29 November 2009

Preparing for the coming of Jesus

Sermon preach at 9.15am and 11am Eucharists at St Alphege Church on Sunday 29th November 2009 – Advent Sunday, Year C.

Readings: Jeremiah 33: 14-16 I Thessalonians 3: 9-13 Luke 21: 25-36

In the summer we had a family holiday in the south of France. During the long drive back in the car we listened to an audio book. It was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, read by William Golding himself. Our children have been studying the book in their English lessons at school. Perhaps you are familiar with the story. A group of English school boys get stranded on a tropical island. Away from civilisation they start to form their own society. Like all societies, it has its strengths and its weaknesses, its good points and its bad points. But as the story develops, the forces of evil seem to grow in strength and everything that we might think of as civilisation starts to fall apart. Democracy gives way to dictatorship, hope gives way to superstition and fear, murders are committed and respectable boys from English public schools start to behave like the worst kind of primitive savages.
The storyline suggests that it is only the pressures and benefits of civilisation itself that causes people to behave in a civilised way. It suggests that without civilisation human beings should be expected to degenerate into an animal like depravity. The story therefore presents a somewhat pessimistic assessment of the human condition.
But one has to ask the question, “Well how did civilisation come about in the first place?” At some point in history there must have been a group of people who had the opposite experience from the boys on the island, an experience in which goodness triumphed and civilisation flourished. Without such an experience there could never have been any civilisation in the first place. I asked this question recently, the last time the book was discussed around our dinner table. The answer that came back was that somehow it is precisely the triumph of evil which allows goodness to be born and to grow. This answer suggests that, had Golding’s book continued with the boys still stranded on the island, then, after the most dreadful murders had been committed, evil would have done its worst and good would have had to prevail. Civilisation would have been reborn.
I thought this was a very interesting suggestion, and there are many parallels with Christian theology. In particular it is the great triumph of evil in the crucifixion of Christ, which reveals the resurrection life and which leads to the descent of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the church, and the beginnings of the Christian society.
Or again, we might think of the many terrible martyrdoms that the church suffered at the hands of the Roman Empire in the Coliseum and the Roman Circus. Especially we might think of the thousands who died in the persecution under the emperor Diocletian starting in 303 AD. Did this mass martyrdom not somehow lead to the conversion of the emperor Constantine and the official Christianisation of the Roman Empire, starting from 313 AD?
It is indeed an intriguing thought. Evil must sometimes do its worst, and must appear to triumph, before goodness can be revealed and can flourish. In Advent we reflect on the coming of Jesus. We remember his first coming, as a baby in Bethlehem. But especially in the first half of Advent we focus on the long prophesied second coming of Jesus. And the scriptures suggest to us that the second coming of Christ will contain something of this theme of good being revealed by the apparent triumph and of everything bad. For example, the Gospel reading from Luke which we heard this morning talks of the second coming of Christ. It describes a time of great distress on earth with great confusion among the nations. It talks of people fainting from fear and of a terrible foreboding about what is coming upon the earth. But in the midst of this most terrible moment Luke tells us that people will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud, with power and great glory and with redemption for all who have put their trust in Christ.
And there are many other scripture readings like this one (e.g. Matt 24: 9-14, 2 Peter: 3, Rev 13 and 20: 7-10) which suggest that the second coming of Christ will follow a most terrible and evil time, during which many people will be led astray.
So, what are we to make of all this?
Well first of all it is important not to be discouraged when we hear bad news. Watching the TV and reading the newspapers can be very disheartening. But our Christian hope remains solid, even in the face of bad news, or fearful events or terrible evil. In fact these things can be the very means whereby Christian hope is revealed.
And then I think we must take very seriously the advice that we read from St Paul in 1 Thessalonians this morning. Paul is expecting the second coming of Jesus imminently, and he is very concerned that people should prepare for this well. He says, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all” (1 Thess 3: 12). He goes on to talk about holiness, and being blameless before God, but it seems that these things come from love. When we set out to do things for love of God, and love of the people around us then we are ordering our lives in accordance with the commands of Jesus, we are living the life of his kingdom and we are preparing ourselves to be good citizens of his kingdom. It is love that continues to have value when we die or when the world comes to an end (1 Cor 13: 13).
So let’s live the season of Advent well, by asking God to help us to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all. This means seeking the good of the other; trying to focus on how we serve others. Ultimately this leads to holiness, and being blameless before Christ. There is no better way of preparing for the coming of Jesus. Amen.

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