When I was serving my second ministry placement, in Westbury, in the mid-1980s, an elderly woman in the Westbury congregation told me about some of the goings-on in Westbury during her youth. The lady was nearly a hundred when she told me this story, and she died at a hundred-and-three with all her faculties intact. She lived all her life in the same town.
story happened at the time when the nineteenth century was becoming the
twentieth. A local minister, serving
what was then the Westbury Wesleyan Methodist Church, which later became the
Westbury Uniting Church, ... one of my predecessors, ... this minister developed
some strong – and eccentric - views about the Second Coming, particularly about
when this event was to take place.
(Essentially, he believed it would happen very soon.)
persuaded a few of the members of his congregation to share his views. On the day they believed the event was to take
place, they gathered on the top of a nearby mountain. They wore white robes, made (so I’m told)
from bed linen. They waited ... and
waited ... and waited for the Second Coming.
Then, after it was obvious that the Second Coming wasn’t going to happen
that day, they went home. Conference
took a dim view of the proceedings and the pastoral relationship was quickly
spent most of my ministry in Tasmania, a big part of me finds it very hard
to imagine a group of sceptical, pragmatic Tasmanian Methodist farmers falling
for this sort of thing, but the old lady who told me the story was definitely
in possession of all her mental faculties.
I believe her story. (The
Westbury Church has a “rogues gallery” with photos of former ministers, along
with their dates of service. The fellow
at the time when the nineteenth century became the twentieth had both a
sufficiently brief tenure and a sufficiently wild look in the eyes to fit the
few generations later, during the period of the Cold War, from the end of the
Second World War until the fall of the Berlin Wall, again there was an
increased obsession on the part of some Christians with looking for “signs of
the end” in current events.
was a time when the whole world was facing destruction by a superpower nuclear
exchange on a daily basis. Many of us
who grew up during the Cold War were convinced that such a superpower nuclear
exchange would be how our own lives would end.
I believe that one reason many “Baby Boomers” – members of my own
generation - did not make adequate financial provision for retirement was that
many “Baby Boomers” as young adults believed that Mr. Reagan and Mr. Brezhnev
would not allow us to survive to reach retirement age.
in that whole climate of fear, a certain subculture within the Christian
churches believed that the end of the world was at hand, and tried to
demonstrate this by taking passages of Scriptures out of context and comparing
them with current events. In this
bizarre worldview, such events as the establishment of the United Nations, the
European Union, and the state of Israel (along with the development of product
barcodes in shops and supermarkets) were all seen to be “signs of the end”. Many best-selling books were written from the
perspective of this worldview. These
books frightened many people, and made their authors very wealthy.
the beginning of Advent, we always hear passages of scripture that focus on the
climax of human history. These passages
are often rather problematic for preaching and teaching. As they have been used so much as the
playground of the religiously unstable, they are often ignored by those of us
who try to present Christianity as a faith in which critically-minded people
can believe with intelligence and integrity.
But then, if we abandon these texts to the wild-and-wacky religious
fringe, we make these passages even more difficult for contemporary people to
our lessons, we are taught some important things:
are taught not to become obsessive about the future. Our gospel lesson begins with Jesus saying
that the future is firmly in God’s hands.
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven,
nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Seeking to predict the future is something that Jesus has strongly
are taught to live with hope and with integrity in uncertain times. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus told the
disciples not to be distracted from the task at hand by “wars and rumours of
wars”. In today’s lesson, Jesus tells us
to “Keep awake”. The opportunities for
service in uncertain times are immense.
Don’t worry about the future, but wake up, and make a difference in the
are taught that God’s future is a future of hope, peace, and wholeness for all
people. Isaiah’s great vision of peace
in our lesson has been an inspiration for many people. Swords are beaten to ploughshares. Spears become pruning hooks. Weapons of death become tools for life.
vision inspired a statue which greets visitors to the United Nations building
in New York. A gift to the UN from the
former Soviet Union, the statue shows a large, muscular bloke (possibly even
one of Karl Marx’s “workers of the world”) making a good job of beating a
rather menacing-looking sword into quite a useful-looking plough.
vision also inspired the great Scots paraphrase which we’ll sing following this
shall rage, nor hostile feuds
nations beat their swords,
to pruning-hooks their spears.
hosts encountering hosts
of slain deplore;
they hang the
trumpet in the hall
pursuing war no more.
are beaten to ploughshares. Spears
become pruning hooks. Weapons of death
become tools for life.
image of radical wholeness is the message of hope in God’s future which we are
called to proclaim as we begin Advent, not some eccentric message that is
obsessed with ascribing hidden meanings – almost occult meanings - to world
events. Both in our lesson from the
Hebrew Scriptures and from the gospel, there is an equally strong message that
the best days of our world are ahead of us, not behind us.
Advent, as we prepare once again to share the good news of Christ’s birth in
our midst, and in the midst of “the hopes and fears of all the years”, we share
a word of hope with our community and with our world. The best days of our world are ahead of us,
not behind us.
we be alert and awake as we do so:
alert to the
dangers of corrupting our word of hope into a word of fear,
awake to the
possibilities of God’s grace breaking in to our world in unexpected times and
(originally published on 25 November 2013, updated)