Scripture readings: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
In our culture, we expect this build-up to Christmas to be a busy time of preparation, a mad rush of shopping, preparing food, putting up decorations, getting ready for family visits, enjoying the office party and the works night out. And we clergy are as bad as everyone else, and everyone else knows it, which is why we are so often greeted with ‘This will be your busy time of year’.
For many folk, the pre-Christmas season is very enjoyable- choosing presents for loved ones, baking special Advent and Christmas food, putting up a Christmas tree, enjoying a works night out. But for some it is not so easy. For some people, this is the time they get into debt. There are parents worried about how they can afford to give children the Christmas they deserve. For those who are lonely, or anxious, or bereaved, this enforced jollity can be a bit much.
How many of us take seriously the idea that this should be a time to stop, to examine your soul, to confess your sins? Today, as I did last week, I’m wearing my purple stole, or preaching scarf. Purple is the colour for penitence, for in Church tradition, the season of Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas, is a penitential season. Just like the six weeks of Lent, on the run-up to Easter, Advent is supposed to be a time in which we prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas by confessing our sins, by cleaning our souls, by subjecting ourselves to self-examination. Advent, taken seriously, is a very countercultural season.
And just when we are beginning to think about the baby Jesus in the manger, today our Scripture readings hit a jarring note. Adult Jesus speaks of a time when strange things will happen in the sky, when countries will despair, and people will faint with fear. Then the Son of Man will appear, and we will face judgement, on what the people of Jesus’ day called ‘the Day of the Lord’. Advent Bible readings are often not exactly full of the joys of the season. Instead, Advent often reminds us of the vanity of all our human strivings, with all its talk of thedestruction of cities, and being prepared for the end.
The kind of language and imagery we find Jesus using in Luke chapter 21 what the Biblical scholars call apocalyptic. It was a genre of writing and a way of thinking which was very popular still in the time of Jesus, and so it found its way into the Gospels. This is the kind of thing you might associate with the Book of Revelation; but Jesus was also an apocalyptic preacher.
Apocalyptic deals with the end of the world as we know it. Apocalyptic is often full of death and destruction, and sometimes gruesome imageries. Apocalyptic often makes us uncomfortable. A few verses earlier than the passage we read, Luke’s Gospel says of the coming fall of Jerusalem: ‘How terrible it will be in those days for women who are pregnant and for mothers with little babies!’ What kind of God is this who will allow this to happen? What happened to Christ blessing the little children? Are passages like this really Christian?
Another problem is that this is the kind of Biblical literature which is most open toabuse by cranks, madmen and strange religious cults. There are those who believe fervently that in passages such as these the Bible give a timetable to the end of the world- and worryingly, they sometimes want to hurry things along. This is a serious political problem, for many supporters of the powerful ‘Christian Right’ lobby in America hold such beliefs. On the basis of their belief they give uncritical support to the state of Israel, whilst ignoring or even justifying the suffering of the Palestinian people (who are mostly Moslem but include many Christians). Those who look for historical timetables forget that Christ once said that only God the Father knew the hour for these things to happen (Mark 13.32).
The apocalyptic parts of the Bible are perhaps the most misunderstood and dangerous parts of the Bible. So should we just ignore them? Or is there indeed some spiritual nourishment and wisdom to be had from these strange writings and sayings?
You might remember a few weeks ago, we heard about Jesus and his disciples visiting theTemple in Jerusalem, and Jesus making the surprising statement that one day,not a single stone of it would be left in its place. So it is in human affairs. In the nineteenth century, a British governor of India said that the Britishshould rule India ‘as if they would be there forever’- and that did not seem such an unreasonable expectation. Within a century, India was independent and the British Empire consigned to history. With a generation of Jesus visiting the Temple, it had been destroyed by the Romans, along with the entire city ofJerusalem.
So, too, in our personal lives, there is little that remains fixed. The happiness wefind in material possessions, in friendship or in the love of our family- thesethings are fragile, and can be ended at any time. Apocalyptic shakes us out ofour comfort zone. In this run-up to Christmas, Christ says to us: ‘Be careful not to let yourselves becomeoccupied with too much feasting and drinking and with the worries of this life,or that Day may suddenly catch you like a trap’. Remember those words when youare enjoying your next Christmas party!
But inthe Bible, wherever there is judgement, there is always also hope. The old prophetsoften spoke of doom and judgement, but they always had a note of hope as well. Jeremiah,for example, said his nation would be destroyed. And yet the prophet of doom nevertheless said that Israel would one day be restored:
‘[God] willchoose as king a righteous descendant of David. That king will do what is rightand just throughout the land. The people of Judah and of Jerusalem will berescued and will live in safety’.There may be judgement ahead- but for the people of God, there is always hope.
When Jesus said that the Jerusalem faced destruction, he also offered hope. Terrible things might happen, he said, but one day the Son of Man will appear: ‘Whenthese things begin to happen, stand up and raise your heads, because yoursalvation is near.’ And however much the world might be shaken, God’s promises through Christ are unshakeable: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’. Meantime, the task for Christ’s followers is not tospeculate about what is happening, or to panic like everyone else: ‘Be on watchand pray always that you will have the strength to go safely through all thosethings that will happen and to stand before the Son of Man.’
St Paul loved the Christian community at Thessalonica, a church which he himself had founded. He wrote to them after he had received reports of how things weregoing for them. And the first thing he writes to them is to say how thankful heis for them and their faith: ‘We always thank God for you all’, he writes at the beginning of his letter to them. He remembers before God
how you put your faith into practice, how your love made you work so hard, and how your hope in Jesus Christ is firm.
But there have been problems at Thessalonica, including apocalyptic anexieties about the return of Christ, which some people expected to happen soon.
In the passage we read today, Paul does not criticise the Thessalonians: he is stillpraying for and about them. Paul thanks God for the joy he has whenever he getsthe chance to be with the Thessalonians, and prays that he might get to seethem again soon. And then he writes:
May the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow more and moreand become as great as our love for you. In this way he will strengthen you,and you will be perfect and holy in the presence of our God and Father when ourLord Jesus comes with all who belong to him.
Paul prays that the Thessalonians might
grow in faith, abound in love, and bestrengthened in holiness, so that when Christ comes again… they might be foundblameless before him.
Christians are to prepare for the second coming of the Lord not by panicking about it or speculating about its timing. We are to prepare by loving one another and our neighbours, by growing in our faith, and by putting our hope in God.
For Christianity is about nothing if it is not about hope. It is not that we are simply to wait for God to do it all. No- Christ’s kingdom is already on its way, and we are called to be part of that. So, when war does break out,Christians are often found among those aiding the wounded, burying the dead,and feeding the refugees. And when natural disaster strikes, Christian agencies are often to the fore to bring practical aid. Or when bereavement or disappointment happens, Christians can offer care and love, but also hope. When our economic system totters, Christians should be pointing the way to a fuller, better way of living. Whenever things seem hopeless, Christians are called to be people who bring hope to the situation. Even if the apocalypse threatens, we are to be as Paul urged the Thessalonians:
May the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow more and more.
It’s interesting what Jesus about how we might be caught out by the Day of the Lord:
Be careful not to let yourselves become occupied with too much feasting and drinking and with the worries of this life.
There is a warning for today. So many of the problems people face today are caused by excess consumption- of alcohol, of food, of an obsession with clothing or gadgets or the other fleeting joys of consumer culture. And anxiety, neurosis and worry are often caused by our driven lifestyles. So many people fail to cope with modern life. Anxiety and even suicide are problems for young people.
We have, in Jesus’ words ‘become occupied with too much feasting and drinking and withthe worries of this life’, because, I think, that so many of us today have, truly, no real hope. In a godless universe, there is no purpose left for life. But that is, ultimately, too terrifying for most people to contemplate. So they eat, drink and consume- anything to mask the anxiety. For how can they not be anxious when they have no hope?
A couple of weeks ago we had many families and children into the Old High for the Christmas Lights switch-on. In story, music and prayer, we told the story which many of them don’t know: the story of wise men, shepherds and angels- and perhaps even a grumpy innkeeper- finding hope in a newborn baby laid in a manger. For the child in the manger is, of course, none other than the Lord of all. He is the God in whom we can put our hope- the answer to humanity’s hopelessness.
I love this Advent season, for it points us to the future, and reminds us that hope is at the heart of the Gospel message. So go through Advent with hope in yourheart, with a fearless faith, and with love for your neighbour.
Ascription of Praise
Glory to God in highest heaven,
and on earth peace to all in whom God delights!
Luke 2.14 (alt)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2018 Peter W Nimmo
 Jeremiah 33.15-16
 1 Thessalonians 1.2-3
 Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, ‘First Sunday of Advent’ in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice Year C, p4