continue to be tolerated as a curious habit for certain groups of consenting adults… whether it be little groups of people singing the same old hymns and doing the same old things. Like what Moore describes as a sort of ‘Christian train spotters” society … or on the other hand whether it be large commercial mega-churches who have perfected their advertising techniques and designed the perfect ‘buzz experience’ for each new generation of young people. In other words church will fade away with no one noticing that the groups that still call themselves church no longer have much to do with what Jesus was on about, no longer look much like Jesus. They will be, if they are not already, just another product on the entertainment market. There is a way of being church, which is our equivalent of the Jerusalem Temple with its large stones. And I think Jesus would invite us to see the writing on the wall. Many of us have known this in our bones for some time now.

(2) don’t cling to the current situation … Jesus is saying to his disciples, there will be a regathering ‘from the four winds’, so don’t look back… the whole world you now know will crumble… ‘heaven and earth will pass away’ so to speak…. but God’s work in the world is bigger than all of that… bigger than the familiar old church that you know, the familiar old way of worship, the familiar old minister you listen to on Sunday morning. For us I think that means… God’s work is bigger than the powerful old church of Christendom at the centre of society with public authority. It’s time to let go of that world. v20 Jesus says, ‘And if anyone says to you at the time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah! or Look! There he is!’ – do not believe it.’ Prophet’s will come claiming to be the Messiah with the solution to restore this world to you… to bring all the young people back to church (perhaps). The Temple had became a sign of the failure of the people of God in Jesus time – a religious industry – Jesus staged a protest throwing out the money changers. In the same way the powerful church, in our time must like Jesus abandon itself to live in solidarity with the poor and needy and marginal of our world. When the church becomes a powerful institution focussed on its own growth and self-preservation – a religious industry – it has begun to lose its way. The end is nigh.

 

(3) And here’s the third thing Jesus is saying. Watch! v28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves you know that summer is near”. That’s the point… in spite of all the loss and devastation… ‘Summer is near!’

 

Three things: (1) The world of Christendom is ending. (2) Stop clinging to the past. (3) Watch and be alert. Temples and church’s will pass away, but God has not, and will not abandon the way of Jesus Christ. The future of Jesus Christ will come and catch us by surprise if we are not alert to it.

 

 

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