SERMON PREACHED AT
THE CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD
FRED’S PASS (NT)
Sunday, December 9th, 2012 (SECOND SUNDAY of ADVENT)
Readings: Micah 3.1-18
Song of Zechariah
It is probably worth recalling from time to time that there are a myriad ways to read the scriptures, and of course a myriad-myriad readings or interpretations that result. Context, as I often say, is everything, but even the contexts are myriad: there are the contexts in which the recorded events took place, the context in which they were recorded, the contexts in which they became ‘scripture’, and various variations on a theme of the context in which we read them. We are reading them in church, in a more or less isolated semi-tropical western city, in the twenty-first century. Few of us are young, few of us are anything but Anglo-Saxon; we read the scriptures not as negro slaves of the 1800s or as Asian women or as – yet – those persecuted for believing. That time I think will come, but it is not so yet. It may or may not be in our life-time.
The scene we have just read is one of several in the New Testament that indicate that, as the Jesus community spread out into the Roman Empire, it came into contact with a rival community loyal to the memory and mission of John the Baptist. There were indeed other claimants to religious Messiah-dom or similar, as we learn in the Book of Acts, but that need not detain us here. What may be useful to notice is that the Christians, followers of an executed leader, rubbed shoulders with the followers of another executed leader, the Christians’ leaders kinsman. Eventually those who sort to perpetrate the Baptist's message appear either to have given up or, more probably, were absorbed benevolently into the Christian community as the resurrection claims and worship experience of the Christians claimed a more impressive handhold on the hearts of those who were, with credibility, following John’s merely political and religious calls to reform. Gradually, in times of persecution and oppression, the powerful Spirit-enabled experience of the presence of the Risen Lord encountered in fellowship and worship inspired the Baptist’s followers to adopt him not as Messiah but as forerunner to the Messiah: I must decrease, he must increase (as the fourth gospel puts it).
I personally find this a useful reminder of the powerful impact the spiritual experiences of worship had on the early Christians, and of the centrality of the claims to resurrection hope, bodily resurrection hope, that were at the centre of the early Christians’ message. We surrender them as I have said and will say many times, at peril of death to our faith.
Yet also at the heart of Christianity in its infancy was the palpable expectation of the imminent return of Jesus, striding as it were across the clouds to wind up history and take his followers to their eternal home. As I have suggested in my pew sheet musings, I have a more de-mythologised and possibly even agnostic approach to the question of the parousia, the Second Coming. If that appears that I have an inconsistent approach to the themes of scripture I can only plead a precedent in and amongst the early Christians, who were as early as the third decade of Christianity beginning to revise their expectations of Jesus’ return. I prefer to speak in terms of God’s embrace, as I said last week, of history, not merely that ‘God has the whole world in his hands’ but that all cosmic history is within the embrace of God. It seems to me that the scriptural pictures of a sudden end must be given some cognizance, but that we must also recognize in the language of parousia our own preparedness to meet the Creator as Judge, our own preparedness to stand in the searching light of Christ, knowing that we have not been good enough, knowing that we have much sorry-saying to do (which we pre-enact in our liturgical and private confessions). We need to plead that God will look, as the all but unsurpassed William Bright hymn puts it, ‘not on our misusings of his grace, our prayer so languid, and our faith so dim’ but ‘only look on us as found in Him’, as found in the crucified redeemer.
I would then not want to lose (though I often do) the sense of urgency in biblical apocalyptic: ‘even now the axe is lying at the foot of the tree’. Nor, though, would I want to lose sight of the social justice dimension of apocalyptic: whoever has two coats must share’. As international soccer officials workout how to spend millions on goal detection technology for FIFA it is worth wondering how many meals that sort of money might purchase for those fleeing the hatreds of Syria. And less I let myself off the hook, I might recall that I have far more shirts, shoes, money than 95% of the world. Look not on our misusings of thy grace.
Yet the gospel is good news, not bad news. No we do not deserve the forgiveness of God, but as the gospel character put it, ‘only say the word, and I shall be healed’. We must not cheapen grace, yet grace is all surpassing, and there in the piercing judgement stare of the returning Christ, at the end of history or the end of our histories, there is a word of welcome: ‘come, eat with me’. Do I deserve it? No! Only sit in the car with me as someone drives at 67 kmh down the 100 kph sections of the Tiger Brennan Drive and you will discover, if you did not already know, that I am far from a fine model of all that I preach! I suspect though that most of us are not, and there is the reminder of our need for the pleading of Christ. We cannot abuse the forgiveness of God, nor can we live up to it.
In the end we can but plead again and again that we are transformed to be practisers of love. That is what Paul turns to over and again in his letters: Love. Embody love, practise live, be love. Love God, love neighbour, love self: we fall short of all three. For that very reason we must turn time and again to the coming Christ and seek his healing hand.