Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Hopes and Fears of all the Years (a sermon: Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44)

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.

Her 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.)    

He 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 dissolved.

Having 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 bill.)

A 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. 

This 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. 

And, 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.

At 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 hear.

In our lessons, we are taught some important things:

We 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 discouraged. 

We 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 present. 

We 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. 

This 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.

This vision also inspired the great Scots paraphrase which we’ll sing following this sermon:

No strife shall rage, nor hostile feuds
disturb those peaceful years;
to ploughshares nations beat their swords,
to pruning-hooks their spears.

No longer hosts encountering hosts
shall crowds of slain deplore;
they hang the trumpet in the hall
pursuing war no more.

Swords are beaten to ploughshares.  Spears become pruning hooks.  Weapons of death become tools for life. 

This 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.

In 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.

May 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 unexpected places.

(originally published on 25 November 2013, updated)

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