Sermon preached at St Paul’s Church, Bristol (presumably the St Paul’s in Clifton), 15 December 1996
I have sixty-two video tapes on my bookshelf. Some of them I’ve seen. Many of them I recorded because I was out, but I haven’t actually got round to looking at them. Why did I bother? Because I didn’t want to miss the programme, of course. But they stand there patiently in line until I summon my attendance at the video.
An event is captured in real time, and lies suspended until I put the tape into the machine. I cannot say I am reliving the happening because I haven’t seen it before, but when I start to watch I am in two times: the recorded programme’s time which is as linear as the one to which I am recalled, in a shock, say, if the phone rings in the middle of the exciting bits. You can’t be physically in two places at once, but in this model you can be a two-timer; and each offers its own world view.
The world view of John the Baptist was that Jesus would be the expected man of fire, the Messiah purging Israel of her enemies. Their moral teachings were very similar. Matthew saw in John the promised supernatural return of Elijah, whose appearing would announce the Messiah’s coming. But clearly Jesus’s activity was not that which the firebrand John might have been awaiting. Hence his own disciples came to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one, or do we have to look for another?”
Now, Matthew is very fond of Old Testament resources. His Gospel is littered with references to present the expected Messiah in the person of Jesus and one who would inaugurate the expected Golden Age. But Matthew has a trick up his sleeve. The firebrand that John expected (and the Jewish nation too) turns out to be an enigmatic figure: and not one of unlimited power, which must have been a shock to many.
Jesus never compelled allegiance. He raised questions and then left it up to the individual to answer, but added, “happy is the one who does not find me a stumbling block.” Not something over which to fall on your face, but more seriously to fall into sin.
But clearly there were many who saw in John’s appearing the new Elijah. The beginning of the end of time or the start of the New Age. Much like ourselves. We are on the edge of a new millennium and we are already familiar with the concept of New Age travellers.
But really the Old Testament doesn’t talk about two figures – ie Elijah and Messiah – but one person. Jesus teases his hearers therefore by the question, “what did you expect to see in the wilderness? Someone as feeble as a reed or a figure clothed in majesty?” Clearly it was neither. What they got was a prophet. Someone who tells you like it is. Not, note, a soothsayer who predicts the future. Prophets are planted in the present. John is clearly that prophet.
Though John is held in high esteem, Jesus calls him, ‘the least in the kingdom.” This is not petulance, but merely a marker to show that his cousin John – we tend to forget that they were related – had achieved the highest status in the old order, and was nevertheless in the kingdom; yet Jesus’s advent would reveal higher things still.
[The manuscript here has a handwritten marking: “Quote extract.” Possibly Matthew 11? – SJC]
There would be those of violence who might try to pull it down – that’s one translation of the Greek passage, but another suggests that only those who are strong and willing are able to embrace it.
The Advent of Jesus is to turn over the apple cart. There’s that amusing image of the children in the market place. “We piped and you would not mourn.” It’s only a petulant rebuff, like, “it’s not fair. You’re not playing the game according to the rules.” But it has a very serious outcome. No, Jesus is not playing according to the rules. That’s the whole point. Please leave behind your expectations and look at what is – and what is to come.
And now we run into the wall of Philippians. The writer – and it may be Paul – says, “the Lord is coming soon.”
The dilemma faced by the early Church was couched in the question, “when?” Time’s getting on and it still hasn’t happened. Peter may counter with statements like, “to the Lord a thousand years is but a day”, but it wasn’t very encouraging – especially in a situation of persecution.
The technical word used was parousia. Unfortunately this had two meanings: “coming” and “presence”, the sort of showing you have in epiphany.
Some of the fathers of the early Church thought that the parousia, the showing, occurred in Christ’s Incarnation. Other scholars have argued that Jesus came first as Son of Man and will come again as the Christ – for Jesus became Christ only by virtue of the resurrection, not before it. But any reading of St Luke’s Gospel knocks that one on the head.
I could go on, but I won’t. Really the question to address is, “has Christ come again already, or are we still waiting?” The answer is “YES!”
Now, that’s not being a Humpty Dumpty lexicographer. But the presenting, as so often happens in the Christian faith, is a paradox, and thank God it is a faith and not a mere system.
Bishop John Robinson, he of Honest to God fame some thirty years ago, argued that Jesus had indeed come and would come. IN very much the same way that St John uses the terminology, “the day is coming and now is.” He says:
There is but one coming, begun at Christmas, perfected on the Cross, but continuing until we are all included in it […] what is decisive is that we see the coming already inaugurated […] which will in the fulness of time sum up all things in Christ, ‘the once and future King.’
So what does that imply for the twenty-first century Christian? Well, it’s certainly not like a royal visit from Her Majesty the Queen. No practised curtsey or small talk. It has to do with judgement. It puts us on our toes.
Certainly we can say with confidence in every Eucharist, “The Lord is here, His Spirit is with us,” and hear the echoes from the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “Lo, I am with you always.” But hear what uncomfortable words our Saviour Christ says, “like a thief in the night he will come”… and go, and come and go, and come…
While I am sure that judgement occurs now and all the time, I cannot sit easily with the idea that there is a Last Judgement or that the world as we know it will be wound up finally. I don’t see the point of that. Will God break the promise given to Noah on Rainbow Day? But in the end I must accept that:
- God is in charge, both of judgement now and final
- God is love – and that’s the only power God has (another sermon, perhaps)
- God is here and will be here, and I don’t want to miss it.
Keep awake, is the Advent watchword.
And of the last, rather than present, judgement? Well the New Testament is surprisingly short of references to it. Twice in Acts, once in Timothy, once in Matthew (the sheep and goats of Chapter 25). In fact there are more references in Daniel. But it must be remembered that God’s judgement is not merely a case of stating what is wrong but correcting the wrong. His is not an enquiry, but an act.
“Yet God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”
And it is before the judgement seat we continually stand. Now and whenever. With smile or frown or tears. We choose.